An inconvenient truth. That is certainly an understatement, when it comes to the Armenian genocide and the Turkish government. That is why they call this genocide euphemistically ‘the Armenian question’. This inconvenience is, I suppose, a well-known fact to most of the people who read this article. If you don’t, read a newspaper. But, what isn’t as well-known as the Turkish ‘inconvenience’ (read: denial) is the ambivalent attitude of the Dutch government and some other parts of Dutch society to this burdensome topic. So let me give you a short introduction to this interesting Dutch side of the story, because it’s the centennial of the Armenian genocide.
Picture from the monument for the Armenian Genocide in Yerevan, Armenia
A short history lesson
The 24th April in 1915 is usually known as the official starting point of the Armenian genocide. At the end of April, there was an Armenian uprising in the Ottoman city of Van, against the Ottoman army, which intended to massacre the Armenian population of the city. The Ottomans suffered from a ‘pathological fear’ for Armenian autonomy and independence in Anatolia, with which the Triple Entente (mainly Russia) would probably help them, during the First World War. The Ottomans saw the Van-uprising as a confirmation of their fears and used it as an example that the Armenians were a dangerous fifth column within the empire. Therefore they wanted to get rid of them. Most Armenians were actually loyal to the Ottoman regime, nevertheless it served as a useful trigger to set the genocidal train in motion.
At the 24th of April, 250 intellectuals and leaders from the Armenian community in Constantinople were taken captive by the Ottoman authorities and from that point, the genocidal train couldn’t be stopped. First, the Armenian soldiers of the Ottoman empire were systematically executed. Then the Armenian elites were ‘removed’. Finally, they deported the rest of the Armenian population, by saying that they had to be ‘rehoused’ to the inlands of the Ottoman empire, because of the Russian threat at the Eastern Front. After the elite and the young Ottoman soldiers were executed, there were only old people, women and children left. The Ottoman army deported them by caravan deeper into the desert. They let some of these caravans die from starvation and exhaustion. Other caravans were regularly attacked by paramilitary groups, instructed by the Young-Turkish government, who robbed, raped and murdered the Armenians. At the end of the Armenian genocide there were probably between 800.000 and 1.500.000 Armenians killed.
Why was it genocide?
‘Genocide’ is actually an anachronistic term to apply to the abovementioned events, because the term was only invented during the Second World War and the Holocaust, by the Polish Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin and only adapted to a special U.N. Convention in 1948. So why is this term than better applicable to the events that happened in the Ottoman Empire, than for instance, ‘mass murder’ or even ‘Armenian question’?
‘Genocide is the systematic destruction of all or a significant part of a racial, ethnic, religious or national group’. This is the conventional definition of the term ‘genocide’. For an event to be a ‘genocide’, there has to be a systematic plan (often top-down) to make it systematic and you have to implement the intention to wipe such group culturally and physically from the map. Mass murder, therefore is only one part of a genocide. There also has to be a cultural exponent. That’s why the Armenians were not only murdered. There were other large groups of Armenian children and women, who were forced to convert to Islam or even got Turkish names to root out their Armenian identity, during the Armenian genocide. Furthermore, the Young Turks also destroyed large parts of the material Armenian culture, by demolishing Armenian religious sites and wipe out Armenian inscriptions from buildings.
As I said earlier, there also has to be proof of a blueprint to make this mass murder a genocide. Although there are many Armenian eyewitness-reports from these events recorded by the countries that used to form the Triple Entente, such as the British ‘Blue Book’, many Turks will alter these facts as preoccupied or as western propaganda. But luckily, there are also sources which you couldn’t alter so easily as ‘preoccupied’. The most convincing one of these sources, is the notebook of Talaat Pasja, one of the leaders of the new Young-Turkish regime. In this book he kept a record from the numbers of Armenian people living in every Ottoman region and the number of Armenians that were already deported and would never come back. Talaat is mainly considered as the main perpetrator of the Armenian genocide. He also gave the order for the Temporary Deportation Law (30th of May 2015) which was really important to set the genocidal train in motion.
Another important neutral source, are the eyewitness-reports of German diplomats and missionaries, who warn the German government that they should do something about the ‘Ausrottung’ of the Armenian people. Germany was an ally of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. Because Germany was an ally, the collection of these reports are really difficult to label as ‘preoccupied’. The most important book in which such eyewitness-reports are collected, is the book Deutschland und Armenien: Sammlung Diplomatischen Aktenstücke, by the German missionary Johannes Lepsius.
Armenians being deported through the desert
Although there is overwhelming evidence, that there was an Armenian genocide during the First World War, which is recognised by many international institutions and states, the Turkish government and most of the Turkish communities in other countries, internalized a culture of denial. In such culture, the Armenians are mainly blamed for their own destiny because of their disloyalty to the Ottoman Empire. Furthermore, the internal Armenian threat for the empire is structurally exaggerated as well as the numbers of Turkish victims killed by Armenian nationalists. Finally, the Armenian eyewitness-reports and western evidence are mostly altered as preoccupied and downplayed as propaganda material with which the west wants to ‘hold back’ Turkey. Such denial is also internalised by the main part of the Dutch-Turkish community. Even though we might think that the Dutch government is very outspoken in the recognition of the Armenian genocide as well, you might be slightly mistaken.
