A Genocide by Any Other Name

The Armenian Genocide 100 Years On

by Dominique Pariso

published April 17, 2015

Kim Kardashian’s Instagram has long been lauded as the master class in selfie taking. Scrolling through the feed, you see a montage of close-ups and wider shots: of the perfectly tousled hair and contoured cheekbones that we all desire, and of the aestheticized, perfect lives that have become the chief aspiration of contemporary life. And yet, each year, Kardashian takes the time to acknowledge the anniversary of the Armenian Genocide on her social media accounts. The flow of images is interrupted, and we are reminded that the horror of the past still lingers in our perfect present. This year is no different. Kardashian—herself a product of the Armenian diaspora—is attempting to illuminate the brutal massacre of over one million Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Empire, which utilized death marches, concentration camps, and mass burnings and drownings.


“Oh yeah they all went for it, Kim, Khloe, her husband... what’s his name, Cayenne...”
“Kanye, Mom.”
“Oh right, Kanye...”

I was on the phone with my mom, who informed me that the Kardashians were even visiting Armenia this week to acknowledge the upcoming anniversary. As a public we may be complicit in trivializing these events. More people will tune in for the episode than actually know or care about what it is commemorating.

Indeed, there's a fine line between genuine compassion and Bono. And nobody wants to end up like Bono. It’s almost too easy to make jabs at Kardashian for her stance on this platform. #Armenia? Celebrities will always be scrutinized, especially when they’re championing a cause. Do they really care or are they merely doing it for publicity? Famous people be warned.

But there’s nothing funny about Kardashian choosing to use her position to raise awareness about this often ignored part of history. And she is not alone.

On Sunday, Pope Francis, in a commemorative mass at St. Peter’s Basilica called the period “genocide.” “In the past century, our human family has lived through three massive and unprecedented tragedies,” he said, calling the Armenian slaughter “the first genocide of the twentieth century.” Whoever would have thought that Kim K and the Cool Pope would make one heck of a tag team? But their combined efforts seem necessary, especially as the centenary of the genocide approaches later this week.

On April 24, 1915, over 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders were rounded up by Ottoman authorities and arrested in Constantinople. This day marked the beginning of a brutal, eight-year campaign by the Ottoman government to purge ethnic Armenians from the country. An estimated 1 to 1.5 million people were killed. It was also the catalyst for the Armenian diaspora, which found many populations settling in parts of Europe and the United States. The Ottoman Empire, controlling the region that is now present-day Turkey, was aligned with Germany during World War I. Turkish military leaders feared that the Armenians would be eager to fight for the enemy if they believed that they could win their independence through an Allied victory. The Armenians organized volunteer battalions to aid the Russian army fight against the Turks. This, coupled with years of political unrest and violence between the Turks and the Armenians, led the government to take drastic measures to eradicate them from the country.

To this day, the Turkish government takes issue with the recognition of those years as genocide. While they have acknowledged to a certain extent the violence that was perpetuated against the Armenians, they believe that it is historically inaccurate to suggest that the murders where systematic and intentional. They further assert that there were far fewer causalities than the estimated 1.5 million. Turkey considers the Turkish-Armenia conflict to be a civil war in which both sides suffered losses. An unconvincing argument to be sure, but it does point to the underlying resentment on the part of Turkey. Given Turkey’s continued political significance in the Middle East, only around 20 countries and the UN have formally challenged them on the matter.

But, the United States is not among them. Despite naming the atrocities for what they were during the 2008 election campaign, President Obama, upon entering office, has taken up a more coded language, referring to the period as an “atrocity” or a “dark period.”

Obama is well aware of the consequences. Last month, when a bipartisan resolution was introduced in Congress calling “for the United States government to do the moral thing and recognize these atrocities for what they are—genocide,” Turkey threw the equivalent of an international temper tantrum and immediately threatened repercussions against the US if the resolution were to pass. And they make good on their threats. Two years ago, when France passed a law making it illegal to deny the Armenian genocide, Turkey cut all ties with the country. In Rome, mere hours after the mass, they removed their ambassador from the Vatican. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu tweeted that the Pope’s use of the word was “out of touch with historical facts” and “unacceptable.”

It is clear that Turkey seeks to maintain legitimacy through what Harvard professors Arthur and Joan Kleinman have called “official silence,” the technique by which “the totalitarian state rules by collective forgetting, by denying the collective experience of suffering.” Now there is a kind of secondary violence being exerted on the Armenian people in robbing them internationally of the word that captures a part of their history. It is hard to remember that when large sums of money, diplomacy, and international relations are at stake.

And it is not just the use of this word, but the attempt to rewrite the history. It's far easier to tamper with the history textbooks than to face the past because it forces individuals to ask harder questions. And by editing the history books, we allow the collective memory to be altered. To face up to what has been done would require the shared traumatic experience of processing the truth. Instead, the Turkish government expends vast amounts of energy making sure this truth stays buried. No monuments will be constructed, no books or films are allowed to be made, people are punished for publicly speaking about these events. For example, in 2005 Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk was brought up on criminal charges after issuing a statement referencing the killings. The charges were eventually dropped, but not before he was made the victim of a hate campaign and assassination threats. This sets a bad precedent for the country, and thus allows the repression and reconstruction of the memories of the Turkish people.

Turkey is responsible for the first genocide in a century of horrifying violence. This century ushered in a time of technological advances and military campaigning that allowed the killing of a vast quantity of people
more efficiently than ever before. Many of us sat in high school history class staring mindlessly at posters that read platitudes like “Never Forget” or “Those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it.” And yet what we are asked to remember is a heavily edited anthology—Rwanda, Cambodia, Nazi Europe, but not Armenia.

The suppression of acknowledgement of the genocide in Turkey is insulting because they are alone in their complete refusal to take responsibility—especially when compared to other nations that have similar pasts. Under the 2005 Rwanda constitution, “revisionism, negationism, and trivialization of genocide” is illegal and treated as a criminal offense. Germany, for its part, paid reparations, and memorials have been erected on German soil. Not to suggest that this somehow makes even a small dent in the horror; however, this effort to take responsibility is, in some ways, the least they can do.

In 1939, Hitler himself said, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” I think that I speak on behalf of everyone when I say that we should not let Adolf freaking Hitler still be sort of right.

It's time for our world leaders to keep up with the Kardashians.

Dominique Pariso ’18 wants to call a spade a spade.