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Those Stubborn Armenians, 100 Years Beyond Doomsday

April 24, 2015
The ceremony earlier today at the Genocide Memorial in Armenia

The ceremony earlier today at the Genocide Memorial in Armenia

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.



27 Comments leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    April 24, 2015 11:38 pm

    Rick, thanks for the history lesson. No matter how old one gets, we are never too old to learn something new and important.

    • April 24, 2015 11:42 pm

      Sorry I was “Anonymous” Something did not work properly when posting…Ron P

  2. April 25, 2015 9:17 am

    This entire denial by Turkey has always puzzled and annoyed me. Face the truth, apologize and move on. That Obama aids and abets there denial is simply that muslim in him. He can’t resist backing the wrong horse.

    635 days left on his reign but whose counting?

    • April 27, 2015 12:17 pm

      jb: All the recent presidents have done it, and they weren’t Muslims (or purported Muslims). The only presidents I know of who wholeheartedly supported the Armenian cause were Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt (as ex-president). They were around at the time of the massacres — and the U.S. and Turkey weren’t allies then — so it was easier to just tell the blunt truth.

      Of course, telling the truth should always be a priority when justice is being held hostage.

  3. Roby permalink
    April 25, 2015 11:26 am

    Very touching and balanced. Rick, I can only say that I am sorry for all the torment that Armenians have suffered.

    We have good Armenian friends who go back to visit and sometimes live and sometimes have the idea of making that permanent. She, in her thirties very beautiful and intelligent born in Armenia, he born in America but of 1st generation Armenian parents, a very talented artist, slightly mad. They have two beautiful kids with Armenian names. Her family were doctors, brain surgeons. They tell us a lot about what is going on in Armenia and about how poor even highly educated families are there, BTW they see Putin in a good light because he seems to have helped the Armenians at times. Very, very complicated world, full of heartache and also courage and resilience.

    • Pat Riot permalink
      April 26, 2015 9:26 am

      “Very, very complicated world, full of heartache and also courage and resilience.” Yes.

    • April 27, 2015 12:45 pm

      Thanks, Roby. Your friends sound like typical Armenians (talented, patriotic, a little crazy). It’s really tragic that Armenia’s fortunes have slid since the Soviet era. With the blockades and the fragile peace, educated Armenians see no opportunity there — so they jump ship for more prosperous destinations.

      Because Armenia is virtually surrounded by enemies — and the U.S. and Israel are helping to enrich our hostile neighbor, Azerbaijan — Armenians have little choice but to look to a stinker like Putin as an ally.

      It’s a hopeful sign that your friends are actually considering a move back to Armenia. That takes courage and character.

  4. Pat Riot permalink
    April 26, 2015 9:31 am

    Rick, great variety of sentence structure, well-presented content…You are an excellent writer.

    We can get so caught up in the here-and-now. It is vitally important to remember.

    • April 27, 2015 12:50 pm

      Thanks, Pat. I was struggling to find a unique approach to the genocide centennial for my column. (What Obama really should have said… Why we’re still moaning about our genocide 100 years later… etc.) In the end, I just decided to tell the whole story in 1000 words.

      I had to miss the big rally in NY yesterday because I had already made a commitment to visit some friends in Allentown. (I’m sure the Armenians in NY didn’t miss me.)

  5. dhlii permalink
    April 26, 2015 3:31 pm

    With all respect to your Armenian ancestors and their experiences, The crimes of the past are not going to be set right.

    Those murdered in the holocaust are not going to be brought back to life, africans brough in slavery to the new world are not going to be returned to Africa. The heirs of the victims of the depredations of Attila, Ghegis Kahn, Hanible, Ceasar, and Pharoh are not being compensated.

    In the real world today we have real instances of real genocide right now.
    Given that Armenian christians are likely in Syria they could be victims once again.

    To the extent that the Armenian genocide of 100 years ago matters, it is as a lesson to avoid repeating.

    I am sorry about what happened to Armenians a century ago. I am much more concerned about what is happening to people today.

