By Mary Fitzgerald,
Avenue 24 April 1915 runs through a neighbourhood of my adopted city of Marseille, where the names on many local businesses betray their Armenian origins. This district in France’s second-largest city is known affectionately as ‘Little Armenia’. The avenue that bisects it is named after the date when what many historians and a growing number of countries now call a genocide began in Ottoman Turkey.
An estimated 1.5 million Armenians were subsequently killed against the backdrop of World War One. The legacy of those mass killings and the forced deportations that accompanied them – which Turkey still insists was not genocide – remains a running sore in the region and beyond.
On April 24 this year, Armenia’s president Serzh Sargsyan described the killing of Armenians a century ago as “unprecedented in terms of volume and ramifications” at that stage in history. “Around 1.5 million human beings were slaughtered merely for being Armenian,” he said.
The 100th anniversary of the killings reopened the debate over whether what happened that year constituted genocide.
An increasing number of nations have backed Armenia’s position that it was indeed genocide.
Turkey argues that the mass killings were a tragic chapter in a vicious war, but not a planned genocide.
In an interview with me in 2010, Turkey’s then president, Abdullah Gul, outlined the government’s position on the issue, saying Turkey would support a commission of inquiry composed of historians who would examine archival and other evidence to see if the atrocities collectively fitted the definition of genocide.
It’s an issue that touches on all kinds of sensitivities, past and present, in Turkey.
In April this year, Pope Francis sparked a diplomatic row by calling the massacre “the first genocide of the 20th century”, leading Turkey to accuse him of inciting hatred.
At an Armenian rite Mass in St Peter’s Basilica to mark the centenary of the killings, Francis became the first head of the Catholic Church to publicly use the word “genocide” to describe them.
The forced exiling that accompanied the massacre in 1915 caused Armenians to scatter across the world, so becoming one of the world’s largest diasporas, now estimated at up to 10 million people.
The countries where the highest concentrations settled – including France, which is said to have the world’s third-biggest Armenian population – have tended to be more sympathetic to the call to describe the mass killings as genocide.
At a memorial speech in the Armenian capital Yerevan in April, French president Francois Hollande said a law passed in France in 2001, recognising it as genocide, was “an act of truth” and he argued: “Denial amounts to the repeat of massacres.”
France is one of a dozen EU member states to take this position. The recent decision by the German parliament to use the word ‘genocide’ unsettled Ankara, given that Germany is Turkey’s biggest trading partner in the EU and is home to many ethnic Turks.
The US and others, who are keen to maintain good relations with an important regional partner like Turkey, have avoided using the term. US president Barack Obama pledged while running for election in 2008 that he would use the word “genocide” to describe the killings, but he has failed to do so. Boasting the second-largest military in NATO, Turkey is a crucial ally for Washington, even if relations have become somewhat strained in recent years.
Ireland, which has cultivated good links with Turkey in recent years and is considered by Ankara to be one of the most supportive of its bid to join the EU, has also baulked at using the word.
In a statement issued during the anniversary in April, the Department of Foreign Affairs acknowledged the “terrible events which resulted in the tragic deaths of very large numbers of the Armenian population in the Ottoman Empire” but did not describe them as genocide, instead calling for Armenia and Turkey to engage in reconciliation.
Here in Marseille, the memory of that time is preserved in the form of a stone memorial on Avenue 24 April 1915 and in the lives of the estimated 80,000 residents of Armenian descent. The city boasts eight Armenian churches, one cathedral and a bilingual school, where French-Armenians can study the language, culture and history of their homeland.
They have established their own heritage centre, which attempts to document the past.
The Armenian community in Marseille, and France more generally, dates back to before the killings of 1915, but the majority fled here after the massacre.
Armenians played a prominent role in the French Resistance during World War Two and have distinguished themselves in French intellectual life, particularly as artists, musicians and writers.
As Europe grapples with massive numbers of refugees fleeing violence and persecution, while xenophobia rises at home, perhaps it would do well to recall a time when desperate Armenians sought and were given sanctuary here.