Nov 28 2014

Philip Jenkins

In 1939, plotting the invasion of Poland, Hitler urged his generals
on to ruthless savagery. They should not worry about the judgment of
history, he said. "Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation
of the Armenians?" He was referring of course to the genocide of
Armenian Christians, about which we will be hearing a great deal in
the coming centennial year of 2015. The scale of those planned global
commemorations of itself makes nonsense of Hitler's boast. But some
of those memories - some of those long-term impacts - are remarkable,
and unexpected. The Armenian experience certainly did remain in the
public consciousness, in the West as well as the Middle East, and it
had a lasting relevance for both Christians and Jews.

I will not say much here about the actual events of the genocide,
except to stress its amazing scale - well over a million dead in all
between 1915 and 1917 - and the deliberate genocidal intent of the
Ottoman perpetrators. So much is familiar, and the reality of the
genocide is universally acknowledged, except by the modern Turkish
regime, and a few wayward historians.

The complex consequences, though, are less well known. Just in recent
weeks, German historian Michael Hesemann has stressed the crime's
aftermath in shaping Vatican policy for years to come. During the
Great War, the Vatican spoke out forcibly against the mass killings
of Armenian Christians, but to not the slightest avail. Arguably,
the appeals even drove on the Turks to still worse excesses.

The total failure of public appeals taught a harsh lesson to Eugenio
Pacelli, the Vatican diplomat who later became Pope Pius XII, and who
had to respond to the Nazi atrocities against Jews. As Hesemann says,
"He knew that an open protest, which didn't work in 1915, would never
work in 1942, when he dealt with an even more evil, uncompromising
and unscrupulous leader. He knew a protest would not help the Jews
at all but only cause Hitler to turn against the Church, and destroy
the only infrastructure able to help and save many Jews." Hence the
church's controversial public silence during the Holocaust, which has
often been tragically misunderstood as indicating Vatican cynicism
or callousness. In fact, as Pius knew, the greatest good could be
achieved behind the scenes.

But the Armenian disaster had consequences far beyond the Catholic
Church, and contributed mightily to shaping modern ideas of human
rights and international law. To understand this, we have to look at
the long aftermath of the genocide itself.

Armenians themselves determined never to let the crime pass into
oblivion. After the war's end, militant death squads assassinated many
former Ottoman leaders and collaborators, including junta leader Djemal
Pasha, as part of Operation Nemesis. One of these actions would have a
powerful aftermath, when in Berlin in 1921 an Armenian killed Talaat
Pasha, reputed mastermind of the genocide. The assassin's supporters
turned his subsequent trial into a new expose of the genocide, and
he succeeded so powerfully in stating their case that the German
court freed the Armenian on the basis of the traumatic horrors he
had undergone.

These experiences had a powerful effect on minorities of all kinds
in the turbulent interwar years, and Jews in particular drew ominous
lessons about what a sufficiently determined state mechanism could
perpetrate. Polish Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin was fascinated by
the trial following the killing of Talaat Pasha. Why, he wondered,
did courts try a man for a single murder while no institutions existed
to punish the murderers of millions?

In the absence of international institutions to combat such massacres,
noted Lemkin, surviving victims were forced to resort to vigilante
justice. He developed the concept of "crimes of barbarity," an offense
against international law that demanded to be punished by a special
court or tribunal. He subsequently developed this into the modern
definition of "genocide," a word he coined in 1943. Based on his
advocacy, in 1948, the United Nations adopted its Convention on the
Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

Armenian memories became founding texts for the new Jewish state,
and powerfully influenced Zionist thought. Austrian-Jewish author
Franz Werfel raised global awareness of the atrocities with his
bestselling 1933 novel The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, which hymned the
heroic resistance of Armenian fighters during the massacres. Werfel,
incidentally, saw no conflict between his Jewish roots and his
passionate defense of persecuted Christians. Indeed, he went on to
write the famous novel The Song of Bernadette, about the Catholic
visionary of Lourdes.

In Germany, the Nazis promptly banned Werfel's Forty Days, citing what
they claimed were its false and inflammatory statements about the
genocide. But the book survived to stir Jewish militancy during the
Nazi years, when it forced activists to consider the possibility of
armed resistance. The book found a passionate readership in European
ghettos. When in 1942 German forces threatened to break through
British lines to invade Palestine, Zionists planned what they called
a new Musa Dagh, a fortress on Mount Carmel, where they would fight
until the last.

Memories of Musa Dagh inspired the earliest fighters of the state
of Israel long before the emerging state developed its own native
mythology based on the ancient fortress of Masada. Armenian activism
also influenced Israeli responses to the country's deadliest enemies,
whether Holocaust perpetrators or terrorists. Both were subjected to
assassination and covert warfare campaigns that were drawn exactly
from Operation Nemesis.

So, to rephrase the original question: what civilized person, today,
fails to speak of the annihilation of the Armenians?

Philip Jenkins is a Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor
Universityand author of The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became
a Religious Crusade.

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress