In the 1930s, a major motion picture “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh” was in the works, a movie which would have portrayed the most dramatic resistance during the Armenian genocide. During the famous 1915 resistance of Musa Dagh, Armenian villagers, my great-grandmother among them, were under attack by the genocidal Turkish military. Miraculously, French naval ships evacuated the survivors, saving their lives. MGM Studios began working on the film, but the entire project was shut down after the Turkish government lobbied the Department of State against the production of the movie. Despite initial resistance, MGM eventually gave into the incessant complaints and financial pressure of the Turkish government.
While the Ottomans succeeded in driving Armenian villagers from their homeland, they failed in wiping out the Armenians at Musa Dagh. The Turkish government managed to prevent the production of “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh”; however, they were unable to censor Hollywood’s latest product, motion picture “The Promise”. With last weekend’s release of “The Promise”, the Armenian genocide is finally getting the cinematic attention it deserves. The release of “The Promise” is the culmination of a history of Armenian perseverance in the face of Turkish government denial.
But the historical significance of the Armenian genocide goes beyond the 1,500,000 Armenians, 500,000 Pontic Greeks and 300,000 Assyrians that perished from 1915 to 1923. The failure of the world to condemn and take action against the Young Turks set a precedent that helped opened the door for the Holocaust. Prior to invading Poland, Adolf Hitler assured Nazi party members of their impunity: “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” If the world had given enough attention to what was happening to the Armenians in 1915, Hitler may not have been so confident about being able to get away with the Holocaust.
The conversation about the Armenian genocide is about human rights. That is why “The Promise” touches upon the fundamental principles of tolerance and the just treatment of refugees and immigrants. The world must know about those who have suffered similar fates — the Jews, Bosnians, Tutsis, to name a few — and should stand up for those being killed today — the Yazidis, Syrians, Copts — to prevent the past from repeating itself.
At the same time, Turkey itself needs to accept its history in order to advance civil society in Turkey today, where Armenians still face discrimination. In the Eastern Anatolia region, the traditional Armenian homeland, anyone with Armenian roots is alienated and subject to slurs.
In an environment where such bigotry is tolerated, it is unsurprising that Turkish journalists like Hasan Cemal face death threats for publicly acknowledging and apologizing for the genocide. Turkish-Armenian MP Garo Paylan was suspended from Turkey’s parliament after mentioning the genocide just this year. In 2007, Armenian journalist from Istanbul Hrant Dink, who had been prosecuted three times for talking about the genocide and “insulting Turkishness”, was murdered by an ultranationalist 17-year-old in broad daylight. Denying atrocities, whether intentionally or not, breeds hatred that tragically leads to even more losses of human life.
Genocide denial must end. Even the United States government is complicit in the Turkish state’s denial campaign as it has never formally recognized the Armenian genocide. It’s time for the U.S. to finally put pressure on the Turkish government to own up to its actions, an effort which the new generation of Turks today should be spearheading, not ambivalently tolerating or even scorning. This new generation can follow the examples of Cemal, Taner Akcam and many other Turks who came before them and defended the truth even when it exposed a blemish on their own people’s history.
At the very least, I ask you to go see “The Promise” and engage with our history. Its existence is the result of a frustrating, multi-generational struggle against historical revisionism. And you’re welcome to join the Yale Armenian Network tonight, Monday, in front of Sterling Memorial Library from 7:15–8:00 p.m., where we will be hosting a candlelight vigil mourning the losses of the Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians who were murdered in the genocide.
Gor Mkrtchian is a junior in Saybrook College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .