Dead Reckoning; Holocausts vs holocausts
The Independent (London)
August 5, 2000, Saturday
THE ESSAY: DEAD RECKONING;
WHY IS IT THAT ONLY ONE OF THE GREAT HOLOCAUSTS OF THE LAST CENTURY MERITS
A CAPITAL 'H'? HERE, ROBERT FISK, WHO HAS SPENT MANY YEARS RESEARCHING THE
MASSACRE OF ONE AND A HALF MILLION ARMENIAN CHRISTIANS, ARGUES THAT ALL
ACTS OF GENOCIDE DESERVE EQUAL RECOGNITION
by Robert Fisk
In the spring of 1993, with my car keys, I slowly unearthed a set of skulls
from the clay wall of a hill in northern Syria. I had been looking for the
evidence of a mass murder - the world's first genocide - for the previous
two days but it took a 101-year-old Armenian woman to locate the river bed
where her family were murdered in the First World War. The more I dug into
the hillside next to the Habur river, the more skulls slid from the earth,
bright white at first then, gradually, collapsing into paste as the cold,
wet air reached the calcium for the first time since their mass murder. The
teeth were unblemished - these were mostly young people - and the bones I
later found stretched behind them were strong. Backbones, femurs, joints, a
few of them laced with the remains of some kind of cord. There were dozens
of skeletons here. The more I dug away with my car keys, the more eye
sockets peered at me out of the clay. It was a place of horror.
In 1915, the world reacted with equal horror as news emerged from the dying
Ottoman Empire of the deliberate destruction of at least a million and a
half Christian Armenians. Their fate - the ethnic cleansing of this ancient
race from the lands of Turkey, the razing of their towns and churches, the
mass slaughter of their menfolk, the massacre of their women and children -
was denounced in Paris, London and Washington as a war crime. Tens of
thousands of Armenian women - often after mass rape by their Turkish guards
- were left to die of starvation with their children along the banks of the
Habur river near Deir ez-Zour, in what is today northern Syria. The few men
who survived were tied together and thrown into the river. Turkish
gendarmes would fire a bullet into one of them and his body would drag the
rest to their deaths. Their skulls - a few of them - were among the bones I
unearthed on that terrible afternoon seven years ago.
The deliberate nature of this slaughter was admitted by the then Turkish
leader, Enver Pasha, in a conversation with Henry Morgenthau, the US
ambassador in Constantinople, a Jewish-American diplomat whose vivid
reports to Washington in 1915 form an indictment of the greatest war crime
the modern world had ever known. Enver denounced the Armenians for siding
with Russia in its war with the Turks. But even the Germans, Ottoman
Turkey's ally in the First World War, condemned the atrocities; for it was
the Armenian civilian population which was cut down by the Turks. The
historian Arnold Toynbee, who worked for the Foreign Office during the war,
was to record the "atmosphere of horror" which lay over the abandoned
Armenian lands in the aftermath of the savagery. Men had been lined up on
bridges to have their throats cut and be thrown into rivers; in orchards
and fields, women and children had been knifed. Armenians had been shot by
the thousand, sometimes beaten to death with clubs. Earlier Turkish pogroms
against the Armenians of Asia Minor had been denounced by Lord Gladstone.
In the aftermath of the 1914-18 war, Winston Churchill was the most
eloquent in reminding the world of the Armenian Holocaust.
"In 1915 the Turkish Government began and ruthlessly carried out the
infamous general massacre and deportation of Armenians in Asia Minor,"
Churchill wrote in his magisterial volume four of The Great War. "... the
clearance of the race from Asia Minor was about as complete as such an act,
on a scale so great, could well be ... There is no reasonable doubt that
this crime was planned and executed for political reasons." Churchill
referred to the Turks as "war criminals" and wrote of their "massacring
uncounted thousands of helpless Armenians - men, women and children
together; whole districts blotted out in one administrative holocaust -
these were beyond human redress."
So Churchill himself, writing 80 years ago, used the word "holocaust" about
the Armenian massacres. I am not surprised. A few miles north of the site
where I had dug up those skulls, I found a complex of underground caves
beneath the Syrian desert. Thousands of Armenians had been driven into this
subterranean world in 1915 and Turkish gendarmes lit bonfires at the mouths
of the caves. The smoke was blown into the caves and the men were
asphyxiated. The caves were the world's first gas chambers. No wonder,
then, that Hitler is recorded as asking his generals - as he planned his
own numerically far more terrible holocaust - "Who does now remember the
Could such a crime be denied? Could such an act of mass wickedness be
covered up? Or could it, as Hitler suggested, be forgotten? Could the
world's first holocaust - a painful irony, this - be half-acknowledged but
downgraded in the list of human bestiality as the dreadful 20th century
produced further acts of mass barbarity?
Alas, all this has come to pass. When I wrote about the Armenian massacres
in The Independent in 1993, the Turks denounced my article - as they have
countless books and investigations before and since - as a lie. Turkish
readers wrote to the editor to demand my dismissal from the paper. If
Armenian civilians had been killed, they wrote, this was a result of the
anarchy that existed in Ottoman Turkey in the First World War, civil chaos
in which countless Turks had died and in which Armenian paramilitaries had
deliberately taken the side of Tsarist Russia. The evidence of European
commissions into the massacres, the eye-witness accounts of Western
journalists at the later slaughter of Armenians at Smyrna - the present-day
holiday resort of Izmir where British sunbathers today have no idea of the
bloodbath that took place around their beaches - the denunciations of
Morgenthau and Churchill, are all dismissed as propaganda.
When a Holocaust conference was to be held in Israel, the Turkish
government objected to the inclusion of material on the Armenian slaughter.
Incredibly, Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel withdrew from the conference
after the Israeli foreign ministry said that it might damage
Israeli-Turkish relations. The conference went ahead, but only in miniature
form. In the United States, Turkey's powerful lobby groups attack
journalists or academics who suggest the Armenian genocide was fact.
Turkish ambassadors regularly write letters - which have appeared in all
British newspapers, even in the Israeli press - denying the truth of the
Armenian Holocaust. No one - save the Armenians - objects to this denial.
Scarcely a whimper comes from those who would, rightly, condemn any denial
of the Jewish Holocaust.
For Turkey - no longer the "sick man of Europe" - is courted by the Western
powers which so angrily condemned its cruelty in the last century. It is a
valued member of the Nato alliance - our ally in bombing Serbia last year -
the closest regional ally of Israel and a major buyer of US and French
weaponry. Just as we remained largely silent at the persecution of the
Kurds, so we prefer to ignore the world's first holocaust. While Britain's
massive contribution to the proposed Euphrates dam project in south-eastern
Turkey was in the balance, Tony Blair was not going to mention the Armenian
atrocities. Indeed, when this year he announced that Britain was to honour
an annual Holocaust Day, he made no mention of the Armenians. Holocaust
Day, it seems, was to be a Jewish-only affair. And it was to take a capital
"H" when it applied to the Jews.
I've always agreed with this. Mass ethnic slaughter on such a scale -
Hitler's murder of six million Jews - deserves a capital "H". But I also
believe that the genocide of other races merits a capital "H". Millions of
Jews - despite Wiesel's gutlessness and the shameful reaction of the
Israeli government - have shown common cause with the Armenians in their
suffering, acknowledging the 1915 massacres as the precursor of the "Shoah"
or Jewish Holocaust. Norman Finkelstein in his angry new book on the
"Holocaust industry" makes a similar point, adding that the Jewish
experience - both his parents were extermination camp survivors - should
not be allowed to diminish the genocide committed against other ethnic
groups in modern history. Indeed, the very word "genocide" was invented for
the Armenians in 1944 - by a Polish-born Jew, Raphael Lemkin.
Nor can I myself forget the Armenian Holocaust. The very last survivors of
that genocide are still - just - alive, and several of them live in Beirut
where I am based as Middle East correspondent of The Independent. I have
read extensively about and, occasionally, researched the Jewish Holocaust -
my own book about the Lebanese war, Pity the Nation, begins in Auschwitz,
where I found frozen lakes filled with the powdered bones of the dead from
the ashpits of Birkenau. But the Armenian Holocaust has been "my" story
because it is part of the Middle East's history as well as the world's.
Only this year, I interviewed Hartun, a 101-year-old blind Armenian in an
old people's home in East Beirut who remembered how, in the Syrian desert
in 1915, his mother pleaded with Turks not to rape her 18-year-old daughter
- Hartun's sister. "As she begged them not to take my sister, they beat her
to death," Hartun recalled. "I remember her dying, shouting 'Hartun,
Hartun, Hartun' over and over. When she was dead, they took my sister away
on a horse. I never saw her again." Hartun - after years of bitterness and
longing for revenge - was overcome with what he called "my Christian
belief" and decided to abandon the notion of vengeance. "When the Turkish
earthquake killed so many people last year," he told me, "I prayed for the
poor Turkish people."
It was a deeply moving example of compassion from a man whose suffering
those Turks will not admit and whose Holocaust we prefer to ignore. Stirred
partly by Hartun's story, I wrote an article for The Independent in January
of this year on the "sublimation" of the Armenian genocide, its wilful
denial by US academics who hold American university professorships funded
by the Turkish government, and the absence of any reference to the
Armenians in the British Government's announcement of Holocaust Day. And,
yes, I referred to the Armenian Holocaust - as I did to the Jewish
Holocaust - with a capital "H". Chatting to an Armenian acquaintance, I
mentioned that I had given the Armenian genocide the same capital "H" which
I believe should be attached to all acts of genocide.
Little could I have guessed how quickly the dead would rise from their
graves. When the article appeared in The Independent - a paper which has
never failed to dig into human wickedness visited upon every race and creed
- my references to the Jewish Holocaust remained with a capital "H". But
the Armenian Holocaust had been downgraded to a lower case "h". "Tell me,
Robert," my Armenian friend asked me in suppressed fury, "how do we
Armenians qualify for a capital 'H'? Didn't the Turks kill enough of us? Or
is it because we're not Jewish?"
There are no conspiracies on The Independent's subs desk; just a tough, no
-nonsense rule that our articles follow a grammatical "house style" and
conform to what is called "common usage". And the Jewish Holocaust, through
common usage, takes a capital "H". Other holocausts don't. No one is quite
sure why - the same practice is followed in newspapers and books all over
the world, although it has been the subject of debate in the United States,
not least by Finkelstein. Harvard turned down a professorial "Chair of
Holocaust and Cognate Studies" because academics objected to the genocide
of other groups (including the Armenians) being lumped together as
"cognate". But none of this answered the questions of my Armenian friend.
To have told him his people didn't qualify for a capital "H" would have
been shameful and insulting.
A debate then opened within The Independent. I wrote in a memo that the
word "holocaust" could be cheapened by over-use and exaggeration - take the
agency report last year which referred to the "holocaust" of wildlife after
an oil -spill on the French coast. But I said that I still had no answer
worthy of the question posed by my Armenian friend.
One of the paper's top wordsmiths was asked to comment - a grammatical
expert who regularly teases out the horrors of definition in an imperfect
and savage world. He cited Chambers Dictionary, which stated that the
Jewish Holocaust was "usually" capitalised. And, said our expert on the
paper, "It is in the nature of a proper noun to apply to only one thing."
Thus there may be many crusades but only one Crusade (the Middle Ages one).
There may be many cities but the City is London. Similarly the Renaissance.
