Remembering the Armenians

By Steven G. Kellman

On August 22, 1939, Adolf Hitler summoned commanders of the Wehrmacht to his mountaintop residence, Obersaltzberg. In little more than a week, they would invade Poland and, insisted their Führer, he was counting on their ruthlessness. To demonstrate that the Third Reich was taking control, they should slaughter men, women, and children indiscriminately. Hitler reassured them about the consequences of their actions. “Who, after all,” he asked, “speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

On October 29, 2019, 80 years after Hitler’s cynical taunt and a century after the slaughter of more than one million Armenians by the last vestige of the Ottoman Empire, the United States Congress spoke out in remembrance of the savagery. House Resolution 296, sponsored by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), recognizes the slaughter of the Armenians and encourages public understanding of it and other genocides.

Though similar resolutions, strenuously opposed by Turkish lobbyists, have failed, HR 296 passed on a 405-11 vote, spurred this time by disgust over recent crimes against humanity committed by NATO ally Turkey in Syria. Similar resolutions had already been passed in every state legislature except Mississippi’s. On May 19, 2017, the Texas Legislature unanimously proclaimed that “During World War I, the crumbling Ottoman Empire began a systematic campaign to eradicate its Armenian population, which then numbered more than two million; and… as many as 1.5 million Armenians perished.”

Even while Armenians were being slaughtered, Henry Morgenthau, the U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, organized international protests against what he called the “campaign of race extermination.” In 1944, when Raphael Lemkin coined the term “genocide,” he used the campaigns against the Armenians and his fellow Jews as defining examples. In a formal resolution adopted in 1997, the International Association of Genocide Scholars left no doubt that, when “More than a million Armenians were exterminated through direct killing, starvation, torture, and forced death marches,” it constituted genocide.

Like the Holocaust, the enormity of the Armenian Genocide beggars a belief in human benevolence. It, too, has attracted deniers. The current government of Turkey, heir to the Ottoman Empire, regards all talk of genocide as defamation and, even while it pursues a violent campaign against Kurds, Yazidis, and others, silences those who remember the Armenians. Orhan Pamuk does, telling an interviewer: “Thirty thousand Kurds have been killed here, and a million Armenians. And almost nobody dares to mention that.” Pamuk was prosecuted for “insulting Turkishness,” though, following an international outcry, the charges were dropped against Turkey’s only Nobel literature laureate.

Hitler’s contemptuous question is inscribed on a wall of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, an institution dedicated to the proposition that, unless the world studies the atrocities of the past, it is condemned to repeat them. Indifference to the fate of the Armenians emboldened the Nazis in their campaign to exterminate the Jews of Europe. But more recent violence in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur, Myanmar, and elsewhere demonstrates that museums alone cannot inoculate the world against systematic attempts to liquidate an entire community.

Steven G. Kellman is a professor of comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio.