The Armenian genocide and the effect of fascism on the freedom to apologize

There is no crueler tyranny than that which is perpetuated under the shield of law and in the name of justice.
– Charles de Montesquieu

Earlier this year, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, on the 70th anniversary of Japan’s official admission of defeat in WWII, gave a speech in which he made an oblique reference to the atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers on South Korean “comfort women“, or women forced into sexual slavery by Japanese soldiers:

We will engrave in our hearts the past, when the dignity and honour of many women were severely injured during wars in the 20th century. Upon this reflection, Japan wishes to be a country always at the side of such women’s injured hearts. Japan will lead the world in making the 21st century an era in which women’s human rights are not infringed upon.

While not a direct apology, there is an air of repentance there. Many wondered if an apology was forthcoming. After all, in the same speech, Shinzo Abe also said:

We must not let our children, grandchildren, and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologize. Still, even so, we Japanese, across generations, must squarely face the history of the past. We have the responsibility to inherit the past, in all humbleness, and pass it on to the future.

We now know that Abe was not paying lip service to that commitment. Japan has now officially apologized to the comfort women -many of whom have died, and the rest are now very old- and had lived with the scars without any form of emotional closure. Japan has also announced a compensation package of $8.3 million, purportedly to “restore the dignity” of the women. Such a rather old-fashioned view of female dignity notwithstanding, at least steps are being taken in the right direction. The least governments can do for the crimes of their predecessors is apologize. Differences persist, however, but that is expected when atrocities were committed on such a large scale. If anything, this gesture should begin to restore Japan’s own dignity, which had been greatly besmirched by its fascist past.

A lesson there, perhaps, for Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s neo – Islamist dictator who delights in continuing with the oppressive policies of Turkish regimes past, and undermining all kinds of freedoms, and always manages to find some excuse for it. In a slick Turkish version of Holocaust denial, he continues to argue that any suggestion that the systematic Ottoman extermination of the ethnic Armenian population during WWI was a genocide will go “in one ear and out from the other”. As more countries all around the world recognize the Armenian massacre rightly as genocide, the truth is becoming harder for Erdogan to wish away. While it’s now known that more than 1.5 million Armenian people were either killed or died of starvation while being deported from eastern Anatolia to the deserts of Syria through WWI and after it till the Ottoman empire was overthrown in 1923, the Turkish version continues to be that the numbers were much smaller and that they were war casualties. There is much evidence to dispel that idea, however.

Report of Allied warning to the Ottoman government to stop the massacres of Armenians, May 29, 1915

Ironically, the Kurds themselves are a disenfranchised ethnic group in modern day Turkey, under His Excellency Tayyip Erdogan. Another secret British document of 1916 records the eyewitness account of a Syrian resident:

She saw the bodies of hundreds of Armenian men, women and children lying on both sides of the railway. Sometimes Turkish women were seen searching the corpses for anything that might be of value, at other times dogs were observed feeding on the bodies. There were hundreds of bleached skeletons.

At either Gulek or Osmania she saw thousands of starving and fever stricken Armenians. They had been ordered southward, but had been provided with no transport and had been waiting there for weeks. They were lying about the station, on the sides and some on the track itself. Some were jostled on to the line when the train arrived, and the engine ran over them, to the joy of the engine driver, who shouted to his friends: “Did you see how I smashed about of these Armenian swine?”.

The same document also mentions how systematic and large – scale the slaughter was:

So far, a description has been given of the destruction of the Armenian nation by organized deportation, accompanied by neglect and by the unchecked butchery of men and boys. The usual method employed was to organize labour battalions in which boys and men were collected together, and these were sent under a guard of about 20 Turkish solders to some out-of-the-way place, where no provision was made for rations or water. The guard were given orders to use their rifles without hesitation in case of desertion, or any sign of mutiny, on the part of those put under their charge. After a day or two the guard would return alone. The story given was either that the Armenians as a whole attempted to desert, or that there had been a mutiny, and that the guard in self-defence had been compelled to kill the lot. The writer never witnessed such a scene himself, but he had reports from trustworthy sources. One of his informants was an Armenian who, speaking and dressing like a Turk, had travelled from Armenia to Jaffa. There he mixed with a number of Turkish soldiers who had just executed the butchery of about 400 Armenians in the manner described above, and who regaled him with many repulsive details. This man on the following day came upon a heap of murdered Armenians, and journeying on to Aleppo he made a full report of his experience to the American Consul there.

Another eyewitness account from a Turkish officer reveals the sinister face of the genocide:

Besides the deportation order referred to above an Imperial “Iradeh” was issued ordering that all deserters when caught, should be shot without trial. The secret order read “Armenians” in lieu of “deserters”. The Sultan’s “Iradeh” was accompanied by a “fatwa” from Sheikh-ul-Islam stating that the Armenians had shed Moslem blood and their killing was lawful. Then the deportations started. The children were kept back at first. The Government opened up a school for the grown up children and the American Consul of Trebizond instituted an asylum for the infants. When the first batches of Armenians arrived at Gumush-Khana all able-bodied men were sorted out with the excuse that they were going to be given work. The women and children were sent ahead under escort with the assurance by the Turkish authorities that their final destination was Mosul and that no harm will befall them. The men kept behind, were taken out of town in batches of 15 and 20, lined up on the edge of ditches prepared beforehand, shot and thrown into the ditches. Hundreds of men were shot every day in a similar manner. The women and children were attacked on their way by the (“Shotas”) the armed bands organised by the Turkish Government who attacked them and seized a certain number. After plundering and committing the most dastardly outrages on the women and children they massacred them in cold blood. These attacks were a daily occurrence until every woman and child had been got rid of. The military escorts had strict orders not to interfere with the “Shotas”.

