The Armenian Genocide

Since little media attention was paid in this country to the anniversary, most readers may be barely aware, if aware at all, that it was a hundred years ago last month that the rulers of Turkey in 1915-16 began a campaign of deportations and killings that nearly exterminated the Armenians, the first of the world’s peoples to become Christian. About two million Armenians lived in Turkey at the time, most of them in the country’s six eastern-most provinces. When the genocide stopped 500,000 were left.

The government of Turkey today does not care to have the events of a century ago remembered. In fact it becomes irate if the very word “genocide” is spoken in reference to them. Within hours of Pope Francis using the word at a commemorative Mass last month, Ankara called home its ambassador to the Vatican and President Erdogan grabbed a microphone to excoriate His Holiness: “I want to warn the Pope to not repeat this mistake and condemn him.”

“Condemn”? “Warn”? One is accustomed to certain Catholics speaking rudely of Christ’s Vicar on Earth (whether these be “progressivists” under Benedict or “traditionalists” under Francis), but to hear such language from the president of a country that has had friendly diplomatic relations with the Holy See for a lot longer than the U.S. is shocking, the more so for its threatening tone. We have already seen one pope shot by a Turk in recent time.

In any event, of world leaders only the presidents of France and Russia risked Turkish ire by showing up in Yerevan, modern Armenia’s capital, for official ceremonies marking the anniversary of the genocide.

Adolf Hitler is supposed to have asked in the 1930s, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” I have seen the quote many times but until recently never sourced. Frankly, I thought it could possibly be one of those things that writers never check out but keep copying from one another because it fits the idea everyone has, or is supposed to have, about the person being quoted — like France’s Queen Marie Antoinette supposedly saying, “Let them eat cake.”

Biographers have debunked that quote, but it lives on. It fits the idea of the Queen as a frivolous and solipsistic airhead impervious to the sufferings of a population downtrodden by the very monarchy of which she was the second figure after her husband King Louis XVI. The Hitler quote fits the idea of him as so evil that any foreign leader an American is meant to hate — Milosevic in 1995, Saddam in 2003, Putin today — gets compared to him. Writers use it to imply that Hitler must have believed the “annihilation” of Europe’s Jews would be little noticed and soon forgotten.

Now I know the original source of the Hitler quote: a book published in 1942, What About Germany? by Louis B. Lochner. I have learned this from a footnote in another book, a new one: “They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else”; A History of the Armenian Genocide, by Ronald Grigor Suny, a history professor at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, published by Princeton University Press. The book may not be the definitive one on events in 1915-16 because new material on the Armenian Genocide continues to come to light, but it surely is as complete a history of the subject as now exists. A reader who imagines that the death of 1.5 million Christian Armenians was somehow a kind of colossal accident, if such a reader exists, will be persuaded otherwise by it.

Much else can be learned from Suny’s book besides the source of the Hitler quote. For instance, if ordinary Germans did not speak of the Armenian Genocide in the 1930s it was because most of them did not know about it. That is because it took place during World War I and the Ottoman Turkish Empire of that time was an ally of Germany in the war. German diplomats and military officers in Turkey, appalled by what they were seeing, sent complete reports to Berlin, but instead of pressing their ally to stop the killing, Berlin decided to ignore the reports and file them away. In other words, the Prussian-dominated Second Reich of Kaiser Wilhelm II became complicit.

Before reading Suny’s book, I also did not appreciate the extent to which the Ottomans relied on another subject people, the Kurds, to do their dirty work. The Muslim Kurds, whose own nationalist ambitions centered on eastern Turkey then as now, did not hesitate to collaborate in the genocide of their Christian neighbors. The Kurds are now U.S. allies (“boots on the ground,” as the expression goes) as the U.S. conducts its air war against Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria.

Before the genocide, the Armenians — like Greeks, Egyptian Copts, Lebanese Maronites, Bulgarians, Serbs and other Christian peoples subject to the Ottoman Turks — were very much second-class citizens who had to pay a special tax, protection money, in effect. But except for occasional, usually localized and short-lived periods of persecution, they were able to live in relative peace. Then liberals known as the Young Turks came on the scene in the early twentieth century, overthrew the Sultan of the day and set up a constitutional monarchy that they could control. Being liberals, the Young Turks were modernizers, as can be seen from the very fact of their establishing a constitutional monarchy. Modernization (also called “reform”) always requires centralized authority to direct it. This is why nothing characterizes the modern state more than the concentration of political power in a central government.

The Young Turks could be likened to the men who ousted England’s last Catholic monarch, James II, so that subsequent Protestant ones would merely reign while Parliament ruled. They might also be compared to the French revolutionaries of 1789 who paved the way for Napoleon.

