Genocide & Denial

April 11, 2009 at 8:17 pm | Posted in International | 1 Comment

In his history of the Armenian Genocide, Peter Balakian quotes Judith Herman’s description of how criminal behaviour is often accompanied by a ‘dynamic of denial‘. “After every atrocity,” Herman writes, “one can expect to hear the same predictable apologies; it never happened; the victim lies; the victim exaggerates; the victim brought it upon herself; and in any case it is time to forget the past and move on.”

In the eight decades since the Ottoman Empire slaughtered over one and a half million Armenians, successive Turkish regimes have used these evasions time and again; dismissing all histories but their own; bullying those whose versions veer from the Official Truth; distorting the number of dead; claiming the victims were actually aggressors and, finally, pleading that a persecution which lasted for decades be consigned to the (Ankara-approved) history books.

On his headline trip to Turkey this week, President Obama agreed to the last of these great evasions. In a press conference which continued the repair work on his country’s image, the President said that “what I want to do now is not focus on my views but on the views of the Turkish and Armenian peoples”, and the process of reconciliation between the two. No American government has officially recognised the crimes committed against the Armenian people and Mr Obama, stood before one of America’s most important allies, was not about to start burning the bridges he had come to build.

This was a more equivocal Obama than the one who ran for office promising to change the old ways of Washington. During the campaign, the Illinois Senator supported a Congressional resolution commemorating the genocide and stated “The Armenian genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence”. If you prefer the firm rhetoric of the campaign to the flimsy platitudes of today, I really can’t blame you, but it’s important to note that his evasion is not unique, nor is the shame all his own.

The strangest thing about America’s role in tolerating Turkey’s decades of denial is that the Armenian genocide is filled with stories of American citizens, missionaries and diplomats who tried to speak out against the slaughter and give comfort to its victims. People like Henry Morgenthau, America’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, who tried to alert his countrymen to what was unfolding; Clarence Ussher, a physician during the Van Resistance; or the scores of nameless American missionaries who provided care for some of the homeless, starving and orphaned. Between 1915 and 1930, American relief organisations raised over $116 million in aid for the region, a commitment which Balakian describes as America’s first international human rights movement.

But despite all of this, the Armenian genocide began to fade from memory in the decades that followed. Armenia itself became trapped on the wrong side of the iron curtain, the missionary links dissolved and public recognition of those terrible events soon came into conflict with America’s business and strategic interests – a tension which governments in Ankara have been ruthless in exploiting. Balakian relates a story about how, in 1934, the Turkish ambassador protested to the State Department about MGM’s purchase of the film rights to a novel about the Armenian resistance at Musa Dagh. Ambassador Ertegun warned that the film would constitute a hostile act and seriously damage relations between the two countries. Amazingly, the State Department persuaded MGM to drop the project, making it one of the only examples of a foreign government succeeding in stifling the First Amendment.

Turkey’s campaign to deny the truth about the genocide goes far beyond this one telling example: it used PR firms to tell the ‘other side of the story’, offered funding for academics who would write more ‘balanced’ histories, and consistently threatened to close down U.S. military bases if resolutions commemorating the genocide ever made it through Congress. In over half a decade, Turkey has blackmailed, bullied and lied to prevent the Armenian genocide from being officially recognised, and they’ve been successful to this very day.

To answer the question of why they’ve succeeded, you need to cast a despairing glance over the murky world of realpolitik. During the Cold War, Turkey became a vital NATO ally, a host for military bases and a bulwark against what many American governments feared was the march of communism. Today, the Cold War has been supplanted by the War on Terror, and such is the mess that President Obama’s predecessor made in both the Middle East and Central Asia, he needs all the allies in the region he can get in order to ensure stability and eventually extricate American troops from Iraq & Afghanistan. And so, in order to service these aims and keep their Turkish allies happy, this first genocide of the Twentieth Century – an atrocity which provided the blueprint for the Holocaust – cannot be officially recognised.

However much Barack Obama might’ve thought he could sing a different tune when he became President, the lessons of history and the ugly realities of international diplomacy have proved that – on this and many other issues – he‘s forced to hum the same old bum notes. Whilst the President let it be known that his views on the genocide of the Armenian people haven’t changed, they will almost certainly never be the official views of his administration – nor, I suspect, any of the administrations to come.

To close, let’s just return to Judith Herman’s ‘dynamic of denial’. “The more powerful the perpetrator,” she writes, “the greater is his prerogative to name and define reality, and the more completely his arguments prevail”. Through some strange quirk of geography and as a consequence of our repeated failures in the Middle East and central Asia, Obama’s America remains chained to a reality defined by a country which killed around 1.5 million Armenians but will never admit to it, much less apologise. Some things, it seems, will never change.


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  1. […] has pondered a deal with the murderous regime in Uzbekistan, has broken a promise to officially recognise the Armenian genocide, and made a speech in Cairo with barely a mention of women’s rights. Each of these decisions […]

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