There is photographic evidence for the above claims here . Some of them are gruesome and graphic, reminding one of the atrocities committed by the current caliphate fanatics, the Islamic State. Such systematic mass slaughter is highly unlikely to be a result of wartime desperation. Indeed, Erdogan maintains that the 100,000 odd Armenian minority “illegally” staying in Turkey are lucky to not have been deported (massacred?) by now. This is a position he has maintained over the years:

We are turning a blind eye to the remaining 100,000… Tomorrow, I may tell these 100,000 to go back to their country, if it becomes necessary.

What allows “Reis” Erdogan to indulge in such disdainful machismo? Apart from power (he has been at the helm for more than 12 years now) that he derives from conservative Islamist rhetoric -the overwhelming majority of the Turkish population being Muslims- he also appears to have a thing for “Ottoman” tradition. The Ottoman reign had been a period of glory for the Turks, part of what is known as the Islamic Golden Age. The caliphate fantasy has been inherited from this medieval tradition. Turkey has long aspired to be part of the EU, but the unchanging stand regarding the Armenian extermination is one of the major reasons why the EU has so far spurned Turkey’s advances. Erdogan might not be looking to re-establish a caliphate, but he certainly makes no secret of his fascination with the conquests of Ottoman caliphs. Because he has a supposedly secular Constitution and the lure of EU membership to check him, he is apparently committed to democracy, all the while trying to make Turkey as Islamist as possible. In this backdrop, his animosity towards the mainly Christian Armenian and secular Kurdish minorities is understandable. Keeping the horrors of the Armenian genocide and the Batak massacre in mind, it’s probably just as well that there is an EU. The other possible reason behind Erdogan’s xenophobic rhetoric is the fact that Turkey is a NATO member. This emboldens Erdogan and makes him think he can intimidate the Kurds and Armenians into submission. And in order to accomplish this, he needs to keep the media under control. Hence the widespread media gags and imprisonment and even killings of journalists. Obviously, Turkey, or more specifically, Erdogan doesn’t want his secrets to be leaked.

But NATO has been having even more problems with Europe’s problem child. Turkey has been flirting with the idea of making a $3.4 billion arms deal with China, so as to reduce its reliance on NATO for missiles. Although the deal has been cancelled by Turkey, it has taunted the EU for a while with the possibility, because such an alliance could have meant exchange of military notes between the two countries, compromising NATO’s secrets. Since China is becoming more hegemonic with each passing day, by extending alliance whenever and wherever it can, and is increasingly becoming territorial and confrontational in relation to other military powers, it’s a legitimate concern for NATO to have. And besides, China doesn’t feel too comfortable to have its secrets leaked either. Let fair be fair.

The French journalist Ursula Gaulthier was recently expelled from China, supposedly for “supporting terrorism”. The article she wrote alleges that the Chinese solidarity with the French after the 13/11 Paris terror attacks has an “ulterior motive” -garnering global support in order to suppress the Uyghur insurgency in China’s Xinjiang province. She is of the view that the Uyghur violence is justifiable because the Chinese have been trying to oppress the Uyghurs and denying them their cultural rights. This does seem like a very bizarre rationalization of violence -a bit like saying that it’s okay for Hamas to do suicide bombing and knifing because the Palestinians are being oppressed- and hence needs to be lambasted. We always have articles in newspapers that we disagree with, but that doesn’t mean that the authors of such articles need to be expelled from the country if they don’t apologize for holding an opinion. By expelling Gaulthier, China is making an overbearing political statement which is just part of a pattern where journalists and free speech activists are being prosecuted or expelled on various pretexts. Gaulthier allegations do deserve attention, and the treatment of Uyghur minorities needs to be investigated, since China has an abysmal human rights record. Ruled by a pseudo-democratic dictator, China has always had kept journalists and outspoken people on a tight leash. There is an array of websites that are banned in China and people are not allowed to dissent. Recently Fu Zhibin, an outspoken Chinese author, was tried for the crime of writing a book on the history of Communist totalitarianism in China, and faces the prospect of a 5 year prison sentence. It’s outrageous how free speech and expression are systematically trampled upon in this country. For a country so reluctant to let its dirty secrets out, it would seem strange, at the very least, for it to have hackers in its military system, regularly stealing or looking to steal military secrets from other countries. No wonder NATO feels all edgy about the whole idea of a grand Turkey – China arms deal.

Shinzo Abe has acknowledged the fact that atrocities were visited upon the Chinese by the Japanese soldiers during WWII as well:

Also in countries that fought against Japan, countless lives were lost among young people with promising futures. In China, Southeast Asia, the Pacific islands and elsewhere that became the battlefields, numerous innocent citizens suffered and fell victim to battles as well as hardships such as severe deprivation of food. We must never forget that there were women behind the battlefields whose honour and dignity were severely injured.

Upon the innocent people did our country inflict immeasurable damage and suffering. History is harsh. What is done cannot be undone. Each and every one of them had his or her life, dream, and beloved family. When I squarely contemplate this obvious fact, even now, I find myself speechless and my heart is rent with the utmost grief.

The peace we enjoy today exists only upon such precious sacrifices. And therein lies the origin of postwar Japan.

We must never again repeat the devastation of war.

It is not known how much Shinzo Abe and Japan will live up to that commitment, but it is an important lesson nevertheless. China and Erdogan will do well to learn from it, since they have obviously declared a fascist war on people who don’t agree with them, and people who they don’t agree with.


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