Pope Francis, in a recent Sunday homily, made reference to an event which has the Turks in an uproar. This “event” was the Armenian Genocide, committed by the Young Turk rulers of what was then the Ottoman Empire against the Armenian Christian population of Asia Minor. The result was a vast number of human deaths in order to create an ideal Turkey for its rulers.
Even though this event is well-documented, Turkey has continued to deny that any crimes ever occurred.
For most of us, the Armenian Genocide is a relatively unknown event of the last century. So here is a brief synopsis of the event and its setting. In the early 20th century, the Ottoman Empire was the “sick, old man of Europe,” in the words of Tzar Nicholas I. The Ottoman Empire had stood for centuries and threatened Europe numerous times, the last of which was at the gates of Vienna in 1683. After this, the Ottoman Empire experienced a long period of decline until the turn of the 20th century.
It was in the late 19th century that new life was to be breathed into the dying colossus.The radical ideas of ethno-nationalism took root in Empire. In July 1908, a political party known as the Young Turks forced constitutional rule upon the Ottoman Sultan, limiting his powers. This brought joy to the religious minorities of the Empire. Many, including the Armenian Christians, hoped that it would bring them greater freedom and protection under the law. Sadly, this was not to be: the Young Turks may have hated the absolute rule of the Sultan, but their hatred for ethnic minorities was even greater.
On April 24, 1915, the new Young Turk government set in motion its plan to eliminate the Armenian Christian minority in the Ottoman Empire. On that date, Armenian leaders in Istanbul were rounded up and executed. (See this site for the appropriate chronology.) This was followed by the massacre of thousands of Armenians across Turkey. Where the children were not executed, they were placed in the homes of Turkish Muslims, to be raised as Muslims (echoing the earlier system of devshirme). The Turks invaded parts of Russia in 1918, slaughtering Armenians as they went. By 1923, the entire Armenian population of West Armenia and Asia Minor had been eliminated. Some 1.5 million human beings were sacrificed to create an ethnically “pure” state for Turks to enjoy. Lenin would have been proud: a few eggs were broken to create a paradise, albeit of a racial rather than class variety!
The scourge of ethno-nationlism was not limited Turkey. Eastern Europe, Germany, Africa and Asia all felt the bite of its foul doctrine. Our age of ideology has yet to learn that when ideas become all-important, regardless of their human cost, we lose sight of justice and humanity.
There are several reasons why our government, as well as that of Turkey and other nations, should recognize the Armenian Genocide. The first is that recognizing this event gives it the status it deserves as one of the 20th century’s signature acts of evil. The second is that, since Germany has been forced to recognize its’ own dark past, Turkey should also acknowledge the darkness in its history. The third is that reconciliation can only begin once this evil has been recognized, and recompense has been made. Turkey is trying to follow the footsteps of other nations who prefer to deny their own misdeeds. It’s easier to beat up on the Christian West for its’ own “unique” evils of slavery, racism, and exploitation. Given that Russia hides its gulag past and Japan denies its war crimes, it is likely that Turkey will continue denying its past as well.
In light of the Pope’s words, the Armenian Genocide has attracted new attention. The EU Parliament has called for Turkey to recognize the Genocide. Turkish President Erdogan has said that any EU call for a change in Turkeys’ stance will “go in one ear and out the other.” His use of an English idiom is at least somewhat amusing. Whether or not the Genocide will be recognized is anyone’s guess.
It is good that we should remember the Armenian Genocide not merely for the event itself, but for what it represents. When bad ideas are allowed to run amok, no one can say how much blood will be spilled in their name.