Sunday, 29 January 2017

Armenian News... A Topalian...Britain, Holocaust MDay, & Armenian Genocide

The British Government, Holocaust Memorial Day and the Armenian Genocide

By Gregory Topalian
The British Government has rarely acted morally with regard to its foreign policy so it should be no surprise then that they have spent a great deal of time and effort denying the Armenian genocide that began in 1915 at the height of the First World War. Prior to the genocide the years 1894-96 had seen a wave of violence that saw “the streets of Constantinople (running with (the Armenians) blood"1 at the hands of Sultan Abdul Hamid II. Those events, committed publicly in a major city drew condemnation from across the globe and persuaded former Prime Minister William Gladstone to return from retirement at the age eighty six to rail against the Ottoman Empire’s campaign of slaughter.

In the intervening years, the Young Turk revolution overthrew Abdul Hamid’s regime and there was much hope of progress from the Armenians. However, the Young Turks desire to create an Empire in the East did not bode well for the ‘loyal millet’. When the Armenian genocide began in earnest in April 1915 the Western media faithfully reported the eyewitness accounts of appalling massacres being committed across the length and breadth of the Ottoman Empire whilst the British Government commissioned historians James Bryce and Arnold Toynbee to compile eyewitness testimony in what is referred to as the British Blue Book.2 Under conditions of total warfare the British Government were unable to intervene in any substantive way to halt the genocide that horrified a number of the Ottoman Empire’s German allies. Following World War One and the decimation of the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian population, realpolitik took hold. British Prime Minister David Lloyd George who had promised that Britain would not forget its responsibility to the Armenians watched from the side lines as the return of Western Armenia as detailed in the 1920 Treaty of Sevres was superceded by the dropping of that promise in1923’s Treaty of Lausanne. After 1923 the British Government curried favour with the newly emerging Republic of Turkey and has since only used the Armenian genocide as a bargaining tool with Turkey. It was as if the horrors of what happened in the Anatolian homelands of the Armenians had been conveniently forgotten. One person whose memory of the Armenian genocide lasted a little longer was Adolf Hitler who proclaimed on August 22nd 1939:

“Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”3

Hitler’s murderous methods borrowed much from those used by the Ottoman Empire in 1915 as the genocide against the Jews meant the Armenian genocide would soon be further consigned to the past just as the West was beginning to address what had happened, encouraged by the publication of Franz Werfel’s Forty Days of Musa Dagh.4

Meanwhile in 1943, a Polish/Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin coined the phrase ‘genocide’ to describe what had happened to both the Armenians and the Jews5 and yet the British Government has consistently refused to apply the word ‘genocide’ to the description of what happened in the Ottoman Empire in 1915.

In 2000 the British Government committed themselves to commemorating the Holocaust with a Holocaust Memorial Day to be annually recognised on January 27th. The statement of commitment for Holocaust Memorial Day in the UK included a vow “to remember the victims of Nazi persecution and of all genocides”6, something the British Government and the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust have actively attempted to deny with regard to the Armenian genocide, which when bearing in mind the events that were Raphael Lemkin’s inspiration for the term ‘genocide’, is shameful. As Britain prepared for its first Holocaust Memorial Day, British newspapers and magazines such as The Independent, The Times, The Telegraph, The Guardian, The Economist, and news channels such as the BBC and Channel 4 all commented on the strange anomaly that was the refusal to include the Armenians whilst writers, officials and academics attempted to justify the exclusion. Eventually the Armenian genocide was included but was and still is referred to on the Holocaust Memorial Day website as “atrocities against the Armenians”, not ‘genocide’. Meanwhile the British media (with the odd honourable exception) seems to have returned to framing the events of 1915 as a ‘debate’ despite the overwhelming evidence that the crime committed was genocide.

2015 saw the centenary of the State sponsored genocide of the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire. In the run up to the event the British Government sent out guidelines on how best to avoid making reference to the event as fifty four documents from between 2009 and 2014 (with some information removed and names redacted) released under the Freedom of Information Act attest. The language used in the documents is interesting as it show definite bias on the part of the British Government and a desire to subvert historical fact. The documents also illustrate on the British Government’s part, an absolute refusal to engage with current independent and verified research and indeed the historical facts of the case.

In a document dated 15th January 2010, the British Armenian All Party Parliamentary group are described as being “up to something”. In correspondence dated 14th/15th/16th April 2009 the word ‘genocide’ is written in quotation marks.

Why would the British Government imply that the British Armenian All Party Parliamentary group was “up to something” in such a derogatory manner? The group were simply trying to publicise historical fact that has been distorted. Many of the documents suggest paranoia on the part of the Government.

In June 2010 it is noted that “The Minister was grateful for your submission. He agreed with your recommended Option A, i.e. that the Government should not recognise the Armenian massacres as genocide”.

One might question why Minister’s in positions of authority cannot be trusted to make their own minds up by simply addressing the historical evidence?

On the 17th June 2010 a brief sent to Justine Mckenzie Smith, Minister for Europe suggests the term ‘genocide’ cannot be attributed retrospectively.

The irony of this lies in the fact that Raphael Lemkin did exactly that when coining the term.

In correspondence from December 23rd 2011 Government officials seem content that following France’s decision to criminalise denial of genocide, “the media, politicians, the public and parliament have followed Turkey’s lead in condemning the action by France”.

Just imagine the furore the British Government would have engendered if they had reacted in a similar fashion to the number of countries who have codified Holocaust denial as a crime.

Attachment 20 which has no date is a fact sheet on the issue of the Armenian genocide; a prediction of what questions might arise, and advised answers on how best to deal with those questions whilst still denying genocide.

Once more,it would appear that the British Government feels the need to direct and control individual Parliamentarians lest they upset their Turkish Ally who has in the past threatened to withdraw the use of the strategically important Incirlik Air Base.

Another undated attachment, number 22 attempts to refute Geoffrey Robertson Q.C. suggestion that Ministers have misled Parliament on the issue without offering any concrete evidence to back up the assertion.

The reason for the attack is straightforward. Anyone reading the Human Right’s barrister Robertson’s paper7 would indeed come to that conclusion.

Meanwhile Parliamentary events presided over by Baroness Cox, a long term supporter of a genocide resolution, are reported on in the released documents and many of these documents are classed as being of “High” importance.

It would appear that any time the Armenian genocide is discussed at formal events there are Government representatives’ present charged with reporting back on the nature of the discussions. Some might call it “spying”.

The official British denial of the Armenian Genocide is an active process and reflects poorly on British democracy and commitment to international laws. A lengthier critique of these documents will soon be published and the sample I have given illustrates the concerted effort by the British Government to continue its denial of the Armenian Genocide, despite the historical facts collated in its own sponsored Parliamentary Blue Book.

In the documents the same responses appear time and time again, and any Armenian who has written to the Government on this issue will be very familiar with them. They express “regret” over the “massacres” and suggest that Turkey and Armenia address the issues via a truth and reconciliation commission. 
As we approach the 2017 British Holocaust Memorial Day, the first genocide of the modern era – the Armenian genocide - will probably be little more than a passing reference. I can only hope that Armenians and their friends will take more forthright action to have their voices heard in next year’s commemoration.

* Gregory Topalian is a British-Armenian historian based in Manchester.

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