Sunday, October 28, 2007

It's a decades old question: Who now remembers the Armenians?

Packet & Times
By McGarvey, Pete

The question is attributed to Adolph Hitler in the mid 1930s. His henchmen were plotting the extermination of Europe's Jews and someone wondered aloud how world opinion would react to it. A mere 20 years earlier, one and half million Armenians were murdered by Ottoman Turkish soldiers in the 20th century's first genocide, and already the slaughter was fading from the public's mind.

"Who now remembers the Armenians?"

Not the Bush White House, it seems. When Congress proposed a resolution two weeks ago, recognizing the 1915 killing of the Armenians as genocide,Washington's top brass harrumphed, and struck back. "Ancient history!" they proclaimed, The death count was wildly exaggerated! There are two sides to the story and the Turkish side deserves equal time! More important, passage of the resolution would do irreparable harm to the US-Turkish alliance. If unduly angered, Turkey may cut off vital American supply routes to Iraq!"

In other words, historic truth and the pursuit of justice be damned. Commentators railed against "those stupid congressmen" and George W. Bush himself joined the critical chorus.

The facts of the genocide are meticulously recorded. Midway through the First World War, Ottoman Turkish leaders ordered its minority Armenian Christians into exile on charges they were waging a civil war against the government in Ankara. It was a lie.

Regular readers know my sentiments on this subject. I have spent 30 years studying, reporting and editorializing on this unprecedented catastrophe, waiting for a plausible Turkish explanation of why it happened. I'm still waiting.

The April 1915 "exile" order was code for "get rid of the Armenians by whatever means." It was the latest and the most extreme of organized attacks on this harried minority, the first nation in the world to convert to Christianity. (The year was 301 AD.)

The soldiers obliged. Towns and villages were put to the torch, Armenians by the thousand rounded up, many males murdered on sight, while women and children were forced, at bayonet point, to trek toward the Syrian wilderness with little food or water. The horrors multiplied daily - random shootings, hangings, rape, death by fire, even mass drownings. Soldiers competed in devising new and fiendish means of disposing of their prisoners.

If the Ottoman government thought that all this would be below the world's radar screen, in the middle of a world war, it miscalculated badly. Within weeks, first-hand accounts of the butchery made the front pages of leading American and British newspapers. Henry Morgenthau, the American ambassador to Turkey, was among the first to report what was happening. His fury was shared by historian Arnold Toynbee and Britain's Winston Churchill. Soon, thousands of ordinary citizens were roused to demand a stop to the slaughter and to hold Ottoman Turkey accountable. Relief efforts were launched to help survivors who managed to cross into Syria. "Save the starving Armenians" became a rallying call, heard across the western world.

I have a shelf full of books dealing with the killings, written by impartial witnesses, respected scholars and survivors. In April 1980, Eileen and I were in Yerevan, the ancient Armenian capital, to observe the 65th anniversary of the genocide. We joined a solemn procession of Armenians, both native born and from the North American and European diaspora, to a monument on a hillside outside the city, to lay flowers beside an eternal flame. On the eastern horizon, Mount Ararat was in clear view.

In the week we spent in Soviet Armenia, our appreciation of this unique nation increased tenfold. We visited Etchmiatsin, site of the Cathedral of Saint Gregory the Illuminator, the first building in the world to be topped by a cross. The museum nearby, joined to the palace of the church's pontiff, known as the Cathilicos, was a treasure house of relics and documents, recording the rise and fall of a proud and culturally accomplished race over three millennia. Here, too, were hundreds of bones of 1915 martyrs.

There's an ironic touch to events in Washington two weeks ago. In the same week the Armenian genocide proposal was roundly condemned, Congress awarded a gold medal to the Dalai Lama, who was lauded by U.S. President George W. Bush for his life-long crusade to win autonomy for Tibet.

There were the usual declarations of America being the beacon of hope and the agent for justice for oppressed people everywhere.

Unless, of course, you belonged to a nation shattered by the first documented genocide of the 20th century, when such a declaration would be politically inconvenient.

Note: Above are excerpts from the article. The full article appears here. Clarifications and comments by me are contained in {}. Deletions are marked by [...]. The bold emphasis is mine.

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home