"Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?"
«Wer redet heute noch von der Vernichtung der Armenier?» —
Reportedly said by Adolf Hitler 22 Aug. 1939,
most immediately concerning Poles.
On Sunday, 12 April 2015, Pope Francis commemorated the 100th anniversary of the start of the mass murders of Armenians in the failing Ottoman Empire. What made major news, and serious diplomatic waves, was that Pope Francis called the killings a genocide, labeling it the first of the 20th century.
I believe that the government of Turkey (and that of Azerbaijan) should apologize to the descendants of the survivors of the massacres and pay reasonable but significant reparations, even if largely symbolic; but I would not insist that the Turks use the word "genocide."
Three places I'm "coming from" (as we used to say) on the Pope's assertion and the larger (often fierce) debate:
1. Many years ago I taught an Honors course titled simply, "Massacres." It was the one course I taught in 40 years of teaching that got a perfect score on student evaluations, but, for whatever reasons, it was never approved for me to teach again, and it was not picked up by any of my colleagues.
Anyway, "Massacres" was the title I went with, but the working title was the frequent paraphrase of Hitler's rhetorical question as, "Who remembers the Armenians?"; and the premise of the course included the idea out of the work of Hannah Arendt that to even begin to understand the Hitlerian Holocaust we have to place it in a perverse tradition of mass murder. The murder of some five to six million Jews and five to six million Roma, homosexuals, Communists, unionists, priests, righteous Gentiles, and other "inferiors" or enemies of the Reich had precedents, including the largely premeditated Aghed — Catastrophe — visited upon the Armenians but also the almost casual murders of masses in Africa at the height of European colonialism there, culminating in one of the last holocausts of the 19th century and first of the 20th, the deaths of some five to ten million people in King Leopold II's Congo Free State (1885-1908).
2. I grew up in and regularly taught in the Orwellian tradition of questioning the power of political and other authorities to manage the meaning of words.
So the Congress of the United States could say that ethyl alcohol consumed to seek pleasure or avoid pain is not a drug, and that the nicotine in tobacco is not a drug — but alcohol and nicotine used as recreational drugs were and remain drugs. The government of the United States and its international clients and allies can stipulate as a matter of practical law that marijuana is a dangerously addictive hard drug with no legitimate uses, and keep it on "Schedule 1" of the Controlled Substances Act along with heroin; but the everyday fact remains that large numbers of people use marijuana without serious problems, and, for that matter, that heroin has undoubted uses as a pain reliever.
The US government and the UN can say that poison gas is a weapon of mass destruction, but poison gas isn't a weapon of destruction at all — part of the point of gas warfare is killing people without destroying property — and as weapons go even sarin nerve gas is much less efficient at killing than, say, cluster bombs, or even home-made "Improvised Explosive Devices" of commercial explosives plus nails and screws as shrapnel.
3. I had a colleague who got a good deal of guff for noting that Stalin's purges had less of an effect on the general Soviet population than usually assumed, and who pointed me toward another scholar who got seriously attacked for documenting some eight million murders ordered by Stalin. This second scholar didn't deny that there was more blood on Stalin's hands, but eight million deaths was what his study could document. And this second scholar made the point that we lived in a strange world where he could be called an apologist for Stalin with having Stalin guilty of the deaths of at least eight million people: as if massacres become serious only if they reach double digits of millions.
Now "Genocide" centrally means the planned destruction of a people as a people, mostly by killing them, and there have been genocides in human history, including fairly recent ones in Tasmania and (on a small scale — there weren't many people to kill) in California. Attempted genocide should be treated in ethics and at law as the same as achieved genocide, but in our usage we should differentiate between the two crimes.
Some of the "Young Turks" wanted at least "ethnic cleansing" away of the Armenians with the same fascistic undertone to "cleansing" as with Nazi desires for purity. Many Turks tolerated or participated in massacres and death marches of Armenians with the effect of mass murder on a massive scale.
Let the Turks admit to mass murder and offer reparations.
Let Armenians say, "In spite of the Catastrophe, we are here; any attempt at genocide failed." And let the argument go on from there as to what should be done for compassionate and sensible reparations and reconciliation.
And let the United States and the International "Community" —defining "community" as "people who are stuck with one another" — let the powers that be in such matters confine the use of "genocide" to the obscene success of the destruction of a people and move swiftly and effectively to prevent not just genocide but attempts at genocide. Indeed, let the human community accept our responsibility to act swiftly and effectively to stop all mass murder and literal massacres, well before they become massive enough to qualify as attempts at genocide.