By Matthew Karanian
The Century that began with Genocide ended with escalating international condemnation for a crime, that was, in modern times, perpetrated for the first time against the Armenians. Yet, the perpetrator had only just begun to acknowledge that there were questions to be asked and answers to be confronted.
In October 2000, a few months before the French Senate formally accepted the one line bill — France publicly recognizes the Armenian Genocide of 1915 — the US Congress passed up an opportunity to officially recognize the Armenian Genocide. Turkey aggressively, and successfully, opposed the bill. And Ross Vartian was pondering the ramifications.
“Down the road,” said Vartian, then Director of the Armenian Assembly of America, “Turkey could threaten France, too, if France objects to Turkey’s admission to the European Union.”
It didn’t take long to travel down that road. Just a month later, Turkey proved him fight.
On Thanksgiving Day, in late November, Turkey’s Foreign Minister was telling reporters in France that impeding Turkey’s admission to the EU would have disastrous consequences for Europe. The Foreign Minister, Ismail Çem, hinted Turks might even block the EU’s access to NATO assets that are controlled by Turkey.
Çem made these remarks after the European Parliament passed a non-binding resolution directed at Turkey. The resolution supported Turkey’s bid to join the EU, but it also asked Turkey to respect the human rights of Armenians in Turkey, and to publicly recognize the genocide of 1915. Whether the Europeans did this to support Armenia or to frustrate Turkey’s hopes of joining the West is unclear. But Turkey, perhaps emboldened by its success in the US, issued a statement saying in effect that if the resolution on the genocide was a demand, then it was rejected.
Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Eçevit said the EU had “no right” to tell Turkey what to do. After all, Turkey isn’t a member of the EU. But Turkey’s hope of joining it certainly gives the Europeans the power to say plenty.
Aborting the Genocide Bill
Jonathan Drimmer, a trial attorney in the war crimes division of the US Department of Justice, believes that there were some benefits from the failed Congressional resolution — benefits that implicitly accrue not merely to the Armenian victims and their descendants, but also to the international community.
A bright light was shined on Turkey, he says, “and when you turn the spotlight on an event, it’s harder to [continue to] cover it up. There’s a greater political understanding, and an incremental benefit from the media and documentary discussion.”
At the same time, however, he says the public could misconstrue the tabling of the bill as meaning there wasn’t genocide. “It’s not widely discussed, so it could be interpreted that way. The fact that it’s proposed and then scrapped…” Drimmer shakes his head and offers his conclusion: “bad.” (Drimmer’s comments, which he made during an interview with AIM, are his own and not those of the Department of Justice.)
The media in the US largely overlooked the resolution. There was an editorial in the Wall Street Journal that praised Turkey’s stature as a loyal NATO ally. The Washington Post and The New York Tunes published a couple of brief news items. Scant coverage appeared elsewhere. There didn’t appear to be any media discussion from which there could be an incremental benefit.
But the story raged in Turkey where newspapers were filled with accounts of what Turkish writers identified as the “so-called genocide.” Columnists berated the US Congress for what they said was its ignorance of Turkish history. There was talk of reprisals against the US, and also against Armenia. Rouben Adalian, a genocide scholar and the Director of the Armenian National Institute (ANI) in Washington, DC, said the intensity and magnitude of the Turkish response was unprecedented. “There was a total pre-occupation with this subject. Media coverage was enormous beyond anything ever seen before,” he says.
And this, says Adalian, is good news.
“It indicates there is some re-thinking. There were voices of difference. There were even some voices of moderation and reason,” says Adalian.
What about all those offensive references to the “so-called” genocide? “The fact that the Turkish media uses the word `genocide’ at all is progress,” he says.
The failure of the congressional resolution didn’t silence the Turkish media, however. During the five weeks following, outrage from the Turkish press was unabated.
For good reason. Europeans barraged Turkey on this matter. In November, during the visit of Catholicos Karekin II to Rome, the Vatican issued a statement that expressly referred to the genocide for the first time. Also, the French Senate voted to publicly recognize the Genocide, and the Italian Parliament passed a resolution urging Turkey to do the same.
And this was all in addition to that EU resolution, which led the Turkish Daily News to proclaim in a headline that all the activity had given them an “Armenian Headache.”
The headache got worse when the French Senate passed the bill which President Chirac subsequently signed into law. Turkish headlines were not enough. Turkish academics got into the act. Universities even threatened to stop teaching French.
