Despite overwhelming evidence of the atrocity, some Turkish groups oppose commemoration, creating local battles over who gets to define history--even in Toronto.
On August 22, 1939, eight days before he gave the go ahead to invade Poland, Adolf Hitler gave a speech about his intentions and how he would reach his goals. Justifying his actions, he asked the gathered masses, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
Today people around the world will answer that question and mark the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide.
The centennial is not without controversy. The Turkish government continues to deny the genocide and refers to the extermination of 1.5 million Armenians in 1915 as a “consequence of relocation.” With the Greater Toronto Area home to a diaspora of over 16,000 Armenians, the disputes over who gets to define history and memory echoes 100 years later.
The Turkish government continues to actively lobby academics and other governments to dispute the specific word “genocide” to define the massacre. Its defence is that Armenian Christians may have died, but so did many Ottoman Muslims against the backdrop of the First World War, and the deaths should be understood in this context.
There’s an ongoing effort by factions of the Turkish community to shape the public’s understanding of the genocide, or to halt its commemoration altogether. Just this past summer, the Federation of Turkish Canadian Associations unsuccessfully petitioned the Toronto District School Board to stop teaching the Armenian genocide as part of its curriculum.
In 2014, Councillor Shelley Carroll (Ward 33, Don Valley East) put forth a motion to erect a monument in honour of those Armenians who lost their lives in the genocide. After a rancorous debate, the motion was deferred to City staff, who were to
report back to the executive committee in 2015.
The monument project was initiated by the Toronto branch of the Armenian National Committee of Canada’s, and the vice chair of the committee, Daron Keskinian, has yet to hear anything about the proposal. Keskinian is not surprised at the opposition to the project, and says it’s part of larger effort by the Turkish government.
“We see [Turkey’s] denial and attempt to stop recognition at all levels. Specially in the academic world, just last month the University of Toronto hosted a panel discussion held by the Federation of Turkish Canadian Associations and they brought genocide deniers to have a discussion,” Keskinian said.
“These are not events organized by Turkish student associations or grassroots community work; these are efforts by Turkish officials to deny their crimes,” Keskinian claims.
For Keskinian and other Armenians, the centennial marks a turn in the community’s efforts to have the crimes committed against their ancestors recognized. Just last week, Pope Francis declared the massacres of the Armenians to be a genocide and spoke of the importance of recognition.
“Concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it,” said the Pope.
The Turkish government quickly recalled its ambassador to the Vatican, and president Teyip Erdogan stated, “I condemn and warn the esteemed Pope, hoping he probably won’t make such mistakes again.”
However, momentum does not appear to be on Turkey’s side. Just today, the German government recognized the genocide, and President Joachim Gauck said German actions were partly to blame.
Turkey maintains that the numbers of Armenians killed are inflated and that their deaths were the unintended consequences and collateral damage of war and not a systematic plan to get rid of the Armenian population.
This assertion is refuted by genocide scholars, who, with a thorough use of primary sources and news from the time of the genocide, offer a history of a planned ethnic cleansing of the Armenian population. This research details various atrocities and tragedies, including forced conversions, mass deportations, land confiscations, desert death marches, summary executions and horrendous accounts of hundreds of people forced into caves and burned alive.
The writings of Henry Morgenthau Sr. became one of the primary sources that outlined the genocide. Morgenthau was the American Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1913–1916, and he spoke and wrote candidly about the atrocities he witnessed, which he referred to as a state-sanctioned policy of intended extermination. In his memoirs, he writes: “When the Turkish authorities gave the orders for these deportations, they were merely giving the death warrant to a whole race; they understood this well, and, in their conversations with me, they made no particular attempt to conceal the fact.”
The New York Times published more than 145 articles in 1915 that refer to the mass killings of Armenians at the hands of the Turkish Ottoman government.
“It is about pride and reparations,” Keskinian says of the Turkish response. “The perpetrators of these crimes later became the founding fathers of the Turkish Republic and a lot of us are still holding onto the deeds of the lands that were stolen from our ancestors,” he adds.
This past Sunday, thousands of people, including Premier Kathleen Wynne and Minister of Defence Jason Kenney, marched to Queens Park to commemorate the centennial of the Armenian genocide.
“The Armenian genocide was a dark moment in human history and the passage of a century has not diminished the horror of those events,” Wynne said, “nor has it diminished the importance of recognizing the atrocity in Armenia as genocide.”
A mass rally and march are scheduled to be held today on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.