I wrote this a year ago as a project for my human rights class. I interviewed two survivors of the Armenian Genocide about their experiences. On April 26, people will gather in Times Square to commemorate the 100th anniversary of this tragic event. You can view their event site on facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/events/756981021040455/
On August 22, 1939, shortly before the invasion of Poland, Adolph Hitler handed a document in German to Louis P. Lochner, explaining his rationale for the invasion. The last paragraph reads, “I have issued the command—and I’ll have anybody who utters but one word of criticism executed by firing squad—that our war aim does not consist in reaching certain lines, but in the physical destruction of the enemy. Accordingly, I have placed my death-head formations in readiness—for the present only in the east—with orders to them to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language. Only thus shall we gain the living space which we need. Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
Hitler’s cynical view of the world’s blindness or otherwise ignorance of the Armenian Genocide of 1915 speaks volumes on how mass slaughter of specific (or even non-specific) groups of people can easily be duplicated so long as citizens of the world remain silent. This remains as true then as it does now.
The Armenian Genocide was conducted by the majority and predominantly Muslim Turks against the minority, mostly Christian, Armenians after the outbreak of World War I in the Ottoman Empire. An estimated one and a half million Armenians died between 1915 and 1923. Hundreds of thousands were slaughtered while many others died of starvation and disease.
The Armenians had long been discriminated against and were victims of massacres before 1915. However, they were allowed a certain level of autonomy to practice their religion, although they paid higher taxes, had no legal protections, and were otherwise treated as second-class citizens in what would now perhaps be seen as an Apartheid or Jim Crow type state. When Armenians began demanding reforms, the government responded by massacring them in order to frighten their political organizations from pursuing aspirations of governmental representation and fair treatment. In addition, the decline of the Ottoman Empire during this time created political and economic turmoil, which would eventually be placed directly on the shoulders of the Armenian people. As a result, in 1909, the Young Turks seized power, paving the way for an eventual coup d’etat by the ultra-nationalistic Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) in 1913. The CUP wanted a Turkish state for Turks only.
After the outbreak of World War I, the CUP aligned itself with Germany and Austria-Hungary and suffered a string of defeats at the hands of Russia which was blamed on an elaborate conspiracy between the Armenians and the Russians. Using this as a pretext, many Armenians were killed by the Turks in battleground areas.
I visited the New York Armenian Home to speak with two survivors of the genocide Perouze Kalousdian, 105, and Azniv Guiragossian, 102. “The Armenian people are very good people. Very kind people,” Guiragossian said. “God made me because I help everybody.” I talked with her through a translator, but was very young back then and had a difficult time remembering details. However, when I brought up the deportations she was visibly upset and soon after told me she had told me everything she could remember. I found out later that she was kidnapped at one years old and lived with a Turkish family until she was 4. Later on, her father died and her mother gave birth to a child in the Syrian Desert. The child died, and then her mother two months later.
Kalousdian, however, remembered quite a bit. She was six years old at the time of the genocide.
“They came, they took them out, and they didn’t come back,” Kalousdian told me, referring to the deportations.
According to her testimony, her Grandparents had explained to her that the Turks hated the Armenians and wanted to kill them all.
“Wherever we could stay we stayed, and there were times when we didn’t have a place to stay. We were living in the street.
“They [the Turks] said it’s a war. That’s what they said to me. I was a young kid. I didn’t know much.”
Kalousdian and her mother hid in a barn until someone came and told them they could leave. I couldn’t get her to talk about it when I interviewed her, but I found out that she witnessed Armenian men being tied up and thrown into the Euphrates River.
“Why did they have to do that. Why? What have we done to them to do that to us?” She asked me angrily. “They took everything from us so we were very poor. We started begging. That’s all I know.. I hate them. They had no right to do that to us. I always think about [the genocide] but I don’t like to talk about it. The people are working for their living. Do you know why?”
After the war, the only people left were her uncle, her father, and her mother. She lost the rest of her family. “They took everything we had. No one said anything.”
Genocide survivor testimonies are particularly powerful, and now I know why. Speaking to both of them was like having their anger, frustration, and utter sadness poured into me. Their eyes alone provided me with a visual window into the cruelty and injustice they had experienced first-hand.
The Turkish—almost without warning—had told the Armenians that they were to be deported and re-settled. This was a lie. They marched toward certain death for hundreds of miles in the Syrian desert. The convoys were attacked by government sponsored bandits, who murdered and raped the Armenians. They were denied food and water and many starved to death. As was the case of Guiragossian—some young girls and infants were abducted and sold to Turkish households. As a result of the deportations, the entire population of Armenian in Anatolia was completely destroyed.
Over four hundred CUP members were accused of atrocities. Many, including the man who was primarily responsible, Interior Minister Talaat Pasha, escaped justice and went into hiding abroad. However, Talaat Pasha was assassinated by an Armenian, who told his captors that he was not the real murderer. The assassin was later acquitted in a German court. The genocide ended in 1923 when a new government came to power in Turkey.
To this day, Turkey denies that genocide ever took place. It is portrayed in their media that the Armenians are lying or exaggerating and excuse it by saying that it was war time. According to Gregory H. Stanton, President of Genocide Watch, there are 8 stages of genocide: classification, symbolization, dehumanization, organization, polarization, preparation, extermination and, finally, denial. If we take these steps to be literal, then a genocide is still being perpetrated by the Turkish government in its refusal to own up to its past. Even though Turkish intellectuals are attempting to change this, the government is still persecuting and censoring journalists and historians for trying to say what happened to the Armenians as genocide. Recently, a Turkish-Armenian journalist was murdered in broad daylight in the streets of Turkey for saying that it was genocide. President Obama, who previously came out and called it genocide, backed off because of Turkey’s importance as a strategic ally.
The purpose of this paper is to clearly demonstrate that genocide indeed did take place against the Armenians. This is because it is my opinion that the Turkish government’s denial is, in a sense, paving the way toward future genocides. As I mentioned in the opening of this paper, Adolph Hitler believed that nobody would pay attention to his genocidal intentions based on Turkey’s handling of the Armenian genocide. This was proven—obviously—to be incorrect through history and what we know now but, in the case of Turkey, their active denial has not allowed the survivors and descendants of those who died in the Syrian desert and everywhere else that those murders and atrocities took place, to heal from what had happened. This was clear through my interviews with the two survivors. There is still anger present in the voices of these survivors and—as the common activist mantra goes—without justice there can be no peace. In order for justice to be given, the Turkish people—who are an otherwise intelligent and good people—must delve into their painful past and admit to the wrong doing perpetrated by the evil their government committed, which was so radical that it is almost beyond human comprehension.
Genocide is taking place at this very moment. There is still not enough being done to prevent current and future genocides. While it is important to look toward the past to try as best we can to understand what has happened, we must not forget that there is still a lot more we can do. Although I cannot offer a specific platform for which to stop future genocides, I know that ignoring the problem does not make it go away—and history is a great ally of mine in making this point. This goes beyond government. In the end, if the world would like to know why genocide takes place or why nothing gets done, human beings only need look into a mirror. Genocide cannot happen without popular support or at least passive approval.
It is up to us—not a third party government or non-governmental organizational—to prevent genocides. Perhaps, in learning about past genocides, we will be able to have to the fortitude and knowledge to prevent the next one before it even starts.
1. Kevork B. Bardakjian, Hitler and the Armenian Genocide (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Zoryan Institute, 1985)
2. Rouben Paul Adalian, http://www.armenian-genocide.org/genocide.html
3. Gregory H. Stanton, The 8 Stages of Genocide, (http://www.genocidewatch.org/genocide/8stagesofgenocide.html)