60 Minutes had a segment tonight on the Armenian genocide of 1915, including contemporary footage from Syria, where Armenians were deported and massacred while it was part of the Ottoman Empire.
By coincidence, I just finished reading Armenian Golgotha, a powerful memoir of the genocide by Grigoris Balakian, a priest who survived in part because he had studied in Berlin and was able to pass himself off as a German.
I’d never read anything before about the Armenian genocide, and now I feel that I’ve missed an element of what should be part of Humanist cultural literacy. About 1.5 million Armenians died during World War I. Some were males who had taken up arms against the Ottoman Empire, but many were women and children, and it’s clear that there was an intention by the Turkish leadership to exterminate them. They were evacuated by the government from villages and cities under the pretense of deportation, and massacred in remote areas (the 60 minutes reporter dug up some bones on camera from a mass grave). This truly was a “pilot program” for the Holocaust, including the use of deportation as a cover for extermination. It’s noteworthy that Turkey was overrun with Germans during World War I, including German military units operating jointly with their Turkish allies and German engineers building the Berlin-to-Baghdad railway. Balakian recalls that the German civilians tried to protect Armenian deportees but German military officers were mostly hostile. Certainly, Germans were well aware of the genocide, and some drew the lesson that the Turks successfully got away with it.
Since 1922, Turkey has had a secular government that denies a genocide occurs. However, some courageous Turks such as the author of A Shameful Act are now coming to terms with what happened 95 years ago.
The actual genocide was carried out by an Islamic government, and Turkish military operations during World War I were formally declared as a jihad by the Ottoman Sultan and Caliph (who unlike Osama bin Laden, actually had the legal authority to declare a jihad).
Sadly, however, although the secularists who took over in 1922 did much to modernize Turkey, the shameful and dishonorable nature of their predecessors’ crime was too much for them to admit, and even mentioning the Armenian genocide in Turkey can lead to one’s prosecution for insulting Turkishness.
I highly recommend reading Armenian Golgotha. It is simply a gripping read, and filled with striking, memorable details. The writing is vivid, and the author displays a love of nature that comes out in admiration for the mountains and countryside that he and his doomed band were forced to march before he himself made his escape.