It started in 1915, but it has never really ended

Protest against Azerbaijani aggression, October 2020, Boston (Photo: Knar Bedian)

Here’s a memo to the Armenian nation on the occasion of the 107th year of the start of the Armenian Genocide: we need to alter our messaging by not referring to it as a finite historical event with a beginning and an end. Sometimes dates can be a distraction from the message. We focus on 1915, but the Hamidian atrocities in 1894-96 are viewed by many as the start of a significant shift in Ottoman Turkish policy that established the evil momentum. We label 1923 as the endpoint of the duration of the Genocide, as if a treaty, armistice or ceasefire ended the oppression. We know better, as Turkish policy shifted in the new republic from wholesale massacre to institutional denial and racism. After the initial assault, there weren’t enough Armenians left to commit large scale massacres, but that does not mean it was the end of the nightmare. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

Why is this distinction important? We are pursuing justice, not simply commemorating a historical event. When focused on a specific window from another era, we unintentionally enable our audience to do two things. They can patronize the atrocities as an unfortunate part of history and absolve the current government from responsibility from the crime. When attempting to “correct history,” we only solve half of the problem. In his carefully worded recognition of the Armenian Genocide in 2021, President Biden was equally sensitive not to lay blame on the current Turkish government. Essentially, the message was that your ancestors committed a heinous crime by attempting to annihilate the indigenous population of western Armenia, but don’t worry, we don’t hold you accountable. This is the danger of defining or believing recognition is the goal. Fortunately, it was a political not legal announcement. The United States government wanted to do the right thing and recognize the Genocide, but they treated it as only an historical event by essentially exonerating the successor government. The US recognition announcement defines the challenge that we face in seeking justice; simply correcting history or recognizing the truth is not to be confused with justice.

We need to take responsibility for our portion of this issue. The global Armenian nation is responsible for the message that we broadcast to ourselves and to the international community. We have generally defined the Armenian Genocide from 1915-23. In doing this, we relegate it to an historical event as the Turks opened a new and enlightened page in 1923. We know that the beginning is tied to the arrest and murder of intellectuals on April 24 in Constantinople. Fair enough. One can argue the continuum of oppression from Abdul Hamid in the 1890s into the Ittihad regime in the first decade of 1900, but the intent was clearly established in 1915 under the cover of a world war. The year 1923 is an artificial endpoint simply because the indigenous population had been removed, but other forms of repression began that are directly related to genocide. Essentially, in October of 1923 the new Turkish Republic was established under Mustafa Kemal. Did his elevation as leader of the post-war Turks create a peaceful environment for the Armenians? Hardly! When he became president after consolidating his power by defeating the Greeks and pushing the allies out, his hands were already stained with the blood of Armenians, Pontic Greeks and Assyrians. It was clearly a continuation of the policies of his Young Turk predecessors. Ataturk was the author of the institutional coverup of the Genocide in Turkey in the history books and educational system by labeling Armenians as undesirables, disloyal and rebellious. He may be viewed by some as the secular change agent and liberator of Turkey, but to the indigenous people who were purged from the Anatolian landscape into the 1920s, he was a racist murderer. By the 1930s, nearly all of the two million plus Armenians living in Western Armenia were either dead, forced to migrate or became what we call today “hidden” Armenians. Armenians were openly slandered and subjected to discrimination through communal and personal property confiscation. Those battles are still being fought today with litigation to recover lost property of Armenian foundations. The Turkish government closed both the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic seminaries in Constantinople denying the churches the lifeblood of native ordained priests, despite the freedom of religion asserted in the Treaty of Lausanne. By insisting on a provision that any patriarchal candidate must be a native of Turkey, the government interference is a thinly disguised attempt to weaken the church. The 1955 riots against the Greek and Armenian Christian populations are still recalled as horrific and intentional. The continued oppression took on new forms with institutional discrimination, economic bias and cultural deprivation. When the majority of our ancestors were murdered or forced into exile, they left behind their communal/personal property and the cultural infrastructure of several millennia. Scholars have researched and documented the illegal confiscation of the wealth that became one of the financial pillars of the new republic, founded on the blood money of the murdered nations. Thousands of churches, monasteries, schools and other monuments were either converted by the government or left to decay, subject to the vile behavior of looters. This “white” genocide has been responsible for the intentional destruction of the historical presence of the Armenian nation in the Highlands. First, you kill the people, and then you continue the crime by destroying any evidence that they ever existed. This has been the policy of the Turkish government until the present. They have continued what their Ittihad/Young Turk brothers began.

