Monday, April 24, 2017

Lest we forget: massacres then and now

Annually on April 24, people of Armenian ancestry and friends remember the genocide instigated (and denied) by the Ottoman Turkish regime in 1915. Perhaps 1.5 million Armenians died of hunger, disease, in forced marches, and by gun and bayonet. A major march will take place in Los Angeles, the metro area with the largest concentration of people of Armenian ancestry in the country.

The Ottomans fought in World War I in alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary as the Central Powers; their realm was dismembered in the aftermath. The victorious powers -- the Allies -- led by Britain and France, redrew the map of what had been the Ottoman "Near East." The land of the Armenians, an ancient people with a religious and ethnic culture distinct from their neighbors, ended up divided between a reconstituted modern Turkey and the emerging Soviet Union in what had been czarist Russia.

A postwar tribunal convicted Ottoman officers of organized mass murder of the Armenian victims, but Turkey allowed these offenders to escape. Many were hunted down and assassinated by Armenian vigilantes in Europe during the 1920s. Meanwhile Turkey denied that there had been a planned and coordinated genocide -- any bad things that Armenians suffered were just accidents of the wider war. Just recently, Taner Akcam, a Turkish historian at Clark University in Worcester, MA, has uncovered a document he insists is the "smoking gun" proving Ottoman intent and execution of the mass killings.

Mr. Akcam’s life’s work has been to puncture, fact by fact, document by document, the denials of Turkey.

“My firm belief as a Turk is that democracy and human rights in Turkey can only be established by facing history and acknowledging historic wrongdoings,” he said.

Today the national arrangements imposed on the region after World War I are collapsing amid religious strife, ethnic contention, local power struggles, and great power meddling. Much as we might instinctively call out Turkish responsibility for the Armenian slaughter, both Europe and the United States have plenty of responsibility for the current catastrophes in Iraq, Syria and beyond. Is the agony to which Syrians, Kurds, Iraqis and others are being subjected that different from what was done 102 years ago to Armenians? American diplomats in the Ottoman empire in 1915 provided much of the intelligence about the slaughter of Armenians that reached the rest of the world. But despite international recoil, and the establishment in war propaganda of "starving Armenians" as a trope of ritual horror, little was done to save individual Armenians. Then, as now, we did not open our arms to desperate refugees fleeing annihilation.

A much reduced nation state of Armenia emerged from the collapse of Soviet Russia in 1990. This map shows the area where Armenians once lived, superimposed on post World War I boundaries. How long will those boundaries endure?

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