    I do not have the answers. As angry as modern genocidal murderers make me. we have neither the will, the might nor the right to right all wrongs in the world. The blood of those thousands of miles away matters no less than that of our brothers. But we have had an abysmal record correcting the mistakes of others, and not such a hot record with our own.

    The best thing we have to offer the world is our example – freedom and tolerance.
    No nation in the world is as diverse as we. For all our faults nowhere else tolerates much less thrives with the substantial diversity of our nation.

    This president is embarrassed by his country – and we have many embarrassments in our past, but american exceptionalism is real, and it is found in the teaming masses yearning to breathe free, who find their way to our door, and make us ever better than we were.

    • April 27, 2015 12:57 pm

      Thanks for the sentiments, Dave. I know you’re obligated to be the Un-Rick, so I understand your point that we need to move on from grousing about the genocide. We will, once Turkey and its allies (like the US) give us satisfaction by acknowledging the genocide. (I’d also like Turkey to return a little of the territory it snatched from Armenia, but that’s a separate matter.)

      I’ve never understood the concept of American exceptionalism as a good thing. Does that mean “We’re better than everyone else, so we don’t have to play by everyone else’s rules”? Germany and Japan had similar attitudes leading up to World War II.

  6. April 26, 2015 5:17 pm

    That Obama won’t use a particular word doesn’t mean that he’s aiding or abetting anything. Nor is he embarrassed by his country. I don’t support him, and he certainly should call a spade a spade, but ideological epithets I”m getting from the comments don’t help with anything.

    • Roby permalink
      April 27, 2015 9:43 am

      Yep. Thanks for that bit of common sense. I don’t support Obama either. I’d have realized that a Lot sooner were it not for the caliber of the invective used on him, which was so stunning that it blinded me to his actual faults. I suspect I am far from alone.

    • April 27, 2015 12:59 pm

      sgf: Good to see you here again. I was disappointed that Obama didn’t come clean on Turkey for the 100th anniversary of the genocide, but I’d never accuse him of wanting the U.S. to fail. Rational criticism of the president gave way to hysterical Obamaphobia early in his presidency, and it hasn’t let up.

  7. April 26, 2015 6:40 pm

    Great summation of history, Rick. One more lesson that should be learned by those woefully ignorant of the past. As it pertains to today: our effete leader and his counselors believe that right triumphs over might–a notion that belies most events in history. The US military is a mighty force, but our enemies have been assured they have little to fear, negating its use as a deterrent to abominable behavior. A president too timid to refer to the slaughter of a million people as genocide must subscribe to a very curious and ultimately dangerous agenda.

    • April 27, 2015 1:07 pm

      Thanks, RP. You bring up an interesting point: idealists subscribe to the Arthurian credo of “right makes might” — but in real life it doesn’t always work out that way.

      I honestly don’t know what the worst-case scenario would look like if Obama had the nerve to offend Turkey. They’re not exactly the key ally that they used to be, and under their current leader they’ve been edging closer to an Islamist mindset. Maybe Obama was afraid of pushing them past the point of no return: an Islamist Turkey that would aid ISIS and destabilize what’s left of stability in the Middle East. I honestly don’t think it would have gone that far, but maybe the pro-Turkish lobbyists put the fear of Allah into Obama’s head.

  8. April 28, 2015 12:51 am

    Now it looks as if I’ll have to write a column about Baltimore. It never ends.

    • Ron P permalink
      April 28, 2015 12:26 pm

      If you decide to write about Baltimore, then one thing you can be certain about, there will be another story to write after that. The problem is not city specific (you already know that), but it is national specific.

      We have people telling us that the police are bad, leadership is failing the inner city community, the divide between the rich and poor is growing and causing the poor to be poorer and the 1%er’s to be richer. We have most all media telling us the problems in the inner city is caused by the white suburban middle class that wants to live in their gated racist community and keep the blacks and Hispanics in their segregated part of town.