The Dutch story: from neutrality to the ‘Rouvoet bill’
The Dutch were neutral during the First World War (as most Dutchies know. If not, read a book) Therefore, we couldn’t be to outspoken about the things that were happening in the Ottoman Empire, because that could damage our neutrality. Most national newspapers and politicians realized that, and therefore submitted to a culture of self-censorship. Furthermore, there wasn’t a clear view about ‘the Truth’ in Dutch society, because we mainly got our information about the genocide from the Brits, who were very eager to use the genocide as propaganda material in their war against the Ottomans and the Germans, as ‘the enemy’ was trying to do this the other way around.
It was only in 1917 that there were two influential persons who were more outspoken about the things that happened. It was the SDP-politician Van Ravesteijn who was very critical about the Dutch attitude of self-censorship and cried out against this ‘culture of silence’ in the socialist newspaper De Tribune. He was later backed in his opinion by Reverend Koffijberg, who fulminated in his article Een stem uit Armenië against ex-premier Abraham Kuyper, with whom he disagreed about the role of being a ‘good Calvinist’, who shouldn’t look away when such terrible things happened as they did in the Ottoman Empire. These were only two of a few voices who reacted clearly to the things that happened with the Armenians. Dutch society and politicians barely did. For them, there was no direct threat from the Armenian genocide and they had other things to worry about, such as the difficult economic situation in the Netherlands that was caused by the First World War. The Dutch mainly hanged on to the thought that there was a horrible Armenian torture going on, somewhere far away.
Johannes Lepsius on an Armenian stamp from 2013
The historical event of the Armenian genocide was fading in our memories, as it was swept away by a new genocide, the Holocaust, which had a more direct impact on Dutch society. Renewed interest in the ‘forgotten genocide’ only came into being in the 1960’s, as the research into the Holocaust got under way. This renewed attention went even further in the 1970’s and 1980’s, when there were several terrorist attacks in Europe, by Armenian nationalists against Turkish targets, who wanted to draw attention by force, for their forgotten genocide. In the Netherlands for example, there was the attack on the son of the Turkish ambassador, Ahmet Benler, in 1979 who was murdered in the Hague by Armenian terrorists.
It took a while, until 2004, that the Dutch parliament, officially recognized the fact that the things that happened in the Ottoman Empire should be labelled as ‘genocide’ (which happened in Germany only this week). This was called, the Rouvoet-bill. Although this was a very important step in the Dutch dealing with the genocide, the Dutch government doesn’t seem to be really eager to implement this bill actively into practice. That’s why the government always speaks officially about ‘the question of the Armenian genocide’. This was confirmed by the former Minister of Foreign Affairs Uri Rosenthal, in the must-see Dutch tv-series Bloedbroeders. They formulate it like this, because that ‘would serve the interest of the Turkish-Armenian dialogue all the best’. But, with this formulation they leave space to discuss the fact if there was an Armenian genocide, which serves nothing but the Turkish interest (and certainly not the Armenian, which happened to be an important partner within the Turkish-Armenian relationship) to keep in denial.
This year it is the centennial of the Armenian genocide, but there is no signal that the king or the prime minister will be at the official commemoration in Yerevan, even though they were invited. Dignitaries like the Pope, the France premier Hollande and others will be there. There wasn’t even a majority to find in the ‘Tweede Kamer’ for a bill that called upon the King and Rutte to go to the event, even though representatives of the Dutch parliament went to the commemorations of the Holocaust and the genocide in Rwanda.
Interview with historian Ronald Grigor Suny about his newest book ‘They can live in the Desert………’
I doubt if there is any interest in serving the Turkish need to keep in denial, as it didn’t do any good for the Turkish-Armenian relations for the last 100 years. Isn’t recognition always the first step towards reconciliation, instead of hiding your heads in the sand? And shouldn’t the Dutch government push them more actively in that direction? Maybe it helps if we would say to people with a Turkish background, that their ancestors weren’t only monsters because of the genocide, (which is always hard to accept as you take a look at your grandparents) as the renowned researcher Ronald Grigor Suny did. They were actually really human, and might be framed within the concept of ‘the banality of evil’. Because that is what humans do when they internalise and rationalise the hatred with which they are infected. Of course, that doesn’t make the Ottoman actions any less worse, although it explains how people can become perpetrators or bystanders fairly easy during a genocide in wartime.
I can only hope that people follow the example of the Dutch-Turk Sinan Can from Bloedbroeders, who went from very sceptical to someone who accepted that there was an Armenian genocide, even though the way his family had got their hands on some Armenian land was a bit misty and even though it brought him into some really difficult discussions with his family. What this recognition actually did bring him was a lifelong friendship with the Dutch-Armenian Ara Halici (the other guy in the series), and from my point of view, I really think that serves the interest of the Turkish-Armenian relations much better than talking about the ‘Armenian question’ or the ‘question of Armenian genocide’. Unless you want to hate each other for another century, of course.
A few suggested readings:
- Groenhoff, Een gruwelijke marteling: De Nederlandse reactie op de Armeense genocide 1915-1922 (Leiden 2012)
- Taner Akcam, A shameful act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility (2007)
- Ronald Grigor Suny, ‘They can live in the desert but nowhere else’. A History of the Armenian Genocide (2015)
- Ton Zwaan, De ‘vergeten’ genocide (2001)