It is the forgotten 20th-century catastrophe. In 1915, under cover of world war, Ottoman Turks wiped out a third of the Armenian population. To this day, Turkey denies blame – and, behind it, Britain stands firm among a dwindling band of nations that fail to acknowledge the massacres were genocide.
The Guardian, Saturday 27 January 2001
Today is Britain’s first Holocaust Day, and already the row has started. January 27, Auschwitz’s Liberation Day, is the symbolic memorial for the Jewish holocaust, and that will be the focus of a ceremony in Whitehall. The genocides in Bosnia, Cambodia and Rwanda will also be remembered. But what about the Armenians, whose holocaust was the first of the bloody 20th century? Originally they were to be excluded from the ceremony entirely. Following intensive pressure, the government has made a concession: a few Armenians have been invited to the event, and mention will be made of the hundreds of thousands of deaths in 1915. This immediately provoked an angry reaction from the Turks – without satisfying the Armenians who were planning to hold a silent vigil in protest outside the Home Office on the night before the ceremony.
At the end of 1999, there was a collective feeling that the year 2000 would begin with a clean slate: the Jewish holocaust was part of the past century. That changed when the new millennium brought with it the David Irving trial, plunging British law into the sensitive area of holocaust-denial. Currently, Jewish writers and historians are making connections between holocaust deniers such as Irving and Turkey’s refusal to accept the bloody anti-Armenian policies of the Ottoman Empire. And, across the sweep of the century, a real link between the Armenian and Jewish genocides becomes clear. Just as Hitler wanted a Nazi-dominated world that would be Judenrein (cleansed of its Jews), so in 1915 the Ottoman Empire wanted to construct a Turkic Muslim empire that would stretch from Istanbul to Manchuria. Armenia, an ancient Christian civilisation spreading out from the eastern end of the Black Sea, did not not fit into the plan. In a terrible coincidence, both Jews and Armenians lost a third of their population through genocide. Both are still recovering.
Already, at the end of the 19th century, Ottoman Turks had murdered between 100,000 and 250,000 Armenians. We can now see that these pogroms were a warning of what was to happen in 1915. Tens of thousands fled. In 1901, Protestant missionary Theresa Huntington Ziegler chronicled a massive haemorrhaging of Armenians towards France, Egypt, Lebanon, South America, Palestine and the Sudan. Today, the majority of diaspora Armenians live in California.
Who exactly are the Armenians? Their language is Indo-European and their culture dates back to more than 2,000 years BC. In AD303, as an act of collective identity against assimilation by the Persians, they were the first nation to declare Christianity a state religion. St Mesrob Mashtots is their literary hero. He created the 36-letter Armenian alphabet in AD405. Armenian culture is a multilayered heritage of music, dance, theatre, literature and extraordinary poetry. Armenia was an independent state in medieval times but was absorbed into the Ottoman Empire, from the 15th century right up until 1920 when it was briefly declared a republic. Two years later much of it became part of the USSR; now – with the break-up of the Soviet Union – there is once again a Republic of Armenia. The entire diaspora speaks western Armenian; only those living in this independent homeland of Armenia speak eastern Armenian, with its structural and phonological differences.
A certain amount of romance has surrounded Armenian culture since the 19th century. Lord Byron went to Venice to study Armenian in the belief that “Armenian is the language to speak with God”. William Gladstone said, “to serve Armenia is to serve civilisation”. But, of course, geography is all. Armenia, in 1914, was uncomfortably sandwiched between the warring sides of Tsarist Russia and the sultanate of Mohammed V. In the first world war, conscripted Russian and Turkish Armenians, just like German and British Jews, were fighting their own cousins in the trenches.
At the beginning of the last century, civil rights for European minorities became a serious issue. A modernisation of the Ottoman Empire was promised by the 1908 revolutionary movement of Young Turks, and Turkish Armenians hoped for equality. In fact, the Young Turks continued to target Armenians and other non-Muslims. As Sultan Abdul Hamid II put it, at the beginning of the century, “The way to get rid of the Armenian Question is to get rid of the Armenians.”
In 1915, the Young Turks, who had deposed the old sultan, carried out a systematic final solution, through mass shootings, concentration camps, starvation, abandonment in the desert, even gassing and mass deportation. This happened despite conscription, the year before, of 250,000 Armenians into the Turkish army. Christopher Walker and David Marshall Lang, writing for a journal in the Minority Rights Group series, detail Armenian loyalty to the Empire during the first world war: “When the Turkish war minister, Enver Pasha, was defeated by the Russians, it was the Armenian soldiers who saved him from being killed or captured by Tsarist forces.” But, remembering the 1896 assassinations and recent pogroms, some Armenians joined the enemy Tsarist armies as volunteers. This helped the Ottomans portray the Armenians as a dangerous fifth column.
