Armenia and the ‘great crime’: The long shadow of history
Beirut - A rmenians call it Medz Yeghern — the “great crime” — when they say as many as 1.5 million of their ethnic kin were slaughtered by Ottoman forces 100 years ago, starting with scores of prominent intellectuals, lawyers, journalists, teachers, priests and doctors who were rounded up on government orders in Istanbul on April 24, 1915, then sent into the interior and killed.
That was the start of what the Armenians, and most historians, call a genocide in which they maintain the Ottoman Caliphate, in its dying days, systematically annihilated most of a thriving Christian minority through massacres, forced labour and death marches into the Syrian desert, then part of the Ottoman Empire.
This has been seen as the forerunner of the Nazi Holocaust in the second world war.
Hundreds of thousands of Armenians were herded into concentration camps by the Ottomans, whose empire was crumbling around them, decayed by corruption from within and doomed by the Sublime Porte’s alliance with Kaiser Wilhelm’s imperial Germany in the first world war.
“The roads and the Euphrates are strewn with corpses of exiles and those who survive are doomed to certain death,” the New York Times reported in August 1915. “It is a plan to exterminate the whole Armenian people.”
To this day, Turkey vigorously denies there was an officially sanctioned extermination programme and bitterly rejects the term “genocide”.
All references to these events have been expunged from official histories and from school textbooks in Turkey in what international affairs commentator David Gardner calls “an enforced amnesia strengthened by a wall of silence from reputed Ottomanist scholars”.
Turkey concedes that around 500,000 Armenians died of starvation, thirst and disease as they were deported because they were considered revolutionaries allied with Russia against the Ottomans in the first world war.
At the time, the Ottomans were reeling from the loss of their European territories in 1912-13 as Christians across the Balkans rose up to throw off the Turkish yoke. As Muslim groups were driven eastward, Istanbul had to find space for them and Anatolia, where most Armenians lived, was selected to accommodate the refugees.
Ottoman horror of being encircled was heightened with the Allied amphibious assault on Gallipoli, in the strategic Dardanelles Strait, on April 25, 1915. Turkish forces repelled the British, French, Australian and New Zealand forces but the Ottomans remained fearful of the fate that was descending on them.
Today, five generations later, the events of 1915-16 still sear the collective memory of a region, most of which the Ottomans ruled for more than five centuries, as it grapples with the current massacre of Shias, Christians and other minorities by jihadist fanatics of the Islamic State (ISIS).
The events of 1915-16 remain a source of conflict for Turkey, and the resonance is particularly troublesome right now as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pursues ambitions of making Turkey a regional power again.
At the same time, more world governments are accepting the Armenian accusations, largely because historians are unearthing evidence to substantiate Armenian claims. This is impeding Turkey’s relations with the West and its aspirations of joining the European Union.
It is true that Erdogan, a neo-Islamist who dreams of restoring his nation’s influence a century after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk abolished the empire and declared a secular republic, has made more effort than any of his predecessors to open up about the events of 1915-16.
In April 2014, while still prime minister, Erdogan set a precedent by publicly referring to the victims of 1915-16 as “Ottoman citizens” and offered condolences to their descendants.
But Erdogan still seems determined never to acknowledge the genocide. That would be to admit there was premeditated intent by the Ottoman state to murder its own citizens on a monumental scale. Under a 1948 international convention, such intent is required to prove genocide.
Pope Francis dramatically stoked the controversy on April 12th by declaring that “the first genocide” of the 20th century took place in 1915- 16. Ankara withdrew its ambassador to the Vatican.
On the other hand, US President Barack Obama gave Erdogan a pass — primarily for geopolitical reasons — when he avoided using the term “genocide” while marking the centennial anniversary of the killings, despite campaign promises in 2008 to do so.
The US State Department and the Pentagon had pressed Obama to omit the G-word out of deference to a key US partner and NATO’s only Muslim member whose support against jihadism is considered essential.