A question Adolf Hitler once asked still haunts the history of political atrocities: “Who remembers the Armenians today?” He was confident that in a few years no one would care that he killed a multitude of Jews. After all, the Ottoman Empire and its successor state, Turkey, murdered more than a million Armenians, beginning in 1915. Less than three decades later, Hitler believed that crime was already forgotten.
In fact, much of the world ignored the Armenian tragedy as it was occurring. The First World War seemed more important than fragmentary news from remote Anatolia. But ever since, Armenians around the world have done their best to recall what happened. Every April 24 they commemorate the day in 1915 when the Turkish government began the genocide by arresting 200 Armenian community leaders in Istanbul. They were imprisoned and in most cases executed.
Armenians particularly want governments to acknowledge what happened as genocide, the conscious attempt to obliterate an ethnic group. The government of Turkey is just as anxious to deny that genocide occurred. The official story is that the people involved were deportees, leaving Turkey by foot, under harsh circumstances. That would explain the deaths.
Within Turkey it’s forbidden to name this a genocide. Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s winner of the Nobel prize in literature, was prosecuted for “insulting Turkishness” by referring to the killings in an interview with a Swiss magazine. Protests from around the world got Pamuk’s case dismissed. But there are still Turks who believe Pamuk expressed anti-Turkish opinions just to promote his career.
This decades-old dispute has taken an interesting turn with the appearance of the first ambitious and expensive movie about the genocide, The Promise. It’s a U.S.-Spain co-production recently given its world première at the Toronto International Film Festival. The director, Terry George, who had a success with Hotel Rwanda, embraces the story as told by most Armenians and most historians. He depicts masses of Armenians of all ages trying to escape Turkish rule, travelling across deserts and mountains as Turkish soldiers harass and shoot them. These sections of the film are convincing and moving.
But there’s also a wearying romantic triangle involving Michael (Oscar Isaac), a medical student, Chris, a U.S. journalist sympathetic to Armenians (Christian Bale) and the woman they both love, Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), a painter. This badly over-written, too-familiar tale takes up much of the film’s foreground.
The Promise does not attempt to explain why the Turks hated Armenians. Turks were Muslims, Armenians were Christians, both living under Ottoman rule. The Armenians tended to be better educated and more prosperous, creating envy.
They were also said to be close to their neighbours, the Russians, and Turks suspected them of treason. In the First World War, Turkey sided with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empire while Russia was allied with Britain and France. Turkey justified the forced deportation of the Armenians as a “wartime measure of military security.” Armenians were also victims of the passionate nationalism of Turkey. The cause of independence brought with it a desire to “Turkify” the new nation-state.
If the genocide was little noticed by the world, it was recorded by many witnesses. Henry Morgenthau, American ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, described it as “a campaign of race extermination” in a 1915 telegram to Washington. In his memoirs he wrote, “When the Turkish authorities gave the orders for these deportations, they were merely giving the death warrant to a whole race. In their conversations with me, they made no particular attempt to conceal the fact.”
In forcing the victims to reach its border, Turkey made no provisions for them. They were allowed only what they could carry. Starvation killed many. There were many massacres. Those Armenians not shot were reduced to a famished mass. Having inhabited the Armenian highlands for 3,000 years, survivors eventually settled in about two dozen countries around the world. Those who eluded deportation formed a small enclave, Russian Armenia. By late 1920, the Soviet Army arrived and their region became the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic. Freed finally by the collapse of the Soviet Union, the current Republic of Armenia appeared.
Today Armenians remain intent on getting more countries to recognize the genocide — so far 28 have done so. Recognition passed Canada’s parliament in 2004, after vigorous lobbying by Sarkis Assadourian, an Armenian-Canadian Liberal MP from Toronto — and over objections from the Turkish ambassador in Ottawa. He said Canada would suffer because Turkey would not buy Candu reactors or Canadian-made trains.
This year, Germany infuriated Turkey for a special reason. In June the Bundestag passed a resolution labelling the event a genocide, causing Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to recall his ambassador. Worse, for Turkey, 11 Bundestag members who voted for the resolution had a Turkish background. Several received death threats. Erdogan attacked them by suggesting they take blood tests to see “what kind of Turks they are.”
Erdogan loses most of these battles, despite his skills in diplomacy. He lost conceivably the biggest one, with Pope Francis. The pope has publicly used the word genocide in connection with the Armenians and says he has always done so.