Armenia As a State of Mind: 100 Years After the Genocide

By Matthias Bjørnlund
Every person in the world should know what the Armenian Genocide is – not was, but is, as the consequences of the Young Turks’ campaign of destruction are still very much with us today: diasporic communities scattered around the world, where descendants of genocide survivors have made homes away from home. They have made new lives away from Western Armenia and seized upon new opportunities, thus defying immense hardships in exile and the genocidal logic of the perpetrators. Consequences of the genocide also persist as bittersweet memories of life in the old country before 1915, of the genocide itself, of the stolen Armenian property that laid the foundation for the new Turkish republic. They live on in the denial and obfuscation of the genocide, where victims become perpetrators, where right becomes wrong.
Back in 1915, a lot of people used to know about the Armenian Genocide. Newspapers from United States to Scandinavia, from China and Australia to South America covered the events extensively and in almost real-time with front-page telegrams, op-eds and analytical articles. They covered all aspects of the destruction, beginning with the increasingly dehumanizing rhetoric during the early stages of World War I, the arrest of Armenian notables, the elimination of Ottoman Armenian soldiers and the death marches and massacres that completed the genocide. Outright denial or, more frequently in those days, cynical rationalization by the Ottoman state and various western sympathizers accompanied every stage, yet the amount of trustworthy eyewitness testimony and diplomatic reports documenting the genocide was and remains overwhelming. 
But how to name – let alone make sense of – the supreme evil that left defenseless men, women and children as victims of cruelties beyond imagination? Survivors, witnesses and contemporary observers grappled with this. They called it massacre, annihilation, “The Great Catastrophe” or “The Great Crime.” In Scandinavia and Germany they even called it “genocide” by using variations of the term “folkemord,” “the murder of a people,” to encapsulate the events. That was years before Polish-German lawyer Raphael Lemkin invented the legal-historical term “genocide” to describe not only the Nazi Holocaust during World War II, but also the Armenian Genocide and other atrocities. The Danish relief worker Karen Jeppe, who witnessed the bloody destruction of Armenians in Urfa and of the women and children on the death marches from the north of the empire, simply called it “The Big Death.”
It was The Big Death, no doubt about that. And in a certain sense it was the end, the end of thousands of years of rich and varied Armenian life and culture in Western Armenia, the ancestral homeland of millions. There is very little of that left now in Turkey compared to what once was.
But a new beginning, however fragile at first, follows every end, and present-day Armenia is not just a geographical location, a state formation or a memory of past glory. Armenia is also a state of mind, an attitude, a will to survive and thrive that can be found and taken anywhere. It is deep traditions and constant reinventions, always adapting to new circumstances. 
Thus Armenian life has sprung up in communities all around the world, in little churches in India, at the royal court in Ethiopia, in the factories and shops of Marseille, Liverpool and Moscow, in Soviet Armenia and now in the independent Republic of Armenia. That calls for a solemn commemoration in 2015, but it also calls for a celebration of 100 years of successfully fighting oblivion. Because even though time and denial have to some extent eroded the once supple knowledge of not only the genocide, but also of the rich, living heritage of the Armenian people, events and cultures of such importance will not simply go away.
Thus there is proper cause to pay our respects to those who lost their lives from 1915 onward, to those who survived and built the foundation that allowed Armenian life to continue, and to those who now and in the future will stand on their shoulders in Armenia and in the world, creating even more awareness and greater possibilities for the descendants of the survivors and for humankind as such. 
There certainly are obstacles, like a lack of knowledge of the historical events, especially in Turkey, where Armenians have been written out of history or are presented as traitors. Maybe one day Turks will truly celebrate the deep Armenian roots that were cut in 1915, roots that are still visible here and there in modern Turkey: in the architecture of cities, in the scattered ruins of the countryside, in the Muslim Turks and Kurds with a forcibly assimilated Armenian ancestor who are now reclaiming their Armenian heritage. Maybe the Turkish state will one day even follow the lead of parts of Turkish civil society and start celebrating those brave Ottoman Turks, Kurds and Arabs who actively resisted the genocide. 
One hundred years have gone by since 1915, a century – not a long time from a historical perspective. For those who are lucky enough to grow very old it is merely a lifetime. That is part of the reason why the wounds are still bleeding for many Armenians today – time has not healed them. There are a number of opinions as to whether those wounds could or should be healed, and if so, how – reparations, apologies, the opening of the border between Turkey and Armenia, economic and civil cooperation, etc. These are all part of an ongoing, legitimate and much-needed debate about the future of Armenians in the world. 
But what these Armenians have shown the world over the last century is that wounds need not be obstacles to progress and development, that remembrance of all that was lost can exist side by side with creativity, resilience, love for future generations and the hope of what some day might be.
Matthias Bjørnlund is a Danish historian who in 2003-2005 was the workshop leader of the Department for Holocaust and Genocide Studies in Copenhagen. Bjørnlund is also working as a researcher and translator of Danish documents on the Armenian Genocide.
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