Politics of commemoration

Every nation is sensitive, deflective and unwilling to examine the grim details of its own modern creation story.

People take part in a demonstration after an ecumenical service remembering the Armenian ''slaughter'' at the Berlin Cathedral Church in Berlin [AP]
People take part in a demonstration after a service remembering the Armenian mass killings in Berlin [AP]

The last thing we need is a league table of atrocities. On the day marking the 100th anniversary of what some call the Armenian “genocide”, in which 1.5 million were killed, it should be obvious that the systematic murder of a people is always unique and uniquely terrible; that suffering is suffering.

But at the same time, it is understandable when comparisons over the commemoration and recognition of genocides – not the actual horrors of the events – are made. And so it is with the documented terror of the Armenian tragedy.

That the deaths of 1.5 million Armenians at the hands of Ottoman soldiers in 1915 is still denied, fudged, questioned or just ignored, prompts painful and inevitable questions: Why do Armenians suffer this terrible injustice, while the Jewish people do not? How did the Holocaust come to be rightly and properly marked with museums and memorials worldwide, while the Armenian genocide seems a buried inconvenience?

It wasn’t always this way over the Holocaust – in Israel, home to so many survivors and descendants of the killed, shame and silencing initially took hold.

Turkey recalls Vatican envoy over pope’s ‘genocide’ comments

During the Adolf Eichmann trial in an Israeli court in 1961, when one of the chief architects of the Final Solution faced a televised legal hearing, the horrors of that historical period were heard for the first time in Israel – through the anguished, but full and finally granted testimonies given by some of the survivors.


Actor Martin Freeman, who starred in the BBC’s recent Eichmann Show, a film about the filming of the trial, noted that this is “where the Holocaust really became the Holocaust“.

Commemoration and remembrance on a world scale properly started to take hold during the post Cold War years. Today, as UK historian and expert in genocide research, Mark Levine points out, global commemoration of the Holocaust is “part of the underlining morality of the international system, and built in to the way we think about the world”.

All world leaders, upon official visits to Israel, visit Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in West Jerusalem. Meanwhile, just 24 nations of the world recognise the Armenian mass killings as “genocide”; the US, the UK, Israel and Turkey are not among them. Indeed, Turkey is outraged at the suggestion that a genocide took place.

US President Barack Obama said, during his election campaign in 2008, that the Armenian genocide is “not an allegation, a personal opinion or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact”. But on the 100th anniversary of the event, he – among many other world leaders – will stop short of calling it a genocide.

The appraisal of some experts on the subject is that change will come not through international pressure, but from within Turkish society itself.


There is no reason for this other than pure political expedience and calculation: Turkey, a valuable NATO ally, and even more so with the battle against the so-called Islamic State in Syria and Turkey, cannot be offended. But this is exactly why the Armenian Genocide is so important, says Donald Bloxham, a UK professor of modern history specialising in genocide.

“It is almost a test case of the lip service paid to the values the West says it upholds,” he told me by phone from Yerevan, Armenia, where he is attending commemoration events. “There is the talk of ‘never again’ but the West is not prepared to recognise a genocide as soon as interests are threatened. It shines a light on the rhetoric of commemoration.”

Specifics of horror

One related issue around our study of the Holocaust, meanwhile, is that the focus of many research departments, memorials and museums is often on the particularism of this atrocity. This is for good reason: The sheer scale and magnitude of the industrial murder of six million Jewish people is uniquely horrendous; moreover there are particular characteristics of anti-Semitism and the persecution of Jews that cannot be blended into something more universal.

But our global collective of thinkers, historians, curators and artists – the people who examine these issues to both honour and learn from them – is capable of holding onto the specifics of this horror, while at the same time drawing out terrible truths that apply more widely. This sort of study might more boldly compare the commonalities of themes such as the “othering” of groups of people, or the universality of potential to be perpetrators of the most grotesque crimes.

That won’t change politically charged silences over genocide – but it might help inform and initiate discussions on the ground. This is especially important at a time when Turkey, on a civil society, intellectual and creative level, is starting to engage with Armenian history. The appraisal of some experts on the subject is that change will come not through international pressure, but from within Turkish society itself.

Meanwhile, some historians, such as the Israeli Yair Auron, who specialises in Holocaust and genocide studies, think it especially important for Israel to recognise the Armenian genocide.

“We are victims and we have to be the first to stand with other victims,” he told me from Yerevan, where he is attending commemorations, adding that he considers it a “moral failure of the State of Israel” not to acknowledge this genocide. That these appalling events are linked in some terrible way is demonstrated in the chilling words of Adolf Hitler, who in 1939, ahead of invading Poland, said: “Who now remembers the annihilation of the Armenians?”

The canonisation ceremony for the victims of the Armenian mass killings in Yerevan [AFP]
The canonisation ceremony for the victims of the Armenian mass killings in Yerevan [AFP]

Double standard

But it is the double standard of the West that most helps enable the denial of the Turkish government. Every nation is sensitive, deflective and unwilling to examine the grim details of its own modern creation story: Turkey, yes, but also the US, with its near wipe-out of Native Americans and its history of slavery; Australia with its attempts to erase the Aboriginal natives of that land; Israel over the displacement and deaths of Palestinians that occurred in the war that led to its creation.

Perhaps, then, a wider honesty and reappraisal of history is required, an ability to look at horrors beyond the acknowledged monstrosities of the Nazi regime, terrors that took place or were initiated closer to home.

And at the same time, the refusal to recognise the Armenian mass killings as “genocide” isn’t just about denying a sense of dignity and justice to the Armenian people, although that is bad enough. The global reluctance sends a message about which killings are acceptable, signalling that useful allies of the West may have some sort of free pass over their conduct in the world.

The issue goes far beyond Armenia, or Turkey, or its allies, setting a tone around the international community and international law; how we want to live together in this world. Not saying “genocide” is the imposition of a hierarchy of people, a hierarchy of suffering and a terrible, debilitating hierarchy of voices that deserve to be heard. This isn’t, in other words, just about recognising genocide; it is about recognising humanity itself.

Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.