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A 21st Century Problem: Lessons from the Armenian Genocide

Stephen Menendian, assistant director, Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society | April 20, 2015

On April 24th, Armenians worldwide will solemnly commemorate the 100th anniversary of one of the first modern genocides, the massacre of more than one million ethnic Armenians in eastern Turkey in 1915.  This occasion is an opportunity to consider not only the legacy of this specific event, but the larger questions of ethnic and religious conflict, international response, the failure of political will to prevent and punish such acts, and the long-term consequences of that failure.

The convulsion of Empires during World War I, including the destruction of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, are events that reverberate today. In his best-selling book, Lawrence in Arabia, Scott Anderson persuasively argues that the root cause of much of the unrest now evident in the Middle East, including the Arab Spring, can be traced to the Sykes-Picot agreement, a secret treaty that helped conclude the war. Other scholars have argued that the destruction of the Austro-Hungarian Empire may have also contributed to much of the ethnic and religious conflict that emerged in the Balkans in the 1990s, though temporarily quelled during the Cold War.

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Map of Armenia in the colors of the Armenian flag. (Graphic from Wikimedia Commons)

The disintegration of these empires left remnant nation-states less effective at tamping down ethnic and religious conflict or perhaps more susceptible to political demagoguery against minority and marginalized populations. This is what happened in eastern Turkey. As the Ottoman Empire began to unravel, political leaders in the new Turkish state initiated a program that would ultimately exterminate most of the ethnic Armenian population, often on grounds that they would be sympathetic to the Russians, while seeking to build a more ethnically and religiously homogenous Turkish state.

Perhaps the most important lesson of the Armenian Genocide was the lack of political will to stop or punish it. The massacre of more than one million Armenians raises serious questions about the ability of the international community to prevent or punish acts of genocide nearly a century later.  The disasters in Rwanda, Bosnia, and the Sudan illustrate how political willpower – including geopolitical interest – in the international community is probably a chief determinant of whether attempted genocide will be resisted.

To some extent, it may be impossible to prevent genocides.  In the course of wars, territorial conflict or regional disputes, minorities become vulnerable targets, especially if those minorities may be suspected of sympathy with an enemy (the Japanese internment  during World War II is an appalling domestic example).  Ethnic clamoring for greater freedoms and rights in conjunction with conflict with a neighboring state predominantly composed of that minority may be a chief predictor of sectarian violence.  If two or more sectarian identities also overlap, as was the case with ethnic Armenians in Turkey, who were also predominantly Christian, then the ingredients for ethnic conflict and even genocide are most potent.

If the political will to intervene in the midst of a war zone is lacking, the least that can be done is the provision of a strong judicial mechanism to punish the perpetrators in order to curtail subsequent denial and recalcitrance as well as to deter future crimes.  It is clear that prevention and punishment are matters of will, not just ability.  As is the case with many such conflicts, Turkey is sensitive to accusations that the massacre of Armenians during World War I constitutes a genocide, and recent remarks by Pope Francis have triggered a diplomatic row.  At a recent press conference, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that “It is out of the question for there to be a stain or a shadow called genocide on Turkey.”

Perhaps most importantly, denialism — the inability to accept and address the realities of the Armenian genocide — has distorted Turkish politics, serving as a third rail and arguably bolstering autocratic forces within Turkey, just as the issue of slavery and Jim Crow did in the American South, even leading to the so-called gag-rule in Congress.  Without exercising the will to prevent or punish such acts, the international community risks perpetuating cycles of denial, violence and a distorted politics will continue to haunt us for generations to come.

In 1903, W.E.B Dubois wrote that “the problem of the 20th Century is the color line.”  It’s not going too far to assert that the problem of the 21st Century is the problem of “Othering.” Othering occurs wherever human beings are marginalized or discriminated against on the basis of a group-based identity. Although genocide may be the most extreme form of Othering, too many conflicts or instances of violence across the globe seem organized around one or more dimension of human difference, ethnic, religious, racial, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, and more. There is an endless stream of new stories of violence, conflict and tension along these and other societal cleavages.

In Myanmar/Burma, militant Buddhists have massacred members of the Muslim minority. In India, anxiety is growing that resurgent Hindu nationalists, emboldened by the election of Modi, may lead to violence or oppression for other ethnic and religious minorities.  In Iraq, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was pushed from office partly on grounds that built an insufficiently inclusive government that exacerbated sectarian tensions between Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, which have led to the rise of the Islamic State.  Europeans are wondering whether discrimination, segregation and alienation among immigrant and Muslim youth may be contributing to social polarization.  In the United States, mass incarceration and police violence, disproportionately impacting black and brown men, has sparked a national movement, #BlackLivesMatter.

The Armenian Genocide illustrates the fundamental dynamics of Othering in its most horrific and extreme expression.  The failure, more than a century later, to acknowledge it, let alone begin to address it and build a more inclusive, open and democratic Turkish state and region, is an abject lesson for the 21st Century.

This weekend, the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society is holding a conference that will examine the larger questions of Othering and Belonging and attempt to discern possibilities and develop practices for generating more inclusive institutions, narratives, and identities that impede Othering and promote Belonging.

Comments to “A 21st Century Problem: Lessons from the Armenian Genocide

  1. Thanks for the article. May I introduce a personal experience of denial? It happened on the Berkeley campus when I was a student in the late 1970s. In Doe Library, there are a couple of bookcases on the ground floor in which student groups could take turns placing exhibits. I don’t know if it’s still used this way today.

    Back then, during the week of April 24th, the anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, the Armenian Students Club put up their small exhibit. A day or two later, the students got a call. They would have to take away certain parts of the exhibit, including photographs. Why? They were “controversial” – up for debate, not history. (Photographs of the event? Really? Yes, really.)

    What happened? A man who worked at the library told us that the Turkish consul had telephoned the President of the University to complain. Well, back in those days, one could say practically anything in public on campus. But our free speech was not okay. Why do we need to recognize genocides? Because truth is essential to our own understanding of what freedom is for.

    • Dear Stephen, Thank you for the informative piece remembering the 100th anniversary the Armenian Genocide and its relation to subsequent genocides. Indeed, the Armenian Genocide is considered by historians as the prototype of modern genocides. Its continued denial and Turkey’s unaccountability was a lesson to Hitler, who encouraged his generals on the eve of their invasion of Poland with the words, “After all, who today remembers the annihilation of the Armenians?”

      Historians of genocide studies consider denial as the final stage of genocide, with a genocide continuing until the denial ends. I remember the Doe Library incident that Janine refers to, and unfortunately, that kind of interference by the Turkish government continues until today. They have consistently threatened many commemorative and educational initiatives in this country, including in our schools, both at the secondary and university levels. It is only through our vigilance, defending our freedoms and historical truth, that we will overcome the denial and hope to help prevent future crimes against humanity.

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