At the end of a documentary on Armenians a few years ago on PBS, Elie Wiesel told a brief anecdote about how he had asked Turkish leadership about the Armenian question. He ended this 5 or 6 sentence recollection with his opinion on their reaction. It was something to the effect of “Their reaction was curious, it made no sense.”
As you can see from the news over the last few days, the Turkish government has had reactions that ranged from dismissive, to angry, to nationalistic, to threatening, to apoplectic — but completely devoid of reason.
Today it was simultaneously reported that Germany would vote on a resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide and that the Turkish Prime Minister “apologized” to the survivors of Ottoman Armenians about their fate. It seemed rather insincere, and ended with a somewhat ridiculous request for comity between our peoples.
The basic problem here is that an act of ethnic cleansing that results in the mass death of a race of people is a “crime against humanity,” as the Pope eloquently put it. But that’s a long sentence. It takes 18 words and Rafael Lemkin gave us a word to describe it. Genocide. Could you imagine us talking about the Jewish Holocaust but have to talk around it without the word Holocaust. What if Germany only spoke of it afterwards as “The death of thousands of people of Jewish descent and religion in various despicable evil ways including gassing, starvation and similar deprivations and crimes.” No, it was a Holocaust. And the folks that did it, that ordered it, that supported it were hunted down and tried. Further the nation in which it happened has spent 70 years atoning for it publicly.
That atonement has not happened with respect to the Armenian Genocide by the Turkish government. And in fact we Armenians recognize that others suffered along with us. Greeks, Chaldeans, Assyrians, Arabs, and Aramaic peoples. Kurds, who were erstwhile allies of the Turks in the crime, had the Turkish government turn on them also. The Assyrians in particular were even closer to completely disappearing than we Armenians. Can you imagine? Focus your western mind for a minute. The crime against the Assyrians remains another open wound, since there was no large diaspora and there were no Assyrians already in Europe and Asia outside of the reach of the Ottoman Turks. We worry about the disappearance of the Snowy Owl or the Bald Eagle, but a whole race of people, well that’s just politics.
The crime in this case was actually not about Christianity except to the extent that in the middle east, people’s religion and their ethnicity tended to be bonded to very ancient cultural histories. Consider for example the Copts in Egypt. The incentive or model that justified the crime here was to purge the nation of these other cultures and peoples and nationalize the dominant culture. The multi-cultural Ottoman Turkey was to become the Turkified State. It was nationalism run amok. Their strategy started by cutting off the head of the Armenian community on April 24, 1915, by arresting and killing hundreds of Armenian politicians, leaders, intellectuals, and artists. Then once the head had been silenced, the body could be dismembered. It was classic. It was not innovative.
After WWI, Turkification of the nation under Atatürk, İnönü and subsequent leadership included educating the Turkish people that the Armenians had been punished for their treason in siding with the Russians in WWI in pursuit of their dreaded revolutionary goals. The Turkish state has, since 1920, demonized the Armenians in their textbooks and press. And since few Armenians were left in Turkey, those who were there were fearful to speak in their own defense, thus there was no internal contradiction or dissent. Further, since nationalism is a fertile field for the myth of foreign oppression to grow, any foreign power that brought up the Armenian question was viewed as meddling and anti-Turk. Admitting to the crime would be questioning the pillars upon which the modern Turkish state was formed. Their whole secularist hagiography would be a set of criminals.
However, the İttihat ve Terakki Cemiyeti butchers and their successors forgot something. Armenians had been living in Phrygia, the Anatolian Plain and the Caucuses for 3000 years. They were a people of historical significance and knew that history deep in their souls. When I was in Rome last summer I came upon an obelisk to Marcus Aurelius, which stated in Latin “Conqueror of the Germans, Persians and Armenians”. I laughed (I knew that Latin at my Jesuit high school would come in handy one day). Armenian culture had survived centuries of conquest and suffering within successive empires: Persian, Greek, Roman, Parthian, Byzantine, Mongol, Marmalukes, Crusaders, Turkish, Russian and Persian (and sometimes all of the last 3 at the same time).
The thing that the successive Turkish leadership didn’t figure on was that those pathetic Armenian orphans that survived would one day rebuild their culture outside of their ancestral homeland. They would relearn their language, teach their children how to communicate, educate their children in trades and professions in the diaspora on every continent. They’d master speaking in their mother tongue and the languages of their adopted nations. That Diaspora would not forget, it would perpetuate the concept of the land lost and historical nationality dispersed. That Diaspora produced doctors, lawyers, engineers, shopkeepers, scientists, jewelers, farmers, movie directors, entertainers as well as ambassadors, governors, senators and representatives in the American nation. That Diaspora would come in contact with a Jesuit in Argentina who would one day be the Pope who would have the public bravery to call out the crime so that it was heard and replayed on every continent at the same time.
That diaspora would spread to Europe and build schools and churches and speak multiple languages. They would be in every capitol and industrial center in every nation on earth and turn back around and point the finger of justice back at Turkey every year on April 24th. And this year, the 100th year, the nations of the world have now has joined the chorus for justice into a worldwide demand for Condemnation, Recognition, and Reparation for the most heinous crime against humanity, Genocide, that was inflicted by Turkey on the Armenian people.
That is why there is an Armenian diaspora. #TurkeyFailed #ArmeniaLives