By 1915, all Armenians had been forced to give up personal firearms. Armenians in the Ottoman army were assembled into labour battalions where they were starved, beaten or machine-gunned. On April 24, 1915, more than 300 Istanbul Armenian intellectuals were arrested and then murdered in a mini Katyn. This included MPs in the Turkish parliament. The Armenian community was now without able-bodied men and intellectuals. This lack of leadership was to have a profound political and emotional effect on the survivors. The loss is felt even today.
Memories from this genocide make gruelling reading. There are stories of women’s breasts being cut off. Others were systematically raped and then murdered. Some were taken to harems and disappeared. In every province, town and village of Turkish Armenia and Asia Minor, the entire Armenian population was rounded up. The men were usually shot, and the women and children forced to walk in huge convoys to the Syrian desert. Even today, skeletons are still found from this journey to hell. Few survived the death marches. Those who did get through made sure their experiences were passed down to children and grandchildren.
Dr Susan Pattie, senior research fellow at University College London, is a 50-year-old US-born anthropologist. Her family was deported from the town of Kessab on the Turkish/Syrian border in 1915. Two of her grandmother’s children died on the death marches and two more were taken away by Turks. (Many Armenian children were used as slave workers, others were adopted and converted; the rest disappeared.)
Pattie, who grew up in Washington DC, has been profoundly affected by her grandmother’s early tragedy. “Although my father was American-English and my schoolfriends were mainly Jewish, I totally identified as Armenian, particularly as my grandmother lived with us. We were told about the deportation when we were growing up. It was part of being Armenian.”
Genocide was decided at government level. Locally, gendarmes carried out the mass murders together with a special organisation (Teshkilat-i Mahsusa) of convicted criminals who had been offered a pardon in return for slaughtering Armenians. Survivors from the death marches were held in the infamous Syrian open-air concentration camp of Deir el-Zor, where many were murdered by camp guards.
Death came in various ways. In Trebizond, local Armenians were pushed on to boats then thrown overboard. Others were hurled off the edge of a gorge. Before 1914, more than two million Armenians lived in Turkey. After the genocide, only 500,000 remained, destined to become refugees in what was to become known as the Armenian diaspora.
Talaat Pasha, Ottoman minister of the interior, was the genocide’s main architect. He wrote, “By continuing the deportation of the orphans to their destinations during the intense cold, we are ensuring their eternal rest.” This uncannily prefigures the Nazis’ welcoming of the Jews to Auschwitz with the sardonic words, “Now you are on the road to Paradise.”
Jews bore witness to the Armenian holocaust from the start. Henry Morgenthau, a German-born Jew and America’s ambassador to Turkey, protested fiercely to the US government in an attempt to force its intervention. Writing in the Red Cross Magazine in March 1918, he said, “None of the fearful horrors perpetrated in the various zones of war can compare with the tragic lot of the Armenians.” Morgenthau has become a hero to the Armenians. But Jewish sympathy did not provoke any international aid for the Armenians, whose extermination was being veiled under cover of war.
After the war, France and Britain were anxious to seize whatever territory they could from the 1918 dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. Palestine was to become a British mandate, the French took Syria and Lebanon. The fate of the Armenians was of little interest to the imperialist powers. In a 1915 dispatch, the Times war correspondent, J Norman, writes of “husbands mourning their dishonoured wives, parents their murdered children, churches despoiled, graves dug up, young of both sexes carried off”. He describes men being forced to dig trenches for their own graves. These are disturbingly prophetic images of events 26 years later, when the Einsatzgruppen in the Soviet Union forced Jews to do the same.
Turkey has never admitted to the genocide, but there are too many independent witnesses for its denial to be credible. The Reverend Henry H Riggs was an American missionary in the Ottoman Empire. His book, Days Of Tragedy In Armenia, is one of the most detailed genocide histories in English. The US National Archives have information on the slaughter and deportations on file and open to the public. There is even protest from Mehmet Sherif Pasha, former Turkish envoy to Sweden. Writing to the New York Times in 1921, he says, “The Armenian atrocities perpetrated under the present regime surpass the savagery of Genghis Khan and Tamburlaine.” Dr E Lovejoy of the executive board of the American Women’s Hospital wrote to the Times, “I was the first American Red Cross woman in France, but what I saw there during the Great War seems a love feast beside the horrors of Smyrna. When I arrived at Smyrna there were massed on the quays 250,000 wretched, suffering and screaming women beaten and with their clothes torn off, families separated and everybody robbed.”
