Skip to content

When Is a Genocide Not a Genocide?

April 26, 2010

This past Saturday in Philadelphia, home of The New Moderate, members of the local Armenian community went for a walk. It wasn’t the glorious spring weather that brought them out. It was the date: April 24.

Armenians have a thing about April 24, and here’s why. Back in 1915, the Young Turk leadership of the crumbling Ottoman Empire chose this particular date to round up, torture and/or execute 800 prominent Armenian intellectuals, poets and community leaders in Constantinople. This symbolic decapitation of the Armenian community signaled the start of a horrific and deliberate ethnic cleansing that swept through the historic Armenian homeland at the eastern edge of the empire.

Men were murdered in front of their families or snatched from their homes and never seen again. (My great grandfather, Parsegh Gulbenkian, was among the latter.) Most of the women, children and old folks were rounded up and forcibly marched toward the Syrian Desert to the south. 

Dead Armenian civilians along a Turkish roadside: war casualties or genocide victims?

Hundreds of thousands of these unwilling marchers died from starvation, exhaustion or the often unspeakable depredations of marauding Turks and Kurds. In all, somewhere between a million and 1.5 million Armenians perished — out of a total population of just two million.

We Armenians call it genocide. So do France, Russia, Sweden, Greece, Canada and numerous other nations large and small.  The U.S. and Israel do not. And of course, neither does Turkey.

The Turkish government has been denying the genocide for 95 years, and they’re not likely to come to Jesus after all that assiduous stonewalling.  To concede now would be to imply that they were wrong for nearly a century, and no government wants to make itself appear more foolish than necessary.

Turkey generously concedes that large numbers of Armenians died, and that the increased mortality rate wasn’t simply due to influenza or cigarette smoking. The official government position is that World War I was raging, and that the Turkish Armenians located along the Russian frontier posed a dire security threat during wartime. (Their Russian Armenian brethren were poised to invade Turkish Armenia and liberate the region from its oppressors.) So the Turks simply attempted to move the entire Armenian population from one part of the empire to another. C’mon, can you blame them?

Putting the genocide on the map: historic Armenia at its greatest extent (gray), genocide hot spots (red), Armenia today (pink)

Yes, it’s unfortunate that so many Armenians died, the Turks admit.  But this was World War I and the Ottoman Empire had to think of its security. No matter that nearly all the Armenians who met their doom were unarmed farmers, merchants, professionals, artisans and their families.

The U.S. and Israel have been participating in a massive enabling venture for at least half a century now. The Turks are strategic allies, after all, and we don’t want to alienate a strategic ally by implicating it in the first genocide of the twentieth century. Let the Turks and Armenians resolve the dispute on their own, the argument goes.

Time and time again, Congress has proposed resolutions to acknowledge, on record, that the deaths of all those Armenians did indeed consititute genocide. And time and time again, those resolutions have been quashed by higher powers before they could go to an actual vote.

Last month, it was President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton who did the quashing. Why would two well-credentialed progressives deny the Armenians their right to a long-overdue vindication? You guessed it: we can’t risk offending our “friends” over there in Asia Minor. Why can’t we offend them? Because our “friends” might take out their frustrations on Israel and, at the same time, deny us the right to use their strategically positioned airfields to launch tactical strikes in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This hard-nosed, unsentimental, wholly pragmatic approach to foreign policy is known as Realpolitik, a suitably Germanic term that can be roughly translated as “Give the Devil his due.” The problem is that if you kowtow to the Devil often enough, you’re essentially doing his work.

Genocide, shmenocide: what’s in a name, anyway? Back in 2008, candidate Obama pledged to acknowledge the Armenian genocide as genocide as soon as he reached the White House. Since then, he’s made eloquent overtures and attempted to soothe those ravaged Armenian souls by empathizing with their pain. He’s danced gracefully around the central idea. You know he wants to say it. But to date, the man who wrote The Audacity of Hope hasn’t mustered the audacity to utter the dreaded G-word.

This past weekend, speaking in Asheville, NC, the president commemorated the genocide by declaring it “one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century.” He added,  “I have consistently stated my own view of what occurred in 1915, and my view of that history has not changed. It is in all of our interest to see the achievement of a full, frank and just acknowledgment of the facts.”

Nice display of Realpolitik there, Mr. President: We know what’s in your heart… we know you’d really like to use the G-word… but we also know you can’t come out and say it without ruffling some choice Turkish feathers. Wouldn’t be prudent.

Circling a little closer to the unspeakable truth, Obama concluded that “the indomitable spirit of the Armenian people is a lasting triumph over those who set out to destroy them.” 

This is about as close to a U.S. acknowledgment of genocide as we  Armenians can allow ourselves to expect. After all, if the president notes that somebody set out to destroy the Armenians, we can reasonably conclude that those Armenians were victims of genocide. He  just hasn’t used the G-word or furnished us with the identity of the perpetrators. But those of us who know our history can fill in the blanks.


