Turkey finally hears its past

April 24, 2006
Source: The Boston Globe (Massachusetts)

By Henry Morgenthau III

"AMBASSADOR Morgenthau's Story," my grandfather's account of the killings of Armenians in Turkey in 1915, was published just before World War I ended in November 1918. A personal chronicle of his service as the US ambassador to Ottoman Turkey for 26 months, the book was published last month for the first time in Turkish, a milestone in informing the Turkish people of what happened in their country more than 90 years ago.

The term genocide had not yet been invented when my grandfather wrote his book. Thus, Morgenthau refers to "the destruction of the Armenian race" as "the murder of a nation." It was Henry Morgenthau's lonely voice that alerted the world to the premeditated atrocities of the Young Turk leaders and the complicity of their German allies.

Why Morgenthau chose to speak out on behalf of the Armenians is a more complex question than how he did so. Almost from the time he arrived in New York as a 10-year-old German Jewish immigrant, he envisioned public service as his ultimate calling. When the opportunity arose, he attached himself to Woodrow Wilson's rising star and was appointed US ambassador to Turkey.

At the end of 1914, Morgenthau noted a pattern: Palestinian Jews were conscripted into the Turkish army, then promptly disarmed and placed in labor battalions. This was a tactic the Turks used against Greeks and other minorities, and, most ominously, against the Armenians.

Fearing reprisals against Jews in Turkish territories, Morgenthau warned international Zionist leaders to contain their indignation. Then he took it upon himself to call on the US Navy for help. In January 1915, the USS Tennessee was ordered to Alexandria, Egypt, ostensibly to protect US citizens. In fact, it made possible the evacuation of impoverished Jewish refugees, including David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, who became respectively Israel's first prime minister and second president.

Morgenthau was never able to carry out a rescue of the Armenians with the effectiveness he achieved in saving Jews, though certainly not for want of trying. There were fundamental differences between the Armenian and Jewish situations. The Armenians were a minority located within the borders of Ottoman Turkey and Czarist Russia. The Jews, on the other hand, were widely dispersed throughout Eastern and Western Europe and the United States, and to a much lesser extent in the Near East, including the Holy Land. In Western Europe and the United States, Jews had risen to positions of power and had learned how to network internationally. The diaspora Armenians had not yet achieved such status and so could not mobilize support for their persecuted kinsmen.

When Morgenthau appealed to Enver Pasha, the Turkish minister of war, to permit US missionaries to feed starving Armenians, the response was coldly cynical. "We don't want the Americans to feed the Armenians.... That is one of the worst things that could happen to them.... It is their belief that they have friends in other countries which leads them to oppose the government and so bring down upon them all their miseries." The Turkish minister of the interior, Talaat Pasha, was equally callous: "The hatred between the Turks and the Armenians is now so intense that we have got to finish them. If we don't, they will plan their revenge."

The memoirs of my grandfather factually chronicle an important period of history. Yet, 91 years later, the Turkish state insists the genocide of the Armenians did not happen. Why does Turkey protect the murderers of the past? That is a question that needs to be asked over and over again until the truth is acknowledged. As Turkey seeks membership in the European Union, it is being challenged to open up its society and adopt free speech.

But its penal code has resulted in several Turkish writers being brought before their own courts for speaking out about the Armenian genocide. Surely a modern country like Turkey needs to treat its citizens with more respect. Free speech cannot be denied, especially in a country seeking to join the EU. Whatever may have motivated Turkish officials to deny the genocide for more than 90 years, there now appears to be some light at the end of the tunnel. The US government, which had knuckled under in support of the Turkish policy of denial, is now urging all parties to accept the realities of history.

At this critical moment, the publication of the Turkish edition of "Ambassador Morgenthau's Story" is an important step for the citizens of Turkey. It is their right to know their own history, good and bad, without interference from the state. A crime denied is a crime repeated. Great nations in history have acknowledged the misdeeds of their earlier governments. It is time for Turkey to join the ranks of those great nations.

Henry Morgenthau III, who lives in Cambridge, is the author of a family history, "Mostly Morgenthaus."