Those Stubborn Armenians, 100 Years Beyond Doomsday
I’m writing on the hundredth anniversary of the day Armenia began to die.
On April 24, 1915, the Young Turk leadership of the crumbling, embattled Ottoman Empire rounded up some three hundred prominent Armenian intellectuals, artists and community leaders in Constantinople and shipped them off to prison or worse. Celebrated young poet Daniel Varoujan was stripped naked and tied to a tree while Turkish officials slowly sliced him to death with knives. Gomidas Vartabed, the beloved Armenian composer, witnessed horrific atrocities during his captivity, went mad and spent the last two decades of his life in mental institutions.
But that was only the beginning of the end. Over the next eight years, the Turkish government systematically purged the Armenians from their ancient homeland in the eastern provinces of the empire.
This is a historical fact. Nobody denies that the Christian Armenian community was uprooted and widely massacred. Nearly two million strong in 1914, the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire plummeted to a tenth of its original numbers following an interminable orgy of executions, death marches, rapes, crucifixions and mass starvation. Over a million died, thousands were “Turkified” (i.e., forced to convert to Islam and live as Turks if they wanted to survive), and the rest managed to escape to Syria or the West.
Today’s Turkish government, understandably defensive about the purported sins of its founding fathers, insists that all those dead Armenians were simply casualties of war. The Armenians represented a security threat, they say, and there’s a grain of truth in their assertion.
You see, the Armenians had already suffered losses of up to 300,000 in a series of massacres launched in 1894 by Sultan Abdul Hamid II, who said he wanted to “box the Armenians on the ears” for demanding equal rights. (Imagine if the U.S. government had massacred 300,000 blacks during the Civil Rights era.) In 1915, while the Ottoman Empire was under attack from the Allies on multiple fronts, the Young Turks surmised that the Armenians would join forces with their fellow Christians from Russia who surged across the eastern border.
Scattered Armenian militias did take up arms against their oppressors as the Tsar’s troops came to their aid. But the vast majority of Armenians simply went about their business as artisans, merchants, professionals, farmers, housewives and loyal subjects — and most of them were nowhere near the border. Still, the Turks rounded them up and sent them to their doom.
Why the over-the-top Turkish response? It wasn’t simply a matter of border security during wartime. While the multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire fell apart, it was being reborn as a more compact, purely Turkish state. Creating a model later admired and emulated by Hitler, the Young Turk leadership succeeded in ridding the Ottoman heartland — the Anatolian peninsula — of its problematic minorities: Greeks and Assyrians along with the multitudes of Armenians. The former Ottoman Empire was to be a Muslim nation — Turkey for the Turks.
And so it came to pass. After World War I, a tiny sliver of historic Armenia on the Russian side of the Turkish border won a brief independence — and the general later known as Ataturk promptly snatched half its territory. Tens of thousands died in the process, and a generation of American children grew up hearing about “the starving Armenians.”
The term genocide didn’t exist until the 1940s, when lawyer Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew, coined it based on what had befallen the Armenians. Clearly the Armenian deportations and massacres of 1915-23 must qualify as genocide… right?
Believe it or not, the matter is still up for dispute. Armenians insist on using the G-word, of course. So do most other civilized nations. Two of Turkey’s old World War I allies, Germany and Austria, recently declared the mass killings a genocide and urged Turkey to fess up. So did the Pope. France and several other well-meaning countries have actually made it a crime to deny the Armenian genocide — the sort of high-minded law that offends believers in free speech and probably stirs up perverse sympathy for the Turks.
But a handful of choice Turkish allies, notably the U.S. and Israel, have been curiously reluctant to bandy the G-word in public. The Israelis have long depended on Turkish friendship in a hostile region, so I can almost forgive their official ambivalence. (Many Israelis, to their credit, have lambasted their government’s head-in-the-sand policy.)
America’s high-profile genocide denial is less justifiable. President Obama has deftly skated around the subject every April since 2009, despite the fact that Candidate Obama promised to use the G-word once he took office. What does the U.S. have to lose by doing the right thing and prioritizing simple justice above Realpolitik? A dubious NATO ally? Turkish apricots and tobacco? Access to a strategic Turkish air base for policing the Middle East?
Build one in Armenia: the country would welcome an American presence with open arms. Once the most prosperous of Soviet republics, Armenia is withering as an independent nation: tiny, landlocked, blockaded by its foes, suffering from a continual brain-drain and population loss, threatened by the rise of archenemy Azerbaijan (essentially East Turkey) as a global oil power supported by — you guessed it — the U.S. and Israel.
My Armenian ancestors couldn’t have picked a more unfortunate place to build a nation. Roughly three thousand years ago, when the various tribes of the eastern Anatolian highlands coalesced into a single people, the land of Ararat (as it was known to the authors of the Old Testament) seemed like an earthly paradise. The Garden of Eden was reputed to have been located somewhere in the vicinity, and Noah is supposed to have planted his grapevines on its slopes after emerging from the ark.
But over the course of centuries, Armenia became a beleaguered battleground along the main thoroughfare of squabbling empires. Assyrians, Medes, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Parthians, Byzantines, Arabs, Mongols, Russians and Turks all stormed across the land, denuding it of its forests and conquering its people between intervals of plucky independence.
Just as disastrously, the land sits atop a major earthquake zone that puts California to shame. (An epic quake in 1988 killed upward of 25,000 Armenians.) Time magazine referred to us as “Job’s people.”
Despite all that historical and geological mayhem, the Armenians managed to survive and carve out a distinctive civilization with its own alphabet and architecture, its own rugged language and brand of Christianity. We’re a stubborn, tenacious tribe; we don’t easily forget our past triumphs, tragedies and grudges.
A hundred years after our near-annihilation, the Armenians refuse to slip quietly into history’s dustbin. They marched by the thousands today — in Armenia, California, France, and even the streets of Istanbul. Nobody will be confusing us with Albanians and Romanians now.
More and more Turks, especially among the educated class, have been voicing sympathy for the Armenian cause — a promising sign of reconciliation to come. At the same time, more and more Armenians have started referring to their lost Turkish homeland as “Western Armenia” — probably not the most diplomatic route to genocide recognition, but an exhilarating sign of Armenian pluck in the face of innumerable setbacks.
I like to dream about Western Armenia, the now-desolate realm of my ancestors, with its ruined medieval churches and fortresses and ghosts. The land still sings to those of us who can hear it, with the lullabies and laments of our great-grandparents.
Will Armenians ever live there again? Perhaps not. But those of us who dream can look forward to the day that our majestic Mount Ararat, now looming tantalizingly, exasperatingly, just across the Turkish border, will be ours once again. My stubborn Armenian bones tell me that it will happen.
Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.