…and the “forgotten genocide” directed against the Armenians.
Here in the UK it’s the time of year when local authorities, groups subscribing to different religions and beliefs, voluntary organisations, schools and places of work organise events to mark Holocaust Memorial Day on 27th January. Yesterday (19th January) I attended the first of five such events this year, the “Keep the Memory Alive” commemoration at Northumberland CE Academy in Ashington. It was a very moving occasion, not least because of the presence of Zigi Shipper, a survivor of the Holocaust, or Shoah.
In 2015 we primarily remember the liberation of Auschwitz seventy years ago, but 2015 is also of profound importance because it marks the centenary of the so-called “forgotten genocide” directed against the Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire. Please read on.
Last week I was in Newcastle’s branch of Waterstone’s where I saw a book of old photos entitled “Gateshead Remembered” by Anthea Lang. Toward the end of the book is the photo of a flier, and on the flier is a photo of children sitting and standing in the doorway to the courtyard of a house probably in a village in what is now eastern Turkey. The text on the flier says the following. Saturday 27th May 1916:
will be Armenian Day in Gateshead. Funds (are) urgently wanted for seed, implements, food and stock for restoring the starving Armenians to their homes. Offices of the fund: 96, Victoria Street. Reverend Harold Buxton, honorary secretary.
However, by May 1916 there was no way, for hundreds of thousands of Armenians living in what was then the crumbling Ottoman Empire, that they would return to their homes. Why? Because, by May 1916, the attempted genocide against the Armenian people had already been under way for over a year and thousands of Armenian men, women and children had been murdered.
At the beginning of 1915, the Ottoman Empire was a German ally at war with nation states such as France and the UK. Most subjects of the empire were ethnic Turks, Kurds and Arabs overwhelmingly Muslim by faith, but a substantial minority were Armenians and the great majority of them were Christian. For many years already, the Armenian population had been stereotyped as a disloyal, non-Muslim minority who sought a land of their own so they could live in ways devoid of restrictions imposed from outside.
During early 1915, memos were sent from Istanbul, the Ottoman capital, to governors and other officials informing them that it would be appropriate to take violent action against a supposedly disloyal minority in the empire. For reasons of war, confessional difference and stereotyping the Armenians as treacherous subjects, it was easy for such governors and officials to motivate Turks, Kurds and Arabs to “seek revenge” against their Armenian neighbours. By the end of world war one, between one and two million largely defenceless Armenians had been murdered or driven to their death during marches across barren or mountainous terrain, and thousands of women and children had been kidnapped and enslaved. Females, some as young as twelve, were exploited as sex slaves or forced into marriage with local Muslims, and male children were brought up as Turks, Kurds or Arabs.
Today, eastern Turkey, the area with the largest Armenian population in what had been the Ottoman Empire, has about 10,000 surviving Armenians. Not long after the war ended, efforts began to remove all physical evidence that there had ever been an Armenian presence in the region. Today, the policy of removing such physical evidence has at last concluded, but very few monuments remain. Turkish Armenia is a land full of Armenian shadows and ghosts, and ruined Armenian churches, monasteries and houses which once rang out with laughter and other expressions of joy.
2015 therefore marks the centenary of what became known as the “forgotten genocide” because, as early as the 1930s, non-Armenians began to forget what had happened during world war one. Moreover, with the Republic of Turkey by the 1930s welcomed into the family of nations (the republic is one of the Ottoman Empire’s successor states), “embarrassing” tragedies during warfare were conveniently ignored.
And the connections between the “forgotten genocide” and other genocidal events such as the Holocaust, or Shoah? First, for the genocide in the Ottoman Empire to have been so “successful”, the victims, the Armenians, had first to be vilified and defined as the threatening and despised “other”. Second, many of the means used to murder the Jewish people were first applied against the Armenians. Third, even before the infamous Wannsee Conference in Nazi Germany (January 1942) sealed the fate of what remained of most of Europe’s Jewish population, Hitler had famously said, as a way of motivating people who might not otherwise think the extermination of the Jews should be undertaken, “Who now remembers the annihilation of the Armenians?”
The Armenian equivalent to the term people use to describe the Holocaust, or Shoah, is “Metz Yeghern”, or “The Great Calamity”. At the same time that genocide was directed against the Armenians, massacres almost as catastrophic were directed against the empire’s Syriac Christian and Chaldean minorities. Syriac Christians call the massacres “Sayfo”, or “The Year of the Sword”.
We are told that, by remembering such enormous crimes against humanity, we ensure they never happen again. Well, today, as in years past, we remember the “forgotten genocide” directed against the Armenians, the Holocaust, or Shoah, directed against the Jewish people and the Porajmos (“The Devouring” or “The Destruction”) directed against the Gypsies and Roma. But such remembering did not stop ISIS proposing just last year that all Yazidis should be murdered, and for reasons that have an echo with those used to justify action taken in the past against the Armenians, the Jewish people, the Gypsies and the Roma.
Conclusion? We learn nothing from history and, because we learn nothing from history, we are condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past.