An atrocity remembered

The afterlife of the Armenian genocide.

January 8, 2020
Source: New Statesman

By Anoosh Chakelian

During the early 2000s, when I was growing up, I could recite the countries that recognised the Armenian genocide as easily as I could recite the Armenian alphabet. Just as pupils in Armenia are taught compulsory chess, I and the other children of the west London diaspora learned the history of our forebears at a Sunday school every week. But for the genocide, many of us would not have been there at all.

Canada, France, Greece, Belgium and Uruguay: these were some of the countries that called it a genocide back then. Germany did not until 2016, the United Kingdom still does not and, until last year, neither did the United States.

On 12 December 2019, in a rare display of political bipartisanship, the US Senate voted unanimously to recognise as genocide the massacre of 1.5 million Armenians in the Ottoman empire between 1915 and 1923.

It was a symbolic and historic vote for Armenians and was hailed by the Armenian prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, as a “bold step towards serving truth and historical justice”.

While President Donald Trump tried to prevent the resolution’s passage through Congress, the vote marked a nadir in US-Turkish relations. It took place soon after US legislators imposed sanctions on government agencies and officials for Turkey’s incursion into Kurdish-held Syria in October 2019.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the US’s resolution the “biggest insult” to the Turkish people and threatened to recognise as genocide the mass killing of Native Americans by European settlers in the New World from the end of the 15th century.

Since April 1915, when the Ottoman regime rounded up and executed hundreds of Armenian community leaders and intellectuals, Armenians have been denied any form of recognition, reparations or justice from Turkey.

As part of its “Turkification” programme that began in the early 20th century, the Young Turk regime led by Talaat Pasha engaged in massacres and death marches in which more than one million Armenians were killed. Places such as Deir Ezzor in the Syrian Desert – the same killing fields used by Islamic State – are the sites of mass graves of Armenians who had been deported from eastern Anatolia.

Successive Turkish governments have rejected the idea that these events constitute genocide, arguing that there were fewer Armenian deaths than estimated. Yet there has long been consensus among historians and legal scholars that what took place was a genocide. The Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin, who invented the term “genocide”, used the Armenian case to formulate his original definition, which the United Nations adopted in 1948. And no Armenian forgets Hitler’s speech to his generals before Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939: “Kill without mercy men, women and children… Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

World governments have over time shifted their positions on this issue. In 2015, Pope Francis described what happened as the “First genocide of the 20th century”, and the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling on Turkey to recognise the Armenian genocide.

But if 32 countries now offially recognise the genocide, Turkey’s geopolitical influence means that many countries remain equivocal. They include the UK – which still holds a policy that contradicts the official positions of the devolved legislatures of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (as well as Derby City County Council, which recognised the genocide in 2018).

A private Foreign Office memo, released via a Freedom of Information request, effectively conceded that the demands of realpolitik have exceeded the ethics of historical recognition: “Her Majesty’s Government is open to criticism in terms of the ethical dimension, but given the importance of our relations (political, strategic and commercial) with Turkey… the current line is the only feasible option.”

According to the human rights barrister Geoffrey Robertson, author of An Inconvenient Genocide (2014), “More influential than genocide deniers are genocide equivocators – those officials and policymakers in the West who do not know, and do not really care, whether genocide took place, but whose overriding consideration is to avoid alienating Turkey.”

As a half-Armenian Briton, my childhood memories are marked with this injustice. The first demonstration I went on in the 1990s was an Armenian genocide recognition march through central London, an event I still attend every April. It always finishes outside Downing Street, as we entreat whichever prime minister within to end genocide denial. My father’s bookshelves are stacked with old hardbacks; histories of what happened and intergenerational memoirs, such as Armen TMarsoobian’s Fragments of a Lost Homeland and Peter Balakian’s Black Dog of Fate. Many of the songs and fables we learned at Sunday school were memorised and sung in registers of sorrow.

Like every Armenian family in the global diaspora, my own was shaped by this past. My grandparents on my father’s side were born in Cilicia – a historic Armenian community to the south of Turkey. In the 1920s, their families managed to flee to Iskenderun, which was then part of Syria, when my grandparents were children. Just before the Second World War, when Iskenderun fell into Turkish hands, they escaped with their families to Lebanon. My grandparents met and married years later, in Beirut.

Official recognition by the US symbolises an important step in acknowledging this history. But in rejecting Congress’s resolution, Donald Trump merely echoed Barack Obama, who promised as a presidential candidate in 2008 to use the word “genocide” but never did in once – preferring the euphemism “Meds Yeghern” (“great catastrophe” in Armenian).

I’ve added the United States to my mental list of countries that recognise the genocide. But I will still remember what I learned in Armenian school: the jarring irony that this country full of chess grandmasters is too often a pawn in a geopolitical game.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.