An Armenian lady I know is hardly speaking to me after a column I wrote five weeks ago (here) on the word, “genocide.” I dislike the word, for reasons I gave there: it is legalistic, and to my mind, while claiming to increase, it actually reduces the weight of terrible atrocities, to the small and tidy parameters of “due process.” It was consciously invented, by a legal scholar (Raphael Lemkin towards the end of the Second World War), as if a new word were needed to describe a phenomenon not new to history: attempts to wipe out a whole tribe or people. It is what I call a “boxcar” term: carrying freight to unknown political destinations. The old expression, “Armenian Massacres,” was adequate, once we accept that language cannot substitute for realities. It happened in fact, and past events cannot be altered by new vocabulary.
But post-modern man prefers words to things, and theory to fact. The controversy is now over the word “genocide,” which the Turks, as a people, are commanded to accept. Insofar as they remain unmoved, by what was done by Turks to the Armenians one hundred years ago, they are in a sense off the hook. The debate is now about whether the word “genocide” applies, no longer about what it applies to.
My Armenian friend is swept up in this argument about nomenclature. She insists that because I oppose the word, I deny the thing. I am very far from denying it, and very much wish the story to be told, truthfully and completely from what can be known. Horrific crimes were committed, in the last years of the Ottoman Caliphate, against Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians, and other captive Christian communities. They resumed within successor states, and may be said to continue to the present day in such countries as Syria and Iraq. All these stories should be told, and remembered.
The annihilation of more than a million Armenians (and their descendants) cannot be disputed. The larger estimates seem to be justified. April 24th, 1915, is recalled as a conventional opening event — when leading Armenian figures were arrested in Istanbul, on the pretext that they sympathized with the Russian enemy — but there were events before that. One could mention the Adana massacre of 1909, the Hamidian massacres of the 1890s (hundreds of thousands killed in these), and so forth.
This “Red Sunday” in Istanbul was itself immediately preceded by redder ones in distant Van. The official charge that Armenians were working with the Russians was occasioned by the fact that Russians had come to the aid of the Armenians in Van, threatened with imminent slaughter. In the end, Djevdet Bey, the murderous governor, was anyway able to exterminate more than fifty thousand of the Christians living in that vilayet alone.
Curiously, or not, the events of “Red Sunday,” then many similar as prominent Armenians were rounded up all over the country and sent to holding camps at Ankara from which they would never emerge, is closely connected with the other centenary we are celebrating, today. That is Gallipoli. The Ottoman authorities were acting under the impulse of war, in a moment when they began seriously (and reasonably) to doubt their own survival. But lest this seem an extenuation, it should be remembered that the same authorities had repeatedly turned on the Armenians each time their own global inadequacies had been exposed.
Under the notorious Tehcir Law, a model later for Hitler, all property belonging to Armenians could be seized, and arrangements began for their deportation to — undisclosed locations. These were prison camps which pioneered the methods of Auschwitz and Belsen. Germans and Austrians in the region, as allies of the “Sublime Porte,” were horrified by what they saw, using such descriptors as “bestial cruelty.” There was no possible question that the authorities intended to exterminate, not incarcerate. The Turkish people at large could also see what was happening around them, when not themselves participating in the slaughter. There is no extenuation for them.
The Treaty of Sèvres, after the War, proposed restoration of Armenian native lands within the defunct Sultanate to a new Armenian republic, but in turn triggered another campaign, now by the Turkish nationalists who succeeded the Ottomans. Their law allowed any remaining Armenian property to be seized by the state on the glib ground that it had been “abandoned.” During this later, post-Ottoman phase, perhaps another hundred thousand Armenians were massacred, often in places to which they had fled for safety. Mustafa Kemal “Ataturk,” the great secular Turkish patriot, was direct commander in the later stages of this Turkish-Armenian War, and much progressive effort has been expended washing the blood off his hands.
Still between the Devil and a very hard place, the Armenians were pressed into the tiny quarter that is their state today, in which they were then “rescued” by the Bolsheviks. There followed three score years and ten of slavery, now under Communist apparatchiks. In the course of delivering them to this fate, Western hypocrisy had a good airing, and guarantees of life, liberty, and security to the Armenians from Woodrow Wilson and other liberal, rhetorical stuntmen, were shown for what they were. But this is an Idlepost, not a history.
It is noteworthy that Djevdet Bey and others of the Ottoman court seldom if ever referred to their victims as “Armenians,” however. Rather they were called, “Christians.” The “genocide” wasn’t against a race, but a religion; against persons of Armenian ethnicity not because they were Armenian but because they were Christian. Likewise, the Greeks not as Greeks but as Christians, and so forth. This is not a small point, and it is overlooked for the very purpose of misrepresenting the history. Conversely, not only the Turks but the Kurds and other Muslims participated in the massacres.
The term “genocide” is used in this misrepresentation. It reduces everything to racial terms, thus paradoxically echoing Hitler. In doing so, it neglects the longer relevant history.
From the time of the First Crusade, the Christians of Egypt were similarly under threat, from the fear that they would side with the invading Christian Franks. They did not, and history would of course be rather different if they had gone over, but the Franks proved as alien to them as to Egypt’s rulers, who wisely decided to treat their Christian subjects better, as their own best defence. For the Christians were then still the majority in Egypt — a large part of the reason they could still command respect, or at least caution. (This is an aspect of history no longer explored: that it took many centuries of ratcheting for Islam to become the majority religion in most of the lands the Arabs had conquered; and that meanwhile, Muslims were hardly the only contributors to what we now view as the “Islamic golden ages.”)
