Robert Bevan: Who Remembers the Armenians?

Roundup: Talking About History

Hundreds died every day from cold, starvation and disease. By this stage, the Nazis had so successfully spatially separated the Jews that their "subhuman" otherness became a tourist attraction. Coach parties of German soldiers visited. Whips were brandished to provoke the "wild animals". Alfred Rosenberg reported on a visit for the Reich’s press department: "If there are any people left who still somehow have sympathy with the Jews then they ought to be recommended to have a look at such a ghetto. Seeing this race en masse which is decaying, decomposing, and rotten to the core will banish any sentimental humanitarianism." Gradually the ghettos were liquidated, with their inhabitants killed there and then or transported to the death camps. Where there was resistance, the ghettos were physically destroyed. In Warsaw, the entire ghetto was reduced to rubble following the uprising by the systematic blowing up or burning of the buildings block by block. Around 50—60,000 Jewish resisters were killed, thousands of these dying in burning buildings. The man in charge, Brigadeführer Jürgen Stroop, symbolically marked the end of the liquidation by dynamiting Warsaw’s Great Synagogue on Tlomackie Street. A thousand-year-old civilization, its people, its books, theatre, art and buildings had been almost entirely eradicated. There are few physical reminders left of this great tradition and few Jews living among them to remember.

The Holocaust was not the first genocide of the twentieth century: that dishonour goes to the Turks and Kurds in present-day Turkey for the slaughter of up to 1.5 million Armenian men, women and children in a campaign that began in earnest in 1915. As under the Nazis and 1990s Serbian extremists, this was accompanied by thorough cultural cleansing. It was an attempt to destroy a people that Turkish governments deny and cover up to this day. The continued neglect and destruction of Armenian monuments in Turkey can be seen as part of this stance. Although Turkey reluctantly admits that around 300,000 Armenians died during the period, it attributes the deaths to starvation or exposure arising out of the chaos of the First World War. The reality is harsher: torture, pogroms, mutilation, rape and sexual slavery were part of the Armenian experience as the Young Turks murdered many Armenian men across the country and sent the remaining population of ancient Armenian towns and villages on forced death-marches. Primitive gas chambers using fires lit at the mouths of caves have also been reported. Those who survived ended up in Syria or behind the Russian lines in Russian-controlled Armenia. Continued denial of the atrocities by Turkey is assisted, on the one hand, by those in the West wanting to keep Turkey, a NATO member and EU supplicant, on side, and on the other by Turkey’s ongoing erasure of the Armenian architectural record.

Armenians were the first Christian nation, accepting the new creed at the beginning of the fourth century AD. They inhabited the uplands between the Black and Caspian seas for more than 2,500 years. At times independent, the culturally and linguistically distinct Armenians were eventually absorbed into the Ottoman Empire, but their cultural patrimony under the Ottoman system of government remained largely intact for hundreds of years. As non-Muslims they were second-class citizens, but also formed an important trading and business class especially, like the Jews, in areas forbidden to Muslims, such as banking. However, the decline of the empire in the nineteenth century led to increasing oppression of minorities within the empire and growing nationalist feeling within its constituent parts. Between 1894 and 1896 pogroms under the leadership of Sultan Abdul-Hamid II led to the massacre of up to 200,000 Armenians across eastern Turkey— the Armenian heartland— and the exile and forced conversion of thousands more. Turkish troops led the killings and were followed by plundering Kurdish gangs and the subsequent destruction of towns and villages. Further massacres followed in 1909, a year after the Young Turks (Ittihadists) seized power in a military coup. In some ways the junta has been seen as progressive, more secular and modern in its vision for a future Turkish state emerging out of the fragmentation of the Ottoman world. But unlike the multi-ethnicity that characterized the Ottoman Empire, however problematically, the new regime’s increasingly chauvinistic ‘Turkism’ quickly evolved into a desire to establish an exclusively Turkish nation state within Asia Minor. In the wake of the Balkan wars and the Russian threat to the East, the Armenians were also regarded as an internal threat, a view intensifying with the outbreak of the First World War. The redrawing of borders and mass resettlements creating ethnic nation-states was the emerging pattern across the region....

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