After signing a treaty with Germany and de facto bringing the Ottoman Empire into the First World War on the side of Germany, the Ottoman empire’s nationalist leaders declared war on Russia as part of their aim — a pan-Turkic expansion into central Asia at Russia’s expense. The Armenian minority, who sought to realize their national aspirations and found an Armenian autonomy in the empire, were perceived as traitors and collaborators with the Russians. The “Young Turks,” the Turkish nationalist party, which deposed Sultan Abdul Hamid II and ruled the empire, acted for “Turkification” of the territories under its control, which meant ethnic cleansing of the Christian minority. Those responsible for planning and overseeing the Armenian genocide were the top brass of the Young Turks: Interior Minister Mehmed Talaat Pasha, Minister of War Enver Pasha and Ahmed Djemal Pasha, known as the “Three Pashas” that held de facto rule over the empire from 1913 until the end of World War I in 1918. These senior officials ordered the founding of a paramilitary organization, the “Special Organization” — Techkilat-i Mahsoussé — which was used to solve the “Armenian problem.” The organization was tasked with expelling and destroying the Armenian minority. Criminals and specially freed convicts were drafted into its ranks to execute the plan.
On the night between April 23 and April 24, 1915, on the direct order of Talaat Pasha, the Turkish army stormed the homes of the Armenian minority leaders; at least 250 prominent Armenians — poets, doctors, bankers and a member of the Ottoman parliament — were arrested in Istanbul, tortured and then cruelly killed. Consequently, April 24 symbolizes the beginning of the Armenian genocide and was set as its official Day of Remembrance. Investigators believe that from 1914 to 1918, between 1-1.5 million Armenian men, women and children were cruelly and systematically murdered. Men were separated from women and children and swiftly executed. Those who remained alive were deported to concentration camps in the Syrian Desert and let die from hunger and rampant infectious diseases. In areas where ammunition was in short supply, killing squads relied on whatever weapons were at hand — axes, cleavers, even shovels. Adults were hacked to pieces, and infants dashed against the rocks. In the Black Sea region, Armenians were loaded onto boats and thrown overboard. In the area around Lake Hazar, they were tossed over cliffs.
The Jewish ambassador of America to Turkey in those days, Henry Morgenthau (1913-16), had the courage to confront the Turkish leaders about the massacres of the Armenians and implore the U.S. government to intercede and stop what he called “a campaign of race extermination in progress” and described as “the greatest crime in modern history.” Because of his outspokenness, Morgenthau lost his job and was recalled. He obviously did not predict what was in store later in the 20th century for the Jews.
One of the Nuremberg trial documents reveals that the indifference of the global public toward the Turkish slaughter of Armenians during World War I and the lack of appropriate response from the international community encouraged Adolf Hitler to conquer territories and annihilate Jews in Europe. In addressing his military advisors eight days before invading Poland in 1939, Hitler asked, “Who today, after all, speaks of the annihilation of the Armenians? Who remembers those Armenians?” Hitler made it clear that he was both inspired by what the Young Turk government had done to the Armenians in 1915 and also noted that because the memory of the atrocities committed against the Armenians had been so easily washed away, it was easier to commit genocide again and international response should not be feared.
The aftermath of the extermination of the Armenians has been marked by an aggressive state-sponsored assault by the Turkish government on the historical truth of the Armenian genocide. Thus, it is not surprising that Mehmet Talaat Pasha, one of the masterminds of the Armenian genocide, has many prominent streets named after him in modern-day Turkey. To these days, modern Turkey vehemently refuses to admit its historic involvement in the murder of the Armenian people and invests huge funds in propaganda denying the Armenian massacres. A case in point, in 2012, the Turkish government successfully forced the British government to order the Tate Gallery’s removal of the word “genocide” from the wall text of the exhibit of the work of Armenian genocide survivor Arshile Gorky. Due to Turkey’s geostrategic importance and the Turkish government’s aggressive diplomatic pressure, only 23 countries have had the courage to recognize officially the Armenian genocide. Neither the U.S. nor Israel is among them. Notwithstanding the deep involvement and commitment of many Jewish and American intellectuals to the Armenian plight and discourse, the U.S. and Israeli governments have failed to pass an Armenian genocide resolution, which is to say, to make an official gesture of redress to Turkish denial. For this I am deeply sorry.
The Jewish historian Deborah Lipstadt has written that “denial of genocide, whether that of the Turks against the Armenians or the Nazis against the Jews, is not an act of historical reinterpretation … but an insidious form of intellectual and moral degradation … it strives to reshape history in order to demonize the victims and rehabilitate the perpetrators.” And, Pope Francis made clear in his recent address about the Armenian genocide, “Concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it!”
As human beings our motto should be: I am a human being. Whatever affects another human being affects me. I join you, members of the Armenian community, on your Memorial Day, as you mark the 100th anniversary of your genocide. I am here, with you, as a human being, as a Jew, as an Israeli, as an American.
The Armenian genocide must be firmly etched in the personal consciousness of each and every one of us, and in our collective memory. This should be our obligation to you; this is our obligation to ourselves. When the bells of the Armenian churches will ring on the April 24, ask not for whom the bells toll, they toll for thee.
Chaim Oscar Jacob MD, PhD
Professor of Medicine and Microbiology & Immunology