Persecutions of dhimmi-status Armenians by Muslim Turks and Kurds were already old hat in what was once Armenia — where Armenians were still in local majorities, but now a minority in the larger state. The persecutions were more and more frequently rising to pogroms. Economic causes came into this, owing specifically to that advance of Islam. The wealth generators were in decline, and the wealth appropriators in proliferation.
Throughout the western (i.e. formerly Christian) Dar al-Islam, from their status as dhimmis, Christians and Jews had paid the taxes. As their communities shrank proportionally, often from conversion to avoid the Jizya, the Islamic realms fell into poverty; for they were killing their golden geese. This in turn helped inspire the pogroms, as the remaining Christians and Jews became scapegoats for an increasingly dysfunctional social order, in economies based essentially on rapine. The Ottoman state in effect nationalized the pogroms, their soldiers systematically shooting Armenian men of military age (all those from twenty to forty-five), then killing off the old, the women and the children, in forced desert marches without food or drink. (Rape of the women was also officially encouraged.) Armenian districts were thus “ethnically cleansed.” But the result was also Muslim starvation.
Greeks, too, carry their memories of parallel ethnic cleansings, as they were run out of territories that had been settled and occupied by Greeks through millennia before the arrival of the Turks, and indeed the whole of modern Turkey is ultimately an artefact of Turkish Muslim conquest and subjugation.
It can also be said that whole centuries went by when the various communities lived in relative peace and cultural autonomy within the Ottoman and other Turkic realms; though Christians, Jews, and all other religious minorities always with that dhimmi status. It can also be said that Jews and Muslims were the equivalent of dhimmis when under Christian rule. History is not simple or formulaic, and my opposition to such terms as “genocide” is also resistance to attempts to make it into a morality play. And I will not play the game of our campus Islamic apologists, who change the subject to real or imagined Christian failings the moment Islamic failings are mentioned.
One crime does not excuse another. But neither is everything “relative” and grey, even in the general view of history. Turkey, as Iraq and Syria, the Levant, Egypt, North Africa, were once highly civilized Christian lands. The Armenians, displaced in stages from their considerable ancient homelands, are among the ancient peoples who retain some part of that older Christian heritage. As traders, they were known in distant places through all the centuries, but the common view is that the bulk of the Armenian diaspora today was scattered as a consequence of the First World War. This, alas, is another myth, perpetuated by political proaganda.
Boarding once in an Armenian hostel in Calcutta, I learnt something of the complexity of that diaspora. Armenians had come to India in the armies of Alexander the Great; perhaps before. They were famed as entrepreneurs in Kerala and Malabar in the seventh and eighth centuries centuries of the Christian era. Vasco da Gama found them still there. By the time of the Mughals, they were known throughout the Subcontinent as traders, and as merchant princes they flourished under the British Raj.
They built their first Calcutta church in the swamps of the Hooghly, to the north end of what would become that vast, sprawling metropolis (“the second city of the British Empire”), at the end of the seventeenth century. Five old Armenian cemeteries survive in the city today. Many refugees arrived after the Ottoman massacres, but the suggestion that the community dates from that, is obtuse. On the other hand, it had received migrants from previous Ottoman pogroms. But Armenians have been part of Calcutta for as long as there has been a Calcutta.
As Catholic Christians may learn from the Armenians and Jews, it is important to preserve the diaspora. Never leave your eggs all in one place.
The Armenian Massacres loom large in Armenian history, but they cannot delete the rest of that history, and must not be allowed to do so. Armenians must not be cast as mere victims. Nor should even their history as victims be confined to a single era.
Armenians have travelled everywhere in joy, admixed with grief. It is a history so deep that it has conferred a peculiarly ancient quality: an ability to assimilate without assimilating, without forgetting, wherever they may go; a certain aloofness that is carried almost like a genetic marker; a knowledge that things will happen and they will once again have to move along. I have an especial love of this sabra quality, carried with them in Armenians as in wandering Jews. Often they are rude and prickly.
This was perfectly expressed by my lady friend, the Armenian one, who in her irritation with me, ignoring my attempts at appeasement, communicated something along the lines of, “You are not one of us, don’t pretend to be.”
In my youth I travelled also through eastern Turkey, enjoying many adventures, including a narrow escape from murder while being robbed, on the road east from Erzurum, at Agri. Two English girls had, according to a then-recent report, been pulled off the street in broad daylight and raped in the same town. In my own case I was struck by the indifference of bystanders, watching the assault on me as if it were televised entertainment, and mildly cheering when a knife came out. I was aware that I was moving through country once inhabited by Armenians, and was acquiring my own prejudice against those who slew them by my experience of their grandchildren. I anyway acquired a small taste of what it would have been like, to be an Armenian in those parts, perhaps on one of the better days.
Like being a Jew, being an Armenian has not been entirely convenient through most recorded centuries. Which is an indication that God especially loves them, in His mysterious way.
There is little to find in this world beyond injustice, unless one is looking to God. I don’t believe the crimes of this world can ever be adequately punished or atoned, and moreover the attempt leads invariably to new crimes. There is a Heaven; and there is a Hell. The best we can do is remember, disguising nothing; hold what we have learnt for as long as we can hold it. And plead, “Father, forgive.”