As if on safari, the hunters proudly display their dead prey. But the circa 1915 photograph depicts an undeniable horror. The hunters flank a dozen or so human bodies, laid out upon a dirt mound. The distinctive hunters’ uniforms identify them as Turkish soldiers of the Ottoman Empire; their victims are Armenian Christians.
This photograph captured for eternity the 20th century’s first genocide.
April 24, 2015 marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of an onslaught that, to this day, Turkey claims never happened. But photographs of genocide don’t lie.
These photographs are eerily similar to others, that would appear three decades later, of another human atrocity against victims only persecuted due to their faith. The 1945 photographs show stacks of emaciated Jewish bodies—victims of Nazi tormentors.
A telling difference exists as to why both sets of photographs were taken.
The photographs of Nazi concentration camp horrors were the product of victors seeking to document a vanquished enemy’s evils, lest future generations doubt what had occurred there.
The photographs of the Armenian genocide were the product of Turkish victors, not to record evil, but as a trophy glorifying kills made in the name of Allah.
Turkey’s genocidal tendencies towards Armenians are historical.
The Armenians adopted Christianity in 301 A.D., prospering long as a people and an independent nation—until Ottoman aggression absorbed it in the 15th century. They became second-class citizens, forced to pay an “infidel” tax Muslims demanded of all non-Muslims under their control.
But when Armenians pushed for equality in the late 1890s, the sultan ordered his army into action. Between 1894-1896, an estimated 200,000 Armenians died in what was known as the Hamidian Massacres.
With the turn of the century, the loss of parts of the Ottoman Empire fed a wave of nationalism. Sensing a re-building opportunity with the outbreak of World War I, the Ottomans allied with Germany against Russia. Devastating losses trying to invade Russia caused the Turks to blame Armenians, who had assisted the Russians.
On April 19, 1915, the Turkish governor of the city of Van trumped up a claim to charge Armenians with rebellion and lay siege to the city. After Russian forces intervened to save the Armenians, the Turks used the Russian rescue to claim the Armenians were traitors. The genocide began April 24th, when the Turks rounded up 250 Armenian community leaders and executed them.
By year’s end, 75% of the Armenian population (1.5 million people) had been killed.
Turkish hatred fueled a killing machine against the Armenians that escalated from massacre to genocide speed in less than a generation.
Turkish inhumanity towards the Armenians was limitless. Young girls were raped or crucified. Forced marches, in endless circles over mountain trails, of the very old and very young—denied food and water—sought but one final destination: death. As an ultimate slap in the face, Armenians transported by train to death camps were even required to purchase their own tickets.
A Turkish government that saw no evil by its actions against the Armenians in 1915 still sees no evil in them today.
One would like to believe a century-long evolution of Turkish leadership from dictatorship to democracy might have opened the government’s eyes to admitting its role in this savagery. It has not.
This is unsurprising, based on the leadership of Turkey’s current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Over the past several years, he has belied a desire to return to the days of the Ottoman Empire, rolling back domestic freedoms to get there.
In Erdogan’s Turkey, it remains a crime to mention the word “genocide.”
This denial by the Turkish leadership is not motivated by concerns of possibly having to pay reparations by accepting responsibility for its genocidal actions. It is fed by the belief today—just in 1915—that any Muslim slaughter of Christians is a divine right granted by Allah.
Turkish intolerance for Christians continues today. As one critic observes, “Sadly, Turkey, a NATO member since 1952 and supposedly a candidate for membership in the European Union, has largely succeeded in destroying the entire Christian cultural heritage of Asia Minor.”
Apparently, the Turkish government won’t allow what happened to the Armenians to be given the negative connotation of “genocide,” for such would insult Turkey, but will allow Turks to proudly celebrate the genocide’s end result, to insult the minority Armenian community victimized.
Turkish intolerance has already manifested itself with the approach of this important anniversary date in Armenian history as banners have been unfurled in several Turkish cities proclaiming, “We celebrate the 100th anniversary of our country being cleansed of [Christian] Armenians.”
Of course, it is difficult to criticize Erdogan when Western political and Christian leaders have either refused or been slow to call the Armenian genocide what it really was.
Just such a call was recently made by Pope Francis. “In the past century, our human family has lived through three massive and unprecedented tragedies,” the Pope said. “The first, which is widely considered ‘the first genocide of the 20th century,’ struck your own Armenian people.” Francis became the first leader of the Catholic Church to call Turkey out on the genocide.
Presidential candidate Barack Obama, critical of then-President Bush, stated in 2008 America “deserves a president who speaks truthfully about the Armenian genocide.” President Obama has yet to deliver on this promise, and few expect him to tomorrow.
He is not alone among presidents; only Ronald Reagan, in a 1981 proclamation observing the Holocaust, dared call the slaughter a “genocide.”
Reportedly both the U.S. Department of State (DOS) and Department of Defense (DOD) again recommended against attaching the genocidal tag due to concerns of impacting negatively on U.S.-Turkey relations.
DOD’s concern obviously stems from not wanting to upset a supposed NATO ally who potentially can play an important role in Middle East hostilities, although Turkey balks at doing so. DOS’s concern stems from Obama’s inexplicably close friendship with Erdogan, regardless of how far back the would-be dictator sets democracy in his country.
Most shockingly, Israel too has yet to make the call, unwilling to damage an already strained relationship with Turkey.
The absence of Western voices aids and abets Turkey’s denial. It has only encouraged Erdogan to threaten the few voices heard, warning Pope Francis not to “repeat this mistake.”
On the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, we would do well to reflect upon Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt’s words: “Denial of genocide… is not an act of historical reinterpretation… but an insidious form of intellectual and moral degradation.”
It is time for Western leaders to re-calibrate their moral compass.
Lt. Colonel James G. Zumwalt, USMC (Ret.), is a retired Marine infantry officer who served in the Vietnam war, the U.S. invasion of Panama and the first Gulf war. He is the author of “Bare Feet, Iron Will–Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam’s Battlefields,” “Living the Juche Lie: North Korea’s Kim Dynasty” and “Doomsday: Iran–The Clock is Ticking.” He frequently writes on foreign policy and defense issues.