One-hundred-and-six years ago, a sporadically applied genocidal process—started around a quarter of a century earlier—took an ominously sinister leap into the unthinkable. Concealed behind the smokescreen of the Great War of 1914-1918 and having already claimed over a million innocent lives, it did not come to a close with the signing of the Armistice. Fanned by the worst aspects of human intolerance, greed and predatory international deals, its murderous process continued to create new killing fields from Smyrna, Turkey to Adana, Cilicia and Baku, well into the early 1920s, while the other aspects of this odious process—in one form or another—continue to this day, denying a closure to what is referred to as the very first genocide of the twentieth century.
Now, over a century later, one may look back on the panorama of dehumanizing horrors that the land known as Armenia—named after the people who inhabited it since the beginning of recorded history—presented to a war-weary world at the close of the first global conflict and wonder whether the word “genocide,” coined decades later, can begin to describe what we Armenians call Medz Yeghern —“The Great Crime.”
Less than a quarter of a century after that first attempt to murder an entire nation and the hasty burial of the moribund Armenian Case at Lausanne and as World War II was winding down and the total shock of the Nazi concentration camps and crematoria hit the world’s consciousness—if not always the conscience—the great communicator Winston Churchill stated that humanity had come face to face with “a crime that has no name.” Indeed, history had little to offer in the search for a word that could adequately convey the nature of a recurring crime that threatened the very foundations of civilized existence. Convinced that “new concepts require new terminology,” Raphael Lemkin, in his 1944 book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, making use of two classic words—the Greek ‘genos’ (race or tribe) and the Latin suffix ‘cide’ (to kill), came up with the ‘G’ word to which, for many decades now Ankara and Washington, whenever referring to Armenians, have displayed severe allergic reactions, routinely treated with a massive dosage of the word “alleged”—as prescribed by renowned Israeli specialists.
The Armenian experience, in its awesome entirety, spills over the semantic boundaries set by the generally accepted terminology of genocide.
Genocide, according to Lemkin, signifies “the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group” accomplished through a coordinated plan, having as its aim the total extermination of persons marked as victims exclusively because they are members of the target group. As such, the Jewish Holocaust and most other mass slaughters that followed it fit Lemkin’s formula. The Armenian experience, in its awesome entirety, spills over the semantic boundaries set by the generally accepted terminology of genocide.
As a rule, persons, groups and nations (in its demographic connotation) targeted for genocide, fall victim at a clearly defined time segment of their history. As was the case of the Jewish Holocaust, genocidal campaigns usually run their course and subside, ending in some sort of closure, since—at an opportune moment—the perpetrator usually has a clear political or strategic purpose arising from immediate objectives at a particular time in its history. The Great Crime against the Armenians, which started in earnest over a century ago and was pushed to its apocalyptic climax in 1915 by the rulers of a crumbling empire, still maintains its atavistic momentum, sustained by the present Turkish state’s hegemonic policies vis-à-vis its neighbors, upon whose territorial and cultural patrimonies it has established itself and has drawn the present imperial boundaries of its “nation state.” This single irrefutable fact makes a mockery of Ankara’s—and its supporters’—argument that the “modern” Turkish republic cannot be held responsible for the crimes committed over a century ago by the defunct empire of the Ottomans.
This argument could have had some credibility today if the Treaty of Sèvres had prevailed and Turkey, like all the other constituting nations of the Empire, had established its national republic within the confines of its natural central Anatolian boundaries, divesting itself of historically Armenian, Greek and Kurdish lands. Those who conceived and signed the Lausanne Treaty not only made a mockery of justice, but disrupted the natural and logical progress of history by creating a gap of some nine decades and trapping the Armenians, the Kurds and the Assyrians in the vicious circle of that time warp, leaving them pretty much to their own devices in a desperate struggle to break loose from a distorted past that continues to encroach upon the present and to block the road to a normal future.
Unlike the Kurds, the Armenian presence in Eastern Anatolia was not always a demographic spread of a distinct people struggling to maintain its cultural identity within imposed yet constantly changing political boundaries of foreign states established by foreign conquerors. Since the beginning of recorded history (preceding even the Egyptian and Sumerian civilizations by 2,500 years, according to a learned work by Prof. Paris Herouni published in Moscow in December 2004), the Armenian nation’s uninterrupted presence in Eastern Asia Minor and the Armenian Plateau has manifested itself with consecutive dynastic kingdoms, principalities, fiefdoms and even a powerful empire that challenged Roman hegemony, all distinctly Armenian in culture, language and customs.
Thus, an identity solidly imprinted over 75 centuries in the consciousness of a people and literally etched on the landscape of a homeland with countless monuments—starting with the prehistoric Qarahunge observatory—reflecting its unique culture and style, belies the outlandish assumption that the Armenians, after a period of some six centuries without a unified national independence—a relatively brief period, compared to their history that covers millennia—suddenly and treacherously rebelled against their masters and decided to become a nation, trying to carve out a homeland for themselves on the very lands of a vast territory that, since time immemorial, has been called Armenia by one and all. This assumption, alongside relatively recent notions of “nation building”—which may very well apply to many a contemporary “nation state”—remains a misguided premise bordering on deception when applied to the Armenians, for they deliberately sidestep history and confuse two comparatively distinct concepts: ‘nation’ and ‘state.’
While states may exist based on the ethnic stock and culture of a variety of nations, a nation—with its distinct language, culture and history—cannot be created merely by establishing a state, which is a device structured to help a nation endure, prosper and choose its own destiny in freedom. Recorded history tells us that the Armenians were a distinct nation and Armenia was their universally recognized homeland long before the advent of modern day “nation-states.”
What struck the Armenians in 1915 was the apex of an all-consuming storm that had been gathering for decades, parallel to the decay of a dying empire. Unlike the Jews living in Nazi-occupied Europe, it struck a nation in its own historic homeland, in a desperate attempt to wipe out—not a despised minority—but an entire country known as Armenia, along with its people, its monuments, its language and religion, its social and cultural institutions, culminating in the erasure of its history—rendered mute and invisible by the perpetrator through the contrived pages of “history” books soon to flood the schools and brainwash the minds of present and future generations privileged to call themselves “Turks” and citizens of a reconstituted Turkish empire disguised as a modern, secular “republic.”
The word “genocide” speaks of “the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group.” Nowhere does its definition mention the total elimination of a country, along with its population, cultural and spiritual treasures, its very history and identity. The Ottomans killed 1.5 million Armenians, confiscating their lands and belongings. The Kemalist Turks not only inherited the looted wealth, but with a renewed zeal, they attacked and put an end to the hopes of the survivors of the mass slaughter by confiscating the major portion of the newly recognized Armenian Republic’s territories, putting an end to its independence. To this day, through persistent campaigns of denial and rewriting of history, they continue their overt and covert efforts of elimination of all that is Armenian.
As a matter of semantics, no one can deny that this monstrous process of ongoing Armenocide—repeated again in Artsakh recently—goes beyond all that the word “genocide” attempts to convey. The world will have to wait for another Lemkin to coin a word describing the premeditated murder and destruction of a nation, along with its homeland, culture and identity. Let us hope that, for the sake of humanity—aside from the Armenian case—there will be no need for it over the coming centuries.