By: Stefan Ihrig
Polonsky Fellow, Van Leer Jerusalem Institute
JERUSALEM — I have this imaginary Armenian kid sister. Well, actually, she is your kid sister, too — in the same way we all have this imaginary 8-year-old in Syria who has been afraid for her life for the past few years. We are all humans after all.
My imaginary Armenian kid sister is 4 and a 1/2; talks too much; is easily distracted; for reasons beyond me, does not like raisin cookies; and, for reasons even further beyond me, died in early 1916. Nobody put a pistol to her head and executed her. Her parents were killed, and she simply had no food, no care and no proper shelter. She just wasted away. I cannot get over her death and her suffering, even though I want to, and I need to. I need to remember her and honor her memory, her life and her death. And I also have that Syrian kid to worry about — or to purposely ignore.
The problem is, I don’t really get to the point where I can mourn her because my Armenian kid sister just keeps dying over and over again. We — us and our Armenian sister — are all stuck in 1915-1916. Turkish denialism (and its international helpers) will not let her or us come to rest. (Just take a look at the Turkish Foreign Ministry’s website on the topic). Turkish denialism says, “She probably did not die. Well, perhaps she did but it was really her own fault because the Armenians were in open rebellion against the state.”
It must have been an interesting kind of war in which 4-year-olds and the elderly threatened the very existence of a once powerful empire to the extent that it seemed okay to kill them, in “self-defense.” And here already we have the futility of engaging with denialist discourse. This is not the contemporary military excuse of “collateral damage.” No, my Armenian sister, along with all the other sisters, brothers, granddads and grandmothers, were all rounded up and deported so that they could die. I keep seeing her in the famous pictures that Armin T. Wegner, a German writer and former field medic in the Ottoman Empire, left us — today’s iconic images of the Armenian Genocide. And I keep hearing these unsettling voices that tell me it is perfectly okay to kill my Armenian kid sister. . .
As a historian working on the coverage of and the debates on the Armenian Genocide during World War I and in the 1920s, I am still absolutely baffled that the debates, one hundred years later, have progressed so little — in fact, they have regularly taken steps backward. Clear proof of this was provided this week by an unlikely pair jumping forward together: Pope Francis and Kim Kardashian. That the acknowledgment of the genocide by the pope and Kim Kardashian’s trip to Armenia were so newsworthy and were hailed as such a great “PR disaster for Turkey“ shows that something went terribly wrong over the course of the last century.
Instead of merely celebrating it as a victory for acceptance, one needs to ask why it took the Vatican so long, why it had given in to denialism for so many decades and why it, too, in this respect, had abandoned the world and the Armenians. And on the other hand, one needs to point out that Kim Kardashian has promoted awareness of the Armenian Genocide already before — scoring moral points way ahead of the Vatican. We — the Kardashians, my Armenian sister, the world and the denialists — have been playing this perverse game of acceptance and denial for a long time already; far too long.
“The Armenian Genocide is a piece of history that is not allowed to be history. It continually seeps into the present and cannot find its own historical finality.”
Take, for example, Germany in the early 1920s, where there was, for a moment, a broad acceptance of the allegation of the “murder of a nation” carried out by the Ottoman leadership during World War I. Parts of Germany’s diplomatic documents on the Armenian Genocide were published as early as 1919. In expanded form, they have been published again and can today be easily bought in English translation or read online. These documents alone, stemming from the Ottomans’ prime ally during World War I, make it impossible not to use the “g” word.
Back to the 1920s and Germany: these diplomatic documents were discussed widely. Many experts wrote their own accounts for newspapers, and after some resistance from former military men and rightist commentators, awareness and acceptance of the charge — “murder of a nation” — solidified. But then, the former (German) denialists launched another counterattack, and the whole debate ended with essays justifying genocide (per se). Later came Hitler, another world war and an even greater crime against humanity.
The Armenian Genocide is a piece of history that is not allowed to be history. It continually seeps into the present and cannot find its own historical finality. Turkish denialism perpetually prevents all of them — the events of World War I in the Ottoman Empire, the victims and the perpetrators, their descendants, their successor states and their diasporas — from getting some peace. Not only the Armenians and the Turks today, but also the first great genocide of the 20th century — an integral part of our world history — is still being held hostage by a perverse fight over establishing the most basic facts that have long since been established over and over again.
Some scholars allege that genocide denialism is the last stage of genocide. But in the Armenian case, it was part and parcel of the unfolding process. Since 1915, the world has been exposed to a morbid battle over “truth,” which in fact is a battle over the right to commit genocide as Turkish denialism dramatically overshoots its goal. It is different from other genocide denialisms because it mainly advances justifications for whatever had happened. For one hundred years — periodically in the press of all major nations around the globe whenever somebody important uttered the “g” word, generations of humans have been exposed to reasons why the first major genocide of the 20th century was not worth remembering, simply had to be committed and why the victims were responsible for their own fate. The guilt of the perpetrators of 1915-1916 is clear; the guilt of those perpetuating genocide justifications upon humanity is beyond comprehension.
After the Armenian horrors of 1894-1896 under Abdul Hamid II (sultan of the Ottoman Empire at the time), Martin Rade, a prominent German Protestant pro-Armenian activist, reflected on the way the German press had excused and justified the violence against the Armenians. Others had even used the German equivalent of “genocide” in this context, many years before Raphael Lemkin coined his term. Rade was worried about the impact the continuous advancing of justifications for mass murder in the public sphere would have on ordinary Germans, who had been exposed to them for years in the German press. He wrote:
It is impossible to appreciate what kind of impression the way in which society and the press are discussing the Armenian Horrors will make on the generation of men growing up [today]. They are learning to worship an idol of opportunism and realpolitik, which, if it becomes dominant, will cleanse away all noble dispositions.*
Almost 120 years after Rade’s warning, we have to pause for a moment and think about what prolonged exposure to genocide denialism and genocide justifications have done to all the generations of humans growing up in the meantime. It has been part of the constant background noise of the bloody 20th century, whispering into our ears, that genocide can be gotten away with, that it can even be okay to commit it.
Every time somebody of importance in the world uses the “g” word, Turkish denialism responds, and my Armenian kid sister has to die again. For a century stuck in this genocidal circle of hell, it is time for us all to use the “g” word and break the spell once and for all.
*Footnote: Martin Rade in the Christliche Welt (1896) as quoted in Axel Meissner, “Martin Rades ‘Christliche Welt’ und Armenien” (Berlin, 2010), p. 80.