The problem is that guilt admission sometimes takes centuries. The Vatican has taken nearly 1,000 years to apologise for the Crusades. Even in Britain, particular archives from both world wars remain closed, so it should be no surprise that the Turks are equally secretive. Historian Ara Sarafian notes how Ottoman archives fail to detail “abandoned” private properties or any compensation paid to individuals for “resettlement”. He also details how “no such records have emerged on the actual ‘resettlement’ [a euphemism for death] of the hundreds of thousands of Armenians deported during this period”. As recently as 1990, Turkey’s ambassador to the US, Nuzhet Kandemir, claimed the Armenian deaths were, “a result of a tragic civil war initiated by Armenian nationalists”.
Public Armenian protest did not emerge until the 60s. Until then, survivors were too busy picking up their lives to start retribution claims. When recognition of the Jewish holocaust gradually filtered into the popular imagination in the 70s and 80s, the Armenians felt that their story was being upstaged, especially as constant Turkish denial helped bleach out the facts.
In the late 70s and early 80s, the Armenian liberation army (ASALA) assassinated Turkish diplomats to focus media attention on the Armenian genocide. In July 1983, a Turkish diplomat was killed in Brussels. In Paris, six people died and 48 were wounded when a bomb exploded in front of the Turkish Airlines’ check-in desk at Orly airport. ASALA killed 39 diplomats in a decade. Many of the gunmen were trained in Libya and had Palestinian connections. The Armenians have, at different times, identified with both Palestinians and Jews.
At a conference held in Lausanne in 1983, 200 Armenians met to discuss the creation of an independent Armenian state in northeastern Turkey; a country that might extend into Soviet Armenia. These Armenians described themselves as “something halfway between the World Jewish Congress and the Palestine National Council”. Their dream may have seemed utopian, but the idea of a Jewish homeland also appeared unrealistic at the first Zionist Congress in Basle in 1897. Although the Lausanne conference did not lead to direct political action, the assassinations stopped. Since then, the battle for who writes Armenian history has intensified, and the Armenians are beginning to gain ground.
In 1985, the UN Committee on Human Rights published a report declaring the Ottoman Empire responsible for the massacres of the Armenians in 1915 and 1916. Two years later, the Council of Europe agreed that Turkey’s refusal to recognise the genocide was an insurmountable obstacle to Turkey’s admission to the EU. By the end of 2000, the European Parliament, France, Sweden, the Vatican and Italy finally acknowledged the Armenian genocide. Of the major powers, only the US, Canada and Britain still hold back. There are too many conflicting interests at stake. Turkey, for instance, threatened to deny the US use of its air bases if President Clinton agreed formally to accept the massacres as a genocide.
Perhaps the Armenians’ best hope is allegiance with the Jews, who have learnt the importance of stubbornly pursuing justice. They certainly have Jewish allies. But Jewish solidarity is not always certain. Turkey is one of Israel’s few Muslim allies and the Israeli state has not wanted to alienate the Turks. Enlightened Jews in the diaspora are less circumspect. In 1988, the Israeli Knesset signed a statement acknowledging the Armenian massacres during the first world war without mentioning Turkey, whereas in the US the Jewish Reform movement condemned the Ottoman Turks for “one of the most shameful events in history”.
Recently, Israeli political priorities have shifted. Since the current intifada, the Israeli/ Palestinian struggle for Jerusalem has intensified. Israelis have traditionally appreciated Turkey’s support, but they may now need Armenian sympathy even more: a sixth of non-Jewish, non-Arab Jerusalem is in Armenian hands.
Israel’s internal power shifts also change the perspective. In 1989, rightwing prime minister Yitzhak Shamir called the commemoration of the Armenian genocide “not our business”. The Israeli left is usually more sensitive. The Jerusalem Post is highly critical of Turkey’s genocide denial: “Turkey should be advised that the attempt by the old Ottoman rulers back in 1915 to make the ‘traitorous’ Armenians into authors of their own misfortune does not serve well as the basis of contemporary relations.” Jewish historians are alert to the fact that the murder of Armenians was helped by German officers and that Hitler saw the Armenian genocide as an inspiration for the Final Solution. They also know that denying the Armenian massacres is only one small step away from denying the destruction of the Jews.
