Armenians world-wide dedicate this day to the memory of the Armenians slaughtered by the Ottoman Turks in the chaos of the First World War.
This means little to most odars (the Armenian word for non-Armenians), which is somewhat understandable. When I was a kid no one even knew what an “Armenian” was, we were such a small portion of the populace, and usually pretty sequestered in small enclaves scattered into various specific areas, such as Fresno, California and Watertown, Massachusetts. Many of us had weird names most people couldn’t even pronounce (I’m only half, hence the “Baker” – Mom’s last name was Bethlehemian).
That’s changed a great deal as some high-profile Armenians have emerged over the decades as culture figures, Cher and the Kardashians coming immediately to mind.
But a great deal more is at stake than popular acknowledgement of our existence. As we’ve learned throughout history, when major events are ignored people tend to repeat their mistakes. As Santayana noted, “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it”.
The Turkish slaughter of the Armenians was the first event of its kind in the modern era. Somewhere between 800,000 and 1.5 million were killed, by a variety of methods, starting with the intelligentsia and merchant class, and working its way down through the lowest peasants. The masses were told they were being “relocated”, if they weren’t just shot outright, and were marched into the desert to their doom. Females of all ages were wantonly raped; children were left by the side of the route to die of thirst and starvation. The horrors were unfathomable.
Their crime? Being an ethnic minority. They were Christians trying to get by in the Muslim Ottoman Empire.
At the time, this barbarity made barely a ripple in the sea of public awareness. World War I was raging, and it was itself a human tragedy of epic proportions. In the overall scheme of things, what was an event in an unknown corner of the Near East, happening to a people no one had ever heard of, going to matter?
It’s alleged that a few decades later, when Adolf Hitler was planning his “final solution” to the “Jewish problem” – the Holocaust – some of his advisors warned him against it because of the potential negative effect it could have on his stature as the country’s leader. His reply: “Who remembers the Armenians?”
That goes to the very heart of why this day is important, not only to us Armenians, but to the world at large. If history can be glossed over – or worse yet, forgotten – then mankind can be tempted to repeat such barbarity.
Some countries formally recognize the Armenian Genocide, some don’t. Turkey itself refuses to acknowledge it, and in some instances even denies that the slaughter – under any description – occurred at all.
Hopefully this will change. I think that if it does we can put the Genocide into its proper historical perspective, keeping the memory alive but letting the event itself become less of the activists’ “cause”.
We’d all benefit from that.
©Brian Baker 2019