      But we do not hear about those in the inner cities asking for more police presence and then when crimes are committed, they keep their mouths shut because they don’t want to be snitches. We don’t hear about parents taking responsibility for their kids and making sure they do their homework and attend school like they should. We don’t hear about kids being made afraid to excel in school by their homie’s since they will be ostracized because they want to make themselves better and achieve at a higher level. We don’t hear about businesses that could open in the inner city being afraid to open because the crimes that will occur once they do open. We won’t hear anything about black males roaming the streets and looking for trouble, joining gangs and making life miserable for those living in the inner cities. We will not hear anything about people like the “Baltimore Mom” unless there is a riot she is trying to keep her son from participating in. And last, we will not hear the voices like those of MLK’s daughter who promotes her fathers non violent means of achieving change. In fact, even the inner city residents do not hear voices like hers or pay little attention when non violence is spoken.

      We won’t hear anything from our President that asked anyone in the inner city to do anything to help themselves, but we will hear a lot about how the majority has treated the minority and how this has caused the problems we see today.

      • April 28, 2015 2:08 pm

        Well said, Ron. I’ll be covering many of your points. Obama, by the way, gave an admirably moderate answer to a reporter who asked him about Baltimore. Without blaming the victims, he cited the broken family structure of the inner city, and he expressed zero tolerance for looters and arsonists. He did mention excessive police violence against blacks, of course, but that’s probably because he watches CNN.

      • Roby permalink
        April 29, 2015 11:04 am

        This post not as good. Ron. The vast majority of those inner city residents were not rioting, or their children. Baltimore has a population of 620,000, 64% are black. Thats roughly 400,000 people. at most a few thousand rioted. You are vastly over generalizing about quite a few groups of people. The worst are not the average.

        I will agree with you that our era lacks inspiring leaders of any ethnicity with a convincing delivery of a positive message.

    • Roby permalink
      April 29, 2015 11:24 am

      Rick, my youngest daughter was in a well respected Art School, MICA, in Baltimore and graduated two years ago. I was shocked when I visited Baltimore, parts of it are the set for a bad Hollywood movie about a future in which civilization has crumbled. In large areas of the city every third building has no roof, people who fit the description of vagrants congregate everywhere in groups. No American city should be permitted to decay so badly, it is obviously a breeding ground for tragedy. I am not excusing rioters and looters, but if you visited Baltimore pre-riot you would not be surprised that a riot could start there. This is a cancer on our nation.

      As to solutions, what you can find all too easily is people of one ideology pissing on every molecule of the proposed solutions and ideals of the opposite ideology. Both liberals and conservatives have some worthy ideas and thoughts on the root causes and solutions of Baltimore/Detroit/New Orleans/etc. Common sense and common decency are needed to find the means to rebuild such areas. Again, this is a cancer, cancer metastasizes. If America cannot cure itself of cancer then Baltimore is our future.

      On a more cheerful note, I visited Boston on Sunday, as my wife was at a conference, and walked probably 12 miles through the city. I saw my old music school. In 1978 (I know the year because I was there for the famous blizzard of 78) the city was in the midst of a drug epidemic and I did NOT walk around Boston. Boston today is inspiring, it is a city that works and is a pleasure to be in. At out hotel, we met nothing but polite, friendly people, both staff and guests, of all races. Same walking through the city. Boston has done a 180, as has New York, which I walked around last year and was equally impressed with, having seen it in the bad years in the mid 80s crack epidemic. Cities can be saved, even huge ones with enormous problems.

      • Ron P permalink
        April 29, 2015 12:53 pm

        Roby..How true your statement “As to solutions, what you can find all too easily is people of one ideology pissing on every molecule of the proposed solutions and ideals of the opposite ideology.”

        When business has problems to solve, they may bring together individuals with expertise in different areas. They will identify the problem, provide suggestions as to how to correct the problem, work out a plan to begin addressing the problem, activate the plan and then monitor the progress and change processes to make sure the plan succeeds.

        In government, we see some of the same. It may bring together the individuals and they might identify the problem. But at that point, most times the ideologies get in the way and no plan is developed to fix the problem. And if the experts do develop a plan like the Simpson Bowles deficit reduction plan, the non expert’s ideologies block the plan so nothing gets done.