In 1995, Israel’s education minister, Ammon Rubinstein, wanted to include the Armenian genocide in the school curriculum. But this was rejected by Hebrew University historian Michel Abithol and other “experts”, who declared the Ottoman critique “one-sided”. Armenian historians counter-attack: “Is there another side to Hitler who gassed the Jews?” Some Israelis are reluctant to ally themselves publicly, fearing that an emphasis on the Armenian genocide might detract from the uniqueness of the Jewish holocaust, as if there is some crazy competition about who suffered the most.
For the Turks, the problem is enormous. An acknowledgement of the Armenian genocide might result in land claims and reparations. They have only to look at recent German and Swiss history to take fright. It is no surprise, then, that they try to control who writes history. Turkey has offered funding for academic programmes in the universities of Princeton and Georgetown. Three years ago, UCLA’s history department voted to reject a $1m offer to endow a programme in Turkish and Ottoman studies because it was conditional on their denying the Armenian genocide. Professor Colin Tatz, director for the Centre for Comparative Genocide Studies at Macquarie University, in Sydney, Australia, claims that Turkey has used “a mix of academic sophistication and diplomatic thuggery . . . to put both memory and history into reverse gear”.
The argument over who controls history continues, even on the internet. In August, the Turkish government tried to suppress a Microsoft online encyclopedia entry. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that the Turkish government threatened Microsoft with serious reprisals unless all mention of the Armenian genocide was removed. Authors Ronald Grigor Suny and Helen Fein refused to give in.
As for Jews in Turkey, their history has been easier than that of their cousins in Christian countries. Certainly, they have reason to be grateful to a land that welcomed them after expulsion by the 1492 Spanish Inquisition. Turkish Jews were a large pre-war minority in Turkey who felt a natural sympathy with Armenians. In the larger cities, both were considered a privileged, educated elite who, together with the Greeks, succeeded in business, culture and politics. They also had reason to thank their host country in the second world war.
Sixty-five-year-old Turkish Jewish novelist, Moris Farhi, now lives in London. He learnt about the Armenian genocide when his family was living in Ankara and they took in two penniless survivors from the death marches. Farhi remembers, “an apocryphal story that Ataturk, founder of the modern Turkish state, was a Jew, as he was born in the very Jewish city of Salonika. In 1933, Ataturk offered asylum to Jews and leftwingers persecuted by Hitler. Thousands came to Turkey.”
But under Ismet Inonu’s government in 1942, a new crippling wealth tax was imposed on non-Muslims. Farhi’s father was breaking stones in a workcamp as punishment for his inability to pay these astronomical taxes. Despite family poverty, Farhi remembers never being hungry as food was offered by sympathetic neighbours.
The majority of Turks remained ignorant of the genocide while it was happening, and have since. Mehmet Ergen, a 34-year-old London-based Turkish theatre director, confirms, “In our Turkish schools we never learnt about our history. The Armenian massacre was never mentioned. In London I heard that the Kurds were told that if they killed the Armenians they could take their lands. So they did, and then the Turks killed the Kurds.” Ergen, a multiculturalist, laments Turkey’s denial of “its own historical mosaic”. He says, “even Turkish theatre owes its birth to Armenian writers and actors. Armenian, Greek and Jewish culture has vanished, and Turkey is the loser.”
If the genocide is now a central focus for Armenians, is this dangerous? Surely to fixate on disaster defines a people through destruction rather than achievement: as if the holocaust, Jewish or Armenian, becomes a new quasi religion. The majority of Jews and Armenians are not religious. They do not live in Israel or Armenia. If they don’t adhere to their faith, then what makes them Jews or Armenians, particularly when so many are marrying out? These two holocausts remain like a terrible icon dominating the present as well as the past.
The problem is that there has been no proper mourning. As psychiatrist and Auschwitz survivor Bruno Bettelheim said, a people cannot move on if it has not buried its dead. And the Armenians, as well as the Jews, had no bodies to bury. Therefore the unmourned are carried around in the psyches of the survivors and transmitted to children and grandchildren rather like ghosts. Sometimes the survivors are guilty of reconstructing so quickly that they forget to mourn. Israel’s choice of Modern Hebrew as the new language for the new Jews and its total abnegation of Yiddish was expedient. It was a deliberate act to end the stereotype of the Yiddish-speaking ghetto Jew forced into the gas chamber. But the loss of the language has also meant the assassination of a wealthy culture. Two generations have already lost their grandparents’ Yiddish heritage. In contrast, the Armenians have carried their language with them into the diaspora as a deliberate act of resistance.
