24 April 2015

The Medz Yeghern, 100 years on

On the 24th of April 1915, the Turkish government rounded up around 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders in Constantinople, and ordered them to be taken to holding camps in Syria and in the Turkish interior. This action left the Armenian community leaderless, confused and incapable of resistance to the heinous, hideous enormities that were being planned against it by the Young Turks leadership, as its answer to the ‘Armenian question’. These actions included robbery, torture, rape, mass killings and death marches into the Syrian Desert; the death toll amongst the Armenian community at the hands of the Ottomans was as high as 1.5 million. In addition, hundreds of thousands of other ethnic Christians – Assyrians and Greeks living under Ottoman rule – likewise perished at the Ottomans’ hands. This much is the history, and it is very well-documented. The Armenian Genocide – and it very much is a genocide, as Pope Francis made very clear recently and as His Beatitude Patriarch Kirill has held for a long time – was a definitive event in Central Asian history, if not world history. Other genocides in history, including the Holocaust of the Jews, were made possible only by reference to the Great Crime against the Armenian people.

It is noteworthy that the Great Crime happened under the watch of a ‘modernising’ government, which espoused the nationalist and liberal ideology which characterised the rising bourgeois class of 19th century Europe. The Armenian genocide was of an entirely new class of crime, but it was one which was made possible by an entire preceding century of colonial warfare, which saw, among other things, the ignominious invention of the concentration camp by the British Empire in South Africa. World War I was ultimately a war between the rival empires of Germany and Britain, and the logic which led to the Ottoman Empire’s attempted extermination of the Armenian people was an imperialist logic.

And the Armenian genocide cannot be considered in isolation from the First World War, nor from the rest of 20th century European history generally. Though Turkish Muslims figure prominently among the guilty, the Great Crime cannot be written off as a sin unique to the Islamic world. The crime was undertaken by Ottoman Turks, but it was undertaken primarily by Westernising Ottoman Turks – the Committee of Union and Progress – who espoused first free-market and then German national-liberal economics, who espoused the positivism of Auguste Comte, who sought to politically reform Ottoman Sunni Islam through itjihad, who sought access to European institutions, and who committed themselves to same legitimating ideological force of nationalism that defined the European order after 1848.

Though many Armenians themselves participated in the earliest efforts of the Committee, it was precisely out of such nationalist concerns that Armenians came to be seen as potential traitors to Russia. Also, it was precisely out of this positivist ideology of the Young Turks that Armenian life came to be considered expendable – a necessary sacrifice to Turkey’s scientifically-guided material and social evolution. Islam, insofar as Islam was a cultural marker of Turkish national awareness, is also responsible, but its doctrines are not implicated nearly to the same degree.

In addition, the genocide was committed with the knowing, willful complicity, and in some cases active cooperation, of their German and Austrian allies. It is imperative to hold modern governments responsible for recognising and atoning for the genocide, including the modern governments of Turkey, Germany and Austria, because these modern European nations were built upon the same ideologies and historical forces which ground so many Armenians into the desert sands. There is Armenian blood in the foundations of the Turkish state, and of the European supra-state order insofar as that order includes, prefigures and legitimates the Turkish state as it was formed from the ashes of the Ottoman one.

Turkey denies that what happened was genocide, precisely because it fears its own foundations upon a wholly-secular nationalist ideology are too brittle to hold up under such critique. Turkish national pride would not then, fearing Armenian disloyalty, allow them to live; Turkish national pride will not now, fearing the justice of Armenian claims, permit them to be spoken of. But nations cannot be built or sustain themselves upon lies in this way. Either Turkey will admit the truth of the historical crimes on which she was built and shift to a sounder foundation, or she will fracture and splinter. As the fundamental antinomies in a secular order founded upon ethno-religious genocide become ever clearer, either Turkey will crack down further upon free expression, or the truth will come to light. Though Europe’s guilt – including Germany’s and Austria’s and even Britain’s – is clearly lesser than Turkey’s, her problem is nonetheless far thornier in some ways. How does one address having been a willing accomplice in such a crime? How does one address having been an instigator? How does one address being a bystander, but one which perpetuates the lies and the distorted anthropology through which the crimes were allowed to happen?

I get a strange and nagging feeling that Solzhenitsyn’s storytelling in particular would be of use in this question. His writing usually carries with it the theme which he himself expressed pithily in 1974: ‘[Violence] does not always, not necessarily, openly throttle the throat, more often it demands from its subjects only an oath of allegiance to falsehood, only complicity in falsehood.’ Neither Europe nor the United States should take this as an opportunity to beat Turkey over the head with its moral superiority and smug self-satisfaction, wrapping itself in the hypocritical smokescreen of ‘human rights’. The Armenian genocide, as the template of genocide from which all others since it have drawn, needs to be treated with greater depth; doing anything less would be complicity in the same falsehoods which allowed it to arise.

EDIT: President Obama has elected not to recognise the Armenian Genocide at its centennial commemoration. Jack Quirk sums up my attitude toward this sheer and wilful act of cowardice perfectly.
Turkey’s denial of the genocidal nature of the Ottoman actions against the Armenians is simply absurd. The decision of the American administration to acquiesce to the absurdity is craven. Suppression of truth cannot be justified in terms of pragmatism. Whatever short term inconveniences may attend angering the Turkish government by stating a simple fact, the United States, in the long term, doesn’t need an ally that refuses to face reality.

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