A century ago today, one of the great crimes in modern history began to unfold in the ancient city of Istanbul. In the middle of that Saturday night, Ottoman police rounded up the leading figures of their capital city’s Armenian community. One of them, an influential bishop named Grigoris Balakian, survived to leave behind this account:
We arrived at the central prison, and here behind gigantic walls and large bolted gates, they put us in a wooden pavilion in the courtyard, which was said by some to have once served as a school. We sat there, quiet and somber, on the bare wooden floor under the faint light of a flickering lantern, too stunned and confused to make sense of what was happening.
We had barely begun to sink into fear and despair when the iron gates of the prison creaked open again and a multitude of new faces were pushed inside. They were all familiar faces—revolutionary and political leaders, public figures, and nonpartisan and even antipartisan intellectuals.
From the deep silence of the night until morning, every few hours Armenians were brought to the prison. And so behind these high walls, the jostling and commotion increased as the crowd of prisoners became denser. It was as if all the prominent Armenian public figures—assemblymen, representatives, revolutionaries, editors, teachers, doctors, pharmacists, dentists, merchants, bankers, and others in the capital city—had made an appointment to meet in these dim prison cells. Some even appeared in their nightclothes and slippers. The more those familiar faces kept appearing, the more the chatter abated and our anxiety grew.
Before long everyone looked solemn, our hearts heavy and full of worry about an impending storm. Not one of us understood why we had been arrested, and no one could assess the consequences. As the night’s hours slipped by, our distress mounted. Except for a few rare stoics, we were in a state of spiritual anguish, terrified of the unknown and longing for comfort. (Armenian Golgotha, pp. 56-57)
Within twenty-four hours, about 250 leaders of the community had been arrested. Most were executed, the first of 1.5 million Armenians to die — many on forced marches to the deserts of Syria. Property was seized, women and children were converted to Islam and placed in Turkish families, and survivors scattered to countries like France and the United States. Taking place in the middle of the First World War, it was the first genocide of the 20th century.
However troubling, none of this is remotely controversial among most historians and other scholars. Within two weeks of the initial arrests, the New York Times was reporting on the “annihilation of the Armenians,” warning that the Ottoman government was reprising the vicious pogroms of the 1890s, when something like a quarter-million Armenians were killed. (Some, Grigoris Balakian remembered in April 1915, thrown into the sea with rocks tied to their legs.) American, Swedish, and other neutral diplomats documented the events, as did courageous Germans, defying their own government — the Ottoman Empire’s ally in World War I — in the process. Balakian’s memoir is recommended by Turkish historian Taner Akçam in his scathing study of the genocide, The Young Turks’ Crime Against Humanity. The translator of Armenian Golgotha, Balakian’s great-nephew Peter, had already done much to draw attention to those events with 2003’s bestselling The Burning Tigris. It earned him the Raphael Lemkin Book Award — named for the international lawyer who repeatedly referenced the Armenians in his own attempts to name, define, and outlaw genocide during and after the Holocaust.
Yet the Turkish government continues to deny that a genocide took place. (Akçam is one of the Turkish intellectuals who have faced investigation and harassment for their work in countering this claim.) Because of the strategic importance of that country to American policy in the Middle East, Pres. Barack Obama has again reneged on a 2008 campaign promise to recognize what happened starting in 1915 as a genocide.
But this year, at least, others have offered moral leadership. Earlier this month, Pope Francis chose to condemn the Armenian genocide during a special mass whose guests included the president of present-day Armenia and the supreme patriarch of the Armenian Apostolic Church. That statement prompted a diplomatic row with Ankara, but Francis warned that “Concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it.” And after German chancellor Angela Merkel decided to support it, today the Bundestag overwhelmingly approved a resolution naming the Armenian genocide. Earlier this week a similar resolution by the Austrian parliament resulted in the Turkish government recalling its ambassador from Vienna and warning of “permanent negative effects on Turkey-Austria relations.”
If you’re interested in learning more, here are a few of the many articles prompted by the centenary of the genocide:
- The Guardian reported on how the genocide continues to shape Armenian identity — in the small country of Armenia and among the Armenian diaspora around the world
- NPR has had multiple stories, including this one the “dueling anniversaries” of April 24-25 (today the genocide, tomorrow the Battle of Gallipoli, a crucial moment in Turkish — and Australian — history) and a report from Vakifli, the last Armenian village remaining in Turkey
- This week’s announcement from the White House that Pres. Obama would refrain from using the word genocide continued a troubling pattern from that administration, wrote Rafael Medoff, director of the Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. (He noted the odd treatment of an Armenian rug, and related all this to the U.S. government’s non-response to continuing atrocities in Sudan.)
- The BBC examined how Germany struggles with its response to the genocide, owing to its historical and continuing ties with Turkey.