Monday, December 13, 2010

Looking back at the 'first Holocaust'

ARMENIANS being marched off under armed guard.

ARMENIAN poster in their quarter of Jerusalem's Old City commemorates massacres of May 1915

"Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?". So Adolf Hitler is said to have assured his generals of impunity when he urged utter ruthless, as they prepared to invade Poland.

I was talking about Armenia yesterday evening, to a teacher friend worried about the way "the Holocaust" is taught as an exclusive event, and how it is used and abused in propaganda. As a matter of fact, 'holocaust' a Greek word for sacrifice by fire, was first used by Winston Churchill during the First World War to describe events in the Ottoman empire, during which a million Armenians died, some burned, some drowned, more driven into the desert.

Massacres were nothing new, and without getting into arguments as to whether the deaths in the Atlantic slave trade or Irish famine count, we can say that neither Armenians nor Jews were the first victims of modern genocide.That honour belongs to the Herero and Namaqa poples of what is now called Namibia. In 1904 they rose up against the growing German colonisation of their country, where they faced loss of their land and cattle, and being forced into reservations, or bondage to the settlers.

Before ordering his troops into battle against the Herero, the German commander General Trotha wrote: "I believe that the nation as such should be annihilated, or, if this was not possible by tactical measures, have to be expelled from the country...This will be possible if the water-holes from Grootfontein to Gobabis are occupied. The constant movement of our troops will enable us to find the small groups of nation who have moved backwards and destroy them gradually.".

Unarmed men, women and children were shot and bayoneted, Up to 100, 000 Herero and 10,000 Nama were killed. Many were also herded into concentration camps, where without adequate food, they were worked to death, and some were used in medical experiments. Skulls were sent to German universities, displayed in scientific lectures on the superiority of the white race.

After the First World War, German South West Africa was attached to South Africa, but after it gained independence as Namibia, Herero filed a lawsuit demanding reparations from Germany and the Deutsche Bank, which had financed colonisation. On August 16, 2004, at the 100th anniversary of the start of the genocide, Germany's Minister of Economic Development Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, officially apologized, :
“ We Germans accept our historical and moral responsibility and the guilt incurred by Germans at that time."

Responsibility for the death of over a million Armenians remains in contention, almost a century after. Turkish governments have argued that their predecessors were confronting Armenian revolt, supported by the Russians, and they had no genocidal aim.

Three years ago when a memorial to the Armenians was unveiled in Cardiff's Garden of Peace, hundreds of Turks were bussed up to protest. The memorial was vandalised on the eve of Holocaust memorial day the following year. Journalist Hrant Dink was murdered outside his newspaper's Istanbul office in 2007, the victim of a right-wing hate campaign because he wrote about the Armenian massacres. The European Court of Human Rights ruled in September this year that the Turkish authorities had failed to protect his rights or his life. Orhan Pamuk, Turkey's first Nobel prizewinner for literature, has had to leave his country to avoid a similar fate.

What other governments have to say about the Armenians is influenced by modern day relations with Turkey and strategic considerations. Many Armenian refugees settled in Iran, Lebanon, Cyprus (whence some have been made refugees a second time) and Palestine, as well as Western countries. Armenians in Israel have demonstrated demanding official recognition that what happened to their people was genocide, and today I read that academics from the Bar Ilan and America's Georgetown University have signed a letter to the Israeli government to this effect, also urging it to support the Kurds. Neither of these are progressive institutions, and whatever the Israeli government's temptations to hypocrisy, it may prefer to keep Turkey an ally for now. But since the Mavi Marmara incident the US Congress foreign affairs committee has changed its tune, officially recognising for the first time that what happened to the Armenians was genocide.

What's stranger to understand is why present day Turkish people and governments should feel responsible for the actions of a long past regime, (that of the 'three pashas' Enver, Talat and Cemal, each of whom paid for the crimes one way or another), and for policy aims that were not entirely Turkish. It is ironic that German parliamentarians are among those who have urged Turkey to acknowledge its responsibilities.

On August 3, 1914 Enver Pasha signed the secret treaty allying Turkey with Germany, and the following day Rear-Admiral Wilhelm Souchon was ordered to head with two battleships to Turkey. There the German crews donned the fez before proceeding to attack Russian ports. Souchon was made commander in chief of the Turkish Navy.

