Armenian memorial

A couple walk recently in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, at the Tzitzernakaberd memorial to the victims of the Armenian genocide. The U.S. House of Representatives has voted overwhelmingly to recognize the century-old mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks as genocide. The move is a clear rebuke to NATO ally Turkey in the wake of its attack on Kurds in northern Syria. 

I always knew the Armenian genocide was real because I grew up with Armenians who survived it and then made their way to a safe space in the middle of the United States. I was born in Racine and raised in the western Racine County village of Union Grove. I came of age in the Racine County Courthouse. My dad was an assistant district attorney and, when I was a kid, he would take me to the courthouse with him in the morning. I got to run around that remarkable building and hang out in courtrooms and judicial chambers and clerk offices. I got to know Armaganians and Gulbankians and lots of other Armenian-Americans.

For more than a century, Racine has been a place of incoming for Armenian immigrants and a home to their children and grandchildren. They built churches, formed clubs and community groups, opened stores and coffee shops, and became CEOs and doctors and lawyers. Yet they never forgot where they came from, or why they had to come. Vartak Gulbankian, who had come to the United States at the age of 6 with her parents, and who settled in Racine, was one of the Armenian-Americans with whom my father practiced law. A remarkable woman, she graduated from high school at the age of 14 and, at the age of 21, graduated from the University of Wisconsin Law School as the only woman in the class of 1935. She went on to practice law for more than 50 years, and was a proud member of the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups that placed an emphasis on civil rights and civil liberties.

As a child, I learned from these immigrants the history of the Armenian genocide, which began on April 24, 1915, when hundreds of Armenian intellectuals and community leaders were murdered by the Turks. With that, according to the International Association of Genocide Scholars, the "Young Turk government of the Ottoman Empire began a systematic genocide of its Armenian citizens — an unarmed Christian minority population. More than a million Armenians were exterminated through direct killing, starvation, torture, and forced death marches." Henry Morgenthau Jr., the U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, said at the time, “The great massacres and persecutions of the past seem almost insignificant when compared to the sufferings of the Armenian race in 1915.”

I also learned of the denial of the genocide, as an assault on truth and memory that has extended across more than a century. There was never any question in my mind that Colin Tatz, the founding director of the Australian Institute for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, was right when he said, “The Turkish denial (of the Armenian genocide) is probably the foremost example of historical perversion. With a mix of academic sophistication and diplomatic thuggery … the Turks have put both memory and history into reverse gear.” Stanley Cohen, the great professor of criminology at Hebrew University, said, “The nearest successful example (of collective denial) in the modern era is the 80 years of official denial by successive Turkish governments of the 1915-17 genocide against the Armenians in which 1.5 million people lost their lives. This denial has been sustained by deliberate propaganda, lying and cover-ups, forging documents, suppression of archives, and bribing scholars.”

The denial has continued to the present day, so egregiously that when Pope Francis acknowledged the 100th anniversary of the genocide in 2015, The New York Times reported that the papal statement “caused a diplomatic uproar with Turkey,” which recalled its ambassador from the Vatican and condemned the pope’s reference to “genocide” as “baseless.” At the time the controversy flared, The Times reported, “Successive administrations have sought to skirt this question because of Turkey’s growing importance as a NATO ally and as an influential political and economic power in the Middle East.”

Last week, however, the U.S. House of Representatives put itself on the side of truth. The chamber voted 405-11 for a resolution that acknowledged the genocide “in solemn remembrance of one of the great atrocities of the 20th century.” Congressman Mark Pocan, D-Town of Vermont, and every other member of the Wisconsin House delegation, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, voted for the resolution. Turkish officials immediately decried and dismissed the vote — describing it as “a meaningless political step.”

But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., corrected that false premise. Of course it was meaningful. As Pelosi explained, “If we ignore history, then we are destined to witness the mistakes of the past be repeated.” Added Pelosi, “Recent attacks by the Turkish military against the Kurdish people are a stark reminder of the danger in our own time.”

But there is more to it than that. House recognition of the Armenian genocide is a vital step. It’s not a final step, mind you; the Senate and the White House still must get on the right side of history. But it matters because, as Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, an Armenian-American from California, reminds us, “This resolution not only commemorates my ancestors who perished but all those who were lost in the first genocide of the 20th century.”

It also honors those who have fought on behalf of history, and the truth — Armenian-Americans, and their allies, in places like Racine.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising. 

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