A brief history of the Armenian Genocide

In the previous part of these series, I gave a short introduction to the Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh conflict and proposed that a crucial key to understand the Armenian perspective is to acknowledge the Armenian fear of genocide. Since you may not be familiar with the Armenian Genocide actually committed in the last century, I decided to talk about it first.

1915, Sarikamish. An Armenian soldier is strolling the streets when he suddenly meets a shy little boy with fearful eyes. To the question “What’s your name”, the child says nothing and makes the sign of the cross instead (a Christian gesture), expressing his deep fear of the stranger. The soldier calms the child and follows him into their house, where he finds the rest of the family, including a baby girl, dead - slaughtered. He adopts the child and names him Khachatur, an Armenian name that can be translated as given by the cross.

“The crying boy” by G.Bragolin

The family of my great-grandfather was probably one of the early victims of the Armenian Genocide, eventually claiming the lives of 1.5 Million Armenians in the Ottoman Turkey. But why did such a tragedy happen? Rephrasing Tolstoi’s famous line, all genocides are alike but each one is tragic in its own way. The basic recipe is the same: hateful zeal (be it religious, nationalistic, xenophobic, whatever-ism-phobic) coupled with power. What was the devil in the details of this one?

The Ottoman Empire entered the 20th century as a shaky old state after 600 years of existence. The Young Turk revolution (1908) promised to revive the sick man on the Bosphoruswith a potion of constitutionalism and parlamentarism. This movement was embraced by the minorities in the Ottoman Empire, including Armenians, who had long been treated as second-class citizens. Things were getting even worse at the end of the 19th century, when hundreds of thousands Christian Armenians were massacred as a result of Pan-Islamic policies by Sultan Abdul Hamid II. Unfortunately, the excitement of Armenians about the upcoming reforms was a bitter disappointment: the Young Turks became the very thing they swore to destroy.

Photo: Wikipedia commons

After the Balkan wars (1912–1913), the Ottoman Empire lost its territories in Europe, and deep insecurities about its further existence came to light. According to the Turkish-German historian Taner Akçam, the Turkish elite envisioned a nation-state on the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, similar to national states in Europe. However, the Ottoman Empire was a multi-ethnic state and such endeavor would require some sort of homogenization: “Turkish cultural identity, then, became the cement with which to build this homogenization”. Armenians clearly did not fit into this vision: they had distinct sense of identity and unique culture, they made continuous efforts to improve their civil rights, further exacerbating the Ottoman fear of any potential uprising and partition.

(Ethnic map of Asia Minor in 1910

Things got even worse in 1915, after the empire experienced a humiliating defeat from Russians in the Battle of Sarikamish (in the aftermath of which my great-grandfather was rescued). This failure was blamed on the Armenians (hence the massacre of his family), as the modern day Armenia was part of the Russian Empire back then, and many ethnic Armenians were fighting on the Russian side. Naturally, their oppressed counterparts in the Ottoman Empire sympathized with the Russian-Armenian bond, posing a “fifth column” threat.

Instead of addressing the issues raised by Armenians, the Young Turk leaders opted for a brute yet meticulously planned solution: the elimination of all Armenians from their historical homeland. Apparently, the political anxiety was so large that it overrode any notion of humanity, resulting in a monstrous genocide against innocent civilians, the barbaric details of which I will spare you. If interested, feel free to explore the archives of the Armenian Genocide Museum.

People from different ethnic and religious backgrounds welcomed and helped the traumatized survivors who resettled all around the globe, forming a big Armenian diaspora. Most of these people became peaceful and productive members of their host societies. In gratitude to the kind people that saved them, the most successful in Armenian diaspora united 100 years after the Genocide, creating the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative meant to “celebrate those who helped Armenians in need one hundred years ago and to continue in their spirit by supporting people and organizations that keep the legacy of gratitude alive”.

The Genocide Memorial in Yerevan with red flowers symbolizing the blood of the innocent victims

But after all these years, what the Armenians all around the world cannot get is closure. Although the Armenian Genocide is seen as a historical fact, Turkey continues to hysterically deny it, often resorting to shameless victim blaming. To Armenians, the genocide recognition is not only a moral and emotional issue but one with clear political and existential implications.

It often seems that the recognition of the Armenian Genocide is Turkey’s Achilles heel, which is conveniently used by the international powers to exert political pressure on Turkey whenever it suits to them. For instance, despite the fact that there is an incredible documentation of the Armenian Genocide by German witnesses, such as Johannes Lepsius and Armin Wegner, it was only recently that Germany officially recognized the Armenian Genocide. Similarly, with every new US president, Armenians all around the world expect him/her to finally call these events by their real name but alas, the time is not ripe yet for the tiny Armenia. Note that US presidents do always say something about the Armenian Genocide but continue to vehemently refuse to use the correct word: genocide.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not angry (well, a little bit). I understand there are complex economic, political and military relationships but there are times when reluctance in political statements seems more dangerous. I believe that the current conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh is such a time.

The choice of the crying baby picture at the beginning of this article was deliberate. Not the concept but the exact picture. According to an urban legend, this picture is cursed because people keep finding it under the ruins of burnt houses. This, of course, has a simple explanation , however, the lesson here is that if you ignore the history, if you ignore the sufferings of the children, you are bound to be cursed by the same tragedy again and again.

I next explain how the shadow of the Armenian Genocide haunts the relationship not only between Armenia and Turkey but also between Armenia and Azerbaijan and how this unsolved issue can affect you, too.

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