Mensoian: The Changing Significance of April 24

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From the Armenian Weekly 2017 Magazine Dedicated to the 102nd Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide

Neither the Hamidian Massacres (1894-96) nor the Adana Massacre (1909) provided an apocalyptic vision of what the future held for the Armenian people in the Ottoman Turkish Empire. These days were neither better nor worse than what they had learned to expect. The horrific catastrophe that years later would be identified as one of the first genocides of the 20th century began in the spring of 1914 when Armenian soldiers serving in the Ottoman Turkish Army were disarmed and placed in labor battalions where they faced death through privation and murder. On April 24 of the following year, some 275 Armenian intellectuals, residents of Constantinople, were detained by the authorities ostensibly for routine questioning only to be spirited away to be murdered.

A scene from an Armenian Genocide rally in Boston (Photo: Araz Chiloyan)

With their men in military service disarmed and many of their leaders throughout Anatolia detained or murdered, the Armenians were still not fully aware of what was to happen. How could any one of the more than 2 million Armenians even begin to grasp the magnitude and the bestiality of a plan whose sole purpose was to kill every Armenian man, woman, and child? Their immanent fate was beyond comprehension.

In 1908, the Young Turks, initially responding to the autocratic rule of Abdul Hamid II, became alarmed with the loss of their Balkan provinces to independence movements. Fearing further losses, they turned their attention to protecting the core area of Anatolia and the remaining lands of the empire. In 1913, the ultra-nationalist, xenophobic faction of the Young Turks seized control. With Anatolia’s security uppermost, among other objectives, they turned their attention toward imperial Russia, their traditional enemy to the east, and the Armenians. Much of Anatolia was historic Armenian lands settled by Armenians for millennia. The combination of imperial Russia and continued occupation by Armenians loomed as a potential threat not only to Anatolia’s security, but to any possibility of expansion eastward. It was that rationale that fueled the ultra-nationalist’s determination that their core region could never be safe as long as Armenians were present.

Since the Armenians were the problem, the obvious solution would be to eliminate them permanently. Russia would lose a potential ally on the ground, and any future attempt by Armenians to regain their historic lands would be weakened. An ancillary benefit of this murderous enterprise, perhaps of greater significance, would be the confiscated wealth of its potential victims.

Between 1915 to 1923, as part of that solution, some 1.5 million Armenians were murdered and tens of thousands of children and young women were taken captive by local villagers to be brought up in servitude in an alien culture. Following the end of World War I, between the Treaty of Sèvres (1918) and the Treaty of Lausanne (1923), any favorable political environment Armenia may have enjoyed unraveled completely. When the Treaty of Lausanne was ratified in 1923, the arbitral award of eastern Anatolia (historic Western Armenia or “Wilsonian” Armenia) to Armenia in the Treaty of Sèvres (1923) was ignored. The Treaty of Lausanne also recognized the Republic of Turkey as the successor state to the defeated Ottoman Turkish Empire, free of any guilt in the near-annihilation of the Armenian nation. There was no mention of the property stolen from the Armenian victims, which served as the economic foundation of the new Turkey. We were victims once again. Victims of the self-interests and duplicitousness, especially of England and France, the principal authors of the Treaty of Lausanne.

The first observance of April 24 was organized by the few intellectuals in Constantinople in 1919 to remember their compatriots who, on that fateful day in 1915, had been detained and ultimately murdered. For those who had survived the deportations to designated centers where the death marches to Deir ez Zor began, the trauma of seeing loved ones put to death, of not knowing what had happened to family members and friends, and of being unable to aid those dying from privation were memories that could never be forgotten. These were memories that haunted them daily as they sought to reclaim their lives. Unfortunately, the emotional wounds were too deep and too raw to ever heal properly. For the survivors there was little peace. Remembrance became an integral part of their daily lives. April 24 was a day filled with grief and the always unanswered question as to why.

The coining of the term “genocide” years later by Ralph Lemkin (1943) to refer to politically motivated mass killing of entire ethnic populations was the first important development that changed the significance of April 24. For the first time our martyrs were identified as victims of a genocide. Prior to this time, the mass killing of ethnic populations was a common occurrence throughout recorded history. However, genocide soon gained traction in the mind of the public as to who the Armenians were. Unfortunately, through newspaper accounts and humanitarian appeals, “starving” also came to identify those who survived—as “starving Armenians.” This I know from my childhood. Prior to “genocide” entering the English lexicon, Armenians relied on terms such as Medz Yeghern (Great Crime) or Medz Aghet (Great Catastrophe).to describe what had happened from 1915 to 1923. Unfortunately, neither term connoted the politically inspired mass killing of entire populations, which was the essence of Lemkin’s definition of genocide.

