On April 24, 1915, the first drops of blood stemming from genocide in the 20th century flowed upon this earth. Since that day, more than 20 million victims have fallen to state-sponsored genocides across our globe.
This month, Armenians throughout the world will be remembering the centennial of our “Medz Yeghren” (Great Calamity). However, at the very foundation of it all, the Armenian Genocide transcends ethnicity, race and religion. It speaks to the horrors experienced by millions of people of all ethnic backgrounds on this earth, and the fate of millions more to come if lessons are not learned and preventative actions are not taken.
For perspective, wholesale destruction and the slaughter of people is not exclusive to the 20th century. It has happened time and time again throughout history and on different continents. In the Western Hemisphere, the slave trade and the utter destruction of the indigenous people are all too real examples. Nor is the organized brutality of the Armenian Genocide unique. In fact, it was the precursor of the most ruthlessly efficient genocide the world has ever witnessed, the Jewish Holocaust.
What is unique to the 20th century, however, is the actual study of genocide and the concept that it must be stopped. Raphael Lemkin coined the term “genocide” while studying the atrocities committed against the Armenian people. Additionally, what is unique of the Armenian Genocide is that it serves as the callously successful prototype of genocide denial. That brings us to the concept of prevention.
In order to delve into prevention however, one must first seek to understand political realities. We live in a world where geopolitical actions are explained through the cryptic phrase of “protecting the state’s interests,” and where such actions trump the “moral interests” of humanity’s past, present and future. A sharp divide exists as these two concepts are seen by some in power as mutually exclusive.
With reference to the Armenian Genocide, after such heinous actions, the position taken by the perpetrator is that it never happened. Despite countless scholarly works by historians setting forth the evidence on the genocide, political actors, including the State Department, have taken to avoid the term “genocide” relating to the extermination of more than a million Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Empire.
The resistance by the Republic of Turkey and the United States to recognize the Armenian Genocide begs the question of why such recognition is even sought, when no genuine academic debate exists. The cynical response is why anybody should care about events that happened so long ago or so far away from where we live.
Our answer is twofold — one personal to our specific history and the other involving all of our futures. First the personal, the Armenian Genocide was the first prototype of genocide of the 20th century; we do not want it to be the prototype of genocide denial for the 21st century. Second, with state sponsored denial comes distorted information.
Political positions are substituted for truth. With misinformation, the ability to recognize, prevent and remedy such horror is muted. Ultimately, deterrence against state-sponsored genocide is dramatically reduced if not wholly extinguished.
On Aug. 22, 1939, Adolf Hitler gave a speech to Wehrmacht commanders a week before the planned invasion of Poland. In explaining his rationale to support the planned genocide of millions of Poles in a historical context, his speech ended with the words, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
Let us tell you who would speak of the Armenian Genocide today, if he was still alive. A human being who was the historic opposite of Adolf Hitler, a man who we continue to learn from even after his death: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
During the civil rights movement, King stated one of his core moral axioms: “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”
It is for that reason that we remember; it is for that reason that we must speak up. This month, we remember not only the victims of the Armenian Genocide, but the victims of all genocides. Only by recognizing and accepting that these genocides occurred can the wounds of humanity begin to heal and the fate of millions be protected for the future.
Alex Bastian, director of communications for the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office, and Ara Jabagchourian, partner at Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy, are both descendants of Armenian Genocide survivors.