Ani King-Underwood, a Beirut-born Armenian documentary film-maker, still owns the deeds to her family’s Turkish property. Her mother was 40 days old when the family left during the deportations with Nansen papers (Fridtjof Nansen was a Norwegian diplomat, explorer and 1922 Nobel peace prize winner, a kind of early Raoul Wallenberg, who provided an escape for 300,000 Armenians using League of Nations documents). The British refused Ani’s family entry into Palestine or Egypt, but finally permitted them to live in camps on Cyprus. Her 23-year-old law student son, Gregory, has an English father but is a fluent Armenian speaker. He takes an active part in the Armenian community and promotes the young Armenians’ website, www. hokis.co.uk. Here, the group RBO Unlimited have produced a rap song about the genocide.
Living here, does he feel a dual allegiance? “Very much so. I am a British Armenian, but perhaps more British. I play rugby. I drink beer. I’m proud of being British. It’s multicultural.” So what does being Armenian mean? “Armenia is not a nation. It’s a culture. It’s an idea in our heads.” His mother interjects. “When he was a baby, I had him baptised. Not as a Christian but as an Armenian.”
Secular Jews and Armenians both fuse religion with cultural identity but, even if they share the trauma of genocide, this does not automatically lead to solidarity. Are Armenians sometimes jealous of Jews? “Yes,” says Gregory, “the Jews have been very good at marketing the holocaust. And it is a good thing.” Synthesising the argument historically, Gregory says, “the problem is that the British were fighting the Nazis. Some liberated Belsen. They saw what was done to the Jews. But no outsider liberated us. The only people who know about the Armenian genocide are the Armenians and the Turks.”
Clearly, the victims of both atrocities seek atonement from the murder state. German guilt-admission makes it easier for Jews to talk to Germans and even to work together. The process has to be gone through psychotherapeutically, by discussion and confrontation.
Then there is always revenge. In 1921, the Ottoman Hitler, Talaat Pasha, was assassinated by the Armenian Soghomon Tehlirian in Berlin. The agent of retribution was released on grounds of temporary insanity and lived out his days as a hero in the Armenian paradise of California. There were similar murders of former Ottoman leaders in Rome and Tbilisi, Georgia. In March 1943, Talaat Pasha’s remains were sent by Hitler from Berlin as a gift to the Turkish government. They were reinterred on Turkey’s Hill of Liberty in a ceremony attended by the representatives of Hitler’s ambassador to Turkey. Although Armenians are Christians, they are not turning the other cheek.
Reverend Dr Nerses Nersessian, an Iranian-born Armenian scholar and priest, is the curator of the Hebrew and Christian Middle East section at the British Library. His Christian name is Vrej, a very popular first name for boys. Vrej means “revenge”.
Turkish-born Armenian author, Agop Hacikyan has written A Summer Without Dawn. The book is based on the experiences of his grandparents, who fled to Jerusalem during the genocide before returning to Turkey in 1920. In 1955, Hacikyan was called up and spent 18 months in Izmir as a translator between the Turkish Port Detachment and Nato. As a soldier in uniform, he remembers stopping to go to the public toilet. Looking down, he saw that the urinal had been constructed from Armenian gravestones. Forty years after the mass murders, Turks were happily making people urinate on Armenian graves. He now lives in Canada, which has a large Armenian community. Here, there are very few – shamefully, only 200 Armenians were allowed to immigrate to Britain between the wars, whereas France absorbed 63,000.
As the century ended, the Armenian Shoah seemed to fade out of public consciousness. There seemed to be just too many genocides to absorb.
On July 26 last year, a group of British parliamentarians from both houses petitioned Tony Blair to recognise the mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as genocide. The government refused – and the concession concerning today’s Holocaust Day ceremony does not alter that. But the problem will not go away and, if prominent supporters of the Armenian cause are championing their case in the US and Israel, the debate is surely going to take root here. On September 27, eminent British Jewish historian Sir Martin Gilbert talked publicly about the Armenian genocide at Washington’s Holocaust Museum in a deliberate attempt to push the issue deeper into Jewish consciousness.
As Thomas Bürgenthal, an Auschwitz survivor, lawyer and member of the UN Human Rights Committee, says, “I don’t know why the Turks can’t admit it, express sorrow and go on. That is the worst. You do all these things to the victim and then you say it never happened. That is killing them twice.”