Remembering the Armenian genocide

‘Have you read what it is possible to read of the Armenian atrocities?’ So began an article in the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate on 8 December 1915. The unnamed author went on to quote at length from a recent report by a committee of eminent American religious, business, and government figures:

The ostensible deportation of men, women, and children towards Mesopotamia is usually only a forced marching of these starving, naked, and frequently helpless refugees, into the mountains to be outraged and butchered, sometimes by their guardians… Included among these refugees are teachers and professional men who have taken their degrees in European and American Universities—men and women who have represented the brains and enterprise of the country. […] The plan of procedure, which is identical in all parts of the country, seems to aim at the complete elimination of all non-Moslems in Asiatic Turkey, and already that aim is in a fair way of accomplishment.

The author appended a further question: ‘How many have been destroyed?’ The answer, following on from the committee’s finding, was 500,000. The final toll was far higher. Somewhere between 800,000 and 1.5 million Armenian men, women, and children were slaughtered at the behest of the Young Turk-governed Ottoman Empire. The journalist, when they wrote that opening question, may have been thinking of the butchering of Armenian intellectuals (on 24 April 1915, the first day of the genocide), the rapes of countless women, or the drownings so large in number that near one town the course of the Euphrates was altered for a hundred metres by the accumulation of bodies.

Kristina Kukolja recently noted that:

The mass killings of Armenians last century were widely recorded in the Australian media at the time. City and regional newspapers wrote of the slaughter and starvation of Armenian men, women, and children. They described deportations of civilians in the hundreds of thousands, desert death marches, and forced religious conversions.

And yet, as a 2014 letter from Foreign Minister Julie Bishop to her then Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu made clear, Australia continues to talk down the atrocities of a century ago. ‘The Australian government,’ Bishop wrote, ‘does not … recognise these events as genocide.’ This position is long-standing and bipartisan, and puts Australia in the company of other equivocators, including the US and Britain, neither of which sanction the use of the ‘G’ word. Obama has been particularly – and characteristically – mendacious, stating during his 2008 campaign that he would refer in office to the killings as genocidal but failing to do anything of the sort once elected.

I have written previously about the Abbott Government’s shameful record of soft-peddling profound human rights abuses – in Palestine and Sri Lanka to name two egregious instances – for reasons of political expediency. No mystery attaches itself to Australia’s ongoing denial of the Armenian genocide: it is fearful that recognition will provoke Turkey into making good its explicit threats to ban MPs from Gallipoli – such was Ankara‘s reaction when in May 2013 the parliament of NSW voted unanimously to acknowledge the genocide. Turkey remains, furthermore, a key NATO ally in the region. But it is, as Geoffrey Robertson points out in An Inconvenient Genocide, Australia’s ‘bizarre emotional investment through Anzac Day’ that is the real determinant of the Government’s position. This position, incidentally, is not shared by Treasurer Joe Hockey, who is of Palestinian-Armenian descent, and who has purportedly written of the ‘G’ word that ‘there is simply no other word for what happened to the Armenian people of Ottoman Turkey.’

Australia is currently among 170 countries that have yet to recognise the genocide but is one of only a handful that has, arguably, a special responsibility to do so. What Robert Fisk calls the ‘Armenian Holocaust’ began on the evening of 24 April 1915. As 20,000 Australian troops huddled in the bows of allied warships off the Dardanelles, an order was going out in Constantinople, the Ottoman capital, about 300 kilometres away: all Armenian intellectuals – academics, teachers, writers and artists, political activists and community leaders – were to be rounded up. Most were killed in secret.

Fisk wrote, in his monumental geopolitical study of the Middle East The Great War for Civilisation, that the invasion of Gallipoli ‘gave a new and ruthless confidence to the Turkish regime.’ Winston Churchill thought the same. He noted in Aftermath that the attack ‘stimulated the merciless fury of the Turkish government.’ Within months, hundreds of thousands of Armenians – ultimately, more than half of them – had been driven from their homes, robbed of their money and assets, and either viciously killed outright or assigned to death marches through the deserts of Syria where they were starved, raped, stripped of their clothes, and set upon by murderous gangs of prisoners (chettis) who had been released for the purpose by the Young Turk administration.

These are the same events that Davutoglu, the former Foreign Minister, says that we must not ‘compare’ or ‘categorise’, that successive world leaders and denialist academics dismiss as mere ‘tragedy’ or as history that is not for us to judge – and that Julie Bishop unconscionably diminishes through her continuing bad faith. ‘It was Elie Wiesel,’ Fisk reminds us, ‘who first said that denial of genocide is a ‘double killing’. First the victims are slaughtered – and then their deaths are turned into a non-event, an un-fact.’

On their way to Turkey’s red carpet reception at the Gallipoli centenary commemorations later this month, Bishop and Abbott should stop at Yerevan, the Armenian capital, where a very different remembrance will be taking place. Perversely, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has scheduled the commemorations to begin on the 24th , the centenary of the first day of the genocide, rather than the 25th, the first day of the invasion, but it’s possible to fly between Yerevan and Istanbul in the same day. There, they could make a statement to the effect that the lives – and deaths – of a million or more innocent Armenians matter as much as those of a few thousand Australian soldiers lawfully killed in a failed military campaign. The Armenian genocide was, without qualification, the first genocide of the 20th century. Have Bishop and Abbott forgotten that it was the architect of the second, Adolf Hitler, who thought he could get away with it because the annihilation of the Armenians had been forgotten?

Ben Brooker

Ben Brooker is a writer, editor, and critic based on the unceded lands of the Wurundjeri People of the Kulin Nation. His work has been featured by Overland, Australian Book Review, The Saturday Paper, MeanjinKill Your Darlings, and others in Australia and overseas.

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  1. Putting aside the dubiousness of quoting Elie Wiesel on this issue, I want to comment on this:

    “The Armenian genocide was, without qualification, the first genocide of the 20th century. Have Bishop and Abbott forgotten that it was the architect of the second, Adolf Hitler, who thought he could get away with it because the annihilation of the Armenians had been forgotten?”

    1) No it wasn’t, which makes this paragraph quite ironic 2) the Holocaust wasn’t the second genocide of the twentieth century, and it’s arguable IMO that the Armenian genocide wasn’t the second but the third 3) Hitler didn’t make his comment about the Armenians in preparation for exterminating the Jews, but in preparation for the atrocities he intended to unleash on Poland.

  2. Michael, it may also be considered ironic that you seem to be more interested in simple naysaying than shedding any light on the other genocides you accuse me of forgetting but merely allude to without even bothering to name. This is a shame, as you have a point. The Holocaust and the Armenian genocide are the most studied genocides of the modern era and were, of course, forwardmost in Lemkin’s mind when devising the term in 1944. These facts undoubtedly obscure our understanding of other mass killings that were being perpetrated around the same time and are equally worthy of the genocide descriptor. I suspect you were thinking particularly of the Ovaherero genocide in what is now Namibia. I’m not a genocide scholar but I admit I erred in not acknowledging these killings as the first genocide of the 20th century. As for the second (or third) there are, depressingly, many contenders (the Rape of Nanking, the Holodomor) and in retrospect it would have been better for me to concentrate on the Armenian genocide itself rather than attempt to place it into a chronology I did not know well enough.

    Regarding Hitler’s famous ‘who today remembers the Armenians?’, I’m aware these comments were made in respect of Poland but doubtless the comfort the forgetting of the Armenian genocide gave to Hitler extended beyond the Polish massacres.

    Would you care to elaborate on your issue with the Wiesel quote?

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