The G Word

Today in Germany, it’s against the law to deny the existence of the Holocaust.

Today in Turkey, it’s against the law to affirm the existence of the Holocaust.

We’re talking here about two different Holocausts, but the point is the same:  Some countries have the courage to fess up to past atrocities, while others are abject cowards.

For us Americans, the responsibility to acknowledge other countries’ grievous sins would seemingly be straightforward.  And yet, in practice, it has become so fraught and complicated that you’d think we’d committed the crimes ourselves.

I’m speaking, of course, of the annual disgrace that is the American president’s failure to call the Armenian genocide by its rightful name.

Beginning on April 24, 1915—exactly a century ago—the Ottoman Empire in present-day Turkey began a process of premeditated, systematic murder against Christian Armenians living within its borders.  Generally, this was done either through outright slaughter or through prolonged “death marches,” whereby victims would ultimately starve.

At the start of World War I, Armenians numbered roughly two million within the empire itself.  By 1922, about 400,000 were left.

While there remains a debate about the exact numbers, a broad historical consensus has emerged that what happened to Armenians under the Ottoman Turks was, in fact, genocide.  That is, it was a deliberate attempt to annihilate an entire people on the basis of their ethnicity.

(An interesting linguistic footnote:  The word “genocide” did not exist until 1943.  In 1915, U.S. Ambassador Henry Morgenthau referred to the Ottomans’ treatment of Armenians as “race extermination”—a term that, as Christopher Hitchens observed, is “more electrifying” than the one we now use.)

A century on, the legacy of the Armenian Holocaust is as contentious as ever.  However, the basic facts are only “controversial” in the sense that the basic facts about climate change are “controversial.”  Politicians continue to argue, but among the folks who actually know what they’re talking about—in this case, historians—the science is resoundingly settled.

Which brings us to the unnervingly Orwellian chapter of this story:  The careful refusal by every American president to utter the word “genocide” whenever the subject comes up.

It’s weird and frightening that this is the case, and in more ways than one—even when just considering the present occupant of the Oval Office.

You see, it’s not as if Barack Obama avoids the issue altogether.  Thanks to the efforts of the Armenian community in America and elsewhere, he doesn’t have a choice.

During this centennial week, Obama aides have met with several Armenian-American groups, and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew is in Armenia’s capital to mark the anniversary.  National Security Advisor Susan Rice, meeting with Turkish officials, called for “an open and frank dialogue in Turkey about the atrocities of 1915.”

Nor—while we’re at it—does Obama himself deny the truth that is staring him directly in the face.  In January 2008, as a presidential candidate, he said, “The Armenian genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact.”

And yet, in the six-plus years of the Obama administration, the word “genocide” has never passed the lips of any American official.

The explanation for this is depressingly straightforward:  Turkey, a strategic U.S. ally, denies that such a genocide ever took place, and the U.S. is terrified that if we declare otherwise, our relationship with Turkey will suffer irreparable harm.

That’s right:  Our government, in our name, is publicly maintaining a major historical lie in order to placate a foreign country that murdered a million and a half of its own citizens and, a hundred years later, still pretends that it didn’t.

By comparison, just imagine a world in which it was official U.S. policy not to formally recognize an organized plot by Hitler’s Germany to eradicate the Jewish population of Eastern Europe.  (To say nothing of the continent’s gays, Gypsies, Poles and others.)  Imagine if Germany today claimed that the six million Jewish casualties were essentially a fog-of-war coincidence.  Imagine if Angela Merkel arrested and jailed anyone who implied otherwise and the U.S. did nothing meaningful to stop her.

We don’t need to imagine it.  Replace “Germany” with “Turkey” and “Jews” with “Armenians,” and you’re left, more or less, with the world we have.

The Turkish government acknowledges that a great many Armenians were killed in the First World War, but denies that it was the Ottomans’ fault.  Further, thanks to Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, anyone who argues to the contrary can be imprisoned for the crime of “denigrating the Turkish Nation.”  By not going all the way in our condemnation, we Americans—the people who are supposed to be leading the world in justice and freedom—allow the practice to continue.

It’s a moral disgrace by all involved—an insult to Armenians, to history and to truth itself.  And everybody knows it.

That’s the creepiest part:  It’s not just that so many officials are saying something untrue.  They’re saying something untrue that everybody knows is untrue.

It’s the very essence of totalitarianism:  Create your own reality and exert no effort in making anyone believe it.

In actual dictatorships, this strategy works because the leaders wield absolute control over their citizens.  (To wit:  If you’re being starved, tortured, raped, etc., the fact that your government is also duplicitous is not a particularly high concern.)

On the other hand, such transparent dishonesty never works in democracies like ours, because our system is designed to make it impossible.  So long as we retain the freedom of expression, the separation of powers and a reasonably competent press corps, the truth will (eventually) rise to the surface.

So the president will eventually come around on this issue, and the Republic of Turkey will just have to deal with it.

Until that happens, however, Obama’s ongoing squeamishness will continue to validate the pessimism of many voters that the promise of “change” in Washington is an illusion.  That campaign pledges, however sincere at the time, will always ultimately be overruled by entrenched interests at home and abroad.  That insurgents who vow to “shake things up” are no match for the status quo.

To be sure, there’s no point in being naïve about these things.  If you’re the leader of the free world, you can’t just go insulting other countries willy-nilly and expect nothing bad to happen in return.  You have to accept the world as it is, politics is the art of the possible, blah blah blah.

But does the bar for political pragmatism really have to be set this low?  By acceding to other nations’ fantasies about the facts of history, aren’t we diminishing not just history but ourselves?  Are we not paying a random that any other wrongheaded country could demand as well?

Why would we do this?  Why should the bad guys win?

It’s certainly not inevitable.  Just look at Germany.

A mere seven decades after committing the most horrible crime against humanity in modern times, the Federal Republic of Germany stands not just as a stable, functioning, open society, but as Europe’s premier economic power and—crucially—just about as un-anti-Semitic as it’s possible for such a country to be.

Of course, in a nation so large, pockets of anti-Jewish sentiment still percolate, some of which manifest themselves through violence.  However, the overall prevalence of German anti-Semitism today is no greater than that of most other nations in Western Europe, and is considerably smaller than some (looking at you, France).

More to the point:  Since completely reinventing itself during and after the Cold War, Germany, in its official acts, has never stopped apologizing for its wretched past, even going so far (as I noted earlier) of punishing anyone who “approves of, denies or belittles an act committed under the rule of National Socialism,” along with anyone who “assaults the human dignity of others by insulting, maliciously maligning, or defaming segments of the population.”  This might explain why the country’s Jewish population doubled in the first five years after reunification, and then doubled again over the next decade and a half.

In America, of course, those sorts of laws would be completely unconstitutional, as the First Amendment guarantees the right to insult whoever you want.  However, as both a Jew and a defender of human dignity, I appreciate the sentiment.  Better to outlaw lies than truth.

This is all to say that Turkey will ultimately come to terms with the darkest period in its history, and all the reconciliation that it entails.  We can’t be sure how long it will take for such a proud nation to own up to its past cruelties.  But there is one thing of which we can be sure:  It will have no reason to take that leap until it stops being enabled into complacency by superpowers like us.

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