Just one week prior to his 1939 invasion of Poland and the mass slaughter that followed, Adolf Hitler asked rhetorically, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” Such a depraved sentiment indicates why it is so significant that President Joe Biden, this past Saturday, became the first US President to formally classify the persecution committed against the Armenian Christians in Ottoman Turkey from 1915-1923 as “genocide”.
The nation of Turkey continues to aggressively reject the descriptive “genocide” and has, as a key regional ally to many, successfully pressured other nations to never use the term. The denial of the Armenian Genocide deprives victims, survivors, and their families of both recognition and justice. It also weakens the international community’s resolve to prevent such atrocities from happening again, especially for the vulnerable minority Christian communities of the Middle East. President Biden’s declaration came on “Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day” which is commemorated annually on April 24th, the date in 1915 when the genocide began. In 2019 both Houses of Congress passed resolutions acknowledging that the Armenian Genocide is an historical fact. With the president’s declaration on Saturday, the United States’ capitulation to Turkish pressure has finally come to an end.
To help readers better understand this horrific episode in human history and the significance of the recent declaration, CWR spoke with Professor Siobhan Nash-Marshall. She is the chair of philosophy at Manhattanville College in New York, author of The Sins of the Fathers: Turkish Denialism and the Armenian Genocide (Herder & Herder, 2018), and translator of Antonia Arslan’s novella Silent Angel which is set against the backdrop of the genocide. [Editor’s note: See CWR’s July 2020 interview, by Joseph Pearce, with Prof. Nash-Marshall about Silent Angel.]
CWR: What historic events led to the Armenian Genocide? Why were the Armenian Christians a specifically targeted minority within Ottoman Turkey for mass deportation and massacre?
Siobhan Nash-Marshall: There were many historic events that led to the Armenian Genocide on the international scene and within the Armenian community. Both sets are important if one wants to understand how the First Christian Nation, the nation that St. John Paul II referred to as the Martyr Nation of Christianity, suffered the Genocide.
The most significant event within the Armenian community was a powerful rebirth of its culture: the Zartonk as Armenians call it. Thanks to the careful and providential efforts of priests, like the monk Mkhitar of Sebaste in the 18th century, who collected ancient Armenian manuscripts (that can still be seen in the great collection of Venice), educated generations of new teachers, writers, historians, scholars, by the end of the 19th century Armenian culture flowered anew. That flowering took place at the same time as the notion of nationhood grounded in natural rights, the right of self-determination, the rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness spread from the new world to the old. The result of the cultural flowering in that time frame was the renewed recognition of the beauty and importance of their own Christian cultural patrimony. Armenians, who had for centuries suffered precisely because of their faith (as St. John Paul II claims “Martyrdom is a constant feature of your people’s history”), who lived as dhimmis in the Ottoman Empire precisely because they were Christians, recognized that they ought not to be second class citizens because of their faith. They pushed for reforms that would allow them freely to practice their faith: to be recognized as full-fledged citizens of the empire.
The Armenian Zartonk flowering took place within a complex geo-political situation. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Armenia, was politically controlled by three different empires: the Russian, the Persian, and the Ottoman. What is most important for the Armenians is that by the turn of the 19th century European Empires (Russia, France, and England) were on the rise, and the Ottoman Turks, who had conquered large swaths of Europe a century or so earlier, could not defend themselves against the Europeans, who wanted to conquer the lands “back.” What made the situation for the Armenians extremely dangerous was that Europeans justified their wars against the Ottoman Empire by claiming that they were doing so to defend the Christian peoples subjugated by the Ottoman Empire. They did so when they aided the Greeks in their war of independence, the Bulgarians and Romanians, and again when they helped the Maronites of Lebanon.
When it comes to the Armenians, the problems were primarily two: the first was that European powers were often more interested in keeping each other at bay than they were in the genuine welfare of the Christians who lived in the Ottoman Empire; the second was that the Ottoman Turks came to think of the European call for the defense of Christians as a justification for their own demise, and therefore became more ferocious with the Armenians.
By 1878, the danger to Armenia and the Armenians was no secret to any of the European Powers. It was openly discussed at the Congress of Berlin. But despite the rhetoric, no European Power came to Armenia’s aide. There were terrible massacres of Armenians in the 1890s and in 1909. But again, no European Power came to Armenia’s aide. When the final Turkish push to exterminate the Armenians began in 1915, again no power came to Armenia’s side.
CWR: Can you provide a brief survey of the history of the Armenian Genocide? How many were killed and deported?
Ms. Nash-Marshall: The Armenian Genocide was particularly ferocious, bloody, agonizing. Beginning in the eastern provinces of what is today called Turkey (and was then called the Armenian Highlands), Armenians were rounded up: the men usually killed on the spot with bullets, knives, or whatever other gruesome means; the women, children, and the elderly were most often sent on a death march to the Syrian desert, to die the slow agonizing death of thirst, hunger, fatigue.
