In Armenian Holocaust, Echoes of Genocides Past and Future
The terror began on April 24, 104 years ago, in Constantinople, the ancient city now known as Istanbul. On the orders of military authorities, more than 250 prominent Armenian intellectuals and civic leaders were arrested and taken from the city -- and from Ankara -- to a prison in the interior of the country. There, they were shot.
The genocide of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire had begun. This horror would have an unfathomably lethal impact on 20th century Europe, and continues to reverberate in 21st U.S. politics.
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The word “genocide” was not yet in common usage in April 1915, but the first of the century’s episodes of mass murder motivated by racial or religious hatred was underway. The Armenians, Christians living in Muslim-dominated Turkey, fit both categories and when the bloodbath ended, the Turks had killed some 1.5 million Armenian men, women, and children.
There was little in the way of armed resistance because -- and this was a grim irony -- most able-bodied men of an ethnic group accused of disloyalty were in uniform, having loyally enlisted in the Ottoman Empire’s armed forces at the outbreak of World War I. No genocide ever makes sense, but this one featured the perverse specter of Armenian soldiers being pulled out of the ranks and executed or imprisoned in slave labor camps. While this was going on, their wives, sons, daughters, parents, and siblings were attacked by organized vigilante groups that raped women, kidnapped children, and randomly put civilians to the sword.
In confronting the true magnitude of the Nazi extermination camps after the end of World War II, Winston Churchill would later say that the world had been confronted by “a crime that has no name.” Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew who survived the war, had provided a name, however, and “genocide” was in time codified as an international crime against humanity.
As early as 1895, the New York Times employed a different word now associated with genocide: “Another Armenian Holocaust,” read a headline about a pogrom that occurred 20 years before 1915. In other words, the concept of ethnic cleansing wasn’t unknown. But what happened in Turkey during the carnage of World War I was that the power of an entire nation was harnessed in such a cause. This was the first. It wouldn’t be the last.
It was a crime covered extensively in the American press and denounced by U.S. officials and diplomats as it was unfolding. Theodore Roosevelt called the slaughter of the Armenians “the greatest crime of the war.”
These protestations had no effect on Turkey, which was not then an ally of the United States. World opinion, then as now, only counted for so much -- as evil men had noticed. On the eve of Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939, Adolf Hitler invoked the fate of Armenia to allay any qualms his military officers might have about the systematic war crimes the Third Reich was about to unleash on the Poles -- and Jews wherever they found them.
“After all,” Hitler said on August 22, 1939, “who speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
The answer to that question, repeated through the decades in reply to shameful denials by the Turkish government, was this: Americans do. We remembered the Armenians. But Turkey is a NATO country and the last U.S. president to apply the world “genocide” to the Armenian Holocaust was Ronald Reagan. He did it only once, in his first year in office, before the State Department convinced him -- as it has convinced every subsequent president, including Donald Trump -- to avoid the term.