It is often said that history is written by the victor. When it comes to the recollections of the past championed within bourgeois society, objective historical realities are obscured (if not omitted or re-written) when the facts and lessons to be gleaned from them challenge the hegemony of its ruling class. As such, we are taught in school and in society certain facts about events, and other events, as monumental as they may be, are conveniently left out. In extreme cases, the denial of historical realities is reinforced with state repression.
Take, for instance, the case of the Armenian Genocide. During the years of the First World War, the Ottoman Empire embarked upon a campaign of the systematic eradication of the Armenian people, with a death toll of some 1.5 million Armenians being murdered. The documentary evidence for this crime, which includes pictures, state documents, letters and the testimony of witnesses, is overwhelming, yet states continue to deny this genocide. In Turkey, there are repressive laws in place which prohibit “insulting Turkish-ness” by acknowledging the “so-called” Armenian Genocide.
The documentary Germany & the Secret Genocide (2003), directed by J. Michael Hagopian, is part of an important effort to battle such denial. Not only does it document in depth the events of the genocide itself, but it also asserts a conscious understanding that imperialism has played a vital role in facilitating the execution and denial of genocide.
The Documentary: an Effective and Informative Case against the Denial
One strong suit of this documentary is that, unlike others, which are more likely to make statements about historical events to be blindly accepted as facts, this film carefully brings forward official documents, letters, diplomatic cables and other primary source material whenever possible.
This is essential when documenting genocide because there are often those who attempt to deny genocide utilizing a variety of tactics, which often include the underestimation of the population of victims, (which is a regular occurrence when denying the Armenian genocide, wherein the denier claims the Armenian population was one million rather than two) authoring up stories that attempt to explain and justify, while denying, the actions of the genocideres (sticking to the official Ottoman story that the Armenians were being deported “for their safety”) and other such deception and distortion that needs to be challenged with carefully documented evidence.
In providing extensive proof, what the genocide researcher does is expose the true motives for genocide denial: nationalism, national chauvinism and concealing those realities which challenge the hegemony of nation-states and their national bourgeoisie. Modern-day Turkey, as well as other countries that have a bone to pick with the Armenian people, can only continue to deny the Armenian Genocide, despite a wealth of evidence to the contrary, because of their own fetishization of their national origin and national chauvinism towards Armenians.
Imperialism: Greasing the Gears of Genocide
One strength of Germany & the Secret Genocide is that it places the Armenian Genocide in the context of imperialism, which is essential to its understanding, rather than choosing to focus entirely on the biographies of certain leaders and figures, as is often the case when it comes to studies of genocide.
The destruction of entire ethnic groups and cultures does not happen in a vacuum; it requires a larger mechanism that is willing to fund and execute a policy of ethnic cleansing on a massive scale, which is ultimately an expensive and risky endeavor. It isn’t enough to attach emotional qualifiers to the genocideres (such as their being “savage” or “evil”) in an attempt to explain why individuals would participate in and uphold genocidal policies. Rather, when one only focuses on heads of state and other high-ranking figures in genocidal regimes, the result is an analysis that lends itself to individualism and “great man, evil man” perceptions of history. This is to miss the forest for the trees, so to speak.
Rather than produce a documentary work on how the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed V and his Minister of War Enver Pasha were “evil,” the film discusses the role of the Baghdad Railway, a German project designed to link Berlin and then-Ottoman Baghdad for purposes of trade, was a major factor. Both the Ottomans and the Germans had an interest in securing territory to the west where the Armenians lived. Both powers were allies who had much to gain from the trade that this route would provide, and both were pitted against the same rival imperialist power, Great Britain, whose position of dominance could be undermined with a flourishing trade route between Germany and the Ottoman empire. For their imperialist regimes to flourish in the wake of stiff economic and military opposition from rival powers, it became clear to both sides that the completion of the Baghdad Railway had to be realized at any cost.
Denial and Complicity: German Imperialism’s Role in the Cover-Up
It was because of these clear economic, political and military incentives that Germany was compelled to look the other way while the Ottomans decided to eliminate the Armenians. Indeed, there were those in Germany who championed various anti-Armenian perspectives, from a desire to push the Armenians out of their native territory due to their “industriousness” to “racializes” perspectives which saw the Armenians as being the “Jews of the orient.”
These ideological perspectives emerged not out of some “evil,” some abstract metaphysical problem with the Ottomans and Germans themselves, but because there were larger interests which required the German authorities to turn the other cheek towards the Ottoman’s campaign of mass murder.
