As the common
use of the word ‘genocide’ became a feature in the cultural environment of New
York, it was natural for some Armenian-Americans to characterize the Armenian
suffering in World War I as genocide
Genocide obsession might seem like an inherent part of Armenian national
memory. Currently, most Armenians are convinced that it is disrespectful or
even dishonest to remember what happened to their ancestors in the final period
of the Ottoman Empire without placing genocide at the center of one’s thoughts
and expressions. In genocide discourse, sentences are being crafted as if
genocide is . . . the memory itself.
The commemoration has become an occasion for “genocidizing” history.
Thus, the memory is not simply that the Ottoman police arrested over 200 members
of the Armenian leadership who were suspected of disloyalty at a fatal time for
the government on April 24, 1915, but rather that Armenians insist that it be
seen as marking the beginning of genocide.
The past is washed with the rhetoric of genocide. One’s morality is questioned
if the word “genocide” is not used to describe what happened to
Ottoman Armenians during World War I.
However, undeniable evidence shows that there was a time not too long ago when
even leading scholars of modern Armenian studies did not characterize the event
as genocide in their work on this particular point in history.
When, how and why did Armenian memory become filled with genocide?
Before the Armenian narrative became the crown jewel of genocide discourse, the
term “genocide” served a political purpose against the Nazis. It was
first defined during World War II in an effort to justify control over post-war
Germany through international law by highlighting Germany’s activities as an
occupier. The term genocide was introduced in the 1944 book “Axis Rule in
Occupied Europe” by Raphael Lemkin in direct and exclusive reference to
the actions of the Axis powers in recently conquered territories. The book does
not mention Armenians.
Following the Yalta Conference, as the post-war occupation of Germany became
more of a reality, it was an American interest to argue that the term genocide
was not just made up to criminalize Germany. Then, The New York Times (NY
Times)and other agents of American soft power such as Lemkin, who had been
employed by the U.S. government, began to list the Armenian case among other
cases of massacres. When Lemkin in 1945 and The NY Times in 1946 each made
their first published references to Armenians in this context, both texts
referred to Armenians in one sentence along with Greeks and, suspiciously, in
both texts the phrase “diplomatic action” was used, suggesting a
During this time the communist threat became the new main focus of American
power, and the pogroms in Russia’s past began to appear on American lists of
atrocities that transformed the term genocide from its specific anti-German
origin to greater and more popular use. Correspondingly, the Soviet Union
became the primary target of genocide accusations. Throughout the late 1940s
and early 1950s exiled representatives of national groups such as the
Czechoslovakians, Estonians, Hungarians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Poles,
Rumanians, and Ukrainians, all claimed – from New York in the pages of The NY
Times – that their land was occupied by the Soviet Union and that their people
subjected to genocide. Similarly, the American press publicized accusations
that the Soviet Union was orchestrating genocide in Korea during the war there.
‘GENOCIDE’ MUSICALS IN BROADWAY
As the common use of the word genocide became a feature in the cultural
environment of New York, it was natural for some Armenian-Americans to
characterize the Armenian suffering in World War I as genocide. For instance,
in 1955, Sarkis Atamian used genocide for a section title in his book, although
without making any arguments about genocide or using the term in the body of
the text, meaning that Armenian-Americans used the word genocide casually, as
other people did, and there was no belief that those who do not use the word
ought to be accused of denial.
Meanwhile, the study of Armenian history at American universities began to take
shape. Two monographs in the 1960s – one by Louise Nalbandian and another by
Richard G. Hovannisian – were published by the University of California Press.
They were largely the product of an initiative that had been led by Harvard
University Professor Richard N. Frye, whose various roles in the service of the
U.S. government included intelligence work.
Significantly, neither of these works on Armenian history by the two
Armenian-American scholars mentions the word genocide.
In “The Armenian Revolutionary Movement” from 1963, Nalbandian
prepares the ground for an anti-Turkish memory, but without using the word
genocide, as she claims that “in 1915, the Turks brutally massacred
Armenian men, women, and children on an unparalleled scale and drove the
remaining survivors from Turkish Armenia” (p. 185).
In “Armenia” from 1967, Hovannisian attempts to thicken the Armenian
case against the Turks, but without any reference to the word genocide. This is
mighty conspicuous in consideration of his current genocide-per-word average.
Moreover, in the book he uses words other than genocide to describe what
happened, in sentences that these days are typically dominated by
characterizing the events as genocide. Hovannisian now derides those who use
words such as deportations, massacres, cataclysm or tragedy instead of genocide
to describe what happened, but such are the words that he chose to use in 1967.
