Christopher Hitchens: Telling the Truth About the Armenian GenocideRoundup: Talking About History
Even before President Barack Obama set off on his visit to Turkey this week, there were the usual voices urging him to dilute the principled position that he has so far taken on the Armenian genocide. April is the month in which the Armenian diaspora commemorates the bloody initiation, in 1915, of the Ottoman Empire's campaign to erase its Armenian population. The marking of the occasion takes two forms: Armenian Remembrance Day, on April 24, and the annual attempt to persuade Congress to name that day as one that abandons weasel wording and officially calls the episode by its right name, which is the word I used above.
Genocide had not been coined in 1915, but the U.S. ambassador in Constantinople, Henry Morgenthau, employed a term that was in some ways more graphic. In his urgent reports to the State Department, conveying on-the-spot dispatches from his consuls, especially in the provinces of Van and Harput, he described the systematic slaughter of the Armenians as "race murder." A vast archive of evidence exists to support this claim. But every year, the deniers and euphemists set to work again, and there are usually enough military-industrial votes to tip the scale in favor of our Turkish client. (Of late, Turkey's opportunist military alliance with Israel has also been good for a few shame-faced Jewish votes as well.)
President Obama comes to this issue with an unusually clear and unambivalent record. In 2006, for example, the U.S. ambassador to Armenia, John Evans, was recalled for employing the word genocide. Then-Sen. Obama wrote a letter of complaint to then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, deploring the State Department's cowardice and roundly stating that the occurrence of the Armenian genocide in 1915 "is not an allegation, a personal opinion, or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence." On the campaign trail last year, he amplified this position, saying that "America deserves a leader who speaks truthfully about the Armenian genocide and responds forcefully to all genocides. I intend to be that president."
For any who might entertain doubt on this score, I would recommend two recent books of exceptional interest and scholarship that both add a good deal of depth and texture to this drama. The first is Armenian Golgotha: A Memoir of the Armenian Genocide, by Grigoris Balakian, and the second is Rebel Land: Travels Among Turkey's Forgotten Peoples, a contemporary account by Christopher de Bellaigue. In addition, we have just learned of shattering corroborative evidence from within the archives of the Turkish state. The Ottoman politician who began the campaign of deportation and extermination, Talat Pasha, left enormous documentation behind him. His family has now given the papers to a Turkish author named Murat Bardakci, who has published a book with the somewhat dry title The Remaining Documents of Talat Pasha. One of these "remaining documents" is a cold estimate that during the years 1915 and 1916 alone, a total of 972,000 Armenians simply vanished from the officially kept records of population. (See Sabrina Tavernise's report in the New York Times of March 8, 2009.)...