On April 24, 1915, the Committee of Union and Progress, the ruling party of the Ottoman Empire, rounded up, arrested and deported over 250 leading Armenian intellectuals and religious leaders. Most of these men were later murdered. Although the Turks had perpetrated various acts of violence towards Armenians before this date, this egregious moment of state-sponsored violence has been chosen as the official day of remembrance for the Armenian Genocide.
Over the next several years, the Ottoman Empire, the sick man of Europe, under the leadership of the CUP or Young Turks embarked upon a systematic attempt to wipe out the Armenian people. Historians estimate that between 900,000 and 1.5 million Armenians perished. Thousands more fled their historic homeland and scattered to the far reaches of the world in a diaspora rivaled only by that of the Jews. Thousands of women and children were trafficked into slavery and tattooed to mark them forever as property.
This genocide, in fact, served as inspiration for its own name. Raphael Lempkin, a Polish Jew and linguistics scholar and lawyer studied the events of the Genocide. One event stood out in particular. After the war ended, the three leaders of the CUP, Ahmed Izzet Pasha, Talaat Pasha and Enver Pasha, were all tried in absentia and convicted. None of the sentences were carried out. All three men, however, were killed by Armenians. One of these assassinations took place in Berlin. Soghomon Tehlirian, a man who lost 85 members of his family in the Genocide, killed Talaat Pasha and was placed on trial for his crimes. Although acquitted, this caused Lempkin to wonder why somehow killing a million people was a lesser crime than killing one man. This led his coining the word “genocide” from the Latin roots “gen-” meaning “family, tribe, or people” and “-cide” meaning the “killing of.” This word became officially codified during the Nuremburg Trials meant to punish men who perpetrated a genocide from which Lempkin himself had to flee and just barely escaped with his own life.
I grew up knowing this history as well as I knew that George Washington served as the first president of the United States of America. As I progressed through school I found myself perplexed and a bit angry each time we reached World War I in history class and I found no mention of the Genocide. I couldn’t understand why something so terribly significant was not being taught in school.
I then learned the dirty truth. For decades, now more than a century, the Ottoman Empire, later reborn as the Republic of Turkey under the leadership of Kemal Ataturk has done everything in their power to obscure the truth of their predecessors’ horrific deeds.
Armenians have waited 102 years for acknowledgement of what was done to them. They watched brief hopes of establishing their own home crumble before the oncoming onslaught of Kemal Ataturk and the indifference of Western nations at the Paris Peace Conference. They endured decades under the thumb of the oppressive USSR to whom they were forced to turn to for protection when the United States declined to accept the mandate. The US diaspora watched as President after President declined to use the word, “genocide,” in reference to the Genocide; Congress could not even get a resolution recognizing the events out of committee for a vote simply for the preservation of the alliance with the only ostensibly democratic state in the Middle East and the critical use of its airspace to reach bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As a historian and an Armenian, I am compelled to tell this story to as many as I can. Tragedy compounds when history is obscured. Hitler stated in justification of his devastating actions towards Poland, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” It galls every Armenian, every historian and likely every Jew and decent person that the Allies have proven Hitler right. Their inaction perpetuates the delayed healing and continues to pour salt in the gaping wound. So many Armenians harbor soul-sucking bitterness in their hearts, the same bitterness and despair that drove Tehlirian to commit murder.
This story does not yet have a happy ending. Turkey’s active denial continues. The movie, The Promise, opened Friday. It tells the story of the Armenian Genocide clearer than I have seen any work of non-academic literature or art. After the initial screening for an audience of 1400, thousands of 1 star reviews flooded IMDB, the movie database. There are reports that huge numbers of tickets were purchased in major cities like Boston and Chicago only to be returned minutes before show time and exchanged for a later showing, thus preventing many people from seeing the movie.
What can be done in the face of such horrible hatred? Bitterness is not the answer. Bitterness turns inward and poisons. Instead, speak. Tell the truth. Pray. Pray for the hearts of those hardened by bitterness. Pray for those who place expediency and military necessity above compassion. Pray for those who continue to deny and obfuscate at the peril of their own soul.
I choose to remember.