© 1997 Dennis R. Papazian
Detroit Free Press
Monday
April 21, 1997
Page 11A (Op/Ed page)

Lesson of Armenian genocide remains relevant to all nations



by Dennis R. Papazian

      April is Genocide Month, and many people of goodwill are commemorating with solemn observances the Armenian Genocide and the Jewish Holocaust. Others ask why we should remember a genocide carried out during World War I, and a Holocaust that took place during World War II.
      Each day's newspapers bring us fresh stories of slaughter and carnage in some corner of the world. What makes these events different and still relevant to our era?
      First, of course, are the moral arguments. These were evil deeds, systematically carried out on a large scale by unjust governments against defenseless religious minorities. The Armenian Genocide--the first genocide of the 20th Century--took the lives of as many as 1.5 million people, yet the Turkish government denies to this day that it happened.
      Righteous people have a moral imperative not to let the Genocide or the Holocaust go unremembered and unmourned. To do so would be to make us less human and to encourage the repetition of evil.
      Perhaps even more relevant today are the political issues. The European state system, the "sovereign" nation-state that has become the world model, has the seeds of genocide in it. This is a dangerous situation.
      By international custom, developed in Europe since the French Revolution, the state is responsible to no higher authority. The result of this attitude is that national, religious and racial minorities have no protection against unjust governments. The Armenian and Jewish cases are especially relevant for our own time because they took place not in some far-off land, but within the European state system.
      Czar Alexander I of Russia, foreseeing the dangers of this system, founded the Concert of Europe. His idea was that the advanced European states--the so-called civilized states of the world--would have a forum, similar to today's United Nations, where they could solve international and even minority problems without resorting to war.
      The Ottoman Empire, the venue of the Armenian genocide, was admitted to the Concert of Europe after the Crimean War. Then in decline, the empire was popularly called the "sick man of Europe."
      But sick or not, it was considered part of the European state system. Bringing Turkey into the system made the European Powers responsible for what went on within that country, and they took that responsibility seriously.
      The European states--and later the United States--demanded that the Ottoman government stop its periodic massacres of Armenians, and give them the protection due to any citizen of a modern state. In this diplomatic correspondence between the Ottoman Empire and the states of Europe--stretched out over 50 years--the concept of "human rights" developed within the European legal system.
      Human rights, in theory, rise above the idea of state sovereignty. The new concept did little to help the Armenians, since the Turks chose to ignore it. Still, it was on those newly developed principles of human rights, based on the Armenian case, that the Allies held the Nuremberg trials after World War II and punished the Nazis who perpetrated the Holocaust.
      A repentant Turkish government, not the Allies, held war-crime trials after World War I to bring to justice those members of the "Young Turk" government who carried out the Armenian genocide. These trials took place in 1919-20 in present-day Istanbul, under domestic laws that prohibited murder and the illegal confiscation of property.
      The trials were conducted with scrupulous attention to rules of evidence. Documentation was preferred over verbal testimony, and only Muslims were allowed to make depositions, to avoid accusations of Christian bias.
      Several leaders were convicted and condemned to death. Those who had fled were condemned in absentia. Many were executed.
      Yet the trials, which could have cleared up many questions and brought belated justice to the Armenians (just as Nuremberg did for the Jews) were unfortunately aborted. Too many people of the ruling elite would have been implicated.
      Adolf Hitler was a young German soldier during World War I. The press in Germany, as the press in all other Western countries, reported on the genocide in Turkey. The Kaiser's government allowed stories about the gross crimes of their ally to pass censorship, so that Germany would not be blamed for the Armenian genocide after the war.
      Hitler was evil but not stupid. He watched while the Young Turks carried out the final solution to their minority problem during World War I, and he saw them get away with it. He drew the proper conclusion.
      The world has a short memory. When Hitler sent his generals to start World War II and to effect the final solution against the Jews, he ranted: "Go! Kill without mercy! Who today remembers the annihilation of the Armenians?"
      Perhaps it is time we remembered.

Dennis R. Papazian is a professor of history and director of the Armenian Research Center at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.

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