Commemorating Genocide: Reclaiming a Stolen Legacy


How many nations have to recognize the Armenian Genocide so that we can move ahead to the compensation phase?

In 103 years, more than 20 countries have recognized it. Do we need to wait until all 193 members of the United Nations extend recognition to move ahead? We do not think there is a magic figure and the game of recognition is not a measure to consolidate Armenian rights for compensation.

Only recognition by the Turkish state would be enough to unlock this century-old puzzle. To force Turkey to recognize the genocide, some key countries have to head the way, namely the US and Israel.

That path, of course, is problematic and fraught with many political hurdles. Those two countries and for that matter, any other country, must be compelled by a political incentive to decide to recognize the Armenian Genocide.

We must also qualify the nature of any recognition that comes our way. We have been expecting successive US administrations to recognize the genocide. Until today, all legislative drives have been behind commemorative resolutions which do not have any legal value, except putting the Turks on the hot seat. Similarly, the recognition by some 20-odd countries have commemorative value, unlike the ones passed in France and Germany.

The French resolution is sustained by a law. We almost were at the stage to complement the law recognizing the Genocide with a law punishing its denial but despite former French President Sarkozy’s tearful assurances and because of his political opportunism, political machinations played their role and France’s Constitutional Court reversed the resolution of the parliament making genocide denial punishable.

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Le Loi Gaysot, making the denial of the Holocaust punishable by law in France, is defined exactly as the law punishing genocide denialism. However, now, while denial of the Holocaust is punishable, the denial of the Armenian Genocide becomes an issue of freedom of speech for French citizens. The same political interests overturned the conviction of genocide denier Dogu Perinçek in Geneva.

Europe and the West sermonize the rest of the world about the separation of powers but they always find a legal fig leaf to trespass the same legal parameters. The creation of the state of Kosovo and the legal charade in dismantling the former Yugoslavia are cases in point as is letting the bodyguards of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan off the hook for their attacks on peaceful protestors in Washington.

Germany’s recognition of the Armenian Genocide was through an act of the parliament which went one step further than highlighting Turkish culpability, by recognizing Germany’s part in the genocide by inaction at the time, if not all-out collusion.

Genocide is defined in the Article II of the UN Convention on the Prevention and the Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948). The Ottoman Turkish government has perpetrated all five crimes defined in that article. And contrary to some attenuating claims that it was a crime committed in the panic of war, we come across document after document, mostly unearthed by Turkish historian Dr. Taner Akçam, that it was premediated and pre-planned. Talaat Pasha’s Black Book provides evidence enough for premeditation.

Sultan Abdul Hamid II always practiced population exchanges between the villayets to preserve Muslim majorities because every time the Eastern Question, or the Armenian Question, emerged at political forums, European forces would demand reforms in the Christian-majority regions. That had been a perennial Ottoman policy. The Young Turks (or members of Ittihad ve Terraqi, Committee for Union and Progress with the acronym CUP) had a more refined solution, as Talaat Pasha would later boast that “what Sultan Abdul Hamid could not achieve in 40 years, I was able to achieve in a few months, with the annihilation of the entire population of Anatolia.”

Because as the Turkish historian Ügur Umit Üngor states in his book, The Making of Modern Turkey, the Ittihadists had developed an ideology which they executed taking advantage of the war situation. An ideology takes a long time to develop and it is not possible to have it as an after-thought. The ideology called for ethnic cleansing, in today’s lingo, to create a unitary state.

Üngor writes, “The Young Turk regime subjected East Anatolia, an ethnically heterogeneous space, to various forms of nationalist population policies aimed at ethnically homogenizing the region. … It begins with the Young Turk seizure of power in the 1913 coup d’état and ends with the Young Turk rule in 1950.”

It is significant that the historian extends the Young Turk rule to 1950, because as Akçam has traced in his book, A Shameful Act, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, enlisted all the government officials who had blood on their hands in his government, creating a façade of modernism. Those officials not only executed a genocide, they were also instrumental in the formation of Ataturk’s Republican Party and its policies. They were the ones who orchestrated the mass murders of Kurds in Dersim and the organizers of Varlik Vergisi of 1942 to expropriate all remaining ethnic minorities — Armenians, Greeks and Jews.

The Kemalists were Nazi sympathizers and collaborators. The most prominent proof of that collaboration is that they managed to bring Talaat’s remains from Berlin to Turkey and then give him a state funeral in Istanbul. They also had their army ready to cross the border into Armenia if Hitler had won the war.

Today, we have a battle of the archives. Erdogan and his ilk have been challenging Armenians to open up their archives to prove their innocence. In the first place, those Turkish archives are available in a limited fashion and as Üngor testifies, they are sanitized by the removal of all incriminating documents.

Fortunately, no self-respecting historian will fall into the Turkish trap by relying on doctored archives, except for some people like Yusuf Halaçoglu, Justin McCarthy, Stanford Shaw, etc.

There is no demarcation between genocide recognition and vindication. We are reminded sometimes that the recognition phase has been satisfied and we need to move to the compensation phase. One does not contradict the other. On the contrary, they go hand-in-hand. Recognition is the basis for compensation.

We do not have a national policy defining what we mean by compensation. Different people have different perspectives on compensation. At one end of the spectrum there are people who have been alienated from their identity and they don’t care one way or another if and what the Turks compensate. Those are the second victims of the genocide, with the first, of course, being the martyrs who perished in Der Zor.

Then the other groups of Armenians who will be satisfied with an apology from the Turks. The next level demands monetary compensation. And the traditional political parties demand territorial restitution.

There is an erosion in the strength of this last demand, either led by Turks or based on common sense. People have begun asking why we need land while we can hardly manage what constitutes the Republic of Armenia. Additionally, who will go and populate those historic territories, as our numbers have dwindled over the years?

In theory, our demands must include all the above levels of compensation. If a burglar has stolen an item, he is the last one with the authority to ask the owner of that item what he or she intends to do with the item, if returned.

It is true that practically we do not have a significant number of Armenians to populate our historic ancestral lands. We should not feel guilty for that shortfall, because the guilt and onus lay with the Turks who decimated our nation. The Kurds had almost the same population during the Ottoman era. Today, they count anywhere between 20 to 25 million within the borders of the Republic of Turkey. Had the Armenian population been left unhampered in its historic lands, it would have multiplied at the same rate or somewhat slower scale, but they would number enough to populate the lands of their forefathers.

There were 2,000 to 2,500 churches, monasteries, fortresses and a tremendous amount of material and cultural wealth. Those are part of our national inheritance.

We cannot bring to life that entire generation which produced that wealth. But that apology should attempt to cover some of the tangibles lost.

All the rest are part of our national identity. Any element missing will compromise that identity. This may all seem unrealistic especially in the current political climate. But national groups do not only live in the present. They also have a future. That future can only be shaped by them. To propel a national group to its future, that group has to motorize its move through ideals.

All the elements of our demands constitute that ideal. We may achieve that ideal in 20 years, a 100 year or never. But at least, on the way, we will enjoy a dignified life.



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