“Thirty thousand Kurds have been killed here, and a million Armenians. And almost nobody dares to mention that. So I do.”
After Turkish author Orhan Pamuk made those remarks in 2005, rallies were held to burn his books and a hate campaign forced him to flee the country. When he returned, the future Nobel laureate faced a criminal trial.
He stood his ground: “What happened to the Ottoman Armenians in 1915 was a major thing that was hidden from the Turkish nation; it was a taboo. But we have to be able to talk about the past.”
Norm Naimark would agree: “A healthy national consciousness cannot abide nasty secrets hidden away in a locked drawer.”
For Turkey, there are practical consequences to the government’s official denial of genocide – scholars have been intimidated into doing research, denied access to research, and governments held hostage.
Naimark has edited a new volume of essays, just released by Oxford University Press: A Question of Genocide: Armenians and Turks at the End of the Ottoman Empire. After reading this book, no one will be able to deny the Armenian genocide. [Note: If you want to see how bad it was, do an image search on google for “Armenian genocide” — I will not use those photos. They are dehumanizing.]
For Naimark, whose provocative Stalin’s Genocides was widely discussed and critically praised, a critical question is how, in fact, do these frenzies happen?
Context is everything. “It is not too strong to state that war serves as a breeding ground for genocide,” he writes in his preface. War provides justifications and possibilities.
“In the minds of Turkish nationalists, the Armenians’ traditional designation as gâvur (inﬁdels) took on some of the elements of race prejudice and was reinforced by popular resentment of alleged Armenian wealth and treachery. That ‘Christians’ had driven the Ottomans out of southeastern Europe during the Balkan Wars of 1912–1913 and now threatened the integrity of the Anatolian lands of the Turks from outside and within made the Armenian threat even more dangerous from the Young Turk point of view.” The Young Turk ideology claimed the racial superiority of Turks to Armenians.
Envy and greed also play a role. A trigger is often rapid status reversals, “especially when class and ethnicity are both involved” as well as racial and religious prejudices.
According to Naimark, “the whirlwind of killing pulls in more and more victims and implicates an increasing number of assailants.”
Here’s what I find interesting: Genocide happens at a number of levels of government, each with their own methods of implementation and decision-making. “Every case of genocide is in some measure local,” he writes.
“Recent research on mass killing indicates that the crime of genocide needs to be thought of as occurring at various levels of society: at the very top, where decisions are taken that lead to mass murder; at the ‘meso-level,’ where regional ofﬁcials and their accomplices, the police and military, implement orders or interpret signals from the political leadership that lead to genocide; and at the most basic local level of society, where individuals participate in the killing, steal from the victims, move into their houses, or witness the depredations. Sometimes, locals try to save individuals and families, or protest against the deportation or murder of their neighbors, usually in vain.”
Genocide is not an “event” but a process – one that follows “unwritten rules of historical behavior.” The deportation and killing of Ottoman Armenians began in the spring of 1915 and accelerated over the next six months – but it wasn’t truly finished until the early 1920s, in the face of outside stabilizing political events.
The end product was the destruction of the Armenian community in Anatolia – as in most cases of genocide, the events took place in full view of the international community,” writes Naimark. In this case, the great powers were at war, and Realpolitik trumped humanitarian considerations.
As a result is a haunting betrayal of responsibility: “The conscience of contemporary world society is haunted by images of doomed Armenian women and children, wandering aimlessly in the Anatolian plateau, mad with hunger and grief, and by photographs of rows of corpses of murdered Armenian men and boys, guarded casually by Turkish soldiers.”
And the perps? W.H. Auden put it best:
All if challenged would reply
– ‘It was a monster with one red eye,
A crowd that saw him die, not I. —