By Simon Heffer
International Business Times
Some countries are so upset by Holocaust deniers that they make it a crime. There have been calls to do the same in Britain but we have, luckily, avoided such a heavy-handed and grandstanding approach to the freedom of speech of idiots.
We prefer to see people who deny the Nazi genocide as idiots – or something stronger – and in a very British way content ourselves that the obloquy, contempt and derision such people heap upon themselves by expressing their offensive views is punishment enough, and comes free of charge.
Sadly there isn’t the newsreel of what happened to the Armenians a century ago at the hands of the Turks to compare with what we have seen captured on film of Auschwitz, Belsen and the other Nazi death camps.
Therefore it is disputed to this day by Turkey that its Ottoman forebears conducted a genocide against the Armenians in 1915.
A hundred years of denial
Armenians see this as their Holocaust and when an entire nation denies it happened, it is denial on a truly grand and awesome scale. Imagine how the Jews would feel if the present German republic itself – not just handfuls of mentally disturbed anti-Semites – said there had been no German-led genocide against the Jews, and you will understand how the Armenians and those who sympathise with them feel about Turkey, a state about to celebrate 100 years of denial.
So three cheers for Pope Francis, who on Sunday (12 April) referred to the “genocide” of the Turks against the Armenians, knowing the choice of the G word would infuriate the Turks. Not only do the Turks deny any such thing happened but they claim they themselves were on the receiving end of some harsh treatment from the Armenians.
The historical consensus is that 1.5 million Armenians were murdered. Many countries recognise this as an act of genocide. So too did Pope John Paul II, who issued a declaration in 2001 saying as much. Francis chose to quote his predecessor-but-one’s words: but it still upset the Turks, who immediately recalled their ambassador to the Vatican and demanded the Vatican’s man in Ankara come and explain himself.
In recalling the mass murder during a commemorative service in St Peter’s attended by large numbers of Armenians, Francis used rhetoric familiar from calls over the past 70 years never to forget the Nazi atrocities. He said: “We recall the centenary of that tragic event, that immense and senseless slaughter whose cruelty your forebears had to endure. It is necessary, and indeed a duty, to honour their memory, for whenever memory fades, it means that evil allows wounds to fester.”
Turkey remains far from admitting the historic culpability. The country’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu used a tweet to describe Francis’s statement as “far from the legal and historical reality” and said the Pope had incited “resentment and hatred with baseless allegations”.
This seems to be a step back from a statement made in 2014 by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, when he offered condolences to the present generation of Armenians whose forebears were slaughtered. Not only does Turkey claim the deaths of Armenians were in battles during the Great War in which many Turks were killed too, but it also says the historical consensus about the numbers of dead is an exaggeration.
An idiotic position
Turkey still conducts relentless lobbying operations to try and persuade nations not to recognise what happened in Armenia in 1915-16 as genocide, but it has failed with many of them. America does not use the term officially, not because it does not believe it to be accurate but because it does not wish to offend so crucial an ally as Turkey when the rest of the Middle East is so turbulent and hostile.
The Vatican, which is also keen to see a diminution of the conflict in that region, wants good relations with the Turks too, but not, to judge from Francis’s remarks, at the expense of pretending not to notice Turkey’s responsibility for an outrage that happened just outside living memory.
Armenia itself is building up to a formal commemoration of the genocide on 24 April. Last week, Kim Kardashian and her sister Khloe were in Yerevan to lay flowers at a memorial to the victims: the whole performance was captured on the sisters’ reality TV show, so anyone out there who is not aware of this atrocity may soon be alerted to it.
The combination of the Kardashians and the Pope adds up to a PR disaster for Turkey, at a time when in every other respect it is trying to show itself to be a responsible and progressive member of the family of civilised nations.
Those whose curiosity is stimulated whether by the Kardashians or Pope Francis to search the internet for a few minutes will find not just endless accounts of Turks crucifying Armenians – who were Christians in an otherwise Muslim empire – but photographs of some of the atrocities, including a row of gallows with Armenians hanging from them, and hardly constituting men killed in the heat of battle.
It is well documented that the Ottoman government released brutal criminals from prison in late 1914 especially to form squads to go into Armenian territory and slaughter those who lived there. The trained killers were told the Armenians had collaborated with the Russians to defeat Turkey.
Armenian intellectuals were rounded up and tortured before being executed – the extraction of toenails and fingernails followed by blinding was commonplace. There were mass deportations, killings and forced starvation. Thousands of bodies were dumped in ravines and live infants were thrown on to rocks. It was as if Hitler found this template.
If Turkey won’t see how foolish it makes their nation seem today by continuing to deny these atrocities, then one despairs of the country ever joining the civilised world. Many Turks, well aware of what happened, are embarrassed by the idiotic position of the country’s political leaders. The centenary would seem to provide the ideal moment to offer a historic admission of guilt and an apology. And this time, Germany can provide the template.
Dr Simon Heffer is a British commentator and author who has written columns for The Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph, The Spectator and The New Statesman. He is the biographer of Enoch Powell, Thomas Carlyle and Ralph Vaughan Williams and recently published High Minds: The Victorians And The Birth Of Modern Britain.