August 5, 2000
Source: The Independent (London)
By Robert Fisk
In the spring of 1993, with my car keys, I slowly unearthed a set of skulls from the clay wall of a hill in northern Syria. I had been looking for the evidence of a mass murder - the world's first genocide - for the previous two days but it took a 101-year-old Armenian woman to locate the river bed where her family were murdered in the First World War. The more I dug into the hillside next to the Habur river, the more skulls slid from the earth, bright white at first then, gradually, collapsing into paste as the cold, wet air reached the calcium for the first time since their mass murder. The teeth were unblemished - these were mostly young people - and the bones I later found stretched behind them were strong. Backbones, femurs, joints, a few of them laced with the remains of some kind of cord. There were dozens of skeletons here. The more I dug away with my car keys, the more eye sockets peered at me out of the clay. It was a place of horror.
In 1915, the world reacted with equal horror as news emerged from the dying Ottoman Empire of the deliberate destruction of at least a million and a half Christian Armenians. Their fate - the ethnic cleansing of this ancient race from the lands of Turkey, the razing of their towns and churches, the mass slaughter of their menfolk, the massacre of their women and children - was denounced in Paris, London and Washington as a war crime. Tens of thousands of Armenian women - often after mass rape by their Turkish guards - were left to die of starvation with their children along the banks of the Habur river near Deir ez-Zour, in what is today northern Syria. The few men who survived were tied together and thrown into the river. Turkish gendarmes would fire a bullet into one of them and his body would drag the rest to their deaths. Their skulls - a few of them - were among the bones I unearthed on that terrible afternoon seven years ago.
The deliberate nature of this slaughter was admitted by the then Turkish leader, Enver Pasha, in a conversation with Henry Morgenthau, the US ambassador in Constantinople, a Jewish-American diplomat whose vivid reports to Washington in 1915 form an indictment of the greatest war crime the modern world had ever known. Enver denounced the Armenians for siding with Russia in its war with the Turks. But even the Germans, Ottoman Turkey's ally in the First World War, condemned the atrocities; for it was the Armenian civilian population which was cut down by the Turks. The historian Arnold Toynbee, who worked for the Foreign Office during the war, was to record the "atmosphere of horror" which lay over the abandoned Armenian lands in the aftermath of the savagery. Men had been lined up on bridges to have their throats cut and be thrown into rivers; in orchards and fields, women and children had been knifed. Armenians had been shot by the thousand, sometimes beaten to death with clubs. Earlier Turkish pogroms against the Armenians of Asia Minor had been denounced by Lord Gladstone.
In the aftermath of the 1914-18 war, Winston Churchill was the most eloquent in reminding the world of the Armenian Holocaust.
"In 1915 the Turkish Government began and ruthlessly carried out the infamous general massacre and deportation of Armenians in Asia Minor," Churchill wrote in his magisterial volume four of The Great War. "... the clearance of the race from Asia Minor was about as complete as such an act, on a scale so great, could well be... There is no reasonable doubt that this crime was planned and executed for political reasons." Churchill referred to the Turks as "war criminals" and wrote of their "massacring uncounted thousands of helpless Armenians - men, women and children together; whole districts blotted out in one administrative holocaust - these were beyond human redress."
So Churchill himself, writing 80 years ago, used the word "holocaust" about the Armenian massacres. I am not surprised. A few miles north of the site where I had dug up those skulls, I found a complex of underground caves beneath the Syrian desert. Thousands of Armenians had been driven into this subterranean world in 1915 and Turkish gendarmes lit bonfires at the mouths of the caves. The smoke was blown into the caves and the men were asphyxiated. The caves were the world's first gas chambers. No wonder, then, that Hitler is recorded as asking his generals - as he planned his own numerically far more terrible holocaust - "Who does now remember the Armenians?"
Could such a crime be denied? Could such an act of mass wickedness be covered up? Or could it, as Hitler suggested, be forgotten? Could the world's first holocaust - a painful irony, this - be half-acknowledged but downgraded in the list of human bestiality as the dreadful 20th century produced further acts of mass barbarity?
Alas, all this has come to pass. When I wrote about the Armenian massacres in The Independent in 1993, the Turks denounced my article - as they have countless books and investigations before and since - as a lie. Turkish readers wrote to the editor to demand my dismissal from the paper. If Armenian civilians had been killed, they wrote, this was a result of the anarchy that existed in Ottoman Turkey in the First World War, civil chaos in which countless Turks had died and in which Armenian paramilitaries had deliberately taken the side of Tsarist Russia. The evidence of European commissions into the massacres, the eye-witness accounts of Western journalists at the later slaughter of Armenians at Smyrna - the present-day holiday resort of Izmir where British sunbathers today have no idea of the bloodbath that took place around their beaches - the denunciations of Morgenthau and Churchill, are all dismissed as propaganda.
