Refusing to forget Armenian Genocide

April 14, 2002
Source: Hartford Courant (Connecticut)

By Jonathan Eric Lewis

On April 24, Armenians the world over will commemorate the 87th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. They will recall that, in 1915, the Ottoman Empire set in motion a plan to exterminate the entire Armenian population of Eastern Anatolia, part of what is today the Republic of Turkey. This state-sponsored program resulted in the death of some 1.5 million Armenian men, women and children.

Using the cover of the First World War, the ultra-nationalist Young Turk regime that ruled the Ottoman Empire unleashed a campaign to uproot and destroy the Armenian population. Observers throughout the world were shocked at the horrific stories of entire towns, villages and cities emptied of their Armenian inhabitants. Henry Morgenthau, the American ambassador to Turkey at the time, termed the Turkish crime against the Armenians "race murder." It was the destruction of an entire civilization.

Years later, the Polish-Jewish legal scholar Raphael Lemkin coined a term to describe the Turkish crime against the Armenians: "genocide."

World leaders condemned the Turkish crime against the Armenians when it happened. However, very few will openly speak of it today. In fact, in many schools and universities, the Armenian genocide is scarcely taught.

This has come to pass for a reason.

The current government of Turkey actually denies that this crime ever took place. (Fortunately for historians, observers recorded the events in official records and private diaries.)

Like Holocaust denial, the denial of the Armenian genocide seeks both to minimize and rationalize the crime. Fearful of having to pay monetary reparations to Armenians, Turkey lobbies the corridors of power not to officially recognize the crime.

The fact that the genocide has, to a great extent, gone unnoticed by the world has greatly affected Armenians worldwide. Psychologists refer to a transgenerational trauma among many of them. Armenian identity, for better or for worse, is greatly shaped by both the collective memory of the genocide and the Turkish denial.

Combating denial and promoting recognition have become cornerstones of the Armenian government's foreign policy. This takes up energies and monies that could be better spent elsewhere, most notably in rebuilding Armenia's post-Soviet economy. Armenian American organizations have worked diligently to have their story heard, often lobbying politicians to attend genocide commemoration events. There is even an Armenian Genocide Museum planned to open in Washington that aims to educate the public about not only Armenian history, but also about mass murders and other crimes against humanity.

Fortunately for the Armenians, a number of prominent historians, many of them Jewish Americans, have produced an abundance of scholarship on the slaughter. Elie Wiesel, the Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor, has even attempted, without success, to persuade the Turkish government to change its policy on the issue.

Very few would argue that the current Turkish government is responsible for a crime committed close to a hundred years ago. Many Americans do appreciate the support the Turkish government has given to the War on Terror. However, Turkey does have a responsibility to acknowledge a tragic episode in its past. The Armenians, for their part, must engage with Turks and Turkish Americans of goodwill and come to some sort of reconciliation.

On this April 24, Armenians in Connecticut and beyond will commemorate the genocide in government buildings, churches and the streets of major cities. At the dawn of a new century, Americans of all races and religions should familiarize themselves with one of the worst crimes of the last century.

Jonathan Eric Lewis is a visiting scholar of 20th-century European and Middle Eastern history at the Remarque Institute, New York University.