“When the Turkish authorities gave the orders for these deportations, they were merely giving the death warrant to a whole race; they understood this well, and, in their conversations with me, they made no particular attempt to conceal the fact. . . I am confident that the whole history of the human race contains no such horrible episode as this. The great massacres and persecutions of the past seem almost insignificant when compared to the sufferings of the Armenian race in 1915”.
– Henry Morgenthau
U.S. Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, 1913-1916
Before Hitler’s concentrations camps, before the Cambodian “killing fields”, before Rwanda, there was the Syrian desert. The 20th century was barely 15 years old when it jumped out of the gate to establish itself as a dystopian chapter in world history. On this date in 1915, Armenian intellectuals, clerics, journalists, doctors, and community leaders in Constantinople received knocks on their doors. On the direct order of Ottoman Interior Minister Talat Pasha, the Armenians were taken to holding centers for detention. And later, deportation. Thus began a barbaric campaign of murder, starvation, long marches, and ethnic cleansing: the Armenian genocide which claimed the lives of 1.5 million souls.
I have, for a long time, detested the now-trite admonition about “those who don’t remember history are doomed to repeat it”. I detest it not because it isn’t true, but because it goes – decade after decade after decade -unheeded. Of course we fail to remember history. And of course we repeat it. When the world stage is divided into malevolent thugs on one side, and craven deserters on the other side, it will inevitably be repeated.
A more apt assessment can be found in Hannah Arendt’s observation about “the banality of evil”. The deranged, defensive statements issued by the Turkish government to this very day, that the Armenians were slaughtered as some sort of “by-product” of the violence of World War I, exemplifies the lengths some will go to to rationalize, excuse, and quite literally defend atrocities – the intellectual equivalent of “shit happens” as an explanation for savagery.
Armenian genocide victims, photographed by Armin T. Wegner, a German soldier and medic who was an eyewitness to Ottoman crimes:
During these past few weeks leading up to today’s Centennial, we’ve seen prominent world figures show us what they’re made of. Pope Francis righteously took a stand of truth and moral courage, provoking the unhinged ire of Turkish officials. I think I can speak for all Armenians when I say it was a thing of beauty. In stark contrast Barack Obama, the purported “leader” of the free world, engaged in a sad, embarrassing spectacle of capitulation to Turkey’s gag rule on the G-word, and sits in a corner like a scolded child while his extravagant campaign promises flush down the toilet in a death spiral.
Gutless American Presidents notwithstanding, Armenians have survived and flourished in their diaspora. My grandparents, great aunts and uncles made their way onto ships bound for Ellis Island in New York City, and never looked back. We are teachers, engineers, journalists, entertainers, laborers, writers, photographers, businessmen, musicians, and even artist’s models :-)
Say a prayer today for those 1.5 million who starved and suffered and died face down in the desert, the orphans who watched their mothers and fathers get slaughtered, and thrown into rivers to drown. Say a prayer that genocide will always be recognized for what it is.