Last Friday, Armenian communities across the world observed the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide.
On April 24th, 1915, about 250 Armenian intellectuals were arrested in Constantinople by the Ottoman government. This was the opening salvo in a three-year campaign of ethnic violence which is estimated to have cost the lives of 600,000 to 1.5 million people. As a young adult of Armenian heritage, I have been reflecting about what this anniversary means – for me, my family and the Armenian community, as well as for all people of peace and human dignity around the world.
If I have come to any conclusion, it is that I must take the anniversary as an appropriate opportunity to engage my community in a discussion of the Armenian genocide and to ask for your help in the very deliberate act of remembering.
First, some historical context: Before the genocide, there were roughly two million Armenians living in what is now the eastern half of Turkey. The “Young Turk” government attempted to eradicate this Armenian population through massacres and forced deportations. Entire communities were uprooted and sent on “death marches” into the Syrian desert. Many of those who didn’t die of trauma or malnourishment along the way were either slaughtered or abandoned to fend hopelessly for themselves. Other ethnic minorities living in the Ottoman Empire, including Greeks and Assyrians, were targets of similar violence during this period.
What is incredibly peculiar about the Armenian genocide is that while these atrocities are fairly well documented, the Turkish government denies that the Ottoman government conducted organized ethnic violence against the Armenians to this day and vehemently objects to the term “genocide” being applied to the events that occurred in Turkey from 1915 to 1918.
Denial has helped contribute to exceptionally poor relations between Armenia and its two neighbors to the east and west, Turkey and Azerbaijan, with crippling economic consequences for the young, land-locked, post-Soviet state. Furthermore, this denial has had a traumatizing effect on the psyche of the Armenian community. In my experience, Armenian identity is practically inseparable from a lingering obsession with genocide remembrance. The kind of remembering I see going on around me does not seem healthy but rather frantic, desperate and perhaps even defensive, and this response is the result of a perceived general apathy and ignorance toward the events of the Armenian genocide. We’re overcompensating, trying to bear the burden of memory by ourselves, but it is an impossible task for such a small community to accomplish, and that is the source of great pain.
The Armenian genocide has been officially recognized by 23 countries and the European Parliament, but not by the United States or the United Nations. Most presume that the United States has not yet recognized the genocide for geopolitical reasons such as not wanting to alienate Turkey, an ally strategically located at the gateway to the Middle East, and a country where we store nuclear weapons. So the Armenian people are still waiting for recognition of the crimes perpetrated against them 100 years ago, to say nothing of apologies or reparations.
I have been trying to answer for myself why I feel it is important to remember the Armenian genocide. On a personal level, I needed to commemorate the 100th anniversary to stand in solidarity with my extended family in reflecting on our own family history. It was my great-grandparents and their siblings who left Turkey and made it to America safely. All were between the ages of eight and 20 when they left behind loved ones who would vanish, communities that would disappear.
They were my Nanny’s parents, my mother’s “Mimi.” Those of my mother’s generation have spent their adult lives wondering what their parents knew but never told them, and I have grown up watching them speculate, immersing myself in these conversations at what seems like every other major family function. Looking back, I have pieced together the story as best I can, trying to match names and dates with faces and family branches that get further and further separated from one another with each passing decade.
This is why it was important to me to commemorate the Armenian genocide’s centennial. But why should people in general take part in the deliberate act of remembrance?
Since the Armenian genocide was one of the first examples of systematic ethnic cleansing in the 20th century and so served as a model for the Nazis and the Holocaust, some have argued that to forget the Armenian genocide would be dangerous. I will leave this argument for others to make and evaluate.
To start, I ask you to remember for the dignity of the victims. I ask you to remember to help this community move on. I ask you to remember so that you may care, and so that there can someday be a critical mass of public interest to really push for official recognition of the genocide at a national and international level. I ask you to remember so that there might be political pressure levied on Turkey to press it to acknowledge the events of the genocide, so that the Turks and Armenians can reconcile after centuries of violence and mistrust, so that the long oppressed Armenian people and their crippled modern state, can truly heal, move on and prosper in the way that they deserve.
To anyone interested in learning more about the Armenian genocide and the issue of its memory, I encourage you to read The Bastard of Istanbul, Skylark Farm or Nine Armenians. You can check out an interview I gave for the local podcast, The Greylock Glass.
Thank you for reading. Thank you for remembering. I encourage you to continue engaging with this issue, and I would be honored to discuss my opinions and my family’s story with anyone interested.
Chris Janson ’16 is a Japanese major from Darien, Conn. He lives in Parsons.