On November 1st 2005 a United Nations General Assembly Resolution designated the 27th of January as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Every year, on the day in which the Soviet troops opened Auschwitz gates, the world commemorates the victims of the holocaust. Also known with the Hebrew term Shoah (השואה ‘catastrophe’), the holocaust is the biggest genocide in history by death toll. In an age span of six years, about six million Jews were murdered, maiming 78% of Jews in Nazi-controlled Europe.
As Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon stated in 2007, “The International Day in memory of the victims of the Holocaust is thus a day on which we must reassert our commitment to human rights.” International Holocaust Remembrance Day is an important achievement and every year it takes the word one step closer to historical awareness. The problem is that it only brings awareness about the Shoah.
What about the other genocides? They do not have an International Remembrance Day. Most people don’t even know about their existence.
The term genocide derives from the Greek term génos ‘race’ and the Latin word caedere ‘to kill’ and refers to the act of exterminating an ethnic or religious group. It didn’t exist though until 1944. Raphael Lemkin coined this neologism to describe what was happening to Jews in occupied Poland. He got his “inspiration” from another act of ethnic cleaning perpetrated not by the Third Reich, but by the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the 20th century.
Today, on the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, let’s bring our hearts and minds to the victims of another brutal and yet often forgotten genocide.
The Armenian Genocide
The Armenian people have made their home in the Caucasus somewhere 3000 years ago. In the 15th century they were absorbed by the Ottoman Empire. Being Christians, Armenians were treated as second class citizens but despite all they managed to thrive and become wealthier than most. The Empire was afraid Armenians would rather owe their loyalty to Christians, such as the Russian Empire. Growing exponentially over the years, this fear brought to the Hamidian massacres. Between 1894 and 1896 the Armenians’ requests for civil-rights resulted in a pogrom followed by a violent response from police and citizens, who sacked, raped and killed hundred of thousands Armenians.
In 1908 a coup d’état by the Young Turks overthrew Sultan Abdul Hamid II and formed a triumvirate also known as the Three Pashas. The goal was to establish a constitutional government. Armenians saw a glimpse of hope for their request to have an equal status within the Nation, but hope did not last long. The goal of the Young Turks was in fact to “Turkify” the nation, which also meant to eradicate the Christian minority.
At the beginning of Word War I the Young Turks entered war side by side with Germany hoping to defeat the Russian Empire on the Caucasus. However they lost and started to blame the Armenians in the area to have sided with the enemies.
The genocide started on April 24th 1915 when hundreds of Armenian intellectuals were arrested and then executed. After this terrible reprise, Armenians started to be expropriated of their homes. Those who were not executed and buried in mass graves were sent to death marches through the Syrian desert to reach the concentration camps, during which most people died of starvation and exhaustion.
The Three Pashas managed to find protection in Germany where they fled in 1918 after the Empire surrendered, but the massacres went on until 1922. The University of Minnesota’s Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies has shown there were 2,133,190 Armenians in the Ottoman empire in 1914, but only about 387,800 survived until 1922.
The genocide was well witnessed and documented by Western diplomats and others in situ a well as abroad. The NY Times published 100 articles about the topic in 1915 alone. But to Turkey, what happened between 1915 and 1922 is simply a very messy war spelling the end of the Ottoman empire. They reject the term genocide, claiming there was no premeditation and no systematic attempts to annihilate a whole ethnic group. As a matter of fact, in Turkey raising the issue of the Armenian genocide is still considered a crime, namely of “insulting Turkishness”.
Wikipedia lists the Armenian as the fourth greatest genocide by death toll and yet it is not acknowledged by its perpetrators.