April 24 is Armenian Genocide Recognition Day

(Note: Pictured above are my Armenian-American friends, Artur Mazmandyan and Kristina Grigoryan, and their two daughters, Nelly and Siranush. Today they will honor the memory of their Armenian countrymen who died over one hundred years ago during the Armenian genocide. The family lives in Denver.)

Over the weekend, I went to see The Promise, a compelling film dramatizing the Armenian genocide. The feature film’s release was timed specifically to coincide with today’s memorials around the world. Before and during World War I, the Ottoman Empire systematically killed perhaps as many as 1.5 million Armenians. Although not the first time the Armenian people were targeted for persecution, April 24, 1915, is marked as the beginning of the official policy of extermination. On that day, the Turkish government deported—and eventually murdered—several hundred Armenian intellectuals from Constantinople (present-day Istanbul). In the months and years following, thousands of Armenian men were massacred or enslaved in labor camps, while Armenian women, children, and the elderly were forced-marched into the Syrian desert and left to starve. The stories of rape, murder, and horrific brutality are well documented, yet Armenians still face an ongoing struggle to gain recognition of the Armenian genocide.

From the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries, parts of Armenia were ruled by the Ottoman Empire and Iran. During the nineteenth century, the Russian Empire conquered eastern Armenia, but the western portion remained under Turkish rule. Writing in The New York Times, James Kifner points out that in the early twentieth century, the Ottoman Empire was in decline and had lost territory during the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913. Christians in the northern portions of the Empire were in revolt against Turkish rule, and many Turks resented the Armenians because they appeared to be more economically prosperous than their Turkish countrymen. Religious and socioeconomic resentments created the perfect storm that would lead to the Armenians’ being targeted for abuse and oppression.

As a history teacher, I had a general knowledge about the Armenian story, but it wasn’t until I met Kristina Grigoryan and Artur Mazmandyan, an Armenian-American couple who enrolled in my English composition classes, that I learned the horrible details of the Armenians’ suffering. Kristina wrote passionately and eloquently about the genocide, arguing persuasively that acknowledgment of what happened to the people of her homeland has been relegated to a secondary priority for the United States.

Three of Kristina’s own male ancestors were victims of the genocide in the historic village of Mush. Two older kinsmen stayed behind to care for one of the men’s young sons too ill to flee with the rest of the family. When the Turks invaded the village, all three were slaughtered. Kristina’s grandmother and great-grandmother, depicted in the photograph on the left, managed to survive, but the crimes against her family still fill Kristina with sadness.

While some token effort has been made to acknowledge the suffering of the Armenians, the United States refrains from officially using the term genocide for fear of alienating Turkey, our NATO ally. During the presidency of George W. Bush, a resolution to recognize the Armenian genocide made it out of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, but it quickly lost support when the White House argued that passing a full congressional resolution might lead to the Turkish government’s closing off its airspace and ground routes into Iraq.  Before he became president, Senator Barack Obama argued forcefully on the Armenians’ behalf, giving them hope that when he was elected president, they had a true ally in the White House. However, once again political realities intervened, and President Obama’s remarks about the Armenian genocide became more measured. He, too, stopped using the term genocide

Sadly, even Israel, inhabited by Jewish descendants of the Holocaust, does not use the term genocide in reference to the Armenians, to avoid undermining its burgeoning alliance with Azerbaijan, a country in agreement with Turkey. Turkey’s official position is that what happened to the Armenians was terrible, but the killings were merely part of the larger carnage of World War I, not actually genocide.

Ironically, it was the Armenian situation that first brought about the use of the term genocide. According to an article in The Huffington Post, Raphael Lemkin, a Jewish lawyer, articulated the concept after hearing of what happened to the Armenians. However, he did not officially use the term until 1944 to refer to what the Nazis did to European Jews. Additionally, some of Adolf Hitler’s speeches allude to what happened to the Armenians. Hitler posited that if the world looked the other way when the Ottoman Empire slaughtered the Armenians, Germany could certainly exterminate the Jews with impunity.

The Turkish government has a vested interest in denying that the Armenia genocide occurred, because if powerful nations like the United States finally come out in favor of the genocide designation, Armenians would have legal standing to petition for redress and return of stolen Armenian property in the same manner that Jewish citizens have sued the German government over the Holocaust. In fact, Turkish spammers have even attempted to undermine the credibility of  The Promise by posting extremely negative reviews of the film on ratings websites, hoping to drive down interest and theater turnout.

The Promise is charitable to individual Americans, who are depicted as compassionate friends of the Armenians. The film acknowledges the selfless work of American and European missionaries and aid workers trying desperately to help the Armenian people flee persecution. Christian Bale plays an Associated Press journalist facing execution for his reportage about the atrocities. James Cromwell plays Henry Morgenthau, U.S. Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, who actually sent numerous cables to President Woodrow Wilson pleading for American assistance. Unfortunately, the U.S. was committed to a position of neutrality in the early years of World War I and made no official statements in support of the Armenians.

In fact, near the end, the film dramatizes the subtle—but compelling—argument Armenian-Americans have made for decades. They are loyal, patriotic American citizens who have assimilated into American culture while retaining their own wonderful and unique cultural traditions. They are simply asking that the American government fully recognize the suffering of their ancestors.

I sincerely hope that enough Americans will eventually learn of the Armenian Holocaust and urge our government to do the right thing. The United States should officially recognize that the Armenians were victims of genocide. Forty-five of the fifty states do acknowledge the Armenian Holocaust (sadly, my own home state of Alabama is not one), but it is time for the United States to join Canada, France, Belgium, and other western nations and do the same.

I have told my friend Kristina that one day I hope to travel with her and her family back to her native Armenia so she can share with me more stories about the homeland she loves so much.

To sign the petition and urge the United States Congress to acknowledge the Armenian genocide, please visit this website.