Today, April 24, is observed around the world as the centennial of the beginning of the Armenian genocide, in the Ottoman Turkish Empire. (The featured image is an old Associated Press photo of Armenians being rounded up at gunpoint in 1915.) There are quite a few Jewish confluences with this catastrophe, beginning with the fact that just last week, the Jewish world observed Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was commemorated last Sunday (April 19).
But historically, the first confluence is that of Henry Morgenthau, Sr., a German-Jewish immigrant who, as the U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1913 to 1916, championed the Armenian cause — publicizing the atrocities, raising his voice in protest and in raising money for humanitarian relief efforts.
Raphael Lemkin, an international lawyer who was personally devastated by the Holocaust, was first motivated by the plight of the Armenians, to embark upon his lifelong cause, coining the word “genocide” and making it a crime. And (L’havdil) Hitler is said to have first envisioned annihilating the Jews by asking rhetorically, “Who remembers the Armenians?”
It is somewhat puzzling that the modern Turkish state has been so vehement in denying the Armenian genocide to this day, since these atrocities occurred under a different regime — the Ottoman Empire as opposed to today’s republic. Turkish spokespeople argue that what befell the Armenians occurred within the context of World War I, with ethnic Turks and Armenians fighting each other. This may even be partially true; there may well have been some Turkish Armenians supporting the Russians, where many Armenians lived on both sides of this embattled border. But this is no excuse for the wholesale slaughter of unarmed civilians that took place.
The genocide was likely triggered by the disastrous offensive that the Turks stupidly launched into the Caucasus Mountains, during the winter of 1914-15, where thousands of invading soldiers froze to death. The generals and other officials responsible were surely looking for scapegoats. Sounds familiar, no?
Yet Turkey’s stand seems to have softened this year, with the prime minister issuing a statement of remorse, which nonetheless stopped short of invoking the “g” word. And both Israel and the U.S., who have valued Turkey as an ally, have studiously stayed away from labeling those events as genocide. But since Israel’s relationship with Turkey has frayed terribly in recent years, this realpolitik diplomatic excuse seems outdated, at least for Israel.
This is how Foreign Policy magazine looked at this issue in today’s e-newsletter:
Armenians are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the genocide that killed 1.5 million Armenians during civil conflict within the Ottoman Empire during World War I. Ankara’s sensitivity to the use of the word “genocide” has prompted diplomatic tensions over the past week in the lead-up to today’s events: The Turkish government recently recalled ambassadors to Vatican City and Austria for their use of the word, and sent diplomats to Washington to lobby against including the word in President Obama’s remarks. President Obama said in his comments that the deaths in 1915 were “terrible carnage,” but avoided the controversial term. More than 20 nations have used the term, most recently Germany. German President Joachim Gauck said yesterday in Berlin that Germany shares responsibility for the deaths as the Ottoman Empire’s ally in World War I.
At a memorial in Yerevan, Armenia, today, foreign leaders called on Ankara to acknowledge the genocide. “Important words have already been said in Turkey, but others are still expected, so that shared grief can become shared destiny,” French President Francois Hollande said. Russian President Vladimir Putin also spoke today in Yerevan, saying “There is no and cannot be justification for mass murder of people.” Ankara’s aversion about acknowledging the events of 1915 may stem from not only nationalism, but concerns about reparations, writes the New York Times.