Friday, April 24, 2015, is a sacred day, for it is the 100th commemoration of the Armenian Genocide. A disparate group — from genocide scholars to Kim Kardashian (who observed the event by traveling to Armenia on her show) — have fought to bring this event to light. My history classes examine the United States’ reaction to the Armenian Genocide, and here I extend a discussion to the entire Elon community.
A prosperous religious and ethnic minority, Armenians kept their religious and cultural heritage intact under the Ottoman Empire (mostly modern day Turkey). By the late 19th century, Armenians were considered the major impediment to this expansionist plan resulting from the dissolution of the Muslim Ottoman Empire and a renewed vision of a Turkish empire.
The cover of World War I provided the Turkish government an opportunity to solve “the Armenian question.” On April 24, 1915, Turkish soldiers arrested several hundred of the Armenian intelligentsia in Constantinople (Istanbul), marking the beginning of the genocide, also known as the Great Catastrophe. Considered the first modern genocide because of its swiftness and use of technology, coded cipher telegrams were sent to all the Turkish governors ordering the evacuation and execution of all Armenians. Before long, men faced prompt execution while women and children were subject to death marches into Syria.
Up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed in the genocide from 1915-1918. Those who survived dispersed to various parts of the globe. The West knew of the horror through reports of British, French, German and American officials, diplomats and missionaries but enacted no concerted response. After the war, indifference, realpolitik and the isolationist mood of the major powers left the Armenians largely abandoned and forgotten.
How do we explain this void in our collective minds about the Great Catastrophe? A couple reasons come to mind. First, Woodrow Wilson, the U.S. President during WWI, explicitly noted that the United States declared war only on Germany, and not on all the Central Powers, which included the Ottoman Empire. Second, there were few Armenian intellectuals alive after the war to impart their story to the world. And so as time passed, memory faded.
The lessons of silence on this matter, and how it can influence the future, cannot be disregarded. Adolf Hitler’s comments to some of his generals in Fall 1939 demonstrate what is at stake. He reportedly noted that history only remembers success, not its methods, rhetorically asking, “Who nowadays talks of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
It is our duty and honor to remember the victims of the Armenian Genocide. The Turkish government has denied that any genocide took place, a veritable crime in and of itself. However, a few courageous Turkish historians and humanists have worked to tell the truth within their country. We should all be aware of how such abominations can occur and how to avoid a reoccurrence. In the future, affirming dialogue and not denial or the absence of memory is the best response to this most horrendous and painful of experiences.
Rod Clare, Associate Professor of History in the History and Geography department