In recent years, the duplicitous Turkish government has become more “sophisticated” as it operates as a sly fox with the west. Publicly, they portray themselves as the benevolent gatekeeper and stewards of other civilizations that lived on those lands. What they don’t tell a naïve world is that they are responsible for that absence felt when viewing Holy Cross at Akhtamar or vestiges of the Pontic Greek or Assyrian presence. They don’t discuss their refusal to place a cross on the dome of the Akhtamar Cathedral or the generic explanation on visitor  information that hides Armenian ownership. They have graciously granted one badarak a year which the patronizing Patriarchate anxiously appreciates. But where are the parishioners? When the Church of St. Giragos in Diyarbekir was renovated and consecrated, it was a joyous occasion for Armenians and brought many forward to reclaim their identity. During one of many attacks on the Kurds, the Turkish army occupied the Sur district of the city. During their hunt for “terrorists,” they occupied and desecrated the restored Armenian church. The examples have been far too frequent and continuous. It is dangerous in Turkey today for a hidden Armenian to declare their true identity. There is a reason why they are called “hidden.”

During the early part of the last century, the Tartars to the east (now known as Azeris) began to take on some of the barbaric behavior of their cousins to the west. There were massacres in 1905 and around Baku in 1920 of Armenians. As a result of the illegal award of Nakhichevan to Azerbaijan, the greater than 50 percent Armenian population was systematically purged. By the 1980s, there were no Armenians left in that region. Following the playbook of the Turks, they began a campaign to destroy the Armenian monuments in Nakhichevan in an attempt to erase the truth. Revisionist history through physical destruction is a part of a continued genocide. In large part, the heroic defense of Artsakh in the last 30 years has been to prevent what happened in Nakhichevan. Despite a historic presence in Azerbaijan proper, approximately 350,000 Armenians were forced to abandon their homes after premeditated murder, pogroms and street violence in several cities from 1988-91. The recent occupation of parts of Armenian Artsakh has been filled with documented accounts of atrocities, cultural genocide and intimidation. This is but a small sample of the last several decades. Each of these examples is from different eras, with different leaders and a variety of crimes, but what they all have in common is the criminal intent to destroy the Armenians and to deny their basic right to exist. Simply put, the Armenians have continued to be in the path of Turkish racism and expansionism.

Conclusion: it never ended, so let’s stop discussing this only in the context of some historical event in the past. It is the Turks who have proved the Turkish intent. Aside from the challenges of overcoming the legal obstacles to justice, I perceive additional risk that, if we chose to, can be manageable. Most of our friends in the journey of recognition may view that as an endpoint. They may feel morally and politically fulfilled by setting the “record straight.” Our ability to open their minds (and political power) to an unpunished crime is to connect the dots of 1915 to 2022. A genocide unpunished is an enabler for future crimes. We have repeated these thoughts countless times, but have we presented our case in this way? I fear that no one will punish the Turks for crimes committed over 100 years ago. They will stop at recognition and the rhetoric of accountability, but they may consider action against a nation that not only has denied the truth but has continued the policy of oppression to this day. Our children in Artsakh today are the children of 1915. The criminal has been encouraged by his ability to escape accountability. The UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment for the Crime of Genocide addresses the “intent to destroy in whole or in part.” The definition contains the following: “Killing members of the group…Causing serious bodily or mental harm…Deliberately inflicting…conditions of life calculated to bring about physical destruction…” The actions of the Turkish and Azerbaijani governments in their attempts to deny sovereignty, life and cultural identity to the Armenians are current events that represent a continuum of the crime. It is the difference between Armenians speaking upon deaf ears of a crime last century and making the case that the crimes never stopped and are impacting lives today. Our message must be effective, and the emotional commitment of our people to the crimes of 1915-23 is not sufficient. In order to pursue reparations, our message must be relevant to a world distracted by competing problems. The day will come when criminal regimes such as Turkey and Azerbaijan will fall out of favor. Conditioning the power brokers for that day with an integrated message begins now.

