During World War I, the Turkish-controlled Ottoman Empire was crumbling. In the decades before the war, economic dislocation and political crisis intensified the long-standing oppression of the Armenian Christian minority. World War I (1914-1918) was a bloody war between rising and aging empires: the Ottoman Empire was allied with the German monarchy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire on the losing side, against an alliance of Czarist Russia, Britain, France, Japan and the United States.
It was a war between two rival alliances seeking in effect to redivide the world, the winners taking from the losers their colonies, foreign markets and investment zones. Also, both alliance systems had for decades been fighting colonial wars in which their losses were relatively small compared with the enormous death and destruction they created for the peoples of Africa and Asia. They had come to see war as a relatively cheap and painless way to get what they wanted in world affairs. With imperialist arrogance, they stumbled into what became the biggest war in human history up to that point.
Mass murder by a crumbling empire
After an Ottoman attack against Russian forces in Czarist Russian Georgia ended in a disastrous military defeat in 1915, it became the trigger for the ultranationalists in power in Istanbul to undertake the mass murder of the empire’s Armenian population. Propaganda was unleashed portraying Armenians as subversive agents of Russia. To this was added traditional stereotypes of Armenians as greedy businessmen exploiting Turks, as Christians plotting against Islam, as bandits and criminals.
Legislation confiscating the property of Armenians was passed in 1915. Armenians in the Turkish army were arrested and large numbers were executed without trial. The Turkish military and “special forces,” made up of thousands of recently released criminals, were unleashed to confiscate Armenian property and “resettle” Armenians in death marches, leaving innocent men, women and children to fight as best they could for their lives against armed representatives of the Ottoman state.
These events were widely publicized in Britain, France and — thanks to the activities of Henry Morgenthau Sr., U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, and other U.S. officials, who observed and commented upon the mass murder — the then-neutral U.S., where campaigns were mounted to help the “starving Armenians.”
After World War II, scholars discovered evidence in various German archives corroborating the existence of this mass murder. (Germany, which had been an ally of the Ottomans, had no interest in publicizing this information.) But there was never any doubt that what was happening in the period 1915-1917 was the attempted mass murder of a whole nationality as part of Ottoman government policy. Under the United Nations Charter this constitutes genocide. After the genocide carried out by Nazi Germany and its fascist allies against all the Jewish people whom it could capture and kill during World War II, the genocide carried out by the Ottoman state against all Armenians whom it could capture and kill within its far-flung empire is the most researched genocide in history.
This history is important to Americans today because the Bush administration has acted to block an attempt by the House of Representatives to join more than 20 other nations in specifically condemning these events as genocide. After the Democrats regained control of Congress in 2006, many hoped that this long-delayed resolution would finally be enacted.
Chauvinism used by Turkish right wing
Mustapha Kemal, an Ottoman general, established the modern Turkish Republic after World War I, combining an authoritarian nationalist ideology with various modernizing reforms. He remains the object of a large personality cult in Turkey, particularly among the business and military ruling groups who have always used Turkish chauvinist ideology against their enemies on the left and against their religious rivals.
Turkey, which was neutral during World War II and then became a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization because it was an anti-Soviet and anti-Communist state, has sought to prevent nations from using the term genocide for the mass murder of the Armenians, which it has largely denied, minimized and blamed in part on Armenian wartime subversion.
Over the decades the U.S. and other nations, including, for its own regional military reasons, the government of Israel, have gone along with these efforts by Turkey. It was recently revealed that the Turkish government has employed a lobbying firm led by the disgraced former Republican House leader Robert Livingston to defeat the Armenian genocide condemnation. Livingston’s firm has used the $12 million which it reportedly received from the Turkish government to buy opposition to the bill, news reports indicate. This, along with Bush administration propaganda that the House resolution would endanger U.S. troops in Iraq, has reduced support for the measure.
An unholy alliance
The Bush administration has undermined the separation of church and state in the U.S. in an unprecedented way and has allied itself domestically with conservative evangelical Christians. Yet it is actively seeking to keep the U.S. Congress from condemning the extermination of a Christian minority carried out on both racist and religious anti-Christian grounds. In the name of supporting “our troops,” the Bush administration is appeasing a Turkish government and military whose oppression of the multinational Kurdish minority in the region, and previous history as an oppressive colonial power, make it a source for instability in the area. Turkey’s one big drawing card for the White House, though, is its military power, which is the only thing that matters for this administration.
If the Bush administration were serious about peace and stability in the region, it would use its influence to encourage the Turkish government to deal with its contemporary denial of cultural rights to its Kurdish and other minorities, not appease it in the hope that it will continue to act as a regional military henchman, the way the German Empire in World War I hoped that the Ottomans would act to advance its war aims.
The Bush administration policy in Iraq is an ongoing, open-ended disaster which benefits only military contractors and their lobbyists in the U.S. The soldiers who have been sent to Iraq include many National Guardsmen often pulled from vital public sector occupations like police and firefighting. They will not return to the U.S. like some of their generals, who retire to become rich lobbyists for military contractors. And they won’t be joining the gravy train of well-connected Republican members of Congress like Robert Livingston, who has now become a rich genocide-denying lobbyist for the Turkish government.
We should contact our House members and senators and demand that they support the resolution on the Armenian genocide.
In 1939, Hitler said privately to his officers, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
Who does? Civilized people throughout the world.
We must all tell the Bush administration that we do, or the horror will continue and perhaps a generation from today some other tyrant will say, to defend another attack on another people, “Who, after all, speaks today about the annihilation of the Jews?”
Norman Markowitz is a history professor at Rutgers University.