As extreme as these reactions sound, some other arguments in the Turkish press, were quite ambiguous. For every virulent Turkish response, there was also a soul-searching call, by a Turkish citizen, to “learn our own history.” While some dismissed 1915 as the “so-called” genocide, others complained that whatever this was, it was all “ancient history.” Why bring it up now, after 85 years?
But Armenians say they’ve been raising the issue for 85 years. It’s just that the Turks haven’t been listening.
With the 50th anniversary commemorations around the world in 1965, Armenians everywhere had begun to clamor for international recognition — political and psychological. Monuments to the victims of genocide went up in more than a dozen countries around the world. And governments were lobbied to officially condemn the Ottoman Empire’s genocidal acts during World War I which served as precedent to other perpetrators.
And the efforts paid off. The US House of Representatives had introduced commemorative resolutions on the Armenians way back in 1975, and again in 1984. The UN Commission on Human Rights in 1985 adopted a report on genocide that included reference to Armenians. The European Parliament went on record, in 1987, saying that “the tragic events of 1915-1917…constitute genocide.” The Council of Europe (CE) commemorated the “Armenian Genocide” in 1998.
Through much of the concerted efforts of the Armenian political parties in the Diaspora, particularly the Armenian Revolutionary Federation — Dashnaktsutiun (ARF), the legislatures of several countries went on record, affirming the historical record of the Armenian Genocide. During the past 20 years, resolutions characterizing the events as Genocide have been passed in Argentina, Belgium, Cyprus, France, Greece, Lebanon, Russia and Sweden.
The Canadian Parliament has identified the massacres of 1915 as “crimes against humanity,” and Uruguay in 1965 proclaimed April 24 a “day or remembrance” for the Armenians. In fact, ANI website [armeniangenocide.org] is full of references to these and other acknowledgements.
The reason the issue is being so hotly contested now may be twofold. Survivors of the Genocide are almost all gone, and the descendants are concerned that with them, the world may try to bury the reality of the Genocide.
At the same time, although newly-independent Armenia has not made Genocide recognition a pre-condition for relations with its neighbor, Turkey itself has made Armenia’s renunciation of any Genocide claims, a precondition. Thus, the `taboo’ subject is suddenly on the front pages. And, because of widespread access to information, Turkish academics and citizens are facing new questions.
“My grandfather was in the Ottoman army, and I refuse to believe he was involved in something like this,” said a parliamentarian who had come from Turkey to Washington DC to lobby Congress to reject the resolution last October. Implicit in this denial, of course, is the apparent fear that the crime did indeed occur.
“Yes, yes, massacres happened on both sides,” said another presenter, according to a report published in the Washington Post in October. “When things get out of control, these things happen.”
The US Congress’ interest in the Genocide is nothing new. The Congressional Record provides ample evidence of contemporaneous US involvement, according to Donald Ritchie, Ph.D., an Associate Senate Historian.
In 1894, a US senator from Utah, William King, became the first, and at the time the most vocal, advocate for Armenia in Congress. Ritchie told AIM that King was the “first person in Congress to accuse Turkey of attempting to exterminate the Armenians.” He would later advocate support for oppressed Jews, as well.
During the Genocide, Congress became aware of the atrocities from eyewitness reports. American clergy were the greatest source of complaints to Congress regarding Armenia’s plight, says Ritchie. The US was neutral during the early years of World War I, and so American missionaries in the Ottoman Empire were not deported. These missionaries became a fertile source of information about the events that began in 1915.
As a non-combatant, the US also maintained a diplomatic presence in Turkey, through 1917. The American ambassador, Henry Morgenthau, would become a major conduit to the US for information about the crimes.
Unlike Morgenthau, however, another US diplomat, Leslie Davis was an actual eyewitness to the massacres. Davis had served as US Consul at Kharberd from 1915-1917. He saw tens of thousands of corpses during his treks in the country, and he would later report to Morgenthau — his boss — that he had seen little evidence of famine or epidemic. “A massacre, however horrible the word may sound, would be humane in comparison,” he wrote. In 1918 he summarized his findings in a report to the US Department of State.
Eighty-five years later, in Washington, DC, Ross Vartian, now Director of Planning for the Armenian GenocideMuseum and Memorial — the first serious Diaspora attempt to develop a public institution that will educate the public on the Armenian Genocide, spearheaded by the Armenian Assembly of America and the Armenian National Institute — sat with a visitor and reflected upon the extent of US action during the Genocide. “This was the high water mark for US response to genocide,” he says. “The US took action during the Genocide” of the Armenians. There were reports in Congress, protests to the Turkish leadership, and an officially sanctioned relief effort — dubbed “Near East Relief.”
