Why the Armenian Holocaust must not be airbrushed from history
Only a handful of elderly Armenians now exist as witnesses to the modern era’s first act of genocide
By Robert Fisk
27 November 2000
Last week, the British Government said it would refuse to acknowledge the Holocaust. Only a few days earlier, President Clinton pleaded with the US Congress to ignore calls to commemorate the Holocaust because, if they did so, “American lives” would be at risk. Whether the victims of the Holocaust were really killed “because of a deliberate policy of extermination”, The Wall Street Journal told us last week, “is a matter of contentious scholarly debate”. How David Irving and the Holocaust deniers must be rubbing their hands with delight.
But no need to fear. The Holocaust in question was not the Jewish Holocaust but the Armenian Holocaust. The dead amount not to six million but to a mere one and a half million. It’s not a resurgent, militarised Germany we are frightened of but a resurgent militarised Turkey. While thousands of survivors of the Jewish Holocaust remain to tell us of their suffering, only a handful of very elderly Armenians now exist as witnesses to the modern era’s first act of genocide. The Jewish organisations that rightly remind the world of their people’s slaughter, are powerful. The Armenian groups that wish to commemorate their own bloodbath are weak and scattered. Their Holocaust is now to be airbrushed from history.
Is there any limit to our gutlessness? Take that letter from the Home Office’s “Race Equality Unit” – first revealed in The Independent last week – refusing to acknowledge the Armenian Holocaust at Britain’s Holocaust Memorial Day on 27 January. Its author, Neil Frater, told the Armenian Assembly of America that “the massacres [sic] in Armenia, like many other atrocities before the Holocaust and the Nazi era, were brought to our attention in response to last year’s consultation exercise”, on the memorial day. The dishonesty of this sentence is almost breathtaking. At no point does Mr Frater even say that the Armenians suffered a genocide – let alone a holocaust – and he then lumps this appalling crime against humanity with “many other atrocities before the Nazi era”. But no other atrocity before the “Nazi era” comes anywhere close to the extermination of the Armenians.
And note that happy-clappy phrase “consultation exercise”. How typical of the Blair government to have a “consultation exercise” to decide which ethnic group would have the privilege of having its suffering memorialised and which would be ruthlessly excised from the history books. “The massacres
of 1915-16 were an appalling tragedy condemned by the British government of the day,” Mr Frater tells the Armenians. But he fails to add that the “British government of the day” produced a 677-page book – the Bryce Report for the Foreign Office – whose meticulous testimony and eye-witness accounts of Turkish mass-slaughter, organised rape and ethnic cleansing persuaded that same government to demand war-crime trials for the Turks.
Now let’s turn to those meretricious – nay, outrageous – statements in the 20 November edition of The Wall Street Journal, a newspaper whose voice has never been silent on the truths of the Jewish Holocaust. In an editorial which might have been written by the Turkish foreign ministry, it sneers at the French Senate for daring to recognise the Armenian genocide, asking whether the British and French should not also apologise for the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres which betrayed Armenia’s remaining claims to statehood in mainland Turkey.
“These suggestions,” it says cloyingly, “are not put forward to diminish, much less relativize [sic] the historical fact that during the First World War, an estimated 600,000 Armenians, possibly more, lost their lives, many in forced deportations to Syria and Palestine orchestrated by Ottoman armies.” The editorial, of course, neatly changes the casualty figures. And note how we are told that they “lost their lives”. No mention of the fact that the majority of Armenia’s manhood were killed either by Turkish firing squads or in mass knifings, or by being burned alive or asphyxiated in caves in 1915 (the world’s first gas chambers).
Even more insulting to the cities of dead, the Journal refers to doubts about the genocide caused by “serious scholarly debate”. Now it happens that this “serious” debate is led by an American academic called Heath Lowry, whose Chair of Ottoman Studies in the US is funded by Turkey and who also works in an advisory capacity to the Turkish ambassador in Washington on ways to deny the Armenian Holocaust. A draft letter Lowry wrote for the ambassador was accidentally enclosed in a note from the Turkish diplomat in which he denied the genocide.
But the paper goes on to outline all the reasons why President Clinton – and our own government – now seek to deny the truth of history. Acknowledging the Armenian genocide would “needlessly jeopardise US-Turkish relations”. Turkey is a strategic Western ally, “the only secular democracy in the Middle East”, the second largest army in Nato. Turkey wants to join the EU. “Europe could take full advantage of Turkey’s low cost of labour, just as the US has in Mexico.” Europe “sorely needs the vast labour pool Turkey has to offer, as many European employers will attest”.
It is difficult to stop the gorge rising at such revolting remarks. Because of Turkey’s military power, its so-called “democracy”, its bulwark against “Islamic radicals”, its desire to join the EU and its cheap, exploited labour market, we must censor out of history one of the most terrible atrocities to have been committed. This is what lies behind President Clinton’s cowardly remarks to the US Senate. This is what lies behind President Chirac’s refusal to comment publicly on the French Senate resolution. And this is what lies behind the weasel words of Mr Frater’s letter.
What next? In 50 or 80 years’ time, will a new, more right-wing, resurgent Germany expect the same exemption from the Jewish Holocaust? Will we have to indulge the likes of Mr Irving suggesting that “contentious scholarly debate” renders the Shoah historically questionable? Will we be told by Mr Frater’s successor that more recent genocides mean that the Jewish Holocaust cannot be acknowledged?
For that is the terrible implication of the grotesque response we are now making to Turkey’s Ottoman brutalities. The Armenians have long commemorated their Holocaust on 24 April each year – the date in 1915 when the first Armenian intellectuals were rounded up and liquidated by Turks in Constantinople. The Armenians wished to be included in the 27 January commemoration. They have been turned away. Which is why 27 January will represent a truth – the facts of the Jewish genocide. But why it will also represent a lie – because, for cheap economic, political and military reasons, it will fail to address the genesis of Jewish suffering: the deliberate destruction of one and a half million Armenian men, women and children.