For example, in a note (51) he states: “April 24, 1915, is accepted as the
inaugural date of the Armenian deportations…” (p. 274).
As late as 1978, the magazine Ararat published an article by Hovannisian titled
“Rewriting History” in which he addresses the Armenian-Turkish
polemic over World War I head-on, yet without mentioning the term genocide at
How can there be an Armenian demand that the event be characterized as genocide
if scholars of Armenian history such as Nalbandian and Hovannisian elected not
to use the term in their own writings?
This moral question has a soft-power answer. For the sake of credibility and
the effective arrival at a worldwide acceptance of how the term genocide is now
used to describe the Armenian suffering in World War I, it had to appear as if
Armenians themselves insisted on using the term genocide before
American-influenced historians and genocide scholars could present it as
genocide in works on history. The use of genocide would not have been
persuasive had it originated in publications by American university presses
rather than from within the Armenian community.
AND THE OSCAR GOES TO…
The agitation of Armenian-American to absorb the word genocide as part of their
own collective memory started during the escalation of American military
involvement in Vietnam when The NY Times gave Vahakn N. Dadrian a platform to
debut the contentious narrative, and at the heart of it the conviction that
Armenians were “victims of the first modern example of genocide.” The
stated reason for the publication on May 30, 1964, of approximately 500 words –
double the length of each of the six other letters that day – was a
three-week-old article about the Nazi slaughter at Auschwitz. In effect, like a
bulletin board for group mobilization, The NY Times, via Dadrian, informed the
public almost a full year in advance that the upcoming commemoration of the
50th year of the “1915 events” was going to be a momentous event.
When The NY Times published another anti-Turkish tirade by Dadrian on August
10, 1964, it went as far as using the fiery word genocide to ignite passion for
the idea of an Armenian land-grab once the Armenians were independent of the
Soviet government, asking: “… can the Armenians be denied the right to
reclaim their ancestral territories which Turkey absorbed after massacring
their inhabitants?” It was The NY Times that facilitated the incorporation
of stirring words such as “justice” and “retribution” into
the Armenian collective vocabulary along with the genocide.
Readers were then informed about Armenians using the word genocide in
commemorations. The commemorations introduced prominent banners, saying that
Turkey is “Guilty of Genocide” and that it holds “Armenian
Land.” This was highlighted by The NY Times, which offered three days of
coverage of Armenian commemorations in 1965 from April 24 to April 26.
Interestingly, neither the date April 24, 1915, nor the word genocide were
mentioned by the newspaper in this Armenian context in the previous years. The
NY Times had not reported any such Armenian claims against Turks since the
advent of the term genocide until then. There was no mention of a 40th or 30th
year commemoration, let alone in the years that did not mark a round number,
yet years 51 and 52 were advertised in the newspaper.
Within several years, the infusion of the term genocide into the Armenian
language was sufficient for it to look like the genocide memory came from
Armenians themselves in a bottom-up fashion. This entailed careful
articulations in trusted sources of information as well as inspiring street
activities. At this time the public was instructed that the Armenian suffering
had been forgotten from memory, but this illusion was achieved by a false
conflation of no genocide with no memory.
In 1979, the report by the U.S. President’s Commission on the Holocaust
indicated that the government intended to establish a genocide discourse under
the wings of Holocaust studies, and signaled that Armenian victimhood would be
taught as a primary example of genocide. Since then, hateful language against
Turks has been sanctioned by educational literature on history.
As a result of this externally transmitted language, and emboldened by the
self-righteousness that genocide indoctrination injected in their national spirit,
Armenians began to self-perpetuate a consciousness of justified aggression
against the entire Turkic family of people. The vengeful disposition was
manifested in Armenian organizations’ terrorist attacks against Turkish
diplomats in the 1970s and 1980s, and it has continued to manifest itself in
the bloody Armenian capture and occupation of the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Positioned by The NY Times, Dadrian did not merely prophesy, but preach, an
Armenian ambition that was bound to clash with Turkic possessions and
interests. He did this by inserting genocide into Armenian memory.
Certainly, many Armenians suffered greatly in World War I, and quite possibly
the historical significance of what happened to Ottoman Armenians – not just in
1915 – would not have received much attention without the genocide debate, but
the “genocidizing” of this history leads away from nuanced knowledge
and neighborly demeanor. “Genocidizing” makes it impossible for
Armenians and Turks to agree on what is being remembered and what is to be
expected of their relations.
While Turks have been vilified by the intentional wording that associates them
all with a crime of which no Ottoman leader has ever been charged in a
competent court of law, Armenians have been sentenced to a constantly contested
national memory whose continued mental reassembly relies on the systematic
misuse of the term genocide.
* Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at the University of Utah