When a Holocaust conference was to be held in Israel, the Turkish government objected to the inclusion of material on the Armenian slaughter. Incredibly, Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel withdrew from the conference after the Israeli foreign ministry said that it might damage Israeli-Turkish relations. The conference went ahead, but only in miniature form. In the United States, Turkey's powerful lobby groups attack journalists or academics who suggest the Armenian genocide was fact. Turkish ambassadors regularly write letters - which have appeared in all British newspapers, even in the Israeli press - denying the truth of the Armenian Holocaust. No one - save the Armenians - objects to this denial. Scarcely a whimper comes from those who would, rightly, condemn any denial of the Jewish Holocaust.
For Turkey - no longer the "sick man of Europe" - is courted by the Western powers which so angrily condemned its cruelty in the last century. It is a valued member of the Nato alliance - our ally in bombing Serbia last year - the closest regional ally of Israel and a major buyer of US and French weaponry. Just as we remained largely silent at the persecution of the Kurds, so we prefer to ignore the world's first holocaust. While Britain's massive contribution to the proposed Euphrates dam project in south-eastern Turkey was in the balance, Tony Blair was not going to mention the Armenian atrocities. Indeed, when this year he announced that Britain was to honour
an annual Holocaust Day, he made no mention of the Armenians. Holocaust Day, it seems, was to be a Jewish-only affair. And it was to take a capital "H" when it applied to the Jews.
I've always agreed with this. Mass ethnic slaughter on such a scale - Hitler's murder of six million Jews - deserves a capital "H". But I also believe that the genocide of other races merits a capital "H". Millions of Jews - despite Wiesel's gutlessness and the shameful reaction of the Israeli government - have shown common cause with the Armenians in their suffering, acknowledging the 1915 massacres as the precursor of the "Shoah" or Jewish Holocaust. Norman Finkelstein in his angry new book on the "Holocaust industry" makes a similar point, adding that the Jewish experience - both his parents were extermination camp survivors - should not be allowed to diminish the genocide committed against other ethnic groups in modern history. Indeed, the very word "genocide" was invented for the Armenians in 1944 - by a Polish-born Jew, Raphael Lemkin.
Nor can I myself forget the Armenian Holocaust. The very last survivors of that genocide are still - just - alive, and several of them live in Beirut where I am based as Middle East correspondent of The Independent. I have read extensively about and, occasionally, researched the Jewish Holocaust - my own book about the Lebanese war, Pity the Nation, begins in Auschwitz, where I found frozen lakes filled with the powdered bones of the dead from the ashpits of Birkenau. But the Armenian Holocaust has been "my" story because it is part of the Middle East's history as well as the world's. Only this year, I interviewed Hartun, a 101-year-old blind Armenian in an old people's home in East Beirut who remembered how, in the Syrian desert in 1915, his mother pleaded with Turks not to rape her 18-year-old daughter - Hartun's sister. "As she begged them not to take my sister, they beat her to death," Hartun recalled. "I remember her dying, shouting 'Hartun, Hartun, Hartun' over and over. When she was dead, they took my sister away on a horse. I never saw her again." Hartun - after years of bitterness and longing for revenge - was overcome with what he called "my Christian belief" and decided to abandon the notion of vengeance. "When the Turkish earthquake killed so many people last year," he told me, "I prayed for the poor Turkish people."
It was a deeply moving example of compassion from a man whose suffering those Turks will not admit and whose Holocaust we prefer to ignore. Stirred partly by Hartun's story, I wrote an article for The Independent in January of this year on the "sublimation" of the Armenian genocide, its willful denial by US academics who hold American university professorships funded by the Turkish government, and the absence of any reference to the Armenians in the British Government's announcement of Holocaust Day. And, yes, I referred to the Armenian Holocaust - as I did to the Jewish Holocaust - with a capital "H". Chatting to an Armenian acquaintance, I mentioned that I had given the Armenian genocide the same capital "H" which I believe should be attached to all acts of genocide.
Little could I have guessed how quickly the dead would rise from their graves. When the article appeared in The Independent - a paper which has never failed to dig into human wickedness visited upon every race and creed - my references to the Jewish Holocaust remained with a capital "H". But the Armenian Holocaust had been downgraded to a lower case "h". "Tell me, Robert," my Armenian friend asked me in suppressed fury, "how do we Armenians qualify for a capital 'H'? Didn't the Turks kill enough of us? Or is it because we're not Jewish?"
There are no conspiracies on The Independent's subs desk; just a tough, no-nonsense rule that our articles follow a grammatical "house style" and conform to what is called "common usage". And the Jewish Holocaust, through common usage, takes a capital "H". Other holocausts don't. No one is quite sure why - the same practice is followed in newspapers and books all over the world, although it has been the subject of debate in the United States, not least by Finkelstein. Harvard turned down a professorial "Chair of Holocaust and Cognate Studies" because academics objected to the genocide of other groups (including the Armenians) being lumped together as "cognate". But none of this answered the questions of my Armenian friend.
