NEW YORK - The 24th of April marks the anniversary of the first holocaust of the 20th century - the near destruction of Armenians, an ancient Christian mountain people of Asia Minor.
In 1915, at the height of World War I, Turkey deported some 2 million Armenians from their homes in Anatolia to Syria. Bandits and marauders attacked the long columns of Armenian civilians, torturing, raping, and killing. Bashi bazooks (Turkish irregulars), wild Kurdish tribesmen, and common criminals sacked Armenian towns, slaughtering the inhabitants.
According to Armenian historians, two out of three Armenians - 1.5 million - were murdered or died from hunger or disease from 1915-1920. In the 1940's, two out of three European Jews met the same fate at the hands of Germany's National Socialists(Nazis). Like Jews, still traumatized Armenians are demanding the world recognize and remember their national calamity.
Turkey, heir to the Ottoman Empire, denies there was ever a planned genocide of Armenians. Turkey was under attack from Britain, France, and Russia. Eastern Anatolia, where most Armenians lived, was being invaded by Russian armies. Some Armenians had rebelled against Ottoman rule and were helping the Russian invaders. Other Armenian nationalist groups had battled Turks and Kurds since the 1870's.
According to Turks, deportation of rebellious Armenians turned into a bloodbath because there were not enough government troops to guard the caravans from raiders. Turks were also suffering at the time. In 1915-16, according to Turkish historians, 2.5 million Turkish and Kurdish civilians perished from war, hunger, and disease in chaotic eastern Anatolia. Turkish scholars insist no more than 600,000 Armenians died.
Armenians, like Jewish groups, are well-organized, have financial clout, and are very good at promoting their cause. In recent years, Armenian lobbying groups have gotten the United States and France to recognize the Armenian Holocaust, acts that have enraged Turkey, a bulwark of the NATO alliance.
Armenians have whipped the Turks at public relations and political lobbying. Turkey retaliated by canceling arms contracts and reminding censorious France that 500,000 to one million civilians were killed by French police and troops during Algeria's 1950's bloody war of independence from France.
Last week, Israel's Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, enraged Armenians by asserting their slaughter by the Turks was ` a tragedy but not a genocide.' Peres rejected any similarities between the Jewish Holocaust and the Armenian genocide. Peres was obviously catering to Israel's important, new ally, Turkey, and reflecting the view held by most Jews that that the Jewish Holocaust was a unique event.
Having long studied the events of 1915-20, my own conclusion is that there was, in fact, a genocide, in which a million or more Armenians were murdered or died from disease and exposure. True, Turkey was losing the war. Armenians had rebelled and were aiding the invading Russians, who had long stoked Armenian nationalist fervor. Christian Armenians and Muslims committed atrocities against one another. Still, nothing the Armenians had done could possibly justify their barbarous treatment.
The Turks committed a terrible crime. Modern-day Turkey should stop denying it, apologize to Armenians, and close this tragic chapter.
But let us also put this crime in historic context. Deportation of rebellious peoples was common in those days. The expanding Russian Empire had deported 1.3 million Muslims from the Caucasus from 1827-1878 alone, and committed genocide against the Cherkass, Ingush, Dagestanis, and Chechen, slaughtering over one million of these Muslim mountaineers. Great numbers of Greeks, Turks, and Albanians were driven from their homes in Turkey or the Balkans in the 1920's.
The 20th century's worst crime - by now virtually forgotten - was Stalin's Red Holocaust in Eastern Europe in the 1930's and 40's. Over seven million Ukrainians, Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians were murdered, starved to death, or died in Stalin's death camps.
Stalin also destroyed the Tatars, the remaining Caucasian Muslims, Volga Germans, and one million Muslim Kazaks. As late as 1949, 95,000 Baltic people were deported to Siberian death camps . In 1945, at least 2 million ethnic Germans of East Europe were slaughtered, two million were raped, and 12-15 million ethnically cleansed.
Ironically, after the Soviet Union collapsed, the newly independent state of Armenia went to war with neighboring Azerbaijan over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia captured the enclave and created a `cordon sanitaire' around it, expelling 800,000 Muslim Azeris from their homes - roughly the same number of Palestinians driven from their homes in 1947-48 by the new state of Israel. Victims of oppression can turn all too quickly to inflicting suffering on others.
Each and every one of these horrors deserves to be recognized and commemorated. Each crime was unique, but, in the end, they were all expressions of totalitarian brutality, evil ideology, or religious-racist hatred. Armenians had the grim distinction of being the 20th century's first victims of mass murder - but alas, not the last.
Armenians are a remarkably gifted and productive people. Yet many remain prisoners of their frightful past. It's time for them to move on from the nightmare of 1915, end their century-old vendetta against the Turks, and devote their energies to the present. A good way to start would be to rebuild Armenia, which is in shambles today. A prosperous, democratic, well-run Armenia would help to put the ghosts of World War I to rest.
Copyright Eric S. Margolis 2001