The Struggle towards Remembrance of the ‘Forgotten Genocide’


By Daphne Abeel
Special to the Mirror-Spectator

Children of Armenia: A Forgotten Genocide and the Century-Long Struggle for Justice. By Michael Bobelian. Simon & Schuster. 388 pp. 2009.  ISBN  978-1-4165-5725-8

Over the decades, many both inside and outside of the Armenian community have pondered the question: why did the Armenian Genocide become the “forgotten genocide?”

In his new book, journalist and lawyer Michael Bobelian has set out to answer that question.

By tracing the course of geopolitical events since World War I, he has highlighted and shaped what may be familiar material to set down a narrative that explains the virtual disappearance of the first genocide of the 20th century from an international scene where once everyone knew and recognized the plight of the “starving Armenians.”

This is not simply a chronicle of the forgetting, but also of the gradual groundswell of effort, especially since the 50th anniversary of the events of 1915, in the Armenian community to achieve full recognition of the tragedy. Although widespread accounts of the Genocide in the international press and eyewitness accounts from many including US Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire Henry Morgenthau produced an outpouring of financial aid to and sympathy for Armenians, Bobelian illustrates that a pattern of neglect and marginalization of Armenian interests took hold after the promises of the Treaty of Sevres were vacated. The failure of that treaty to deliver the promise of an independent Armenia, and the consequent struggle between the emerging Soviet Union and Turkey for control of a weak and fledgling Armenian Republic, doomed Armenia and the Armenians to the sidelines of a geopolitical struggle that blanketed their cause.

Bobelian’s account pays tribute to many individual Armenians who fought tirelessly in their people’s cause to achieve not only the moral recognition of the Armenian Genocide, but also the political reality of its statehood.
Among them were Armen Garo, who in 1896 led the takeover of the Ottoman Bank; Avedis Aharonian, who represented the Armenian Republic in the post-World War I peace talks, and who signed the Treaty of Sevres in 1920; Krikor Zorab, an Armenian member of the Ottoman Parliament who was murdered in the early stages of the Genocide; Michael Minasian, who led the efforts in California in the 1960s to build a Genocide memorial; Van Z. Krikorian, who lobbied ceaselessly in the 1980s for the passage of a resolution in the US Congress to recognize the Genocide and Vartkes Yeghiayan, who filed the successful class-action lawsuit against the New York Life Insurance Company for the settlement of policies issued to Armenians during the period of the Genocide.

There are also accounts of Armenians who chose violence to avenge wrongs, in particular of Soghomon Tehlirian, who assassinated Talaat Pasha in Berlin in 1933. Bobelian provides an extended description of the assassination in 1973 of two Turkish diplomats in California by Gourgen Yanikian. In his portrayal of Yanikian, he underlines how frustration and rage at the lack of justice can influence an individual’s mental state.

Bobelian also traces the interdependence between the United States and Turkey back to the efforts of Admiral Mark Bristol after World War I to defeat the Armenian mandate and to champion Turkey’s interests in increased trade with the US and diplomatic relations with the new nation of Turkey formed under the leadership of Kemal Ataturk.

With the absorption of Armenia into the Soviet Union, the Armenian cause faltered, and those who had escaped the Genocide found themselves in new countries, faced with the challenge of rebuilding their lives. Many tried to put the horrors of the Genocide behind them. Some individuals even changed their names, denying their Armenian identity.
It was not until 1965 — the 50th anniversary of the Genocide — that the Armenian community began to unite in its efforts to achieve recognition. Since that time, memorials have been built, more than a handful of nations have recognized the Genocide, and yearly resolutions have been filed in the US Congress for recognition. But geopolitical interests have continued to trump moral concerns. With Turkey a member of NATO and a convenient base for US interests in the Middle East, the congressional resolution has been defeated every time up to the present.

Still, Bobelian can point to some positive developments: the statements by such leading Turkish intellectuals such as Taner Akçam and novelist Orhan Pamuk that acknowledge the Genocide, the holding of a conference on Turkish soil to discuss the Genocide and a spate of newly-published and widely-distributed books that highlight the facts of the Genocide.

He notes, “Few mainstream works other than Franz Werfel’s Forty Days of Musa Dagh touched the subject.” [the Genocide]. In contrast to the Holocaust, which was written about by a host of talented eyewitness writers such as Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel, to name but two, the Genocide, for many decades, remained largely the province of amateur accounts, many of which were not translated from Armenian. Those who might have written more eloquently and persuasively were among the first victims of the Armenian Genocide — the intellectuals.

Inevitably, Bobelian’s book ends on a wistful and inconclusive note, “…nearly a century after the survivors spent so much energy rebuilding their lives that they hardly had time to mourn, their children — the children of Armenia — are still waiting for justice to prevail.”

Still, change is on the horizon. Turkey and Armenia are processing the opening of their borders, and while there is no provision that this be dependent on Turkey’s recognition of the Genocide — and many in the Armenian Diaspora oppose this border opening — the seeds could be there for a greater flow of truthful information, and ultimate justice for the “forgotten Genocide.”
Bobelian’s account will stand as a useful analysis of the way in which national self-interests have triumphed over what is just and right. And it is possible that self-interest, for example Turkey’s desire to become a member of the European Union, may one day coincide with justice and the acknowledgment of historical truth. The 100th anniversary, fast approaching in 2015, could be the defining moment.