Friday, April 24, 2015

100th Anniversary of Armenian Massacres or Genocide?

Armenian Prisoners, Kharper, Armenia, Ottoman Empire
April, 1915 (Wikimedia)

Today marks the day that hundred years ago, over 1.5 million Armenians were killed by the Ottoman Empire. According to most historians this was a genocide, i.e. the systematic destruction of all or a significant part of a racial, ethnic, religious or national group - according to Wikipedia, which lists as examples of genocides, the Holocaust, the Rwandan and Bosnian Genocides, and the Armenian Genocide. Turkey, however, does not want to call this tragic episode a genocide. What do eyewitnesses say? The Washington Post's article "Is this genocide? What four Americans saw happening to Armenians 100 years ago" presents quotes from a recent book Great Catastrophe: Armenians and Turks in the Shadow of Genocide by Thomas de Waal, an expert on the South Caucasus region. One quote is from then U.S. Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Henry Morgenthau in a cable sent to Secretary of State Robert Lansing on July 10, 1915:

"Persecution of Armenians assuming unprecedented proportions. Reports from widely scattered districts indicate systematic attempts to uproot peaceful Armenian populations and through arbitrary arrests, terrible tortures, wholesale expulsions and deportations from one end of the Empire to the other accompanied by frequent instances of rape, pillage, and murder, turning into massacre, to bring destruction and destitution on them. These measures are not in response to popular or fanatical demand but are purely arbitrary and directed from Constantinople in the name of military necessity, often in districts where no military operations are likely to take place."

Morgenthau went on, explaining the shocking reasons behind the violence:

"The Moslim and Armenian populations have been living in harmony but because Armenian volunteers, many of them Russian subjects, have joined the Russian army in Caucasus and because some have been implicated in armed revolutionary movements and others have been helpful to Russians in their invasion... terrible vengeance is being taken. Most of the sufferers are innocent and loyal to the Ottoman government."

It is this same Henry Morgenthau Sr, who wrote his autobiography in 1918 - reprinted by Cosimo Classics under the title Ambassador Morgenthau's Story: A Personal Account of the Armenian Genocide In this book he states on p.309:

"The real purpose of the deportation was robbery and destruction; it really represented a new method of massacre. When the Turkish authorities gave the orders for these deportations, they were merely giving the death warrant to a whole race; they understood this well, and, in their conversations with me, they made no particular attempt to conceal the fact."

Not only historians and eyewitnesses believe that a genocide took place. By now twenty-four countries have recognized it as "genocide", including countries such as Russia, France, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and recently Austria and the European Parliament, Still, the Turkish government maintains that it wasn't genocide and it is even illegal in Turkey to discuss what happened to the Armenians during that era. As further evidence this contentious issue is not close to any resolution, was the response by the Turkish government when Pope Francis described the atrocities against the Armenians "as the first genocide of the 20th century." Turkey then recalled its own ambassador to the Holy See.

In the U.S., foreign policy interests, i.e. the relationship with Turkey color its approach. On the one hand, forty-three states of the U.S. have recognized the events as genocide, on the other hand President Obama, who made statements to the contrary as a senator and as a Presidential campaigner, will not use the word "genocide" in today's commemorations of this anniversary. While future historians will show which political leaders and religious leaders were on the right side of this issue, our readers should make up their own mind by doing their homework and read historic witness accounts such as those of Henry Morgenthau's or of current experts such as Thomas de Waal. See also the following articles:

- Armenian Genocide of 1915 - An Overview (The New York Times)

- A Century of Silence (The New Yorker)

- Remembering the Armenian Genocide (The New Yorker)

- Turkey must end its 100 years of denial. (The Guardian)

and, again, read Ambassador Morgenthau's Story: A Personal Account of the Armenian Genocide

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