102 Years Later: A Look Back at the Armenian Genocide, and a Look Forward at Reconciliation

By Leo Hochberg (Liberal Undergraduate)

In 1915, as WWI shattered all preconceptions of terror in the 20th century, one of history’s most poorly kept secrets played out across the Anatolian heartland: the genocide of over two million Armenian Christians living in the Ottoman Empire. As in all historic mass killings, numbers differ. Turkey claims that figures are exaggerated and that many of those deaths were in fact casualties of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, but a large body of historians refute this. A more historically founded and reliable body of scholarship claims that ninety percent of Ottoman Armenians were killed at the hands of the Turkish government. The end goal of the slaughter was to promote ethnic purity in Anatolia in order to pave the way for the future establishment of nation of Turkey. After this historic atrocity played out, the remaining Armenians (as both an ethnic and religious group) established a section of their ancestral territory bordering Eastern Turkey as a member state of the Transcaucasian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic, then later a founding section of the Soviet Union. It was not until 1991 and the fall of the Soviet Union that the independent Republic of Armenia was established. It now stands as a self-determined nation state, but conflicts concerning the recognition of Armenian international identity remain ever-present.

As unbelievable as it seems, the modern Turkish government, led by Erdogan, does not recognize the slaughter of over two millions as a means of achieving ethnic purity as a genocide. As mentioned above, they consider international scholarship to have conflated events of WWI beyond reasonable proportions, and that much of those deaths resulted from the harsh realities of world wide warfare. The complete and total failure of the Turkish government to take responsibility for the atrocities that it committed in the past is, in my own personal opinion, completely inexcusable. In my research on the the modern impact of such blanket denial, I have come across a variety of issues that the international Armenian community faces daily. Here I’d like to address two, which strike me as the most present and pressing.

The first is general disempowerment. How is an ethnoracial group, which still holds memories of grandmothers and grandfathers slaughtered by Turkish death squads, and who was forced into a massive diaspora just to escape ethnic cleansing, supposed to even consider reconciliation with Turkey when their past oppressors refuse to acknowledge that slaughter ever happened? Modern scholarship, particularly the work of Viken Yacoubian, points out that robbing the Armenians of their power to forgive Turkey or approach reconciliation for past crimes causes them to feel powerless and overlooked. Simply by virtue of the fact that they cannot forgive a nation that has not apologized for its actions, Armenians lose the only power that they could potentially have over Turkey; that is, the power to restore Turkey’s moral standing in the eyes of the international community, which considers the Armenian genocide an ethical failure. Yacoubian develops this further: “In light of this dynamic, the perpetrator’s acknowledgement of responsibility for the injustice caused to the victim would effectively create a milieu where the victim’s sense of power is reestablished by way of his or her prerogative to forgive the perpetrator,” (Yacoubian, 228). Thus, empowerment is invariably critical to reconciliation. In order to achieve a peaceful and inclusive future between Armenians and Turks, acknowledgement must come first, followed by apology, then, maybe, forgiveness.

There is one other core element of the contemporary situation that plagues the Armenian community, which is an effective ‘robbery’ of Armenian identity as it was meant to develop. Most scholarship on this focuses again on acknowledgement, and the idea that the failure of Turkey to admit its perpetration of genocide actually stalled the creation of whatever identity there would have been had Armenians been to permitted to approach forgiveness and reconciliation soon after the tragedy. Yacoubian explains, in far better words than I, how this plays out:

Models assert that a resolved ethnoracial identity has at its core a sense of cultural empowerment that nevertheless embraces an attitude of openness, tolerance, and inclusiveness toward the larger society. In the case of Armenians, one might reasonably argue that an obstacle in the way to achieving such a synergistically resolved identity is the individual’s inability to work through the trauma of genocide in the presence of a perpetrator who refuses to take responsibility for the committed act. This difficulty is further exacerbated by highly organized and sophisticated community infrastructures whose very existence is propelled by the perpetrator’s continuous denial of the genocidal act. Thus, the milieu of the diasporan Armenians’ ethnoracial identity is predicated upon an invested and committed attitude to undo the injustice inflicted upon its people,”.1

This can be difficult to follow, but it stands to reason that a vast amount of brainpower and resources amongst Armenians is dedicated to getting an apology from the Turkish government. Had that been given a century ago, those four generations of mental faculty and resources could have been directed towards the establishment of the Armenian community as an empowered, recognized, and visible ethnic and religious group.

So, given these striking modern paradigms present in the relationship between Armenians and the Turkish government, what do I see looking forward? Well, as much as I would love to say that international pressure will soon force Erdogan to begin the process of apology and reconciliation, I simply do not see that as viable right now. The original reason for the Armenian genocide was to secure a broader Turkish nationalism, which ultimately founded the nation of Turkey. And, as I have commented in other posts, this is the era of nationalism. Brexit, the American election, and Marine Le Pen’s campaign name, “Madame Frexit”, are just three examples of sickening modern nationalism that have swept across the world in the past year. Turkey has hardly escaped that either, and given that toxic nationalism is inherently non-conducive to reconciliation with any minority that is still considered an ‘outgroup’, immediate chances of an acknowledgement of genocide on the part of Erdogan’s government look bleak. Nevertheless, with the proper application of dialogue, interethnic education, attention to personal narratives of oppression, and the promotion of inclusive and diverse education for children, the Armenian diaspora may yet receive the apology that it deserves.

I’ll mention by making one more clarifying point: my intention here is not to pass a wholesale judgement of Turkey. Just as there were Turks who protected and saved Armenians during the original genocide of 1915, there are many today who recognize the atrocities of the past and urge Erdogan to initiate acknowledgement and apology. When I say that I want Turkey to forgive, I mean that I want official Turkish legislative bodies to issue statements of forgiveness and promote active restorative justice with Armenia and the Armenian diaspora. Similarly, I want the mainstream Turkish politic to support the same in the hopes of a brighter and more peaceful future for all.

Citations:
1 Yacoubian, Viken. "Forgiveness in the Context of the Armenian Experience." Forgiveness and Reconciliation, 2009, 223-35. Accessed February 17, 2017. doi:10.1007/978-1-4419-0181-1_14

*Here's one way author Leo Hochberg suggests you can get involved: Donate to the Armenian General Benevolent Union

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