"There can be only one Holocaust," he wrote. "Is the Holocaust really
unique? Yes. It was perpetrated by modern Europeans. Its purported
justification was a perversion of Darwin, one of the great thinkers of
modern Europe. Above all, in the gas chambers and crematoria it
manufactured death by modern industrial methods. The Holocaust says to
modern Western man that his technological mastery will not save him from
sin, but rather magnify the results of his sins. There have been acts of
genocide throughout history and some of them have killed more people than
the Nazis did, but we call the Nazi holocaust 'the Holocaust' because it is
Must we, our grammarian asked, "commit grammatical faux pas and overturn an
accepted usage for which there is ample justification? Finally, where does
it end? Are, for instance, the crimes of Stalin against minority
nationalities in the Soviet Union not just as bad as the Armenian
slaughters? What of the Khmer Rouge? Rwanda? The Roman destruction of
Carthage? Are these also to be 'Holocausts'? If not, why not?"
Powerful arguments, but ones with which I disagreed. The Jewish Holocaust,
I wrote back, should be capitalised not because its victims were European
Jews, or those of any other race, but because its victims were human
beings. Human values, the right to life, the struggle against evil, are
universal - "not confined to Europeans or one ethnic or religious group, or
involving those who distorted Darwin's theories of biological evolution".
It was, after all, The Independent's editorial policy that the world must
fight against all atrocities - a belief which underlay our demand for
humanitarian action in East Timor and Kosovo. This did not mean that I
regarded Timor and Kosovo as holocausts, but that we should never accept
the idea that one group of victims had special status over others. I spend
hours telling Arabs that they must accept and acknowledge the facts of the
Jewish Holocaust, but if we are now to regard this as a specifically
European crime, as "our" crime, I have few arguments left. The Arabs can
say it is none of their business.
As for the question, "Where does it end?" Yes, what about Armenia? And
Rwanda? If Armenians are disqualified from a capital "H" because they only
lost one and a half million, what is Rwanda's sin of exclusion? Religion?
Race? Colour? When Armenians in Israel speak of their people's suffering,
they use the Hebrew word Shoah - which means Holocaust.
The Independent's editor suggested that we should debate these questions in
an article in the paper - this is the article - but the issues, of course,
remain unresolved. "Common usage" is a bane to all us journalists but it is
not sacred. It doesn't have to stand still. My father fought in what he
called the Great War - common usage which was later amended, after 1945, to
the First World War. Similarly, I believe, the Holocaust. In the aftermath
of my January remarks on the Armenian genocide, The Independent published a
denial of that same genocide by a Turkish Cypriot academic, in which we
printed the word Holocaust with a capital "H". The world did not end. The
Turks did not complain. Nor did any members of the Jewish community.
Indeed, only last year, a prominent academic at the Hebrew University's
Armenian studies programme in Israel talked of the Armenians and Jews
having "suffered holocaust".
In the meantime, Holocaust - or holocaust - denial continues. President
Chirac has declined to endorse the French parliament's acknowledgement of
the Armenian genocide and forthcoming Holocaust conferences have not
invited Armenians to participate. Mr Blair doesn't mention the destruction
of the Armenians. They don't count, literally. Common usage - and our
concern for Turkish sensitivities - has seen to that, even though genocide
is anything but normal. Germany dutifully acknowledges its historical guilt
for the wickedness of the Jewish Holocaust. Not so the Turks. Armenians
accept that a few Turks - courageous, outstanding men - risked their lives
in 1915 to shelter their Armenian friends and neighbours, just as
"righteous gentiles" did for the Jews of Europe. But Turkey cannot honour
these brave men. Since the Armenian Holocaust supposedly did not exist, nor
did they. A holocaust rather than a Holocaust helps to diminish the
suffering of the Armenians. What's in a name? What's in a capital letter?
How many other skulls lie beneath the sands of northern Syria? Did the
Turks not kill enough Armenians?
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