        But when you have cities like Baltimore that have been governed by liberals for years, the state of Maryland legislature has been dominated by Democrats for years, we have had a Democrat president for 14 of the past 22 years (with the past 6 with a minority president) and over the past 60 years we have had 44 years of Democrat control of congress, one has to question how ideologies can get in the way of such dominance of control. Could it be incompetence of those we vote into power and their inability to govern that has led to the problems these cities face?

  9. April 28, 2015 3:20 pm

    Rick you mention Obama gave “an admirably moderate answer”. What this country so dearly needs is another MLK. In his Nobel lecture of December 11, 1964 he stated as part of the speech concerning violence in “The Quest for Peace and Justice:

    “Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. I am not unmindful of the fact that violence often brings about momentary results. Nations have frequently won their independence in battle. But in spite of temporary victories, violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones. Violence is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding: it seeks to annihilate rather than convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends up defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.

    In a real sense nonviolence seeks to redeem the spiritual and moral lag that I spoke of earlier as the chief dilemma of modern man. It seeks to secure moral ends through moral means. Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon. Indeed, it is a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it.

    I believe in this method because I think it is the only way to reestablish a broken community. It is the method which seeks to implement the just law by appealing to the conscience of the great decent majority who through blindness, fear, pride, and irrationality have allowed their consciences to sleep.

    The nonviolent resisters can summarize their message in the following simple terms: we will take direct action against injustice despite the failure of governmental and other official agencies to act first. We will not obey unjust laws or submit to unjust practices. We will do this peacefully, openly, cheerfully because our aim is to persuade. We adopt the means of nonviolence because our end is a community at peace with itself. We will try to persuade with our words, but if our words fail, we will try to persuade with our acts. We will always be willing to talk and seek fair compromise, but we are ready to suffer when necessary and even risk our lives to become witnesses to truth as we see it.”

    There are few people that their words live on for years and can be applied to generations, if only they would listen. What we have today is a complete lack of leadership in both the white and black communities. And I go back to my ever present position that today it is all about “me” and if it does not impact “me”, then “me” could care less.

    And there are few like the following that anyone listens to today that believe in nonviolence.

    • Roby permalink
      April 29, 2015 10:49 am

      Thanks, Ron. Brilliant post.

  10. April 30, 2015 8:53 pm

    Ron P–you make a very persuasive argument for the enlightened use of nonviolent tactics to change society. As long as the police and the one percent are perceived as the enemy by urban blacks, those tactics will accomplish little. A nonviolent movement like the one you describe aimed at the real enemy (gangs, thugs, drug dealers and other predators) would be much more dangerous for the participants, but could be the answer to a problem that is otherwise insoluble.

    • April 30, 2015 11:35 pm

      RP..The only way the police and the one percent will begin to be perceived in a different manner than that of the enemy is when the media and politicians decide that making them the enemy is not working. Since I do not live in that type of environment, I am unable to comprehend what they think they are achieving by making them the enemy.

      Maybe the blacks and other minorities were different when Martin Luther King wrote that speech concerning nonviolent means of achieving a goal. But not long after, the Black Panther Party formed in 1966 and did not support MLK’s nonviolent policies and believed they had failed. They demanded among other things full employment of everyone with a guaranteed income from that employment, land that was divided between the community so they could build houses for themselves, free healthcare for everyone, end of police brutality of blacks, and the end of robbing the black community of what few assets they did possess. To achieve these goals they promoted revolutionary war tactics against authority that suppressed the blacks.

      The Black Panther movement failed due to a number of different reasons, some thought to be Edgar Hoovers infiltration of the group and their ability to divide the leadership. At the same time, MLK had been assassinated and his legacy was being pushed to promote equal rights for blacks which kept violence at a minimum.

      But what I find interesting is many of the Black Panther demands are the same as those today. But I have to question the end of robbing the black community of their few assets since most of these cities have been controlled by black politicians. If they did not want the assets robbed, why the heck have they not addressed the problem?

      One thing for certain, since the late 60’s things have only turned for the worse. That is 45+ years of bad leadership and it is not going to turn around at a pace anyone will notice leaving blacks to continue to riot and rebel against the police and 1%’ers since they are the enemy.

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