Recognizing the Impossible Past

Early this morning, at 3 am in Ann Arbor, I was waiting to connect with the Foreign Relations Committee of the Parliament of the Republic of Latvia. It was 10 in the morning in Riga, the capital of the small country that had experienced its own atrocities in the 1940s at the time of its annexation by the Soviet Union. Members of the Committee wanted to learn about the events of 1915 in the Ottoman Empire: what happened to the Armenians and Assyrians in that terrible year of war, mass deportations, massacre and forced starvation? They had already heard the claims of representatives of the Turkish state, and their questions reflected their own confusion about the obscured history of a century ago. They inquired about the actual events; they asked why Turkey denies what happened and wanted to know if many Turkish scholars today recognize the horrors of 1915 as a genocide. Along with the Armenian ambassador to the United States Tigran Mkrtchyan and a fellow scholar Dr. Rouben Adalian, we testified for an hour about the actual history, why it occurred and how we – Armenians, Turks and Kurds – might move beyond mutual accusations and misunderstandings.

Each year the anniversary April 24 rolls around, whether the world remembers or not. Attention is elsewhere: on the global plague, on mass shootings in America, the economic hardship that ordinary people are suffering and worries about a rising China. A small nation, constantly in fear of disappearing, however, does not forget. Armenians in their besieged homeland and in the diaspora cannot but remember the massacres, deportations and forced conversions to Islam that annihilated a culture and people that had lived in eastern Anatolia for millennia. Official Turkey continues to deny that hundreds of thousands of innocent subjects of the Ottoman Empire were murdered, driven into the Syrian deserts to starve to death or compelled to flee to other lands. Historians–including Turkish and Kurdish scholarshave established that this greatest of atrocities in the First World War was genocide, the unrecognized crime against humanity whose unpunished legacy became an example, along with the dispossession of the native peoples in the Americas, for the Holocaust to come. 

The deportation of Armenians (Photo: Victor Pietschmann, Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute Foundation)

The excision of Armenians, Assyrians and eventually Greeks, whom the ruling Young Turks considered pollutants infecting the national body and an alien population that held back the Muslim peoples who deserved to dominate the empire, was the foundational crime on which the Turkish nation-state, the Kemalist republic, was founded some eight years later. Such a sanguinary beginning for that state is painful to acknowledge, and instead the government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan demonizes the thousands of Armenians left in the country and has aided the dictatorship of Ilham Aliyev in Azerbaijan that launched the attack on the Armenian enclave of Karabakh last fall. Thanks to the superiority of drones sold to Azerbaijan by Turkey and Israel and the inferiority of Russian weaponry and support from Moscow, the Armenians were overwhelmed, forcing hundreds of thousands to flee Karabakh for the nearby Armenian Republic. While Azerbaijanis marched in triumph in their capital Baku, Armenians in their capital Yerevan fell into factions. Prominent leaders, including the Catholicos of the Armenian Apostolic Church, called for the resignation of the beleaguered prime minister Nikol Pashinyan, while he assembled his supporters on the city’s main square. From without and within, the tiny Republic is threatened, and both those who call their elected leader davajan (traitor) and those who rally around him imagine the worst: the fate of their forebears of a century ago.

Genocide is not only the actual event of mass killing intentionally undertaken by states to eliminate an ethnic or religious people but at the same time a frame within which nations imagine their history and the precarity of the present. All over the world, peoples evoke the powerful imagery of genocide to describe their own traumatic experiences. It is as if in order to be an independent sovereign state, one has to have not only a capital, bounded territory, an army, navy and an opera house, but also a genocide. Azerbaijanis remember events in Khojaly and Baku that they have rendered as genocide. Turkey even has a museum in Iğdır commemorating the genocide of Turks by Armenians! This powerful term with international legal implications has been stretched beyond its original meaning in cynical moves by state actors and ethnic entrepreneurs with the effect of erasing the horrific potency of actual genocides.

The brilliant, flourishing culture of Anatolian Armenians has largely been eroded, just as the Yiddish culture of European Jews has in great part been lost. We might ask: Where did these Armenians of “Western Armenia” go? A few years ago, I visited the museum of a founding congress of the Turkish national movement and the “Turkish War of National Independence” in the large eastern Turkish city of Erzurum. I asked our guide what this impressive building had been before it was the place of the Kemalist congress, even though I knew it had been the prominent Armenian Sanasaryan varzharan [Sanasarian College] where my grandfather Grikor Suni had taught music before World War I. The pleasant, accommodating guide unhesitatingly answered, “There was a very old Armenian college here. But this was a propaganda school. The first Armenian revolts began in the school’s garden. And some time after, the leaders of the gangs raised in this school carried out massacres.”

“Were there many Armenians in Erzurum at the time?” I went on. “Not many,” she replied, “one in four in the population.” Mentioning what happened to the Armenians before the Congress, her answer deployed a wonderful past tense in Turkish that we do not have in English, the –miş tense. “Ama tabi o sırada Ermeniler gitmiş,” she said flatly, which can be translated: “Before that time, the Armenians apparently left,” or “It is said, the Armenians left.” 

In contrast to the Erzurum guide’s casual dismissal of an inconvenient historical past, a few days later in Bitlis, a town where Armenians had lived before the Genocide, and the ancestral home of the Armenian-American writer William Saroyan, I met some Kurds in a café and asked them if there had been Armenians in that beautiful, rundown, and yet unrestored city. One of the men answered, “Yes, there had been.” “What happened to them?” I enquired. “Soykırım,” he said with a sly smile. “Genocide.” That was our shared secret. We high-fived, and I departed.

Memories may shift over time, influenced by place and age, but they have a remarkable resistance to lies and denials. The Kurds of eastern Turkey (Northern Kurdistan to the Kurds) have their own remembrances of what happened in 1915, when many of their ancestors murdered Armenians and appropriated their properties. But as they have repeatedly suffered their own brutalities from the Turkish state over the last century, many of them – including their most prominent, now imprisoned political leadershave come to recognize the Genocide. Travelers and scholars have repeatedly reported Kurds declaring, “They had you Armenians for breakfast, and they will now have us for lunch.” 

The fear of annihilation by ruthlessly ambitious nationalists pervades that corner of the world we know as Eastern Anatolia and the South Caucasus. Far removed from American consciousness, that contested territory makes itself felt when war, ethnic cleansing, terrorism or genocidal massacres occur. Think of America’s Kurdish allies in Syria, betrayed by the Trump administration and left to the mercies of the invading Turkish army. The West might imagine it can ignore those distant lands. Yet what happens in one part of our globalized world has the bitter potential to affect those of us in safer spaces. The vulnerable peoples of those lands are tied to Americans and American interests – as voters, as allies in the fight against the Islamic state and as fellow combatants against the injustices that threaten civil society much closer to Europe and the United States. And early this morning some of us took that message – never forget – to members of parliament of another small country, reminding them and all of us that if the past is not remembered it will continue to haunt those who refuse to face the inconvenient truth.

April 20, 2021

Ronald Grigor Suny, PhD

Ronald Grigor Suny, PhD

Dr. Ronald Grigor Suny is a professor of history and political science at the University of Michigan and the author of “They Can Live in the Desert But Nowhere Else: A History of the Armenian Genocide.” [Ancak Çölde Yasayabilirler: Bir Soykırımın Tarihi]
Ronald Grigor Suny, PhD

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