The Sunday Times (London), UK

January 25, 2015 Sunday

As you reflect on Nazi horrors, remember an earlier holocaust


Among the evidence brought by prosecutors at the Nuremberg war crimes
tribunal was an account of a speech Adolf Hitler gave in Obersalzburg
to his generals on the eve of the invasion of Poland, to steel them
for the atrocities to come. In it the Nazi leader put the rhetorical
question: "Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the

If the intention was to suggest that the slaughter of millions of
Polish Jews and other "inferior races" would be forgotten by history,
the Führer has been proved wrong. What became known as the Holocaust
is now seen as one of the defining events of the 20th century. On
Tuesday we will be reflecting on it with particular intensity, as it
marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz
concentration camp in Nazioccupied Poland, where an estimated 1m Jews
were exterminated: January 27 is commemorated as Holocaust Memorial

Yet while the continental scale and industrialised efficiency of the
Nazis' genocidal campaign against the Jews was unique, there was, as
Hitler implied, an antecedent: and this year marks its 100th
anniversary. As the website of Britain's Holocaust Memorial Day Trust
points out: "The term 'genocide' was first used in 1933, in a paper
presented to the League of Nations by the Polish lawyer Raphael
Lemkin. He devised the concept in response to the atrocities
perpetrated against the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire
between 1915 and 1918." The website goes on to explain: "It is unknown
how many Armenians were murdered in this period but estimates range
from 1.3m to 1.9m."

That would suggest roughly threequarters of the Armenian race were
wiped out - a greater proportion than even Hitler managed in respect
of Europe's Jewish population. Yet this is a remarkably littleknown
fact. There is a curious inverse relation between this genocide and
that of the Jewish people. The latter was downplayed by the British
and American governments while it was taking place, largely because
President Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill were concerned not
to give the public the faintest reason to believe Hitler's claim that
the war was being fought "for the Jews". It was only with the
televised trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961 that the scale and true
nature of the Holocaust impinged on public consciousness in Britain
and America.

The opposite process happened with the genocide of the Armenian
people. The shocked US consul in Aleppo in 1915-16 reported in
dispatches "a gigantic plundering scheme and a final blow to
extinguish the Armenian race". Churchill in his 1929 book The World
Crisis wrote: "In 1915 the Turkish government began and ruthlessly
carried out the infamous general massacre and deportations of
Armenians in Asia Minor ... whole districts were blotted out in one
administrative holocaust ... there is no reasonable doubt that this
crime was planned and executed for political reasons."

But nowadays the British and American governments refuse to attach the
word "genocide", let alone "holocaust", to what happened to the
Armenians. This is pure realpolitik. Modern-day Armenia - which
represents about 10% of the landmass of its historic territory - is a
poor landlocked country of no great strategic significance. Turkey, by
contrast, is a vast country, a Nato member of tremendous geostrategic
importance - and its government has long been intensely neuralgic on
the Armenian issue.

As the eminent lawyer Geoffrey Robertson pointed out in his recent
book An Inconvenient Genocide, while the British government
disingenuously states that it has asked Turkey to work with the
Armenians "to address their common history", "this is not possible as
long as Turkey maintains its obsessive denialism and uses Article 301
of its Penal Code to threaten those of its citizens who 'insult
Turkishness' by referring to the treatment of Armenians in 1915 as
genocide." Even its great novelists, such as Orhan Pamuk and Elif
Shafak, have faced prosecution under Article 301, the latter when some
of her fictional characters spoke about the genocide.

It is not as if the current government of Turkey needs to defend the
reputation of the ultra-nationalist regime that controlled the Ottoman
Empire in 1915-18, any more than the current German government would
feel the need to justify what the Nazis did during the Second World
War. Yet it does: last November the director-general for policy
planning at the Turkish foreign ministry, Altay Cengizer, said his
government was bracing itself for the 100th anniversary of "the
events" of 1915 and that "Turkey does not deserve to appear before the
world as a nation that committed genocide ... these claims target our
very identity".

It seems to be lost on such people - though not on the many wonderful
Turks I have met who despair of their government - that one reason
Germany has such a high standing in international opinion is that it
is open and contrite about the crimes of an earlier era.

Obviously such matters are difficult to talk about, once you get down
to grisly details beyond mere numbers. In essence: because they saw
the presence of the minority Christian Armenians in Anatolia as a
potential threat to the disintegrating Ottoman Empire, the government
known as the Young Turks implemented a plan - to quote that brave
Turkish commentator Cengiz Aktar - "to engineer a homogeneous
population composed of Muslims designated to form the backbone of the
yet-to-be-invented Turkish nation. Thus there was no place for
Christian populations."

>From April 24, 1915, the Armenian population saw their menfolk
murdered en masse and women and children sent on what amounted to
death marches (or "relocation") into the Syrian desert. The language
used in justification was a foul foreshadowing of that later employed
by the Nazis against the Jews. Thus Dr Mehmed Resid, the governor of
Diyarbakir province: "The Armenian bandits were a load of harmful
microbes that had afflicted the body of the fatherland. Was it not the
duty of the doctor to kill the microbes?"

Another parallel is that the Armenians, like the Jews of Europe,
tended to be successful traders, wealthier than the general
population. There was similar profit to be made by their expropriation
and removal, with the Ottoman Treasury the principal beneficiary.

While the bacillus of anti-semitism continues to infect men's minds,
the attempted annihilation of the Armenians - the first nation to
become Christian, long before the Roman Empire - also has its modern
version; though in this case the incubator is a form of religious
rather than racial ideology.

Across swathes of the Middle East Christians are suffering
persecution. In Syria and Iraq the forces of Isis offer them the deal
the Turks made to some of the (more fortunate) Armenian women and
children a century ago: you will be spared, but only if you convert to
Islam. And in a cruel echo of what happened to thousands of Armenian
churches during the massacres, Isis has destroyed the Armenian
Genocide Memorial Church and Museum in the Syrian town of Deir ez-Zor.

Much though some people wish to eradicate or deny the evidence for
what happened to the Armenians a century ago, this year - of all years
- it should be commemorated. But don't expect Washington or
Westminster to make the effort.


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