One hundred and forty-two years after the Congress of Berlin, the same nightmarish scenario is playing out again: Turkish forces are killing Armenians. And like the Europeans of times past, we just don’t seem to get it. How many Armenians have to die before we understand that life and culture are precious and must be defended?
On September 26, in a curious repetition of historical precedents, Turkish forces—and their Azeri allies—launched a full-scale attack on Artsakh and Armenia. The attack was not unexpected. Azerbaijan shelled Armenia in the middle of July of this year. Azeri and Turkish forces held joint military exercises at the end of July and beginning of August in Nakhichevan, after which Turkey generously decided to leave some of its military and equipment in the hands of their Azeri “brothers.” As I write this, that equipment and military—along with the thousands of mercenaries whom Turkey recruited in Syria, paid for, and sent to Azerbaijan—is engaged in an attack on the whole “line of contact” between Azerbaijan and Artsakh.
The events are unquestionably a repetition of historical precedents. When the Ottoman Turks decided that Armenians were personae non gratae in the entire world—that their existence was simply intolerable—they visited massacre upon massacre upon them—the 1878 massacres, the Hamidian massacres (1894-1896), the Adana massacres (1909), to mention a few of them—until they launched a full-scale genocide against them in 1915.
While the Turks were doing what they apparently do best, the governments of the European Powers—France, England, Russia, and Germany—did everything to advance their own interests in the Middle East, and nothing to stop what was clearly a growing threat against the world’s first Christian Nation: Armenia. To be sure, men like Gladstone and Clemenceau denounced the massacres. They issued threatening letters. They took the moral high ground. The problem was that their moral high ground flew so high that it did not touch the world. Their words sailed straight over the heads of the killers, who kept on killing because they realized what any elementary school student does: “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never touch me.”
The Armenians understood this too. At the Congress of Berlin in 1878, Khrimian Hayrig, who was to become the leader of the Armenian Church, the Catholicos of all Armenians, pointedly asked European leaders, who like him were Christian: “There, where guns talk and swords make noise, what significance do appeals and petitions have?” His words fell on deaf ears. And his people paid the price, time after time, until there were none left in the lands that they had made bountiful for thousands of years.
Hitler also understood the Turkish precedent. Once he had remilitarized the Rhineland without the Entente raising a finger, he set his sights on grander goals. From Germany’s Turkish allies, he had learned that political leaders who complain and don’t act will quickly forget what the fuss was about. He claimed as much in the Obersalzberg Speech he gave a week before the Nazis invaded Poland:
Our strength consists in our speed and in our brutality. Genghis Khan led millions of women and children to slaughter—with premeditation and a happy heart. History sees in him solely the founder of a state. It’s a matter of indifference to me what a weak western European civilization will say about me. I have issued the command—and I’ll have anybody who utters but one word of criticism executed by a firing squad—that our war aim does not consist in reaching certain lines, but in the physical destruction of the enemy. Accordingly, I have placed my death-head formation in readiness—for the present only in the East—with orders to them to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language. Only thus shall we gain the living space (“Lebensraum”) which we need. Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians? [“Wer redet heute noch von der Vernichtung der Armenier?”]
We all know where that led. Germans are diligent students, especially when they can learn the lesson first hand. The first commander of Auschwitz was stationed in Armenia—Western Armenia—during the Armenian Genocide.
So here we are again, one hundred and forty-two years after the Congress of Berlin, and the same nightmarish scenario is playing out again. Turkey (and Azerbaijan) is killing Armenians. And like the Europeans of times past, we just don’t seem to get it. We are just talking.
Unlike them, we are not taking the moral high ground. We seem to have forgotten things like the value of human life and ancient culture. So we focus on trifles: who started it?
How many Armenians have to die before we understand that life and culture are precious and must be defended?
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The featured image is “Armenian people are marched to a nearby prison in Mezireh by armed Ottoman soldiers” (April 1915) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.