A second significant development affecting the significance of April 24 occurred when the act of genocide was given legal status upon its adoption by the United Nations in 1945, defining the work of its Committee for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Although its application could not be applied retroactively, it strengthened and expanded the meaning of April 24. Remembrance of our martyrs and the legally defined crime of genocide became inseparable. Although this was a significant development for Armenians and April 24, it had no palpable effect on Turkish leaders who steadfastly denied that what had occurred was genocide. However, it was a significant development for the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), which had ably and faithfully confronted Turkey in the international arena through its local gomidehs active throughout the diaspora. During this period, when Armenia was a captive Soviet republic, the ARF was a voice for Armenian interests within the nations that comprised the diaspora. Years later, through their efforts, Uruguay became the first nation to recognize the Armenian Genocide (1965).

When April 24 was officially recognized by the Soviet Armenian Republic in 1965, the day took on added significance throughout the diaspora. Its recognition served as a kind of imprimatur acknowledging April 24 as an official day to be observed. World War II had ended nearly a decade earlier and significant changes had taken place to and within the diaspora. Fifty years into the post-genocide period, the diaspora had become a viable entity of inter-connected communities spanning six continents. The number of survivors present at April 24 observances had steadily decreased, with sons and daughters and grandchildren replacing them. These Armenians born in the diaspora, using the United States as an example, educated in their new environment were well on their way to improving their economic and social status. Many had reached various levels of acculturation that influenced their relationship with the Armenian community and April 24. Some opted to live on the margins of the community while others felt no imperative to be identified as Armenian. Many first- and some second-generation Armenians had formed families of their own and were in the process of migrating from the comfortable ghettos where the survivors had historically gathered (ghetto has no pejorative meaning as used here).

Although Armenians born in the diaspora were weaned on knowledge of what had happened to their people, that knowledge could not and usually did not have the same searing emotional impact it had for the survivors, who had shared the final hours of those who became martyrs. Each generation born in the diaspora was further removed from the genocide. This fact and the loss of our survivors through the passage of time had its effect: The emotional and spiritual qualities associated with April 24 were slowly being replaced by duty and respect. This was another important development that affected the significance of April 24.

For many, the messages on and associated with April 24 were rooted too much in the past. There was little associated with April 24 that projected a vision for the future or awakened the interest of the diasporan-born generations. To the contrary, however unintentional it may have been, a victim mentality was encouraged by continued reference to what had happened to our people and abetted by our inability to achieve justice. To be identified as people who were victims of one of the first genocides of the 20th century or hearing, as a youngster, my people referred to as “starving Armenians” only reinforced that perception. We were victims again when the Treaty of Sèvres (1920), with its favorable provisions for Armenia, was replaced with the ratification of the Treaty of Lausanne (1923). Turkey, our enemy and the successor state to the defeated Ottoman Turkish Empire, was rewarded by land that rightfully should have been ours. And the property that was literally stolen by the Ottoman Turks was gifted to the new republic by Lausanne. The arrogance of Turkish leaders denying what the objective evidence conclusively supported as a genocide generated a feeling of hopelessness and betrayal in the minds of many in the diaspora. Concerned with providing for self and family and in building the infrastructure of their ever expanding communities, the generations born in the diaspora stoically accepted the harsh realities of the past. Without question, the genocide and the victim mentality it fostered has been the most influential factor in developing the Armenian psyche.

The missing counterweight to this passive acceptance of victimhood came several decades later when a series of events occurred within a period of only a few years. In 1989, the Spitak earthquake devastated northwestern Soviet Armenia. Then, during the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the second free and independent Republic of Armenia was declared in 1991. And, when the 1994 ceasefire ended the war initiated by Azerbaijan to thwart the declaration of independence by the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabagh (Artsakh), the de facto state of the Nagorno-Karabagh Republic (now officially renamed the Artsakh Republic) was created. Immediately, as if aroused from their slumber, the diaspora was energized. All kinds of assistance—humanitarian, technological, financial, and professional—was provided. For the first time since 1920, when the first free and independent Armenian Republic was subverted by the Bolsheviks and their allies, a second free and independent Armenian Republic had become a reality. In Artsakh, our brothers and sisters had successfully defended their declaration of independence against Azerbaijan. These were events that had a significance effect on April 24.

