Commentary: Our Debt of Gratitude to Fridtjof Nansen


By Edmond Y. Azadian

The destiny of the Armenian people has been so tragic throughout history that no room has been left in their psyche to be grateful to anyone.

Such a bitter outlook on the world has eroded any feeling of thankfulness to the world around us, because we have come to believe that all forces in the world have conspired to destroy Armenia and the Armenian people.

If that sentiment can be dismissed as a national phobia, facts of history remain to convince us that the Great Powers idly watched the destruction of the Armenian people only to emerge later with an outpouring of charity to help the survivors.

For example, Ambassador Henry Morgenthau had a great empathy towards the Armenians. Although he corrected the record on the Genocide, he was not able to convince the US government at the time to intervene on behalf of the Armenians to contain the slaughter. Serving the same administration in the US was Admiral Bristol stationed in Istanbul to undo whatever sympathy was generated in Washington towards the plight of the Armenians by Morgenthau.

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Powerful individuals have stood by the Armenians motivated by humanitarian concerns. Maria Jacobson, Jakob “Papa” Kunzler and Stanley Kerr come to mind immediately. But the deeds of the great Norwegian scientist, Nobel Prize winner and monumental humanitarian Fridtjof Nansen stand out among all other selfless

helpers, because of the historic ramifications of his efforts.

Nansen’s deeds and memory were already in the process of fadingwhen Armenia’s government decided to mark the 150th anniversary of his birth by creating an imposing monument in his memory in one of the parks in Yerevan.

Attending the ceremony were Norway’s foreign minister, Jonas Gahr Store, and Nansen’s granddaughter, who received, as a memento, a red Armenian passport, which allows her to visit Armenia without a visa and reside there as long as she desires.

The symbolism of the memento was not lost on the audience, since her grandfather had issued Nansen Passports to 320,000 stateless survivors of the Genocide who were then able to travel and settle in host countries, to try to piece their lives together. Nansen (1861-1930) was a scientist and adventurer who explored the North Pole and the icy hinterland of Greenland, and published his findings in books for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1922.

Later on, he gradually turned to politics and helped his country to shed their Swedish overlords. He became Norway’s first ambassador to Great Britain. In 1919, he became the president of the Norwegian Union for the League of Nations and at the Peace Conference in Versailles, he was an influential lobbyist for the adoption of the League Covenant and for the recognition of the rights of small nations. That is where he came into contact with the desperate Armenian delegation and was exposed to the plight of the Armenians.

As President Wilson’s 14 Points were not adopted and the Sevres Treaty was not ratified, many stateless persons were left to fend for themselves to survive and to resettle in other countries. At that point, Nansen’s presence on the world political scene gave a glimmer of hope to the war refugees, among them, of course, the Armenians. In 1921, the Council of the League instituted a High Commission for Refugees and asked Nansen to head it. Nansen devised a way to help those refugees by inventing his eponymous passport, which was recognized by 52 governments.

In his capacity as high commissioner, he negotiated the population exchange between Greece and Turkey, after Kemalist forces dumped Armenians and Greeks into the sea, following the razing of Smyrna.

Later on, Nansen took a direct interest in the lives of the Armenians as the League of Nations invited him to save the remnants of the Armenians people from extinction. He drew up a political, industrial and financial plan for creating a national home for the Armenians. In 1925, Armenia was already under Soviet rule and any help within its borders was suspect for Western countries.

Equally suspicious were the Soviet rulers who scrutinized every foreign humanitarian endeavor to detect some political motives behind the deeds. Nansen was able to convince Georgy Chicherin, the Soviet Commissar for Foreign Affairs, to allow the commission of experts to travel to Armenia to develop the arid territory into a livable national homeland. The plan was to implement an irrigation plan in the Sardarabad region to resettle 50,000 refugees. The result of the survey was published in 1927 by the League of Nations in a document titled, “Scheme for the settlement of Armenian refugees.”

The plan was not allowed to be implemented by the League of Nations, as the Soviets had been developing their own irrigation programs for Armenia. However, in the meantime, Nansen was able to resettle 10,000 Armenian refugees in Yerevan and 40,000 in Syria and Lebanon.

Nansen published a book in 1927 outlining his mission to Armenia, titled Armenia and the Near East. The book covers the entire trip to the delegation traveling through Greece, Turkey, Georgia and eventually Armenia. Reading the book one is convinced that Nansen’s interest goes beyond the goal of the mission, as he delves into the detailed history of every country and city visited on the way. Arriving in Armenia, Nansen surveys the terrain for the irrigation plans, but he also relives the history of the land with some lyrical passages on the landscape. The last part of the book is a condensed history of Armenia, revealing a deep knowledge of the land and an unfettered empathy toward its people.

However, he makes a very poignant remark, defining an almost fatal flaw in the character of the Armenian people: “It has been the tragic destiny of the Armenian people to always distinguish themselves in the service of foreigners, whereas they have failedto govern their own country in any length of time.”

As Armenia honors Nansen’s memory, hopefully, it will benefit also from his message to come to grips with the challenge of modern times for self-government.

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