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Armenian Memories

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YOAV LEMMER / AFP

Philip Jenkins - published on 11/28/14

The Armenians determined never to let the genocide of 1915 pass Into oblivion.

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 exposé 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 Jenkinsis a Distinguished Professor of History atBaylor Universityand author ofThe Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade.


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World War II
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