New Zealand Should Recognise the Genocide of the Armenians
by Matt Hayes
Near the Genocide Memorial in Yerevan lies a grove of fir trees of various sizes. Beneath each tree is a plaque, indicating the name of the person who planted it. Jacques Chirac, it seems, has shovelled this soil – and so, a little further on, has Pope John Paul II. Hundreds of other foreign dignitaries from all over the world have laid wreaths at the memorial’s eternal flame, or planted their own firs on the sun-scorched hillside overlooking Armenia’s capital city. But no New Zealand dignitaries are among them – and shamefully, New Zealand remains one of the few western countries that has not explicitly recognised the genocide for what it was.
The events of Meds Yeghern (‘Great Crime’ in Armenian) began on 1894. And continued on April 24, 1915 – just one day before the ANZAC landings at Gallipoli. The timing was no coincidence. For decades prior to World War One, the Ottoman authorities had been treating their empire’s large Armenian population with a suspicious hostility that often spilled over into violence or outright massacres. But it was not until the fog of war had descended, and the Russians were pressing at Ottoman Empire’s eastern border, and ANZAC troops were steaming towards the Dardanelles, that the so-called Young Turk regime decided to systematically exterminate what it perceived to be an enemy within its own borders.
Armenian officers and soldiers within the Ottoman army – notwithstanding the services they had rendered the empire – were among the first to be rounded up in early 1915, sent to labour camps, and killed. They were followed, on April 24, by around 250 of the most prominent members of the Armenian community in Constantinople. Stripped of their fighting men and their leaders, the hundreds of Armenian towns and villages in the region formerly known as Western Armenia were almost powerless to resist the deportations and mass executions that followed. Over the next few years, around 2 million Armenians were slaughtered.
No matter how much one might wish to downplay the atrocities, there is no arguing with the harrowing photographs displayed at the genocide museum adjacent to the memorial. When you enter the main room, you first absorb the pre-1915 snapshots: respectable Armenian families, happy wedding days, and smiling schoolgirls assembled for class portraits. As you walk further, the smiles of these girls give way to beaming Turkish soldiers posing with bedraggled, emaciated prisoners. Before this abrupt transition has fully sunk in, you realise that the soldiers are now smugly cradling human skulls.
Turkey continues to deny that the events constituted a genocide, and its increasingly dictatorial president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, bullies anyone who dares to claim otherwise. When Germany’s parliament voted to formally recognise the genocide in 2016, Turkey immediately recalled its ambassador, and Erdoğan escalated his anti-German rhetoric. Orhan Pamuk, a prominent Turkish novelist and Nobel laureate, was prosecuted in 2005 for bringing attention to Turkey’s role in the atrocities. Hrant Dink, a Turkish-Armenian journalist, was gunned down by a Turkish nationalist in 2007 after receiving numerous threats for statements he made about them.
Why, you may ask, is it so important to call events which took place a century ago by their right name? Why do certain individuals within Turkey routinely risk their lives to do so? And what difference would it make if New
Zealand added its name to the list of countries that have acknowledged the truth?
George Santayana’s famous aphorism about ‘those who cannot remember the past’ comes to mind. If we do not acknowledge the true nature of historical crimes, how can we expect to prevent the same crimes from happening again? Or to be more precise: if we continue to accept Turkey’s official explanation for the mysterious drop in its Armenian population in the years 1915 and 1923 (that in the confusion of war there were regrettable clashes between various ethnic groups), it becomes all too easy to turn a blind eye to future atrocities.
That recognition matters to the Armenians goes without saying. Millions alive today not only lost their ancestors in the massacres; they also lost a huge part of their national heritage. Centuries-old churches, libraries, villages, and family records were all deliberately erased by the perpetrators, with the object of eliminating the Armenian footprint from what was to become safely Turkish soil. Imagine the sting of knowing that your relatives and your monuments were destroyed by a government whose successors continue to claim that this destruction never happened. And imagine the gratitude you would feel every time a foreign government at least grants you the simple acknowledgement that it did happen, and that your national trauma is not imaginary.
It’s also worth considering Turkey’s current condition, teetering on the edge of regressive dictatorship. Many thousands of Armenians, and about fourteen million Kurds, still reside in Turkey. For these groups, and for the sizeable population of liberal-minded Turks – all of them bravely engaged in an existential struggle with the forces of totalitarianism and intolerance – the push for genocide recognition reflects their hopes for what the country may yet become. A democratic, secular state, that treats all its minorities as first-class citizens, would not be afraid to face the unpleasant facts of its past.
New Zealand seems prepared to overlook this sensitive topic in order to protect trade with Turkey and ensure its citizens’ access to the dawn service at Gallipoli. Yet we are said to live in a country that neither submits to bullies nor shies away from making sacrifices in order to stand up for our principles. If we aspire to be a serious moral player in international affairs, we should be throwing our support behind the liberal, progressive elements in Turkey – and this begins with a proper acknowledgement of historical truth.
I look forward to the day when, in the fir grove near the genocide memorial, a sapling is planted on behalf of New Zealand – and when the words ‘we will remember them,’ which we repeat on April 25 every year, include within their scope those millions who began to lose their lives on Turkish soil just one day earlier.