© 1997 Dennis R. Papazian
Detroit Free Press
April 21, 1997
Page 11A (Op/Ed page)
Lesson of Armenian genocide remains relevant to
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
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
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
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
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
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
Dennis R. Papazian is a professor of history and director of the
Armenian Research Center at the University of
to Selected Writings of Dr. Dennis R. Papazian