24th April: Day of Commemoration of the Armenian Genocide

Article published on May 14, 2003
community published
Article published on May 14, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

History, silence, and the memory of the centurys first holocaust.

Metz Yeghern, the Great Evil: it is with these words that the Armenians remember, on the 24th April, their holocaust, one of the most aberrant and also the most neglected pages of our history. Armenia, situated between the Euphrates and the Caucasus, has always been an area of fundamental importance to the control of lines of communication between East and West and its possession has long been contested by the major military powers of our time. For this reason, the Armenians have seen their land invaded by Persians, Greeks, Romans and Arabs but, thanks to the rivalry existing between the various powers, they have managed to survive and ensure the endurance of an earthenware vase amongst iron vases.

Between the 4th and 6th centuries the Armenian population established the characteristics which would identify it in the future, embracing Christianity as the state religion (the first country to do so in 301) as part of their own monophysite view and establishing Armenian as their own language. This allowed them to maintain their own political and cultural autonomy, especially as regards the West and the Roman Catholic Church, but it would also mean that the entire country became isolated from the neighbouring Muslim Arab nations. The first massacres of the Armenian population began at the end of 19th century. The Sultan Abdul Hamid II, worried by the imminent economic development of this people, ordered the killing of more than 200,000 Armenians. This was only the beginning in a series of massacres which lasted for at least 30 years under three different political regimes. More terrible still were the political actions of the Union and Progress party (Ittihad ve Terakki) of the Young Turks, who, imbued with the ideology of Pan Turkism and Turanism, in a secret congress held in Salonica in 1911, decided to eliminate the Armenian population residing in Turkey. Soon after, the outbreak of the First World War would provide the ideal opportunity to carry out a complete genocide. The Great Raid, the start of which still signifies the commemorative date of the holocaust, took place in Istanbul: at dawn on Saturday 24 April 1915 the main exponents of the Armenian elite were arrested; after the disposal of important figures the general order to deport the whole population was followed. In little more than three months 1,500,000 Armenians (around 2/3 of the population) were eliminated by the most atrocious means.

The Treaty of Sèvres in 1920 which sanctioned the existence of an independent Armenian state and an autonomous Kurdistan seemed to reignite new hope for the future: but this was not to be realised. Mustafa Kemal grabbed the banner of Turkish Nationalism and continued the work of eliminating the Armenian population which had been started by the previous political regimes.

Following the fire in Smyrna, which can be considered the first stage of the process of disposal September 1922), the international community became a contemptible accomplice of this genocide: the Conference of Lausanne in 1923 annulled the agreements signed at Sèvres, the notions of Armenian and Armenia were wiped out, and so the skilful ethnic cleansing carried out by the Turks was endorsed.

Not even the trial in Istanbul of 1919 succeeded in bringing justice to the tormented Armenian populace. In fact the culprits were never presented with requests for extradition and their weak guilty verdicts were subsequently annulled. The aim of the trial was obviously not to bring justice to the tortured Armenian people, but to lay the blame for what had happened on the shoulders of the Young Turks while justifying the Turkish nation as a whole.

Even today, nearly ninety years later, the crimes perpetrated against the Armenian population remain for the most part unpunished. One of the principle perpetrators of the extermination, Talaat Pasha, has a street named after him in the capital Ankara, and, even more incredibly, his body lies in a huge mausoleum, on the Hill of Martyrs in Istanbul. The actions of the Turkish governments of the beginning of the 20th century, who had as their aim the elimination of the Armenians by means of mass murder represent the first instance of ethnic cleansing in a century which would see so many other human horrors. Despite the seriousness of the events which took place, it seems a veil of silence has fallen over such crimes. In fact, this brutal campaign of elimination, which opened the century of great tragedies, has not enjoyed the attention it merits from historians and political scientists. The main characteristic of this genocide, up to now, has been silence: the Armenians, having fled extermination and taken refuge in various countries throughout the world, have tried to forget the past in order to start a new life, but the memory of their native land and their murdered relatives cannot be brought to an end; the silence becomes more unbearable as time passes. Many states seem to have destined such insanity to the annals of time. Their motive is simple: talking about genocide seems to touch upon an issue that still embarrasses a good proportion of the international community. The attitude of European countries, in the grip of the outbreak of the Great War, was of almost complete indifference towards those completely abominable killings. The United States, to this day, does not want to hear talk of the Armenian genocide. Turkey is in fact a faithful ally of the USA and an important outpost in the Iraq War. What is more, Turkish denial goes hand in hand with the uniqueness of the Holocaust. According to the overwhelming majority of the Jewish world the Shoah, as they call it, must be considered unique; all other persecutions do not have the same meaning and the same intensity of suffering. So it is that every time someone ventures to remember the first genocide of the XX century political-media-cultural censorship ensues.

However, I believe that the underestimation of this genocide has reasserted the regulating law of history according to which every amnesty is a form of amnesia and exactly because the repression of tragic events favours their repetition it is necessary to condemn what has been suffered by the Armenians by the hands of their Turkish neighbours. Therefore, I think that, in order for this tortured people to receive justice and in order for the right to their own history to be restored to them, we cannot forget those tragic events which led to the elimination of 1,500,000 Armenians. It is not fair on the victims or the survivors and belies the belief that it is possible to learn something from our collective memories.

The problem of how to overcome the taboo of international recognition of the Armenian massacre does not consist so much in convincing the Turks or others, because whoever is involved in the issue in some way knows that genocide took place. Rather, the problem lies in bringing Turkey to the point where the persistence of denial would bring it more disadvantages than advantages. The European ambitions of Turkey create such a context: Europe should undertake to include the recognition of the genocide of 1915 amongst the conditions imposed on Turkey for it to enter the European Community. We are still a long way off but times are changing, and one day, finally, we will witness the destruction of the Talaat Mausoleum, which from the high hills of Istanbul defies history and humanity itself.