History Club lecture series: The Armenian genocide

History, Memory and the Armenian Genocide

The second lecture in the History Club’s series on genocide was held on Wednesday, October 17th, detailing the Armenian genocide and the importance of its remembrance. Dr. Adam Stanley, professor and chair of the history department, described the events of the Armenian genocide, as well as the amnesia and silence that followed it.

Stanley began by describing the events that took place leading up to the Armenian genocide.  The Ottoman Empire held all of modern day Turkey, as well as much of the northern coast of the Arabian Peninsula.  Furthermore, a triumvirate of senior Ottoman officials nicknamed the “three pashas” effectively ruled the empire, and the events that would lead to WWI were unfolding.

The pashas were Turkish nationalists that had grand ideas for the future of the Ottoman Empire. These ideas pointedly did not include Armenians.  There had already been a build-up of aggression against Armenians from Turkish nationals, so the pashas had no trouble convincing the public that Armenians were to blame for economic strife within the Empire.

This aggression came to a head when the pashas ordered that all able-bodied Armenian men be rounded up and killed, in an attempt to minimize the resistance to the genocide that was about to take place.  The Ottoman government later rounded up the remaining Armenians in the Empire, and forced them on what historians are now calling death marches.

Needless to say, a vast number of Armenian people died, and because of the attention to western Europe during and before WWI, those that knew about the genocide taking place were either unable or unwilling to stop it.  Armin Wegner, a German soldier that witnessed the genocide as it was happening, lobbied his government to step in, but they refused.  So, in an effort to see some justice for the Armenian people, he documented the events by taking photos of the atrocities, at great personal risk.  Other foreigners tried to help as well.  One man even publishing a book about it while it was still taking place, but no one was able to successfully prevent the slaughtering of a people.

Stanley then spoke about how these mass killings were immediately, almost enigmatically, forgotten by history.  Turks denied that it took place, and Armenians never spoke out about it, either in fear of punishment or to allow themselves to move on.

Stanley argued that this mass “amnesia” caused another problem, beyond the atrocities that took place.

“When something like this can be so easily forgotten, who can stop someone else from doing the same thing?” Stanley said.

The point of his argument is that someone else did do the same thing, during WWII.  The Third Reich enlisted this idea that horrible acts can easily be lost to history, with Adolf Hitler even referring to the Armenian genocide when discussing his invasion of Poland.

That idea subsequently backfired, as the Holocaust became globally remembered, even as many events like the Armenian genocide are forgotten.  But the point made then still stands today.

“Many of these events are forgotten.  The Holocaust is the exception; remembering something is the anomaly,” Stanley said.

The History club will continue their lecture series with another speaker on Wednesday, November 14th, in Doudna Hall.