“The US didn’t do any of this in Germany [during World War II] or in Rwanda [in the 1990s.]
“We’ve got to get back to this,” he says.
Diaspora Armenians insist that the international community recognize the Armenian Genocide precisely because Turkey denies it.
Within Turkey, the Genocide had not always been cloaked in secrecy or tarnished by denial. Indeed, at the conclusion of World War I the Turks conducted courts martial of the perpetrators of the Genocide. Vahakn Dadrian, a leading scholar on the Genocide, and Director of Genocide Research at the Zoryan Institute for Contemporary Armenian Research and Documentation, bellows when talking about the significance of this. “The Turkish military tribunal was unprecedented in Ottoman history,” he says.
The Allies had previously attempted to achieve retributive justice, but their efforts succumbed to political expediency. So the Turks handled the matter of the Genocide in their national courts, beginning late in 1918.
“Turkish Parliamentarians confessed to crimes against humanity, under the atmosphere of total defeat,” says Dadrian. Indeed, the concept of a “crime against humanity” was first given judicial application as a result of the Armenian Genocide.
“In Parliament, Turkish leaders said `Let’s face it, we destroyed the Armenian population under the most savage means.'” Dadrian made these comments at a conference in Washington, DC. One Turkish official admitted that the so-called deportations of the civilian Armenian populations were a ruse.
Records from Ankara, which were introduced in evidence at the trial, contained daily reports of not merely the numbers of deportees, but also of the numbers killed. Dadrian read from one stunning telegraphic exchange: “They were dispatched to their ultimate destination,” said the first voice. “Meaning what?” And then the macabre reply: “Meaning massacred. Killed.”
The Turkish courts lacked the political will to proceed further. And the Western Allies lacked the interest to compel them to do so. By the time the prosecutions had ceased, in early 1921, they had become a farce, says Dadrian.
Three minor officials were hanged, but most were allowed to escape. They received death sentences in absentia. The crimes went almost entirely unpunished, and this, says Dadrian, made the Turks “defiant, arrogant, courageous. And it emboldened others.” And so an event that was intended to render retributive justice, a justice that is sometimes disparagingly called “victor’s” justice, instead allowed the perpetrators to escape with impunity.
Some, however, were hunted down and assassinated as part of Operation Nemesis, organized by the ARF, and carried out by a group of volunteers recruited and trained by a small group who wanted their own justice.
Today in the US, there is an Ambassador at Large for War Crimes who seeks “credible justice.” The ambassador, David Scheffer, says that he “keeps visiting and re-visiting atrocity prone areas of the world.” An ambassador such as he might have proved valuable in Armenia, before the conclusion of the courts martial, as well as after.
This is because the military trials didn’t stop the bloodshed. Throughout the trials, the policy of Genocidecontinued. Some Armenian refugees had returned to their home towns in Cilicia, under the protection of the French mandate. The protection proved inadequate. Nationalist Turkish armed forces, led by Mustafa Kemal, attacked in 1920, slaughtering most of the refugee population.
It gets worse. “In the meantime,” writes Adalian, the historian and director of ANI, “the Turkish Nationalist forces had gone to war against the Republic of Armenia.” By the time the Armenians could sue for peace, the Turks had captured the Armenian territories of Kars and Ani — territories which constituted one half of. the area of the new Republic. Adalian sums up the conquest: “the Turkification and Islamification of Asia Minor was nearly complete.” This probably also sums up the cause and result of the Genocide: constituting a Turkish Republic out of disparate ethnic and political elements, in the quickest way possible.
Numbness, Mourning, and Anger
Historian Richard Hovanissian, in an explanation of the psychological effect upon the Armenian nation from the Genocide, has said that there is first a period of numbness, which is followed by mourning, and finally by anger. The Armenian nation was still traumatized and numb during the 20th century’s second genocide — the Jewish Holocaust.
Nazi Germany used many of the same techniques against the Jews that it had counseled the Turks to use against the Armenians. There were deportations and death marches, there were concentration camps, and there was death by asphyxiation and by inferno. For the second time in 25 years, a supposedly civilized European nation had brought horror and destruction to the world. And for the second time in a single generation, an entire ancient race of people had been brought to the brink of extermination. This time, the international community showed greater resolve.
