On the eve of the Holocaust, Hitler addressed a gathering of Wehrmacht commanders at his home in Obersalzberg, just a week before the invasion of Poland and the forthcoming extermination of around 90 percent of Polish Jews. “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians,” he asked. Historians have reached almost unanimous agreement that the systematic extermination of around one and a half million Armenians during World War I provided a motivating precedent for Hitler’s crimes in World War II. For Hitler, the Armenian Genocide not only affirmed that shifting ethno-religious demographics through structured and government sanctioned extermination was a practically feasible endeavor; it also instilled in him confidence in the indifference of the international community to his genocidal efforts. This is to say that just as the horrifying abjection of the Armenians resulted in few long-term consequences for the Turks and was quickly forgotten by much of the international community, Hitler hoped his policies of mass murder and eugenics would be similarly overlooked.
Today, the Armenian Genocide continues to serve as a precedent for modern tyrants and ethnocentric extremists — a consequence of its obstinate denial by nationalistic Turks and Western politicians. As ISIL massacres Yazidis, Christians and Shia Muslims, the refusal to acknowledge the mass slaughter of Armenians as a genocide demonstrates a shameful kind of moral inconsistency within the international community and manifests as a deeply implanted stain on the sincerity of the ubiquitous notion of human rights.
In the 20th century, the unanimous recognition and widespread horror that Europe expressed following the Holocaust helped form a continent deeply skeptical of nationalism and ethnocentrisms in even apolitical forms. However, the refusal of the international community to collectively identify the purge of Armenians as a genocide has propelled the Middle East into the 21st century with sentiments of moral ambivalence towards one of the region’s greatest crimes and ruminations of ethno-religious supremacism. Today, with sectarian divisions crippling the Middle East and prolific declarations of exceptionalism continuing to weaken international standards of ethics, the imperative to recognize the Armenian Genocide has never been greater.
Raphael Lemkin, a lawyer of Polish-Jewish ancestry, was inspired to introduce the term “genocide” in order to describe the systematic “race murder” of Armenians in the early 20th century. Although the term was first applied in the context of the Holocaust, Armenian activists frequently cite this historical origin to highlight the hypocrisy of denying the genocide. From their perspective, the lack of international support for recognizing the Armenian Genocide is an indication of moral caprice in the face of overt evidence and well documented accounts of Turkish crimes.
Beyond this, the refusal to recognize the extermination of one and a half million Armenians belittles the suffering of the tens of thousands of children who were drowned by Turks in Trabzon. It tells Armenians that the Deir ez-Zor Concentration Camps, where the bones of 150,000 massacred Armenians literally sink the earth, were not the product of some calculated eugenic vision. The sordid narrative contends that the Turkish physicians, who gassed children inside two tightly packed school buildings, were simply fighting in a geopolitical conflict.
These are the claims of a NATO member and major US ally; Turkey unequivocally maintains that the mass burnings of thousands of Armenians and use of morphine to exterminate children was a just response to a political threat. By considering these acts of xenophobia-induced sadism and understanding how these atrocities were reinterpreted during the Holocaust, it becomes more apparent why the refusal to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide is so enraging and indicative of an inauspicious future in the Middle East.
Moreover, a discussion of the ideologies and hazardous beliefs that induced the Armenian Genocide makes it impossible to simply dismiss the humanitarian crisis as a historical event unworthy of modern consideration. On the contrary, the perpetual denial of the crime, particularly by Turkey, is indicative of an incredibly relevant moral judgement. Consider Turkish President Erdogan, who criticized a group of Turkish intellectuals who were leading a movement for genocide recognition by stating, “We did not commit a crime, therefore we do not need to apologize…”
The narrative here is a stubborn one. The Turkish government has consistently maintained that the death of about one and a half million Armenians was simply an unfortunate consequence of a geopolitical conflict between the Ottoman Empire and Russia in World War I. Of course, this distortion has been frequently dismissed by historians, who almost unanimously assert that the mass murder of Armenians was not only a genocide, but also one of the most brutal in history. However, this is not simply a case of revisionism on the part of the Turkish government; on the contrary, it is an example of an obstinate and deeply pernicious belief in national exceptionalism as well as a desire to maintain an untarnished ethnic history. These hopes have inconspicuously manifested themselves in the condemnation of genocide recognition as a threat to national identity and a notion of “Turkishness.”
Far more threatening than this kind of unyielding nationalism, Armenian Genocide denial has been justified through an ominous dogma of religious supremacism, a sentiment best exemplified by Erdogan’s own statement that “it’s not possible for a Muslim to commit genocide.” And in the Turkish President’s contention, there lies a dangerous presupposition.
Amidst current sectarian division and the radicalization of religious extremists in the Middle East, the assumption behind Erdogan’s statement is one that justifies religious moral exceptionalism and threatens to license genocide in the minds of the orthodox and pious. After all, does ISIL agree with John Kerry when he claims that the group’s extermination of Yazidis, Christians and Shia Muslims constitutes genocide? Of course not. They would find the criticism ridiculous; they, like the Turkish President, contend that pious Muslims cannot commit genocide. To them, the mass executions, slavery, and rape that distinguish their efforts are not only hallowed, but judicial imperatives. ISIL has granted itself a religious license to engage in systematic sadism because, so long as it identifies with the ‘correct’ Islamic denomination, it need not worry about the abjection and suffering of others.
By operating under the dangerous presupposition that “a Muslim cannot commit genocide”, ISIL is engaging with the narrative that Muslims and non-believers are of unequal moral equivalence, making any act ‘in the name of Islam’ immune from condemnation. However, who does ISIL believe is Muslim? Perhaps they’re Wahhabis, or orthodox Sunnis, or simply people who aid the militant group in their attempt to establish an Islamic Caliphate. Regardless of their view, the resulting conviction is simple: ISIL believes it is the sole, hallowed moral authority and evaluator of Islamic piety, making them also the unequivocal judge of what behavior constitutes genocide.
The point here is the following: the sordid belief that an appeal to celestial and archaic moral codes serves as an excuse to ignore international human rights standards has helped to justify Armenian Genocide denial, simultaneously kindling malicious sentiments of ethno-religious supremacism today. This is why the unanimous international recognition of the Armenian Genocide is a necessary, though insufficient, requisite for the lasting defeat of groups like ISIL. It is an important step to invalidate an extremely perilous belief and replace it with broader condemnation of the Islamic fanaticism that continues to plague the Middle East.
Following World War II, Germany’s recognition of the Holocaust was coupled with the international system’s unanimous denunciation of the genocide and has helped contribute to the widespread skepticism that Europeans feel towards ethnocentricity today. Ethno-religious identity no longer became an acceptable impetus for engaging in conflict. Moreover, in the nascent United Nations, the recognition of the Holocaust and the call to prevent all future genocides helped contribute to the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Beyond this, the Nuremburg Trials helped compel the West to develop internationally recognized standards of war crimes. These efforts, which have undoubtedly improved international standards of ethics and human rights, were led by a Europe that had just witnessed genocide, recognized it, and sought to make sure it would never happen again.
If Turkey were pressed by the international community — especially its powerful Western allies — to recognize the Armenian Genocide, perhaps the Middle East will experience a similar effect. The widespread acceptance of the crime would be a powerful step in condemning the views that have allowed it to go unrecognized for so many years. The recognition of the Armenian Genocide by Turkey and the entire international community would repudiate the dangerous notion that religiosity can serve as an indication of moral rectitude. In a region where sectarian division is often overtly promoted by major states, a Turkish apology for the Armenian Genocide would provide a timely reminder of the costs that come from state sponsored xenophobia.