Magann: Call It What It Is

Forget politics — genocide denial is never excusable.

by Matthew Magann | 4/19/18 2:15am

The desert outside Deir ez-Zour is full of bones. They tumble out of hillsides, thousands of weathered skulls and femurs covered in dust. Up north, in Ras al-Ain, farmers plow through a mass grave, growing their crops amid fields of bones. In Deir ez-Zour itself, some of the remains lay respectfully under the floor of a church — or they did, until the Islamic State occupied the city and blasted the memorial apart. These are the bones of women and children. The men, after all, were often killed where they stood, leaving their families to endure the forced marches out to the extermination sites. 

The people who died there in the Syrian Desert did nothing to deserve their fate. They were Armenian, and for that the Ottomans killed them in a vast, orchestrated extermination. In 1944, Raphael Lemkin, a Jewish lawyer from Poland, created a new term for that kind of systematic murder, the kind suffered first by the Armenians and later by his own people. He called it genocide.

Make no mistake — the Ottoman Empire committed genocide against its Armenian inhabitants. Hundreds of eyewitness accounts detail the killings. Mass graves litter eastern Turkey and northern Syria. Photos of starving families marching to their deaths, testimonies of survivors, ruined villages and Ottoman documents demonstrating genocidal intent provide evidence that leaves the reality of the genocide beyond doubt. The International Association of Genocide Scholars recognizes the atrocities as a genocide, as do 48 U.S. states. Shockingly, however, there are still those who deny that the genocide ever happened.

April 24 marks Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day. Each year around this date, U.S. presidents release statements acknowledging and condemning the “mass atrocity” suffered by the Armenian people. Notably, their press releases always commemorate “Armenian Remembrance Day.” The word genocide is conspicuously and intentionally absent; no president except Ronald Reagan has been willing to use the word.

As the successor state to the Ottoman Empire, Turkey leads the charge in Armenian Genocide denial. While it admits that the massacres occurred, Turkey denies the systematic nature of the killings and rejects the term genocide, dismissing the murder campaign as a consequence of World War I. The Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs website even contains apparent justifications: Armenians, the ministry claims, “committed massacres against local Muslims,” “agitated for a separate state” and “with pride committed mass treason.” Turkey criminalizes recognition of the Armenian Genocide, labelling the acknowledgement of this criminal act as “insulting Turkishness.” And America goes along with it.

Turkey remains a key U.S. ally in the Middle East, one that America is loath to offend. Undoubtedly, recognizing the Armenian Genocide would strain U.S.-Turkish relations. Turkey considers the issue a critical one, and the Turkish government spends millions of dollars lobbying to prevent U.S. acknowledgement of the genocide. But does friendship with Turkey justify America’s participation in this deliberate burial of an atrocity? 

American politicians consider condemnation of genocide a bargaining chip instead of the absolute it ought to be. This suggests that, to a degree, they find genocide denial tolerable — which should be disturbing.

In middle school, I read Anne Frank’s diary. My class learned about Auschwitz, the trains and the gas chambers. I still vividly remember the elderly man who visited my school, who spoke to us and showed us the faint number tattooed up his forearm. Years later, I found myself in France, visiting a concentration camp. I saw the pictures: black and white photos of people crowded into the room where I stood, innocent people condemned to imprisonment and death simply for being Jewish. As much as anti-Semitism still resurfaces, the Holocaust is at least something that society strives to remember. 

But the Armenian Genocide isn’t on the public’s mind. Turkey manufactures a controversy over whether it even happened, and in the confusion, the details get lost. Few survivors remain, and the issue seems detached, something that happened long ago and far away. But the facts of the genocide have not gone away, nor has the suffering of the Armenian people. 

And for all that America has remembered the Holocaust and pledged “never again,” even knowledge of the Holocaust has begun to slip away. Last Thursday, April 12, marked Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. In recognition, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany commissioned a survey of 1,350 Americans to gauge Holocaust awareness. The results were startling. Forty-one percent of those surveyed were unable to identify what Auschwitz was. That figure rose to two-thirds for millennials. Similarly, 31 percent of respondents believed that two million or fewer Jews died in the Holocaust (the real figure is around six million). Again, the younger generation displayed a lower awareness, with 41 percent of millennials placing the Jewish death toll at two million or lower. The survey suggests the unthinkable: our society has begun to forget the Holocaust.

If the past is allowed to slip away from public conscience, genocide will happen again. After the international community failed to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide, others noted the precedent. Adolf Hitler, on the eve of his invasion of Poland, proposed a genocide of the Polish people; after all, he allegedly asked his commanders, “Who speaks today of the extermination of the Armenians?”  

The systematic extermination of the Armenians was a genocide, and the world needs to recognize it as such. That at least offers some justice for the Armenian people. Beyond that, genocide ought to be established as an absolute wrong, inexcusable in any context. Acknowledging past genocides forms a key piece of that. Society must remember the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide and all other genocides, past and present. We must vow never to let those memories fade, and to never repeat the horrors of the past. Then, perhaps, we may say those words with conviction: “Never again.”