Winston Churchill had described the Nazi atrocities as a crime without a name. During the Armenian atrocities 20 years earlier, Churchill was similarly astonished, and identified the extermination as a holocaust. It was up to Raphael Lemkin, a lawyer and a Polish Jew, to create the name “genocide.”
The United Nations adopted his creation. The UN General Assembly declared in 1946 that genocide is a crime under international law, and within two years the UN had sponsored an international treaty outlawing genocide, which entered into force in 1949. Turkey acceded to the treaty the following year.
By 1965, the children of the Genocide survivors had grown to young adulthood. This generation was ready to mourn its loss. Large crowds gathered in Yerevan to demand the construction of a memorial. The Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev, didn’t want to inspire nationalism in Armenia, and he didn’t want to stir up trouble with Turkey. But Brezhnev saw this as an opportunity to shore up lagging support for the Cold War. The Armenians could have their memorial. But discussion of the Genocide would otherwise be taboo.
The memorial was completed within two years, on a hilltop overlooking the center of Yerevan. At the same time others were constructed in the Middle East and North America.
By the 1970s, the obdurate denials from Turkey had frustrated many young Armenians, who decided to resort to political violence. A group calling itself the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA) executed Turkish diplomats at their posts throughout the world and bombed buildings and cars in an effort to call attention to events that the world had apparently chosen to forget.
The Justice Commandos of the Armenian Genocide followed soon after.
Their campaign of terror continued for more than a decade. The Secret Army was helped along sometimes by the Soviet Union, sometimes by Middle Eastern powers. The Justice Commandos were created and supported by the ARF. By the tune these groups ceased operation, 100 different incidents were reported and a dozen and a half diplomats were killed.
Influencing the Turkish Government
Today, there is no one in the Diaspora who advocates political violence to bring Trkey to the table. Any table. A decade after Armenian independence, the second President of Armenia, Robert Kocharian, continues to appeal for diplomatic relations with Turkey, without pre-conditions. Turkey continues to refuse. Turkish leaders instead insist that Armenia first stop talking about the Genocide. They also demand that Armenia formally recognize its border with Turkey, and waive any claims to ancestral Armenian lands in Turkey, The irony here is that Turkey was among the first countries to recognize the independence of its eastern neighbor in 1991. But that promising step was not followed by the establishment of relations. Armenia was at war with its own eastern neighbor, Azerbaijan, and that was a major stumbling block. Nevertheless Armenians have been trying to unlink the various issues and tackle them one at a time.
At the same time, Kocharian raised the stakes as well as the matter of Genocide recognition at the United Nations last year, provoking a stunning exchange of bluntly undiplomatic language from Turkish leaders. The Turks had not expected to hear about the events of 1915 at the UN’s Millennium Summit.
And because Turkey wants to join the EU, the Europeans are using Turkey’s desire to gain leverage over them. The European organization of which Turkey is already a member, the CE, also continues to pressure Turkey to observe human rights and to guarantee freedom of expression.
One way in which this happens is through the CE’s judicial arm, the European Court of Human Rights. Turkey has frequently found itself as a defendant at this court, in matters involving its implementation of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. This convention, or treaty, as it is more commonly called, guarantees freedom of expression. Turkish law, however, is severely restrictive, and in breach of its treaty obligations.
Turkey’s restrictions on freedom of speech could curtail any attempts by academics to reconcile the Turks and the Armenians. A recent case is illustrative. Akin Berdal, a social activist, who also happens to be a Turkish citizen, said at a human rights conference in Bremerhaven, Germany last October that “Turkey should apologize to Armenians for the genocide.”
A prosecutor in Istanbul opened an investigation. Turkey’s penal code prohibits speech that incites enmity and hate by splitting people along class, racial and religious lines. This investigation, and others, could stifle open discussion not only by people in Turkey, but also by Turkish citizens anywhere in the world, and by anyone who would like to travel to Turkey.
Academies are not the only people in Turkey who are at risk of political retribution. An Istanbul court had acquitted a publisher who had been charged with this same crime. The publisher had printed an article by Vahakn Dadrian, the genocide scholar. The acquittal, in May, was said to have been an admission of the fact of the Genocide. It provoked outrage from an Istanbul newspaper, and also from a TUrkish lobbyist working in the US.