History isn't erasable: it's time for Turkey to own up

I didn’t join my fellow Philadelphia Armenians in Saturday’s genocide commemoration. I’ve always felt ambivalent about parading our victimhood in public — and besides, I had a porch ceiling to repair.

I’m even ambivalent about the importance we Armenians attach to the G-word. Genocide, shmenocide: what matters is that the Ottoman Empire deliberately destroyed an ancient nation in its own homeland, with over a million casualties, and that ninety-five years later, Turkey still refuses to fess up to the deeds of its ancestors.

As if to rub salt more deeply into those gaping Armenian wounds, Turkey still clings to territory it illegally snatched from the fledgling Armenian Republic following World War I. Turkey lost the war but won the greater part of Armenia without so much as a blink from the international community. 

Just as dastardly, to my mind, is the ongoing Turkish campaign to expunge Armenia from its history books: all those ruined medieval churches that dot the now-desolate landscape of eastern Anatolia are simply the relics of nameless vanished Christian communities, their stone walls reduced to barns for Turkish and Kurdish livestock — or convenient quarries for local builders.

When is a genocide not a genocide? Proponents of Realpolitik would answer, “When it would adversely impact one’s foreign policy.” But of course, the real answer is “Never.” In this best of all possible worlds, truth and justice should always trump the demands of diplomacy.

Bookmark and Share

13 Comments leave one →
  1. taliesinknol permalink
    April 26, 2010 4:44 pm

    Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not there own facts. I’ve said it before, and I’ll keep saying it, when you edit the “bad” parts of history out, you risk repeating them. Sacrificing truth for convenience ought to be criminal. By doing this, Obama has lowered himself to the level of the Texas board of education, and is aiding (albeit, after the fact) the genocide.

  2. April 27, 2010 9:29 am

    I think we know that Obama’s heart is in the right place, but I’m continually amazed at how the most powerful man in the world ends up bowing to the likes of investment bankers, the pharmaceutical industry and Turkey. His middle name should be Prudence.

    As for the “facts,” Turkey will present you with its own version of history, in which armed Armenians attacked helpless Turkish villagers. Who knows, some Armenians might have attempted to retaliate after the initial attacks by the Turks. But as they say, history is written by the victors. I just wish the U.S. would stop enabling them.

  3. Priscilla permalink
    April 27, 2010 9:40 am

    ” Back in 2008, candidate Obama pledged to acknowledge the Armenian genocide as genocide as soon as he reached the White House.”

    Unfortunately, my observation has been that virtually all of Mr. Obama’s promises have expiration dates, and that he generally treats our enemies with more deference than he does our allies. I think that he believes that this is disarming, but it just makes him appear weak and accomodating. I’m sure that the Turks have observed this as well, and understand that there is no need to acknowledge the truth, because there is no price to be paid for perpetuating lies.

    Out of curiosity, how has the Texas BOE aided genocide?

    • taliesinknol permalink
      April 27, 2010 12:42 pm

      The Texas board of education didn’t aid genocide, it aided in revision of history. I’m sure you’ve heard that they recently edited people like Thomas Jefferson out of their textbooks, as well as some right-wingers that made the right look bad.

  4. April 27, 2010 9:53 am

    Priscilla: Obama’s deference toward our enemies has to be part of his well-intentioned but misguided attempt to be the “UnBush.” He’s really done a “180” when a “90” would have been fine. I’m happy that he wants to open dialogues with our enemies, but he also needs to show a little more backbone.

  5. Priscilla permalink
    April 27, 2010 5:23 pm

    Thomas Jefferson was not edited out of the textbooks – he is still featured prominently as a founding father and president……he was dropped from a list of writers who established the philosophical grounds for the revolutions of the 18th/19th centuries.

    Back in the day, when I learned history in school, it was taught from a very right wing, pro-American perspective; by the 70’s and 80’s when I taught history, things had changed completely, and the left’s perspective was dominant – and has remained so. The Texas Board tried to tilt things back a bit towards the right and, frankly, that is not such a bad idea,…..all history texts are subjective to the extent that they emphasize or demphasize certain events and people. It’s only when there is an attempt to whitewash history (such as denying genocide) that we should worry. The Texans aren’t being Orwellian, just, well ….conservative. I realize that there are those who think they are the same thing, but they really are not.

  6. taliesinknol permalink
    April 27, 2010 5:49 pm

    In recent years, board members have been locked in an ideological battle between a bloc of conservatives who question Darwin’s theory of evolution and believe the Founding Fathers were guided by Christian principles, and a handful of Democrats and moderate Republicans who have fought to preserve the teaching of Darwinism and the separation of church and state.

    here were no historians, sociologists or economists consulted at the meetings, though some members of the conservative bloc held themselves out as experts on certain topics.

    replaced the word “capitalism” throughout their texts with the “free-enterprise system.”