It is usually calculated that three-quarters of the Armenians of Western Armenia died at that time. This makes the total number of Armenian dead about 1,500,000. In truth, the amount of killing undertaken by the Turks at that time is simply staggering. It is usually claimed that there were somewhere between 18 and 21 million people living in what is now called Turkey before World War I, and that these included large Christian minorities: 2.5 million Greeks, 2 million Armenians, and 1 million Chaldeans and Assyrians. Thus, the pre-War population of “Turkey” was at least 20% Christian in 1914. The picture changes radically after World War I and the Genocide. According to the 1927 census, the population of the Republic of Turkey was approximately 13.65 million people, of whom 2.7% (that is, approximately 368,500) were not Muslim. Assuming that the birthrates of the Christians and Muslims were comparable at that time, the census reveals that at least 93% of the Christian population of “Turkey” that is, more than 4 million Christians simply “vanished” at some point between 1914 and 1927.
We know that roughly 1.3 million Greek Christians (or about 30% of the total Christian population) were sent to Greece in 1923 during the Turkish-Greek population exchange. No such exchange took place for the Armenians, Chaldeans, or Assyrians. This means that about 2.7 million Christians (or about 65% of the Christian population of Turkey) were disposed of (deported, killed, or both) in those years.
CWR: Since the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, the modern nation of Turkey has refused to recognize the genocide. Besides this denial, what other means has Turkey employed to limit recognition of what really happened between 1915 and 1923?
Ms. Nash-Marshall: Turkey’s denialist campaign is complex and multifaceted, and is a model, I believe, really to understand the nature of historical and political engineering. Turkey has, for instance, paid for American scholars actively to deny the Armenian Genocide took place. The most famous active academic dis-informant operating in the USA was Princeton University’s Professor Heath Lowry, whose correspondence with the Ambassador of Turkey was mistakenly sent to Prof. Robert Jay Lifton, who published it for all to read. Turkey has teams attempting to change the names of the flora and fauna of “Turkey” to strip them of all references to Armenia. It has very active lobbies throughout the world.
Turkey also resorts to threats. The most famous example in recent US history is the 2007 Resolution of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee on the Armenian Genocide (H-Res. 106). That Resolution was approved by the Committee, but was kept from the floor. The US was at that time engaged in the War in Iraq and Turkey threatened to deny the US the rights to fly over Turkey and the use of NATO military base in Incirlik, which was deemed crucial to the war effort.
In the last year, Turkish President Erdogan has ceased publicly to deny that the Armenian Genocide took place. During a coronavirus briefing, on May 4, 2020, he claimed publicly that he would no longer allow the “leftovers of the sword,” the phrase commonly used inside Turkey to refer to those few Armenians and Christians who still live in Turkey, to continue to live in Turkey. “We do not allow terrorist leftovers of the sword in our country,” he said, “to attempt to carry out [terrorist] activities. Their number has decreased a lot but they still exist.”
CWR: Why is the label of “genocide” so important?
Ms. Nash-Marshall: For several reasons. The most important is that nothing short of the word genocide can be used properly to describe the events of 1915 – the wholesale destruction of Armenians, their cultural monuments, their monasteries, their history – by anyone who loves the truth. What happened to the Armenians was the attempt:
to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such:
Killing members of the group;
Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
A crime perpetrated with this intent is ‘genocide’ as defined by the UN Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide. Raphael Lemkin, who spearheaded the UN Genocide Convention (1948) explicitly stated that he did so because of the Armenian Genocide.
Long before the term ‘genocide’ was coined, Pope Benedict XV described what happened to the Armenians 1915, as “the Armenian people was being forced into its extinction” miserrima Armeniorum gens qui prope ad interitum ducitur. For a “people to be forced into extinction” is for it to suffer a genocide: the assassination (caedere) of a people (genos).
CWR: What is the significance of President Biden’s formal recognition that genocide was indeed perpetrated against the Armenian Christian by Ottoman Turkey?
Ms. Nash-Marshall: The significance is enormous. In 2019 both Houses of the US Government passed resolutions acknowledging that the Armenian Genocide is an historical fact. With Biden’s formal recognition, the executive branch of the Government has joined the legislative branch in recognizing that it is an historical fact. For those who love truth, this is momentous simply because it means that truth, historical truth, will ultimately prevail. For Christians, for whom historical truth has sacred importance, this should be a joyous thing.
Second, by formally recognizing the Armenian Genocide, both the legislative and the executive branches of the government have bolstered the work of those noble Americans who have for years striven not just to make known to the world that the genocide of Christians is a reality, but to protect those who are currently in danger of being martyred. I take this recognition to be an important step towards the defense of Christians.
Third, by recognizing that what happened to Armenians was a Genocide, the US government has re-opened the door for the many lawsuits that have been filed in US Courts by the Armenians, all of which were blocked by the courts precisely because that recognition was lacking.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!