Centenary of the Armenian Genocide

When I was in middle school, my mother was called into the principal’s office to discuss one of my class projects. The assignment was to represent a historical event that we had studied in some tangible way. I chose the Holocaust and depicted, in perhaps frightening detail, a concentration camp. My project wasn’t some benign diorama or wall mural that the teacher likely had in mind, but rather a board game that took the player through gates labeled “Arbeit Macht Frei” and to the work fields and the medical testing rooms and the cramped barracks of Auschwitz-Birkenau. There was only one endpoint: the gas chamber, and there were no winners. My teacher thought the project was morbid and inappropriate, and truth be told, my mother had been troubled by my preoccupation with genocide for quite some time. Since reading The Diary of Anne Frank and Inge Auerbacher's Ich bin ein Stern a few years earlier, I had been transfixed by the idea that a government could systematically murder hundreds of thousands of people in the middle of civilized Western Europe based on nothing more than ethnicity, religion or perceived difference. Sitting in class, I was outraged all over again as we discussed the Holocaust, and I didn’t understand why the other students in my class didn’t feel as strongly as I did. My board game, with all its morbid details and sickening rules – “You look healthy today, please proceed to the fields for hard labor” – was supposed to focus others’ attention on the atrocity in hopes that it would uncover the passion and depth of emotion I thought they must be hiding.

The Holocaust, a genocide in which approximately six million Jews were killed by the Nazi regime and its collaborators, has been recognized and commemorated by nearly every civilized state. The phrase “Never Forget” has been widely used to encourage remembrance of the tragedy, and the international human rights regime is predicated, in large part, on the need for protection of individuals and groups. And yet another genocide, the one for which the term was coined by Raphael Lemkin, remains at the center of controversy. Today is the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, the massacre of approximately 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman government. On this date in 1915, the Ottoman authorities rounded up and arrested some 250 Armenian intellectuals and leaders in Constantinople (now Istanbul). A short time later, groups of Armenians were led on death marches into the Syrian desert.

The international legal definition of genocide, found in Articles II and III of the 1948 Geneva Convention, describes two elements of the crime: the mental element, “the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, or religious group, as such,” and the physical element, “killing members of a group; causing serious bodily harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part. . .” I have yet to read a credible argument that puts the massacre of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks in 1915 outside that definition. Yesterday, “President Obama called it ‘the first mass atrocity of the 20th century,’ ‘the horrors of 1915’ and ‘a dark chapter in history.’ But one thing Mr. Obama did not call the century-old Armenian Genocide was genocide” (NYTimes).

As I have learned more about the Armenian Genocide over the years, about the Turkish government's denial, and about the failure of world leaders to acknowledge the tragedy in concrete terms, I feel the same kind of outrage and confusion from so long ago when my classmates failed to register emotion when discussing the Holocaust. Perhaps it is uncommon to feel the tragedies of distant peoples so acutely, and unrealistic to expect an outpouring of sympathy for an historical wrong, but think for a moment about these facts: “Never before had the tools of the modern nation-state been used to such an end. In a series of centrally planned and coordinated steps, the Turkish government conscripted Armenian men, disarmed the local population, arrested local leadership, and then carried out a plan of eradication so sweeping and successful in its scope that it would be studied two decades later by the Nazis. In the villages of Anatolia and Mesopotamia, the women, children, elderly, and any men who remained were marched south into the deserts of Syria to their deaths. Along the way, many were spared starvation, killed instead by bayonet, noose, or bullet. Many women and girls were raped and left for dead. Once the Armenians homes were vacated, their Turkish and Kurdish neighbors plundered them in search of gold and jewels" (First Things).

If you do not carry the stories of genocide in your blood like these people do, then do not mourn. If you cannot feel outrage for a distant and foreign wrong, then remain respectfully silent. But on the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, we can show our humanity by educating ourselves about what happened, by remembering the people who lost their lives, and by acknowledging in concrete terms this attempt to eradicate a group of people from the face of the earth.

Further reading:
A primer video from Katie Couric
The Armenian Genocide Centennial site
The Guardian Briefing with book recommendations
Report from The New York Times with photographs
Photographs from Armin T. Wenger