The Railway, which was owned by a German bank, was being built in part by Armenian slave labor and was being used to transport Armenian prisoners in cattle cars to their demise. The film carefully documents communications from this time between various investors, missionaries and German officials, some of whom lodged protest against the unfolding genocide, yet these protests were promptly ignored by the German state.
This denial became state policy, rendering the German forces complicit in the Ottoman massacres. There is further evidence that German soldiers and officers participated in the killings of Armenians asserted by Germany & the Secret Genocide.
US Imperialism: Assisting in Genocide Denial for the Same Reasons
The recognition of the genocide of the Armenians during the First World War has surfaced in contemporary politics, yet despite the wealth of evidence of the events of 1915, the United States government has yet to officially recognize the genocide.
Individual states have adopted legislation that acknowledges the genocide (with the exception of Alabama, Mississippi, West Virginia, Indiana, Iowa, Wyoming, and South Dakota) and legislation was proposed in congress to acknowledge the genocide (HR 106) yet debate on the bill has been postponed and Barack Obama’s campaign promise to acknowledge the genocide have yet to be fulfilled.
Secretary of State Clinton has gone as far as to assure the Turkish government that “the U.S. administration opposes both the decision accepted by the (house committee on foreign affairs) and the decision reaching the general assembly” regarding HR 106.
When one examines the chief reason asserted by the opponents of HR 106 for not formally recognizing the genocide, once again the motive of imperialism for genocide denial becomes painfully obvious. The United States, whose wars of occupation in the middle east drone on continuously, requires Turkey’s continued support as a NATO ally, in the usage of its airspace and US military installations in the country. It would be inconvenient to US economic and military interests in the region if their government were to adopt a resolution acknowledging the crimes of Turkey’s past.
The opportunist policy of US imperialism towards acknowledging the Armenian genocide presents us with a tragic irony when we look back to the history of the genocide as it unfolded and the bravery demonstrated by those who tried to expose it. The American ambassador to the Ottoman empire during the First World War, Henry Morgenthau, Sr., collected reports from Americans residing in various parts of the Ottoman Empire and lodged official protest to the US government, insisting they intervene on behalf of the Armenians. He helped create the “Committee on Armenian Atrocities” to raise funds for the victims, and even admonished Talaat Pasha, the Ottoman Interior Minister, saying “Our people will never forget these massacres.” (3)
Yet, despite his efforts, the US government to this day continues to waffle on the acknowledgment of the pain and devastation inflicted by the Ottoman Empire on the Armenians, effectively forgetting the massacres for what they are as they conflict with their interests abroad.
Conclusion: to Remember and Resist Genocide, We must Remember and Resist Imperialism
The 20th century has borne witness to a great many tragedies perpetrated by imperialism. Entire peoples have been colonized and destroyed thanks to the appetites and agendas of capital. The Armenian Genocide is another such example of imperialism deciding whose lives are worthy and what peoples deserve repression and ethnic cleansing. If we are to stand against genocide, to prevent the utter annihilation of peoples by imperialist armies, we need to understand and stand against the forces which facilitate these crimes.
Imperialism, by its very design, is genocidal. It exists and perpetuates itself by advancing a structural violence that produces immense poverty and deprivation for a majority of the world’s working peoples.
When necessary, imperialism has no qualms about utilizing any means necessary to get its hands on the resources it needs to extract profits. Those who stand in the way, be they Armenians, Kurds, Palestinians, Herero, Namaqua or any number of ethnic groups targeted by imperialist powers, are considered expendable, less than human, and candidates for extermination. This applies to all imperialist powers, and those who think that the “good guys” among them will stand in the way of genocide are deluded if they think any imperialist power, no matter how much it prides itself on its dedication to “human rights,” won’t look the other way if it serves their profit interests.
Germany & the Secret Genocide serves an important purpose in demonstrating this reality. While the documentary does contain certain inaccuracies, namely in that it advances the mistaken notion that the Armenian Genocide was the first genocide of the 20th century (the genocide of the Herero and Namaqua people by German imperialism in Africa came first), and another mistaken notion that this genocide was the first in which rail cars were used to transport the victims of genocide (again, the German imperialists did this first in Africa).
Despite these flaws, Germany & the Secret Genocide is the best documentary that we’ve seen on the Armenian Genocide, and the Red Phoenix recommends it highly for anyone with in interest in genocide and the crimes of imperialism.
3. Oren. Power, Faith, and Fantasy, p. 335.
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