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Lest we forget: 100 years ago today, the Armenian Genocide began

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The Armenian Genocide Memorial Tsitsernakaberd

Genocide haunts the 20th century. The Holocaust, the German attempt to exterminate the Jews, comes immediately to mind -- though similar policies against the Roma, gays, and others are less well known. The genocide in Rwanda, where the world watched the massacre of the Tutsi by the Hutu and did nothing, and the Srebrenica massacre of Bosnian Muslims by Serbs are fresh in our memory.

In 1948 the United Nations defined genocide as a crime against humanity subject to prosecution. The word "genocide" itself, is of recent vintage as history goes. It was coined by the lawyer Raphael Lemkin in 1943/4.  He had the Armenian massacre, the intentional killing of up to 1.5 Armenians by the Turkish government during the First World War, very much in mind.

The Armenian genocide is the genocide that the perpetrators, the Turkish government, will not admit to one hundred years later, and the genocide that has never been condemned by major powers (one hesitates to use the word "great"). The U.S. and U.K., down to today, refuse, presumably because Turkey is a NATO ally -- though that has not, to our credit, prevented Canada.

Though the bloody hand of realpolitik rules, it has not stopped the descendants of surviving Armenians, an Armenian diaspora, from continuing to seek truth and reconciliation -- and that has become the inspirational part of this saddest of stories.

The act of genocide precedes its naming. The refusal to acknowledge the act is as old as human history itself. In North America Indigenous peoples were massacred and starved and moved about to clear the land for European settlers. It's hard to imagine anything worse than the ethnic cleansing of a continent (not admitted to by any of its white settler governments) but a just published book by Pat Shipman from the prestigious Harvard University Press, which is titled The Invaders, has the grisly and revealing subtitle of How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction; who of us is willing to officially admit to that?

The Turkish Ottoman empire was long standing, with its origins in a Sunni Islamist state founded in 1299. One of the world's great empires in its time, it was now collapsing. It got caught up in the First World War and entered it on the side of Germany and in opposition to its longstanding enemy, the Christian state of Tsarist Russia. The Ottomans, including its minority of Armenian subjects who were Christians rather than Muslim, fought hard, but in 1915 were decisively defeated in a battle with the Russians from which less than one-quarter of Ottoman troops survived.

The trauma of this defeat was to lead to the genocide. It helps to explain this terrible crime against humanity but, to underline the obvious, it cannot justify it.

Armenian leaders had called for acceptance of the call-up of its people by Ottoman leaders, but the latter now wanted them to call on Armenians in Russia to rise up against the Tsar, which they were not prepared to do. The Ottoman government claimed, without evidence, that Armenians fighting for the Ottomans were passing information to Russian Armenian troops.

The Turkish leadership of the empire and of the war -- the Young Turks (a name that risks making them sound like good guys though a bit pushy) -- an evolving group of authoritarian centralizers and militarists who had replaced the Sultan as ruler - chose to brand the Armenians as disloyal, guilty of betrayal, traitors, separatists.  

Armenian soldiers under Ottoman command were segregated, disarmed and murdered. Civilian Armenians, beginning with the men, were slaughtered in their communities which the Armenians had long occupied; women and children were deported by long marches across deserts to today's Iraq and Syria which few survived. This was deplored at the time by many people, including Germans with whom the Turks were allied, but no government condemned the Turkish government.

Historians respected for their scholarship agree -- to quote one of the best, David Stevenson, in his most recent book on the First World War, Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy -- that what the Turkish authorities did was "certainly a centrally planned campaign" which was "genocidal."

The rounding up and murder of over 200 Armenian intellectuals and cultural leaders in Constantinople (now Istanbul) on April 24 1915 is seen as the beginning of the genocide, and that day is now Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day. The ethnic cleansing, including the deportation of Assyrians and Greeks, continued until 1922. 

Count it as collateral damage from the First World War. The New York Times recently said "The genocide was the greatest atrocity of the Great War." The problem with war is that it opens up wide the door to a sewer of horrors. It is estimated that the number of Armenian victims of the genocide exceeded the total number of British Empire soldiers who were killed in the war. How many Canadians know that?

The geo-politics of recent centuries, if you will permit of such pretensions, is one of the complex interplay among empire and nation. The Ottoman empire was in terminal decline, unable to survive in war against Russia, Britain and France. The imperial centre in Turkey was resolved to solidify its base on its terms, to retreat from empire to nation while hardening the nation. 

The core of the new Turkey was Anatolia and it had to be "cleansed" of its numerous Armenians who had been there for centuries. In a world of rampant nationalisms, Armenian nationalism, to give Armenians a voice, does not surprise, nor should its sometimes provocative expression. The Turkish government chose to use "necessary measures" to silence it.

As Donald Bloxham documents in his appropriately sub-titled, book The Great Game of Genocide: Imperialism, Nationalism and the Destruction of the Ottoman Armenians, all of this happened in the context of constant meddling by the Great Powers, some of which was invited by the Armenians. Bloxham thinks that this added to the chaos and hatreds that Turkish leaders took advantage of to launch the genocide. He likewise argues, as do most commentators, that there was no pre-war plan to commit genocide, though the refusal of Turkish authorities to open their archives does not permit of certainty.

The nationalism of the Turkish leaders was one of extreme authoritarian ethnic nationalism. They wanted capitalist modernization but they wanted the capitalists to be Turks and not Armenians who, though mostly peasants, had a considerable merchant class. Rather than come to terms with Armenian rights to self-determination, and to cease trying to "Turkify" the Armenians, it annihilated them. The larger nationalism crushed the smaller, that being too often a problem with nationalism. 

As there must be, there is hope. Here is Raffi Khatchadourian in Tuesday's New Yorker after a recent visit to Turkey:

"Haltingly, and with difficulty, well beneath the upper strata of government in Ankara, a reckoning with history is edging forward in Turkey."

"In a way that feels new and genuine, one can now map the direction of progress."

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