The Armenian Genocide and the Ethics of Remembrance

Remembrance is always the result of a will not to forget evil.

“To conceal or deny Evil is the same as allowing a wound to bleed without bandaging it.”

This statement by Pope Francis in April 2015 was linked to the first official Vatican use of the word genocide to deplore and condemn the state-sponsored mass murders perpetrated against a huge civilian population a hundred years ago in what used to be the Ottoman Empire. The Pope is right: Forgetfulness, denial, and silence cannot but perpetuate a culture of complicity with Evil.

The massacre of a million and a half Armenians (men, women, elderly people, and children) initiated in April 1915 and appallingly completed by 1923, was the first genocidal experience of what an American historian called the age of social catastrophes. That exterminist cataclysm was the Armenians’ Holocaust. We use the term exterminist in the sense put forward by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen in his book "Hitler's Willing Executioners." The purpose was not just exclusion and elimination, but complete annihilation of the targeted collectivity, in this case the Armenians, later the Jews, the Gypsies, the Tutsis and so on. It was not a spontaneous explosion of murderous hatred, but a meticulously designed and methodically executed plan to physically destroy those labeled as sub-humans or even non-humans.

Killing an Armenian—or later a Jew, a Kulak, a Bosnian, any member of a community stigmatized as superfluous (a term introduced by Hannah Arendt)—was the same as getting rid of a pernicious insect. The hateful genocidal propaganda always referred to the "obnoxious vermin." Symbolic dehumanization made way for physical termination. Ideology precedes and legitimizes the hecatomb. The ultimate goal is the ethnically or socially pure (and purified) community.

For Hitler, who openly admired Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and saw himself as a "Father of the Nation,", the Armenian massacre (the term genocide had not been coined yet) was proof that humankind is quick to forget, that one should not be held back by moral reservations. Totalitarianism bets everything on opportunism, cowardice, and amnesia. And, most obviously, on sadism—be it social or racial.

In conversations with his minions, Hitler used to mention the following when explaining the “necessity” to exterminate the European Jews: “Who even remembers the Armenian annihilation nowadays?” What is truly terrifying is that many of those who committed these mass murders seemed normal people, persons who “wouldn’t hurt a fly” (a point made by Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulić in her book "They Would Never Hurt a Fly" ). They wouldn’t harm an ant, but mercilessly massacred women and children. And even took pictures of it...

Here is a copy of a famous painting by Arshile Gorky, born Vosdanig Adoian. Alongside creations by Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, Gorky’s work was American Abstract Expressionism’s moment of supreme glory. The artist was himself a genocide survivor, his mother died of starvation in 1918.

It is admirable that Pope Francis urges humanity not to forget Evil and we agree with his stance. In the spirit of Albert Camus, Nadezhda Mandelstam, and Monica Lovinescu, we advocate the ethics of unforgetfulness. Because remembrance is always the result of a will not to forget Evil. The democratic ethos is rooted in this need to acknowledge the tragedies of the past. Forgiveness cannot be granted in the absence of repentance. Yet we dare to wonder whether the term “Stalinism” used by Pope Francis in his speech (together with Nazism) is clear enough to help understand that it comprises the communist crimes of the last century, including those perpetrated by Maoism. Just between 1958 and 1961, during the so-called "Great Leap Forward", 45 millions of Chinese citizens died.

These crimes against humanity have been genocidal. They should be called by name, known, condemned, and commemorated with sorrow and empathy, regardless of what the various chancelleries specialized in the diplomatic concealing of the truth might say. Regardless of what the self-proclaimed experts in “linguistic hygiene” might say.

To conclude, we recommend here Charles Aznavour’s moving song “Ils sont tombés.”

Vladimir Tismaneanu is a professor of politics at the University of Maryland (College Park) and author of numerous books, including most recently “The Devil in History: Communism, Fascism, and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century.” Marius Stan is a Romanian political scientist, author of books in Romanian and Polish, and currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Bucharest. This essay was translated from Romanian into English by Monica Got.

Tags: evil, genocide

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