Stepan Piligian

Stepan Piligian

Columnist
Stepan was raised in the Armenian community of Indian Orchard, MA at the St. Gregory Parish. A former member of the AYF Central Executive and the Eastern Prelacy Executive Council, he also served many years as a delegate to the Eastern Diocesan Assembly. Currently , he serves as a member of the board and executive committee of the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR). He also serves on the board of the Armenian Heritage Foundation. Stepan is a retired executive in the computer storage industry and resides in the Boston area with his wife Susan. He has spent many years as a volunteer teacher of Armenian history and contemporary issues to the young generation and adults at schools, camps and churches. His interests include the Armenian diaspora, Armenia, sports and reading.
Stepan Piligian

Latest posts by Stepan Piligian (see all)

4 Comments

  1. You say it started in 1915, but you are incorrect. It really started in 1883 while my Armenian grandfather was in NYC. He went there in 1882 to learn a trade as a meat cutter: intending to return to Armenia; when he heard about the massacres, he sent for several cousins and arranged their transport to America. He helped found an Armenian Church on 34th St. in NYC, (which is still there) worked for a NYC rug dealer. My grandmother was hidden for a year in the basement of a Turkish family, then managed to get the the US. She and my grandfather married, had 2 children in NYC. His employer sent him on a trip to Newport RI. Once there. he telegraphed my grandmother. “Pack your bags, I’ve found the place where I want to raise mt family.”
    Our family has been based there ever since!

  2. I appreciate the article but like George we would would be much more impactful if we studied and talked about the millennial long struggle that we’ve had, not just the Hamidian massacres. We really need to pull back and look at this history of subjugation with a white angle lens. It’s not just a few events it’s purges it’s rapes it’s lynching its programs it’s pure evil. There’s a reason I am going overboard on this, during the civil unrest here in Los Angeles two years ago I was talking to a black woman and I told her I know how you feel because of what we’ve gone through as a people and she turned around and said to me, “it’s not the same the Armenian massacres were a one time event we’ve been struggling for several hundred years in this country.” I was shocked and dismayed at her comment, but it dawned on me that we haven’t done a good job of actually portraying the horror of living under the Ottomans, there needs to be a massive compilation of this history, I’m certain very few tribes if any have suffered so much for so long.

  3. The oldest Armenian Church in the United States still in use is the ARMENIAN CHURCH OF THE MARTYRS. It is also the first Armenian Evangelical Church in the U.S. It was built in 1900. It is named after the martyrs of the Hamidian massacres which started in mid 1890’s.

  4. Mr. Piligian,
    I appreciate your columns in The Weekly. You are a real historian, and very logical, but I have to agree with the three people who commented before me,that the atrocities started in the late 1800s and continue to this day. There is a goal of Pan-Turkism which is being carried out by the Turks and their cousins the Azeris. They are all Tatars, the same Taters that China built a wall to keep them out. The very same nomads that kept migrating towards East, destroying and looting, killing, stealing on the way to survive and multiply. Now, they look civilised and fool The West, thanks to make up and The Western attire, but the deep down spirit hasn’t changed. They destroyed The Roman Empire, and now call themselves “the inheriters of The Roman Empire”. On the occasion of Christmas 2021, a high official in Azerbaijan had claimed that : in the year 301 AD Christianity blossomed in Azerbaijan, before any other place in the world. Now they reverse every Armenian culture, as Azeri, and call the Armenians “the agressor”.
    Our problem is overwhelming…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*