The ‘We Are Our Mountains’ monument in Stepanakert (Photo: Araz Chiloyan)

Yes, we continued to remember our martyrs, but an independent Armenia and a liberated Artsakh was a sharp break with the past. For many in the diaspora, it shifted the emphasis from the past to the future. Efforts by the ARF and its political action committees throughout the diaspora had achieved significant success during the previous three decades in influencing countries and lesser political entities to recognize the Armenian genocide, much to the political discomfort of Turkish leaders. ARF-sponsored lobbying committees ably advanced Armenian interests, unimpeded by protocols that circumscribe efforts of government. These developments shifted the emphasis that was solely on the past to the future. This shift from past to future became the missing counterweight to that enervating burden of victimhood that had engulfed many born in the diaspora for so many years.

Yes, we continued to remember our martyrs, but an independent Armenia and a liberated Artsakh was a sharp break with the past. For many in the diaspora, it shifted the emphasis from the past to the future.

The final change that affected the significance of April 24 occurred during the 100-year anniversary of the genocide. April 24 had been the one day when we put aside our ideological differences and institutional loyalties and became spiritually and emotionally united whether in Armenia, Artsakh, or throughout the diaspora. This time, in 2015, April 24 would be celebrated during the Centennial Year of a national tragedy that has affected all Armenians presently alive. The Centennial Year of Remembrance was successful on every level imaginable. So many outstanding moments can be cited that made this possible. It was with a mixture of pride and emotion that we saw and heard our president, Serge Sarkisian, representing Armenia at various venues in the United States; or saw His Holiness Karaken II Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians and His Holiness Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia share the same stage; or watched the conferring of Sainthood on the 1.5 million Armenians killed during the genocide; or watched as Pope Francis, during Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, in the presence of both Armenian Catholicoi, acknowledged that what began on April 24, 1915 was the first genocide of the 21st century.

Given all these memorable events among many, the most significant result was neither contemplated nor intended. The Centennial Year witnessed a celebration of our now Sainted Martyrs without resorting to rancor. It was a celebration without a call for revenge. Of much greater significance, it saw Armenians finally casting off the cloak of victimhood that they had resigned themselves to wearing. For too many years we lived in the past, reliving and remembering the pain that had been inflicted upon our people. Our desire to pay homage to our martyrs as victims of the genocide was a passive acceptance that we were victims as well. The genocide memorial at Tsitsernakaberd conveys the eternal love of our nation for those who were martyred during the genocide. They can never be forgotten. Their suffering has placed an indelible mark on our national psyche, but it is a response that memorializes the past, as it should. However, the time has long since passed for us to shift our emphasis from the past to the future. That cannot be done without paying homage to our survivors, who laid the foundation upon which the diaspora was built. It was this diaspora that made the Centennial Year of Remembrance a global event. And it will be this diaspora, working with our brothers and sisters in Armenia and Artsakh, that will aid our nation achieve its full potential.

The genocide nearly brought Armenia to its knees. The years immediately following 1915 could not have been darker. Our survivors, traumatized, destitute, and ill, firmly took root wherever the winds of chance took them. No one could have foretold what the future held for our decimated nation. The likes of the Talats, Envers, and Djemals who sought to wipe us off the face of the earth may have rejoiced for winning the battle of the genocide. Fortunately for our nation, it was the faith and resiliency of our survivors that enabled them to win the crucial battle for survival.

April 24 had been the one day when we put aside our ideological differences and institutional loyalties and became spiritually and emotionally united whether in Armenia, Artsakh, or throughout the diaspora.

It was this determination and devotion to their heritage that allowed the generations born in the diaspora to remain Armenian. The post-genocide period could just as easily have seen the survivors (with their progeny) meld into an amorphous mass of humanity. That fortunately did not happen. As we celebrate April 24, we should remember that it was the martyrdom of our people that spread the seeds of our nation worldwide to form the diaspora. When we remember our Sainted Martyrs of April 24, we should also remember our survivors who gave us life.

Tsitsernakaberd is the memorial by a nation to its Sainted Martyrs and represents our past. The diaspora is the living memorial by our survivors and represents our future.

Source: Armenian Weekly
Link: Mensoian: The Changing Significance of April 24