    “I reject the notion by the left of a constitutional separation of church and state,” said David Bradley, a conservative…

    cut Thomas Jefferson from a list of figures whose writings inspired revolutions in the late 18th century and 19th century, replacing him with St. Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and William Blackstone. (Jefferson is not well liked among conservatives on the board because he coined the term “separation between church and state.”)

    • taliesinknol permalink
      April 27, 2010 6:01 pm

      This reminds me of

      I actually find the current teaching of history to be very balanced. In my US history class, (admittedly at college level) we aren’t allowed to talk about current events, and we go over _every_ policy by both parties. We didn’t leave out anything unless we ran out of time. (IE WWII history in 3 days, but, that was during “snowpocalypse”)

      You shouldn’t “teach the controversy” (Darwinism vs Creationism) unless your willing to teach all of the theories. (Which I did, but the myths were left to the literature class, and science was kept in the science class.) Conservative think schools have a liberal bias, I say conservatives have a bias against reality. Schools should teach facts in history and science, you want to study the Bible, go to Sunday school or take a religion/philosophy class.

  7. Priscilla permalink
    April 27, 2010 11:33 pm

    A couple of things:
    1. That comment by the NYT writer that Jefferson is “not well liked among conservatives” is about as ludicrous a statement as I’ve read in a while, and says more about the bias of the writer than it does about anything else.
    2. I don’t think anyone disputes that history texts should include facts…..the issue is which facts are emphasized, which facts get left out, and in what context are those facts presented? ( I’ve never heard of anyone referred to as a “free-enterprise pig” so that may explain the change of wording there…..)
    3. There will always be a certain degree of bias in the writing of history – it’s written by people, and people are biased. But you can identify the bias and balance it by fairly representing other points of view.

  8. valdobiade permalink
    April 28, 2010 7:41 pm

    Priscilla wrote: “There will always be a certain degree of bias in the writing of history – it’s written by people, and people are biased. But you can identify the bias and balance it by fairly representing other points of view.”

    Priscilla: There are two main ideas when it comes to bias: biased bias, and unbiased bias. Unbiased bias presents the pure and simple truth in a manner which is totally fair, because it is the truth. The smarter, more attractive and and better hung group of people who use unbiased bias tend to be much more open minded about complicated subject like this. So in essence, the unbiased bias group claims to be unbiased towards the concept of being biased. Now, go buy us some coffee.

    Now putting the joke aside:

    Armenia was the first officially Christian state (it is said in the 301 A.D.).
    What I believe is that Turks being Muslims wanted to destroy Armenia.
    As Christians under a strict Muslim social system, Armenians faced pervasive discrimination. When they began pushing for more rights within the Ottoman Empire, Sultan ‘Abdu’l-Hamid II, in response, organized state-sponsored massacres against the Armenians between 1894 and 1896, resulting in an estimated death toll of 80,000 to 300,000 people.

    The genocide continued:
    On April 24, 1915, Armenian intellectuals were arrested by Ottoman authorities and, with the Tehcir Law (29 May 1915), eventually a large proportion of Armenians living in Anatolia perished in what has become known as the Armenian Genocide.

    However, US of A in order to gain control between Europe and Asia, included Turkey in NATO. Now what do you expect? No bias from USA regarding the genocide by Turkey?

    Aremenia said: “The head of state Robert Kocaryan stated in his interview with “Golos Armenia” (Voice of Armenia) newspaper that “Armenia is not going to join NATO.” And you want US to admit officially genocide by Turkey, an NATO ally? Maybe when Turkey exit NATO and Armenia would admit entry in NATO.

  9. tzivia zeidman permalink
    June 8, 2010 9:14 am

    Genocide. of course it should be called Genocide and should be reconized as one.

  10. October 18, 2011 4:02 am

    Excellent article, as well as the entire blog. One of many undeniable genocides that go
    unidentified as such. Raphael Lemkin coined the term genocide and spent most of his life fighting for its recognition. Now that the term is internationally accepted, its application is challenged and underutilized.

  11. October 18, 2011 3:52 pm

    Thanks, Karen. I get the impression that the definition of genocide is open to interpretation. Apparently it’s not enough to observe that the actions of Government X resulted in major casualties among People Y; one has to prove intent to exterminate. Those who deny the Armenian genocide typically claim that if the Turks had set out to eliminate the Armenians, they would have murdered them on the spot instead of driving them into the desert. In other words, they were simply attempting to “relocate” the population away from the Russian frontier.

    Of course, we could make the same claim regarding the Jewish holocaust: if the Nazis had intended to eliminate the Jews, they could have dispatched them where they lived instead of taking the trouble to ship them to concentration camps. And there’s no disputing the fact that countless thousands of Armenians were murdered outright or savagely attacked as they were marched toward the desert.

    The US and Israel have to keep denying the genocide, at least in public, so as not to offend Turkey. Well, they don’t HAVE to deny it, but they do… because in the end, everything is about politics.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: