Shut Up About Armenians or We'll Hurt Them Again
Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan's latest sinister threat.
April is the cruelest month for the people of Armenia, who every year at this season have to suffer a continuing tragedy and a humiliation. The tragedy is that of commemorating the huge number of their ancestors who were exterminated by the Ottoman Muslim caliphate in a campaign of state-planned mass murder that began in April 1915. The humiliation is of hearing, year after year, that the Turkish authorities simply deny that these appalling events ever occurred or that the killings constituted "genocide."
In a technical and pedantic sense, the word genocide does not, in fact, apply, since it only entered our vocabulary in 1943. (It was coined by a scholar named Raphael Lemkin, who for rather self-evident reasons in that even more awful year wanted a legal term for the intersection between racism and bloodlust and saw Armenia as the precedent for what was then happening in Poland.) I still rather prefer the phrase used by America's then-ambassador to Turkey, Henry Morgenthau. Reporting to Washington about what his consular agents were telling him of the foul doings in the Ottoman provinces of Harput and Van in particular, he employed the striking words "race extermination." (See the imperishable book The Slaughterhouse Province for some of the cold diplomatic dispatches of that period.) Terrible enough in itself, Morgenthau's expression did not quite comprehend the later erasure of all traces of Armenian life, from the destruction of their churches and libraries and institutes to the crude altering of official Turkish maps and schoolbooks to deny that there had ever been an Armenia in the first place.
This year, the House foreign affairs committee in Washington and the parliament of Sweden joined the growing number of political bodies that have decided to call the slaughter by its right name. I quote now from a statement in response by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the current prime minister of Turkey and the leader of its Islamist party:
In my country there are 170,000 Armenians. Seventy thousand of them are citizens. We tolerate 100,000 more. So, what am I going to do tomorrow? If necessary I will tell the 100,000: OK, time to go back to your country. Why? They are not my citizens. I am not obliged to keep them in my country.
This extraordinary threat was not made at some stupid rally in a fly-blown town. It was uttered in England, on March 17, on the Turkish-language service of the BBC. Just to be clear, then, about the view of Turkey's chief statesman: If democratic assemblies dare to mention the ethnic cleansing of Armenians in the 20th century, I will personally complete that cleansing in the 21st!
Where to begin? Turkish "guest workers" are to be found in great numbers all through the European Union, membership of which is a declared Turkish objective. How would the world respond if a European prime minister called for the mass deportation of all Turks? Yet Erdogan's xenophobic demagoguery attracted precisely no condemnation from Washington or Brussels. He probably overestimated the number of "tolerated" economic refugees from neighboring and former Soviet Armenia, but is it not interesting that he keeps a count in his head? And a count of the tiny number of surviving Turkish Armenians as well?
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Photograph of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan by Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images.