On Tuesday, 93-year-old former SS member Oskar Gröning entered a German courtroom to face charges for his involvement in the greatest atrocity in history. He was complicit, prosecutors say, in the mass murder of Jews at Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944. For years, German prosecutors refused to try cases like Gröning’s, saying the link to the atrocities was too tenuous. Not anymore.
One hundred years ago today – April 24, 1915 – Ottoman Turkish authorities rounded up and executed 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders in Istanbul. They were the first victims among the 1.5 million Armenians who would subsequently be marched to their deaths in the murders and “deportations” that constituted the Armenian Genocide. In 1915, there were 2 million Armenians living across Ottoman Turkey. By the 1920s, less than 500,000 remained. Cities across Anatolia became ghost towns. Valleys were filled with corpses and bones. Today in these regions, local inhabitants can describe what happened. They will point you to “cursed ravines” they still avoid during their daily commutes.
These villagers, plus a handful of brave Turkish and Armenian journalists and activists, are perhaps the only people who will tell you what occurred. The Turkish government won’t. In fact, saying the words “Armenian Genocide” can get you put in jail — or worse, killed at gunpoint. Not only does Turkey refuse to recognize what happened in 1915, but it also does its best to prevent other governments, including ours, from doing the same. When the Pope used the words “Armenian Genocide” last week, Turkey was furious. On Wednesday, Ankara prevented Bosnian politician Milorad Dodik from flying over Turkish airspace to personally offer his condolences at the Armenian Genocide Memorial in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital.
Read any op-ed or historical account of the Armenian Genocide, and much of what’s been mentioned here will almost certainly come up. But I’d like to argue something more: that the Armenian Genocide continues today. Historians, who are virtually unanimously in agreement about what happened, often call denial the “last stage” of genocide. In this case, it manifests itself in many ways. A few years ago, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, threatened to “deport” the remaining Armenian citizens in Turkey. Last year, he called “allegations” that he had Armenian blood “ugly,” insisting he was a “purebred Turk.”
But there’s something even more painful than outright racism from the leader of almost 80 million people. It’s that today’s Turkish citizens largely don’t know what happened, because their government forbids the unfiltered teaching of history. I remember the first time I brought up the Genocide to a Turkish friend: she looked at me, staring blankly. She had no idea.
Armenia is a tiny country today because of the Genocide. At my Armenian church, I often still hear the names of cities from which survivors came: Erzurum, Van, Kharpert, Diyarbakir, Bitlis, Sebastia. The survivors and their children are old now, and many will take their memories with them when they die. They, and those who couldn’t escape, were the “others” who had to disappear for modern Turkish political and cultural identity to be forged in the aftermath of World War I. It is an identity that leaves little room for minorities to this day, whether Armenian, Jewish or Kurdish — whose collective lineages are often repressed.
Turkey claims that, in the fog of war during World War I, Armenians and Turks suffered equally. It’s a criminally ignorant false equivalence: Raphael Lemkin, the Polish-Jewish jurist who coined the term “genocide” in 1943, cited the Armenian case as the first example.
Four years earlier, as Adolf Hitler readied Germany for the ghastly extermination campaigns that were soon to begin, he assured Nazi party members of success: “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” he said. The Genocide has been a template for war criminals ever since.
Genocide denial is, as Stefan Ihrig recently wrote in the Huffington Post, “brutalizing the world,” emboldening the enemies of humanity everywhere and making true reconciliation impossible: How do you mourn the dead and find forgiveness when the victims, deniers insist, never existed? And denial is also brutalizing the Armenian psyche, which cannot get beyond distrust, paranoia and revulsion towards Turkey.
“Personally, I don’t feel vengeance,” Auschwitz survivor Hedy Bohm said of Gröning on Tuesday. “I don’t want to see him go to jail. It’s too late for it, he’s too old. I’m just hoping that the law…will come to the judgment that he was guilty.” Another survivor, Eva Fahidi, said the trial “is one of the most important events in my life.”
Today, Armenian genocide remembrance day is about mourning and prayer. At 6:30 p.m., the Yale community will gather at Beinecke Plaza to remember those senselessly killed for the crime of being Armenian. But today, unfortunately, cannot be about reconciliation and healing. There can be no definitive healing until denial ends. When it does, the Armenian Genocide will finally be over.
John Aroutiounian is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. This is his last column for the News. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .