April 24th is just a regular day for most people, but not for Armenians. Every year Armenians all over the world come together for Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day. This day consists of spreading awareness and commemorating the victims of the Armenian Genocide. In Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, hundreds of thousands of people walk to the Tsitsernakaberd Genocide Memorial to lay flowers at the eternal flame. Armenians use this Remembrance Day to educate their children and those around them in an attempt to prevent these atrocities from happening again while staying vigilant despite the past.
However, this April 24th was different from others. On April 24th, 2021, President Joe Biden made the historic acknowledgment of the Armenian Genocide and marked the first time a U.S. president formally equated the violence against Armenians with atrocities on the scale of those committed in Nazi-occupied Europe. This declaration brought relief to American-Armenians that have remembered the genocide for over a hundred years with no official recognition.
With the United States’ powerful position in the world, this was not just another recognition. There are more than 30 countries that have already recognized the genocide, with French law criminalizing the denial of the Armenian genocide and setting out penalties of up to one year in prison and a 45,000-euro ($50,000) fine for those who contradict it.
“We affirm the history,” Biden said on April 24. “We do this not to cast blame but to ensure that what happened is never repeated.”
The Armenian people have made their home in the Caucasus region of Eurasia for over 3,000 years. For some of the time, the kingdom of Armenia was an independent entity, it was even the first nation in the world to make Christianity its official religion.
However, after time Armenia was conquered and absorbed into the Ottoman Empire. With the Ottoman Empire predominantly Muslim, Armenian religious minorities maintained some autonomy, but were viewed as “infidels” and were subjected to unequal and unjust treatment. For example, Christians had to pay higher taxes and had very few political and legal rights. Despite these obstacles, the Armenian community grew and flourished under Ottoman rule. They were more educated and wealthier on average, compared to their Turkish neighbors. The resentment soon manifested itself into the belief that the Armenian Christians would be more loyal to Christian governments, such as the Russians, rather than they would be to the Ottoman caliphate.
By the end of the 19th century, despotic Turkish Sultan Abdul Hamin II told reporters in 1890, “I will soon settle those Armenians, I will give them a box on the ear which will make them… relinquish their revolutionary ambitions,” as noted in History.com.
The new century seemed to have a new beginning for Armenians. A group of reformers called “Young Turks” overthrew the Sultan and established a more modern government. However, the hope that Armenians had for equality soon diminished as they learned that the Young Turks only wanted to “Turkify” the empire.
In 1914, the Turks entered World War I on the side of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At the same time, military leaders began talks discussing how Armenians were traitors and that Armenians would work with the enemy. With war intensifying, Armenians organized volunteer battalions to help the Russian army fight against the Turks. This course of events led the Turkish government to push for the “removal” of the Armenians from the war zones along the Eastern Front.
April 24, 1915, marked the day that the Armenian Genocide began. That was the day that the Turkish government arrested and executed several hundred Armenian intellectuals. Soon after, ordinary Armenians were turned out of their homes and sent on death marches through the Mesopotamian desert to starve. These marchers were often forced to strip naked and walk under the scorching sun, with some being barefoot until they dropped dead. All those who refused were shot dead.
Simultaneously, the Young Turks created a “Special Organization” which operated as a “killing squad” or a “butcher battalion” to carry out “the liquidation of the Christian elements,” as explained in History.com. The Armenian Genocide even laid out the groundwork for Adolf Hitler, three decades later, to carry out the atrocities of World War II. As quoted, Hitler stated: “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” Hitler’s quote is still relevant today because of the forces of denial.
Around 500,000 Armenians survived and scattered into Russia, the Middle East, Argentina, France, the United States, and other countries. This became one of the world’s most far-flung diasporas.
As explained by experts, there are eight stages of genocide. According to Gregory H. Stanton, “Genocide is a process that develops in eight stages that are predictable, but not inexorable.” The first seven stages are classification, symbolization, dehumanization, organization, polarization, preparation, and extermination. The final stage of genocide is denial. As explained by Stanton “it is among the surest indicators of further genocidal massacres.”
The modern-day successor of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey, has continuously and adamantly denied that the killings were part of the systematic plan to erase the Armenian population. Authors and journalists in Turkey that have used the term “genocide” in their publications have been prosecuted for “insulting Turkishness,” as noted by Time Magazine. According to Turkey’s foreign ministry, Biden’s acknowledgment “opened a wound” in Ankara-Washington relations and “deeply injured the Turkish people,” in a statement, according to the Financial Times.
Turkish authorities have continuously resisted the description, despite clear historical evidence on the contrary. Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin coined the term genocide following the Holocaust in 1944. Turks have since complained that their forbearers are being judged as Nazis through this implication.
The Turkish people do not have easy access to their historical documents. In 1928, their Perso-Arabic script was replaced with a Latin alphabet, which was part of a larger modernization and Westernization project. For new generations in Turkey, these documents dating before 1928 are not readily accessible unless they are a specifically trained historian, as explained by Turkish scholar Adile Aslan Almond.
Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink became well known for his efforts to educate Turkish society about the blank pages in their history books during the genocide. He memorably said, “Turks and Armenians and the way they see each other constitute two clinical cases: Armenians with their trauma, Turks with their paranoia.” Dink was cruelly assassinated in 2007 and since then their civil rights movement has been dismantled.
Despite Biden’s acknowledgment, reconciliation looks very far off. Biden’s statement locates the genocide in the far past by referring to it in the “Ottoman-era,” clearly indicating that he doesn’t want to point blame at modern Turkey, taken the political and economic ties between the two powerful nations. He explained his empathy for Armenian descendants and talked about “looking to the future” and of “healing and reconciliation.” This “reconciliation” doesn’t seem to be on the horizon with Armenia and Turkey having absolutely no diplomatic relations with no change in the future.
As explained deeper in my article titled Armenia’s Post War Depression, Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan in the 2020 war over Nagorno-Karabakh triggered this 100-year psychological trauma that Armenians have been suffering from since the genocide and Turkey’s constant denial. Turkey’s direct involvement and support of Azerbaijan’s large-scale attacks on NK are a violation of international law. Armenia has constantly been framed as “the aggressor,” however, Turkey’s involvement in the war and recruitment of Syrian mercenaries to aid its military forces months before the “conflict” speaks otherwise. With these military and artillery aids, along with constant genocide propaganda from the president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, shows the true colors of this debate. A chilling statement made by President Erdoğan reinstated the mindset that Turkey has towards Armenia. “We will continue to fulfill this mission which our grandfathers have carried out for centuries in the Caucasus region,” he stated prior to the 2020 war. Turkey and Azerbaijan are united not only in their conquest effort but in a shared desire to remove Armenia’s presence from the region while publicly denying any sinister intention altogether.
The Armenian Genocide was a terrible crime, not only physically but emotionally since Armenians had their culture destroyed. The United States taking this step to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide was monumental. However, with Turkey’s adamant denial there is no light on the horizon for the families of survivors. There is no clear and simple way to apologize for the genocide, but there are examples of what mature nations have conducted. Firstly, reconciliation is not just a want, it is only justified. Secondly, the Armenian people deserve an apology, let alone an acknowledgement of the wrongdoing. Germany and Poland recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of German Chancellor Willy Brandt’s gesture of apology for Nazi crimes. He famously fell to his knees after adjusting the wreath ribbons at the Warsaw Ghetto memorial on December 7th, 1970. The gesture, now famously known as “Kniefall von Warschau” became a worldwide symbol of Germany’s reconciliation with Poland and the foundation of modern relations. This can be used as a model for Turkey’s leadership to come forth and address the genocide which has been swept under the rug for far too long.
With President Joe Biden’s acknowledgment and the new presidential cabinet, this brings hope to help Turkish leadership to come forth and admit their mistakes. Biden’s approach is over moral standards and principles. In comparison, former President Trump’s approach was over political and personal convenience, especially noting the location of his Trump Towers in Istanbul. Over a hundred years have passed and the Armenian people deserve recognition. Biden has paved the path for Turkey to apologize and has even given them the chance to blame the Ottoman Empire, rather than their own modern leadership.
Turkey needs to step up and have the courage to apologize and become a good neighbor in order to become respected members of the international community. Eventually, the truth will prevail and with the proper acknowledgment, future conflicts between the nations can be avoided. These conflicts are a never-ending cycle and need to be put to an end for the nations to reach peace. This is the perfect opportunity for the vicious cycle to end and for the escalating blaming-loop to break. It is time to become civil and start contributing to humanity, rather than employing an archaic tribe-relationship mentality. We are all citizens of the world and we should act accordingly.
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