Shortly after Passover, the premier celebration of freedom in the oft-dubbed Judeo-Christian heritage, we enter a mournful period that commemorates, if that is the correct word, two devastating modern tragedies: the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide – yes, that is the correct word. And we Jews have a moral obligation to label the Armenian horror of 1915 what it was: genocide.
Raphael Lemkin, the Polish-Jewish jurist who coined the term “genocide,” heroically advocated for the United Nations to approve the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide. Lemkin makes clear in his memoir that the Turkish effort to annihilate Armenian culture was a crucial moment in his early thinking about the mass murder of ethnic groups in general. And it was Lemkin himself who first linked his then-new term “genocide” to the plight of the Armenians. He did so in a 1949 CBS television interview – you can view it on YouTube and Vimeo. When asked how and why he became interested in the concept, Lemkin spoke to the point: “Because it happened so many times. It happened to the Armenians.” It is crucial to highlight that Lemkin did not first mention what later became known as the Holocaust or Shoah. Rather, he began with the Armenians. Likewise, in his autobiography, Lemkin minces no words: the Armenians “lost more than a million people by genocide in Turkey.” To not label the Armenian slaughter a “genocide,” which the U.S. government still refuses to do, is about as historically accurate as Ben Carson dubbing African slaves “immigrants” or Sean Spicer, current White House press secretary, calling concentration camps “Holocaust centers.”
We can, and will, debate the precise origins of the Holocaust for many years. Likewise for the motivations of not only its leaders but, more importantly, the ordinary Europeans who actively perpetrated and silently countenanced the mass killings of Jews and others. The world was well aware of the destruction of the Armenian people and culture amid the messy ruins of the Ottoman Empire. But nothing was done. That failure was not a direct cause of the Holocaust. But it surely helped account for the smug evil that allowed men and women to feel confident that they could get away with the Final Solution. Most scholars agree that the Hitler said something to the effect of, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” But even if the Fuhrer never uttered this rhetorical question, it seems indisputable that had the world not only recalled the Armenian genocide but also acted at the time with moral outrage linked to political will, the history of modern European Jewry might very well have been rather different.
Of course, Hitler might as well have said, “Who remembers the Herero?” Prior to defeat in World War I and the Versailles Treaty, Germany had colonized several areas of the Pacific Islands, including the northeast portion of New Guinea, then called Kaiser Wilhelmsland, and Samoa. Germany also claimed parts of East, West, and South West Africa. In what is now Namibia, the Herero and Nama people in 1904 rebelled against the theft of land and other forms of colonial-era violence. The revolt was brutally crushed in what is now categorized as the first genocide of the 20th century – complete with “concentration camps” in which inmates suffered forced labor, medical experiments, and death by starvation. The Kaiser’s express command to his viceroy was to “emulate the Huns” in sheer barbarism. And he did, declaring, “All Hereros must leave the country…or die. All Hereros found within the German borders [of the African territory] with or without weapons, with or without animals will be killed. I will not accept a woman nor any child. …There will be no male prisoners. All will be shot.” Kuaima Isaac Riruako, a paramount chief of the Herero, said before his death in 2014, “What Hitler did to the Jewish people was something that originated in German colonization of Namibia. The Holocaust started with us here.” Germany formally apologized for this genocide in 2004. Turkey has yet to follow suit in regard to its guilt for Armenia.
We Jews champion the phrase “Never Again” in regard to the Final Solution. We also enshrine throughout our religion and culture the principle of remembrance or zachor. We should make every effort to hear the pain, and to validate the suffering, of other ethnic groups who also anguished under the nightmare of genocide. To do so is not to diminish our own tragedy. It is not to make comparisons or parallels. It is not to engage in an absurd exercise in gamesmanship over who suffered more terribly, us or them. It is, instead, to ennoble our own perseverance as a people. For if we fail to remember the genocides of the Armenians and the Herero, then we abdicate our own moral standing to ask the same of ourselves.
This post has been contributed by a third party. The opinions, facts and any media content are presented solely by the author, and JewishBoston assumes no responsibility for them. Want to add your voice to the conversation? Publish your own post here.