April 24th (Easter Monday), 1916, was the foundation moment of an Irish State. At the opposite end of Europe, what Pope Francis has described as “the first genocide of the 20th century” began in Constantinople (now Istanbul) on April 24th, 1915.
Several hundred Armenian leaders were abducted and later murdered. On the same day orders were issued for Anatolia to be ethnically cleansed.
From May to September it was emptied of Armenians, pursuant to emergency deportation laws. The “Turkification” programme cost the lives of one million people, more than half the Armenian population in what was then the Ottoman empire.
Geoffrey Robertson, an international jurist, concludes (in An Inconvenient Genocide: Who Now Remembers the Armenians?) that the events of 1915-16 amount to genocide. Peter Hain described this book as a "searing indictment of complicity and cover-up".
The disastrous British landings at Gallipoli precipitated the genocide – a fact obfuscated during last year’s centenary commemoration. Turkey, in obsessive denial, put back its celebration of victory over the Allied invasion of the Dardanelles until April 24th to combine it with Anzac Day on April 25th.
Moreover, Turkey’s threat to close air bases to countries which use the G-word places the US and Britain in a quandary while the Middle East remains in conflagration.
Hitler asked in 1939: “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
He was telling his generals they would have the same impunity allowed to the Turkish government for what had befallen the Armenians. Their able-bodied men were killed or sent to army labour camps. Columns of women, children and old men were then marched hundreds of miles from the cool plateau of Armenia to the burning sands of Syria.
Hundreds of thousands died along the way, of starvation and disease, and from attacks by brigands and death squads. Those who survived what were euphemistically termed “relocations” ended up in typhus-ridden camps outside Aleppo – in a grim reversal of today’s refugee tragedy – or in places now overrun by Isis. (Its persecution has been classified as genocide by the Council of Europe and the European Parliament.)
This latest atrocity forms part of the dramatic decline of a Christian presence in the Middle East. In the case of Armenia, racial hatred fuelled genocidal intent. Sultan Abdul Hamid (dubbed “The Great Assassin” by William Gladstone) oversaw the slaughter of some 200,000 Armenians in 1894-96.
The massacres and deportations, culminating in the Armenian genocide and the 1922 Greco-Turkish transfer of population, left only a few thousand Christians where at the turn of the century there had been four million. In 1915-16 more than 1,000 Armenian churches and monasteries were destroyed, with many others turned into mosques. (A similar pattern has emerged in northern Cyprus, invaded and occupied illegally since 1974.)
The campaign continued until July 1916, when the German ambassador informed Berlin that “the Armenian persecutions in the eastern provinces have entered their last phase”. But Germany, Turkey’s first World War ally, declined to intervene. Its chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg, spelled out the reason why: “Our sole object is to keep Turkey on our side until the end of the war, no matter if Armenians perish over that or not.” After the war, the main perpetrators escaped to Germany.
Initially, the British government took steps to punish the “crime against humanity and civilisation”. Sixty-eight Turkish officials suspecting of ordering atrocities were taken to Malta for trial, but released eventually in exchange for British soldiers held as hostages for this purpose by Ankara.
In recent years Britain has engaged in “genocide equivocation”, Turkey being too commercially and politically important to upset by upholding the truth.
Last April the Armenian Church stopped pleading for the return of spiritual and cultural treasures and began legal proceedings in the Turkish courts, as a pathway to the European Court of Human Rights. Geoffrey Robertson suggests as an act of reparation the gifting to Armenia of Mount Ararat, the great Christian symbol of renewal, which is located just a few kilometres inside Turkey. He believes the persistence of the Armenian people “inspires us to maintain the rage about crimes against humanity inflicted on human beings anywhere in the world”.
In his bestselling Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, Gen Roméo Dallaire remains hopeful that, despite the horrors he witnessed, the century of genocide can give way to a century of humanity.
Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity as its official religion. Armenians mourn not only the genocide but also the loss of a cultural heritage accumulated over 3,000 years of recorded history.
As a measure of restorative justice, Ireland should join the 20 national parliaments that recognise this crime against humanity as genocide.