Under pressure, the presiding judge issued a clarification in November. Although the judge’s comments were irrelevant to the case, he nevertheless felt compelled to declare “The real massacre was perpetrated against the Turks by the Armenians.”
For as long as Turkey continues to treat the fact of the Genocide as a matter of debate, there is little likelihood of rapprochement between its government and the government in Armenia.
Politics, Not History
“For us,” says Armenia’s Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, “the issue is political and not historical.”
Most of the world’s leaders agree with Oskanian. A look at that failed US Congressional resolution is suggestive. Throughout the debate on the resolution, there was barely a whisper of doubt about any of the facts of the Genocide.
Only one Congressman, Dan Burton, went on record as a Genocide denier. Only Burton questioned the veracity of the American diplomats and missionaries who fried eyewitness and contemporaneous accounts of the atrocities.
Only Burton took a page out of the Turkish briefing book, by asserting that it may have been the Armenians who committed a genocide against the Turks. Burton was friendless, and sat alone on these claims.
Instead, the opponents of the Congressional resolution generally cited political reasons for their objections. Tom Lantos is a case in point. He’s Jewish, and the only Holocaust survivor in Congress. One might think this would give him two reasons to support the Armenians. He didn’t. But he based his opposition, instead, upon what he described as Turkey’s status as a “major NATO ally.” During a committee hearing in October, he appeared smug and condescending as he lectured his colleagues about the political risks that would accompany their acknowledgement of the truth.
Britain’s leaders took the same positions in November when they initially refused to include the Genocide in their upcoming recognition of “Holocaust Memorial Day” on January 27. The events of 1915 occurred too long ago to warrant inclusion, they said. The Bryce Report, the contemporaneous, 677-page accounting of the Genocide that the British Foreign Office produced, and which clearly demonstrates Britain’s affirmation of the fact of the Genocide, wasn’t mentioned. The British press was appalled. “There’s no country that denies [the fact of] the Genocide,” says Adalian. “Turkey is all alone on this matter. Turkey is supported only politically.”
This is one of the reasons that resolutions by governments are needed, and are not the meddling that Turks, and Turkish Armenians, claim that they are.
“One of our goals, as Armenian Americans, should be to end the Turkish denial,” says Vartian. “On the academic front, this has largely occurred.”
Now, says Vartian, the matter is a question of politics, and not history. “The last arena,” he says; “is the political arena.”
Resorting to Third Parties
Drimmer, the lawyer at the US Dept. of Justice, notes, “Ideally, if you want to change someone’s behavior, you should go to the nation directly.” Armenia has tried this, and is still trying. It has been rebuffed. “Then,” says Drimmer, “go to the other nations that can influence that nation.”
And that is what Armenians are doing around the world. But the long-term wisdom of this approach is questioned by those who say this only makes Turkey more intransigent. Not unlike what happened earlier this century when Turkey’s reaction to European insistence on internal reforms was to do away with its minority populations.
Indeed, after the EU requested that Turkey acknowledge the Genocide, the Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople, Archbishop Mesrop Mutafyan, issued a protest. “We do not approve, find it right or beneficial, that our problems are taken up by irrelevant parties and used in a manner which could prevent our country’s integration with Europe,” he said, according to a report in Agence France-Presse.
An editor of an Armenian newspaper in Turkey agreed to answer AIM’s questions, but only if his name was not used. He said the Armenian community doesn’t have any problems with the Turkish government, and that he’d like to keep it that way. How could this be accomplished?
“The matter of Genocide recognition should be left to the Republics of Armenia and Turkey. The international community should not get in the middle.”
Turkey’s most recent suggestion for the beginnings of rapprochement between the sides, has been, to use its own words, to leave history to the historians. For about a decade now, Armenian scholars have been invited to Turkey to participate in conferences. There are new Armenian Studies institutes popping up in Turkey.
The results? Ambiguous, says one participant. Although the taboo term `genocide’ is now being used more often, at the same time, there are `new’ studies about the various massacres of Turks carried out by Armenians.
Armenians are offended at such historiography. After all, the Genocide is a fact. “Armenians aren’t interested in debating whether or not thousands of infants committed suicide by impaling themselves on the swords and bayonets of unsuspecting Turkish gendarmes,” says one attorney.
Vartian aptly sums up the attitude of most Armenians. “Eventually Armenians and Turks are going to have to get together. But not to determine the truth, rather to determine the consequences of the truth.”