Next Monday, 24 April, is Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day. It coincides this year with 27 Nisan, which is Israel’s Day of [remembering] the Holocaust and Heroism (Yom Hashoah ve-Hagevurah) and the Hebrew calendar anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.
April is not a good month. In April 1915 the genocidal massacre of Armenians, Greeks and Christian Assyrians began in Turkey. In April 1945 some 73,000 survivors left at Buchenwald and Auschwitz were liberated — by which time some 5.9 million Jews were dead at Nazi hands. In April 1994 the Rwandan genocide began. In April 1999 the “cleansing” of the Kosovars in the former Yugoslavia was fully under way. What this also tells us is that the 19th century — the age of reason and the high point of the enlightenment — led to the production of both the ideas and the technology that produced the low point in human history, the 20th century, the century of mass death and genocide.
What are the legacies of these events for the diaspora communities? There is, I believe, a regrettable tendency for leaders and politicians to use these genocides as fixing, cementing, capturing, even consolidating Armenian and Jewish ethnic identities. In short, these catastrophes determine the essence of Armenianness and Jewishness. They are not only presented as fixed points but often, one is led to believe, as the only points. My colleague, Professor Konrad Kwiet, admonishes that the Holocaust is not something that sits hugely on a shelf, to be taken down whenever it suits an occasion, such as defending Israel’s external politics (which are not admirable in every single instance). Both genocides are significant and central in the histories of these two peoples: but they are not the sole features of those millennial histories.
Perhaps none but the few remaining individual survivors and their families can mourn in the direct, personal sense any longer, in the sense that we do when we lose a parent, a sibling, a child. How does one mourn 1.5 million Armenians and close to a million other Christian minorities who died 102 years ago, or close to six million who died seventy-two years ago? A conventional way is to do what we have done since those events, to have commemoration days such as we are having right now in April; another is to build memorials and shrines; another is to establish museums.
Behind each of these approaches is the hope, the belief and the philosophy that “it must never happen again” — a painful cry but one which really does nothing to stop repetition; and if not repetition for Jews and Armenians, then repetition for other politically defined groups. Since the Holocaust, there have been at least fifty cases of genocide world-wide, each one seeming to learn something from a previous one, just as the Holocaust — apart from the death factories — was what the Germans learned from what the Turks invented: confiscation of property, deportations, closed borders, destruction of villages, slave labour camps, elementary medical experiments, crude gas chambers, and finally, the most “efficient” of methods, death marches.
There is a significant difference between the Armenian and Jewish experiences, apart from the industrialisation of the latter. The Germans, as a nation, are suffused by a sense of guilt and atonement, building memorials and museums as testimony of their monumental barbarism. The schools and universities teach about the schuldfrage, what the guilt is about. The philosopher Jürgen Habermas has written: “We have lived through an historical milieu that made us who and what we are today. None of us can escape this milieu because our identities, both as individuals and as Germans, are indissolubly interwoven with it.” The Turks on the other hand have gone to extremes, often ludicrous extremes, in denying that anything ever happened that can be called genocide. There was, they claim, a civil war, one in which more Turks than Armenians died: ergo, the Armenians were the perpetrators, Turks the victims. They also have an ally in much of this massive denial industry — the Australian federal government. The New South Wales and South Australian parliaments have recognised the Armenian genocide but the federal government has not merely failed officially to recognise it (a position currently adopted by various nations, including Israel, for a variety of complex realpolitik reasons), it has actually denied it. In June 2014, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop wrote a letter to the lobby group known as the Australian-Turkish Advocacy Alliance to assure them that nothing would disturb the good relations between the two nations:
The Australian Government acknowledges the devastating effects which the tragic events at the end of the Ottoman Empire have had on later generations and on their identity, heritage and culture. We do not, however, recognise these events as ‘genocide’.
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