To have told him his people didn't qualify for a capital "H" would have been shameful and insulting.
A debate then opened within The Independent. I wrote in a memo that the word "holocaust" could be cheapened by over-use and exaggeration - take the agency report last year which referred to the "holocaust" of wildlife after an oil -spill on the French coast. But I said that I still had no answer worthy of the question posed by my Armenian friend.
One of the paper's top wordsmiths was asked to comment - a grammatical expert who regularly teases out the horrors of definition in an imperfect and savage world. He cited Chambers Dictionary, which stated that the Jewish Holocaust was "usually" capitalised. And, said our expert on the paper, "It is in the nature of a proper noun to apply to only one thing." Thus there may be many crusades but only one Crusade (the Middle Ages one). There may be many cities but the City is London. Similarly the Renaissance.
"There can be only one Holocaust," he wrote. "Is the Holocaust really unique? Yes. It was perpetrated by modern Europeans. Its purported
justification was a perversion of Darwin, one of the great thinkers of modern Europe. Above all, in the gas chambers and crematoria it manufactured death by modern industrial methods. The Holocaust says to modern Western man that his technological mastery will not save him from sin, but rather magnify the results of his sins. There have been acts of genocide throughout history and some of them have killed more people than the Nazis did, but we call the Nazi holocaust 'the Holocaust' because it is our holocaust."
Must we, our grammarian asked, "commit grammatical faux pas and overturn an accepted usage for which there is ample justification? Finally, where does it end? Are, for instance, the crimes of Stalin against minority nationalities in the Soviet Union not just as bad as the Armenian slaughters? What of the Khmer Rouge? Rwanda? The Roman destruction of Carthage? Are these also to be 'Holocausts'? If not, why not?"
Powerful arguments, but ones with which I disagreed. The Jewish Holocaust, I wrote back, should be capitalised not because its victims were European Jews, or those of any other race, but because its victims were human beings. Human values, the right to life, the struggle against evil, are universal - "not confined to Europeans or one ethnic or religious group, or involving those who distorted Darwin's theories of biological evolution". It was, after all, The Independent's editorial policy that the world must fight against all atrocities - a belief which underlay our demand for humanitarian action in East Timor and Kosovo. This did not mean that I regarded Timor and Kosovo as holocausts, but that we should never accept the idea that one group of victims had special status over others. I spend
hours telling Arabs that they must accept and acknowledge the facts of the Jewish Holocaust, but if we are now to regard this as a specifically European crime, as "our" crime, I have few arguments left. The Arabs can say it is none of their business.
As for the question, "Where does it end?" Yes, what about Armenia? And Rwanda? If Armenians are disqualified from a capital "H" because they only lost one and a half million, what is Rwanda's sin of exclusion? Religion? Race? Colour? When Armenians in Israel speak of their people's suffering, they use the Hebrew word Shoah - which means Holocaust.
The Independent's editor suggested that we should debate these questions in an article in the paper - this is the article - but the issues, of course, remain unresolved. "Common usage" is a bane to all us journalists but it is not sacred. It doesn't have to stand still. My father fought in what he called the Great War - common usage which was later amended, after 1945, to the First World War. Similarly, I believe, the Holocaust. In the aftermath of my January remarks on the Armenian genocide, The Independent published a denial of that same genocide by a Turkish Cypriot academic, in which we printed the word Holocaust with a capital "H". The world did not end. The Turks did not complain. Nor did any members of the Jewish community. Indeed, only last year, a prominent academic at the Hebrew University's Armenian studies programme in Israel talked of the Armenians and Jews having "suffered holocaust".
In the meantime, Holocaust - or holocaust - denial continues. President Chirac has declined to endorse the French parliament's acknowledgement of the Armenian genocide and forthcoming Holocaust conferences have not invited Armenians to participate. Mr Blair doesn't mention the destruction of the Armenians. They don't count, literally. Common usage - and our concern for Turkish sensitivities - has seen to that, even though genocide is anything but normal. Germany dutifully acknowledges its historical guilt for the wickedness of the Jewish Holocaust. Not so the Turks. Armenians accept that a few Turks - courageous, outstanding men - risked their lives in 1915 to shelter their Armenian friends and neighbours, just as "righteous gentiles" did for the Jews of Europe. But Turkey cannot honour these brave men. Since the Armenian Holocaust supposedly did not exist, nor did they. A holocaust rather than a Holocaust helps to diminish the suffering of the Armenians. What's in a name? What's in a capital letter? How many other skulls lie beneath the sands of northern Syria? Did the Turks not kill enough Armenians?