Imperial Germany had entirely material aims in this war, extending across Europe and the Balkans and along the Baghdad Railway, to coveted Mesopotamia and its wealth, and threaten British India. But the Kaiser had proclaimed himself "protector of Islam", and Germany's agent Max Freiherr von Oppenheim, urged that the secular Turkish government request the Sultan, as head of the Caliphate, to declare jihad.

Blaming Armenian resistance for setbacks, on February 25, 1915, Enver ordered that all Armenians serving in the Ottoman forces should be disarmed and sent to labour battalions. Special units, recruited from convicts, were formed for action against the Armeninians. On April 24, Interior minister Mehmed Talat declared that the Armenians had rebelled against his government, and ordered mass arrests in the cities. Elsewhere, Armenians were forced on long marches, without food or water, into the Syrian desert.

Satisfied that "the deportation of the Armenians has been decided", General Fritz Bronsart von Schellendorf , at army GHQ., was undertanding. "...the Armenian is just like a Jew, a parasite outside the confines of his homeand, sucking of the marrow of the peoples of the host country". Even when officers reported there were no signs of an uprising. Bronsart still insisted on the "military necessity" of deporting Armenian civilians.
In Germany, military censorship made sure even Reichstag members let alone the general public were kept in the dark about what was being done.

I've written an article on the Armenian massacres in the current issue of Jewish Socialist magazine. It was a chapter on "The First Holocaust" in Robert Fisk's monumental work The Great War for Civilisation which drew my attention to Vahakan N.Dadrian's book German Responsibility in the Armenian Genocide, which I was able to read in the British Library.

While Dadrian's carefully researched work has come under attack from various scholars of whatever loyalty, some much lesser and more scurrilous publications are available on the internet. One of these, also on sale in Yerevan, apparently, (Searchlight, December 2010) is snappily entitled Zionism from Theodor Herzl to Lord Rothschild and the Armenian Response , by Harytium Sarkissian,and purports to show that from the 18th century on there was a Jewish-British and Jewish-Turkish conspiracy against the Armenians. The presence of covert Jews in Enver Pasha's Committee of Union and Progress is presumably the clincher.

I am not sure how this squares with Herzl's failure to obtain backing from the Kaiser or the Sultan, after which the Zionists threw in their lot with the British, from whom Weizman negotiated the Balfour Declaration sent to Lord Rothschild, but I guess I am not patient enough, you have to really believe in such conspiracy theory. Von Schellendorf and co. blamed "the Jew Morgenthau" (US ambassador) for "interfering", and Jewish movelist Franz Werfel for propagandising on the side of the Armenains.

By way of an alternative brand of idiocy, there's an American Zionist pamphlet available on the net which uses the quote from Hitler with which I started to "prove" that responsibility for the Nazi Holocaust lay with Haj Amin el Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, who had served as an officer in the Turkish Army and thus got the holocaust idea. Why the Nazis, whose antisemitism was born in Germany and clad in 19th century racial theory, should need an upstart junior ally from an inferior "race" to inspire them, is not clear. The mufti had been 20 when he was commissioned as an artillery officer at Smirna, and within a year he switched like the Zionists had done the British side. (Moshe Sharett, a future prime minister of Israel also served in the Turkish army). With 12,000 German soldiers having served in Turkey, including top generals and prominent officials of the Nazi regime, Hitler and his officers hardly needed telling about what had been done to the Armenians. Not to mention the Hereros.

Still, I suppose if the right-wing Zionists can blame the Mufti, and Islam in general, they can figure Hitler a mere innocent who was misled, and that would excuse some of their new alliances!

The important thing to establish and teach is not just the truth of mass atrocities, nor the nationality of those responsible, but the kind of policies that lead to such atrocities. Only when we end them can we say NEVER AGAIN -TO ANYONE.

* Massacring the Truth, by Charlie Pottins, is in Jewish Socialist no.67, Winter 2010-2011
£2, from Jewish Socialist, BM3725, London WC1N 3XX. Also from good bookshops.

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At 1:01 AM, Blogger Dennis L. said...

Glad you mention the often forgotten genocide of the Herero and the Hottentots (Nama) by the Germans i 1904-1907. This has the dubious honor of being the first genocide of the 20th century.


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