Concentrating power in their government, the Young Turks necessarily had to exercise tighter control over the empire’s subject peoples. They were actually assisted in this by the empire’s loss of its predominantly Christian provinces in Europe in the Balkan War of 1912. Shed of those lands and peoples, what remained of the empire could be made more Turkish. This became imperative to the Young Turks once World War I began because when they allied to the Germans they made an enemy of the country on Turkey’s northern borders, Russia. The war with Russia brought the Armenians under immediate suspicion. Wouldn’t the Christian Armenians be inclined to help the Christian Russians? In a word, the Armenians were perceived as an internal threat. The decision was taken to remove the threat and once the killing and deportations that also ended in death began there was no turning back. The Turkish Prime Minister, Talat Pasha, was blunt about this in a meeting with U.S. Ambassador Henry Morganthau (the U.S. was still officially neutral in the war): “It is no use for you to argue. We have already disposed of three quarters of the Armenians. The hatred between Turk and Armenian is now so intense that we have got to finish them. If we don’t, they will plot their revenge.”

In hindsight, the Turkish perception of the Christian Armenians as a potential threat to the war effort may seem unreasonable, but Americans ought to remember that when the U.S. entered World War II, U.S. citizens were arrested, their property confiscated, and they were incarcerated in internment camps for no reason except they were ethnic Japanese. These measures were championed by, among others, the very liberal governor of California, Earl Warren. (He would later be named Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. It was his court that mandated the desegregation of public schools in all the states in 1954, the first instance of the Federal judiciary acting legislatively.)

After the Ottoman Empire was defeated in World War I and Turkey was under Allied military occupation, the Greek government of the day thought they saw an opportunity to create a Greater Greece by seizing Turkish territory that had once been part of the Byzantine Empire. They nearly succeeded, but then overextended themselves and were driven back by an extraordinary man, Kemal Ataturk, a warrior who became Turkey’s dominant political figure until his death in 1939.

Not merely did he drive out the invading Greeks, but expelled ethnic Greeks living in Turkey (the city of Smyrna became Izmir), sent the last Sultan packing, declared Turkey a republic in 1923, became its president, and repudiated the Versailles Treaty a decade before Hitler (who was a great admirer).

Ataturk claimed he was never a Young Turk, but everything he did was grounded on what they began. No one except the Chinese Communists of our day has ever “modernized” a nation faster and more thoroughly than Ataturk. He accomplished it by secularizing Turkey. Hagia Sophia, built as the greatest church in Eastern Christendom, had been a mosque since the Ottoman conquest of 1453. Ataturk made it a museum. He made it illegal for women to wear the Muslim veil or a headscarf. He Romanized the alphabet. Whereas the old sultans had been the heads of Islam (Caliph) as well as heads of state, with Ataturk there was complete separation of mosque and state.

President Erdogan is no Kemalist. As we have said, he is an Islamist, but no revolutionary. His wife, a very stylish lady, always wears a headscarf but no veil. (More important from the U.S. point of view, he has been the key player in the U.S.-driven effort to overthrow Bashar al-Assad in Syria.)

As far as the Armenian Genocide is concerned , yes, he refuses to accept the word, but in saying, as he has, that events in 1915-16 were “inhumane,” offering “condolences” to the grandchildren of the victims and speaking of “our shared pain,” he has gone further toward it than any Turkish leader ever has, or possibly ever can.

Try to imagine a U.S. president saying: “According to the terms under which the U.S. became a nation, the states that seceded in 1861 had the right to do so, and as long as the new nation they formed did not make war on the U.S. the U.S. was wrong to make war on them.”

No U.S. president could say that even if he believed it. It would be a repudiation of 150 years of history and thus throw open to question the very identity of the U.S., for everything the U.S. now is stems from Abraham Lincoln’s decision to invade the Confederate States and crush their independence by military means. Similarly, which Turkish leader, even an Islamist one, can acknowledge that the evil of genocide was committed in 1915-16? It would be a repudiation of a century of history and thus throw open to question the very identity of modern Turkey, for everything the nation now is stems from what was done by the Young Turks and Kemal Ataturk following in their traces.

The border between Armenia and Turkey has been closed since 1993 (almost as soon as Armenia became independent with the implosion of the Soviet Union) and the Armenians say relations between the two countries cannot be “normal” without Turkey acknowledging genocide. However, even louder in their insistence that Turkey do so, and as the Turks can observe for themselves, are those international bodies for whom “human rights” (and “crimes” that violate them ranging from genocide to women’s “freedom to choose” to a parent spanking his child) are the driving wedge by which to foment and achieve social revolution.

The Armenian Genocide happened, but Turkey’s dilemma is profound. The Muslim nation most like today’s liberal West, it can remain guilty of “crimes against humanity” in the eyes of important international agencies and much of public opinion outside its borders if it doesn’t acknowledge the genocide, or it can risk national suicide if it does.