April is the cruelest month for the people of Armenia, who every year at this season have to suffer a continuing tragedy and a humiliation. The tragedy is that of commemorating the huge number of their ancestors who were exterminated by the Ottoman Muslim caliphate in a campaign of state-planned mass murder that began in April 1915. The humiliation is of hearing, year after year, that the Turkish authorities simply deny that these appalling events ever occurred or that the killings constituted “genocide.”
In a technical and pedantic sense, the word genocide does not, in fact, apply, since it only entered our vocabulary in 1943. (It was coined by a scholar named Raphael Lemkin, who for rather self-evident reasons in that even more awful year wanted a legal term for the intersection between racism and bloodlust and saw Armenia as the precedent for what was then happening in Poland.) I still rather prefer the phrase used by America’s then-ambassador to Turkey, Henry Morgenthau. Reporting to Washington about what his consular agents were telling him of the foul doings in the Ottoman provinces of Harput and Van in particular, he employed the striking words “race extermination.” (See the imperishable book The Slaughterhouse Province for some of the cold diplomatic dispatches of that period.) Terrible enough in itself, Morgenthau’s expression did not quite comprehend the later erasure of all traces of Armenian life, from the destruction of their churches and libraries and institutes to the crude altering of official Turkish maps and schoolbooks to deny that there had ever been an Armenia in the first place.
This year, the House foreign affairs committee in Washington and the parliament of Sweden joined the growing number of political bodies that have decided to call the slaughter by its right name. I quote now from a statement in response by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the current prime minister of Turkey and the leader of its Islamist party:
In my country there are 170,000 Armenians. Seventy thousand of them are citizens. We tolerate 100,000 more. So, what am I going to do tomorrow? If necessary I will tell the 100,000: OK, time to go back to your country. Why? They are not my citizens. I am not obliged to keep them in my country.
This extraordinary threat was not made at some stupid rally in a fly-blown town. It was uttered in England, on March 17, on the Turkish-language service of the BBC. Just to be clear, then, about the view of Turkey’s chief statesman: If democratic assemblies dare to mention the ethnic cleansing of Armenians in the 20th century, I will personally complete that cleansing in the 21st!
Where to begin? Turkish “guest workers” are to be found in great numbers all through the European Union, membership of which is a declared Turkish objective. How would the world respond if a European prime minister called for the mass deportation of all Turks? Yet Erdogan’s xenophobic demagoguery attracted precisely no condemnation from Washington or Brussels. He probably overestimated the number of “tolerated” economic refugees from neighboring and former Soviet Armenia, but is it not interesting that he keeps a count in his head? And a count of the tiny number of surviving Turkish Armenians as well?
The outburst strengthens the already strong case for considering Erdogan to be somewhat personally unhinged. In Davos in January 2009, he stormed out of a panel discussion with the head of the Arab League and with Israeli President Shimon Peres, having gone purple and grabbed the arm of the moderator who tried to calm him. On that occasion, he yelled that Israelis in Gaza knew too well “how to kill”—which might be true but which seems to betray at best an envy on his part. Turkish nationalists have also told me that he was out of control because he disliked the fact that the moderator—David Ignatius of the Washington Post—is himself of Armenian descent. A short while later, at a NATO summit in Turkey, Erdogan went into another tantrum at the idea that former Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen of Denmark would be chosen as the next head of the alliance. In this case, it was cartoons published on Danish soil that frayed Erdogan’s evidently fragile composure.
In Turkey itself, the continuing denial has abysmal cultural and political consequences. The country’s best-known novelist, Orhan Pamuk, was dragged before a court in 2005 for acknowledging Turkey’s role in the destruction of Armenia. Had he not been the winner of a Nobel Prize, it might have gone very hard for him, as it has for prominent and brave intellectuals like Murat Belge. Turkish-Armenian editor Hrant Dink, also prosecuted under a state law forbidding discussion of the past, was shot down in the street by an assassin who was later photographed in the company of beaming, compliant policemen.
The original crime, in other words, defeats all efforts to cover it up. And the denial necessitates continuing secondary crimes. In 1955, a government-sponsored pogrom in Istanbul burned out most of the city’s remaining Armenians, along with thousands of Jews and Greeks and other infidels. The state-codified concept of mandatory Turkishness has been used to negate the rights and obliterate the language of the country’s enormous Kurdish population and to create an armed colony of settlers and occupiers on the soil of Cyprus, a democratic member of the European Union.
So it is not just a disaster for Turkey that it has a prime minister who suffers from morbid disorders of the personality. Under these conditions, his great country can never hope to be an acceptable member of Europe or a reliable member of NATO. And history is cunning: The dead of Armenia will never cease to cry out. Nor, on their behalf., should we cease to do so. Let Turkey’s unstable leader foam all he wants when other parliaments and congresses discuss Armenia and seek the truth about it. The grotesque fact remains that the one parliament that should be debating the question—the Turkish parliament—is forbidden by its own law to do so. While this remains the case, we shall do it for them, and without any apology, until they produce the one that is forthcoming from them.