In 2014 I travelled through Armenia for ten days, and while I had known vaguely of the Armenian Genocide, it was not until researching this trip and speaking to the many friendly and hospitable Armenians that I met on my travels did I come to fully understand the tragic events of 1915.
Exactly 100 years ago, before the horrors of the holocaust could be realised, another series of events that would demonstrate the staggering potential for human cruelty was about to unfold at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. Buoyed with anger at British and Russian interventions on the side of the Armenians as the Ottoman Empire lost territory, violence and hatred against Armenian Christians boiled over. Between 1 and 1.5 million Armenians were rounded up and marched out of their homes at gunpoint, where they were either shot instantly or marched to death into the Syrian desert. Rape, torture, forced conversion to Islam, the destruction or seizure of property and other atrocities were commonplace. An overwhelming amount of historical research supports these events as having happened, establishing conclusively the intention, organisation and responsibility of the Ottoman authorities. David Simon, a professor of political science at Yale University and co-director of its Genocide Studies Program says:
So why do modern day states refuse to use the much feared ‘g-word’?
Recognition of the Armenian Genocide has been stuck in a historical stalemate ever since the horrifying events of 1915 gained worldwide attention in the aftermath of the Second World War. Motivated by national embarrassment, Turkey are determined that the massacres are never recognised as a genocide, and have engaged in genocide denial on an industrial scale. Turkish leaders have repeatedly argued that the estimated number of deaths has been inflated, and that those that did occur were the result of civil war and unrest during which both Armenian Christians and Turkish Muslims died, rather than a campaign of murder orchestrated by the Ottoman rulers, as evidence conclusively suggests. Turkey’s government react angrily to any recognition of genocide, recalling ambassadors to the Vatican and Austria in recent weeks when acknowledgement of genocide was made. The involvement of the Youth Turk government, national heroes and founders of the modern state of Turkey, is not something many Turks want to own up to. It would not be possible for legal claims or reparations to be made, however, as UN legal conventions on genocide came into force much later, and could not be applied retroactively. This is a matter of Turkish pride alone.
There is a great honour in admitting and confronting your history; it is this acknowledgement of terrible crimes committed in your country’s name that have allowed recognition of the holocaust and built an enormous friendship and co-operation between those historically persecuted and the descendants of the persecutors. It is a situation of great beauty and a testament to the courage and transformation of the German people that they acknowledge and pay respect to their history and find themselves at the centre of a co-operative and unified Europe. It has been a hundred years since the Armenian Genocide, and nobody who is alive today was complicit in these heinous crimes. However to deny that these crimes ever took place is to have complicity in them. To deny the holocaust is to use the same anti-Semitism as the Nazis; to accuse Jews of conspiracy or blame for what happened, and to disrespect victims murdered in the name of racism. The same is true for Armenians.
When the Iranian leadership denied the holocaust, their comments were repeatedly met with the disgust and condemnation they deserved. Iran’s fractious relationship with Israel led to an ugly, unhelpful and universally condemned bout of holocaust denial, from Ayatollah Khamenai claiming the holocaust was “Zionist propaganda”, the truth of which was “not clear”, to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s claim that the Nazi extermination of European Jews was a “myth”, which caused a mass walkout of UN delegates in 2005. 14 European countries have specific legislation that makes holocaust denial a criminal offence.
Despite the evidence pointing overwhelmingly towards the mass killings and ethnic cleansing of Armenians, denial of the Armenian genocide continues to be used as a tool by other nations with which to improve diplomatic relations with Turkey. The hypocrisy of these nations is deafening. Israel, for example, a state created and defined by the largest genocide the world has ever seen, has failed to recognise the Armenian genocide because of their close ties to oil exporting Azerbaijan, a key Turkish ally. Barack Obama, on the other hand, promised while on the presidential campaign trail in 2008:
“Armenian genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion or a point of vice, but rather a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence. The facts are undeniable. As president, I will recognise the Armenian genocide”.
Yet he never has. Turkey are a key NATO ally, and is now a key ally in the battle against ISIS.
Yet diplomacy should not be used to distort the facts of history. Can you imagine the outrage if the US had agreed with Iranian holocaust denial when negotiating a nuclear deal? We rightly accept that this would be unacceptable behaviour, but we do not extend the same morals to Armenians. The same outrage that is reserved for holocaust deniers should also be reserved for those who deny genocide in all circumstances, for ignoring the victims of these crimes is a violation of justice, and creates a culture of zero responsibility, where it is acceptable to refuse to confront your history rather than accept the uncomfortable facts. Our inability to confront history, and to learn from it, is what allows terrible atrocities like the Armenian Genocide to happen again. Only confronting history, even if it creates international friction, can ensure that we may one day live in a world without genocide.