|FISK on Holocaust and genocide
INDEPENDENT (London) 5 August 2000
Why is it that only one of the great holocausts of the last century
a capital 'H'? Here, Robert Fisk, who has spent many years researching
massacre of one and a half million Armenian Christians, argues that
acts of genocide deserve equal recognition
In the spring of 1993, with my car keys, I slowly unearthed a set of
skulls from the clay wall of a hill in northern Syria. I had been looking
for the evidence of a mass murder -- the world's first genocide Ð
previous two days but it took a 101-year-old Armenian woman to locate
river bed where her family were murdered in the First World War. The
I dug into the hillside next to the Habur river, the more skulls slid
the earth, bright white at first then, gradually, collapsing into paste
the cold, wet air reached the calcium for the first time since their
murder. The teeth were unblemished -- these were mostly young people
and the bones I later found stretched behind them were strong. Backbones,
femurs, joints, a few of them laced with the remains of some kind of
There were dozens of skeletons here. The more I dug away with my car
the more eye sockets peered at me out of the clay. It was a place of
In 1915, the world reacted with equal horror as news emerged from the
dying Ottoman Empire of the deliberate destruction of at least a million
and a half Christian Armenians. Their fate -- the ethnic cleansing
ancient race from the lands of Turkey, the razing of their towns and
churches, the mass slaughter of their menfolk, the massacre of their
and children -- was denounced in Paris, London and Washington as a
crime. Tens of thousands of Armenian women -- often after mass rape
their Turkish guards -- were left to die of starvation with their children
along the banks of the Habur river near Deir ez-Zour, in what is today
northern Syria. The few men who survived were tied together and thrown
into the river. Turkish gendarmes would fire a bullet into one of them
his body would drag the rest to their deaths. Their skulls -- a few
them -- were among the bones I unearthed on that terrible afternoon
The deliberate nature of this slaughter was admitted by the then Turkish
leader, Enver Pasha, in a conversation with Henry Morgenthau, the US
ambassador in Constantinople, a Jewish-American diplomat whose vivid
reports to Washington in 1915 form an indictment of the greatest war
the modern world had ever known. Enver denounced the Armenians for
with Russia in its war with the Turks. But even the Germans, Ottoman
Turkey's ally in the First World War, condemned the atrocities; for
the Armenian civilian population which was cut down by the Turks. The
historian Arnold Toynbee, who worked for the Foreign Office during
war, was to record the "atmosphere of horror" which lay over the abandoned
Armenian lands in the aftermath of the savagery. Men had been lined
bridges to have their throats cut and be thrown into rivers; in orchards
and fields, women and children had been knifed. Armenians had been
the thousand, sometimes beaten to death with clubs. Earlier Turkish
pogroms against the Armenians of Asia Minor had been denounced by Lord
Gladstone. In the aftermath of the 1914-18 war, Winston Churchill was
most eloquent in reminding the world of the Armenian Holocaust.
"In 1915 the Turkish Government began and ruthlessly carried out the
infamous general massacre and deportation of Armenians in Asia Minor,"
Churchill wrote in his magisterial volume four of The Great War. "...
clearance of the race from Asia Minor was about as complete as such
act, on a scale so great, could well be ... There is no reasonable
that this crime was planned and executed for political reasons." Churchill
referred to the Turks as "war criminals" and wrote of their "massacring
uncounted thousands of helpless Armenians -- men, women and children
together; whole districts blotted out in one administrative holocaust
these were beyond human redress."
So Churchill himself, writing 80 years ago, used the word "holocaust"
about the Armenian massacres. I am not surprised. A few miles north
site where I had dug up those skulls, I found a complex of underground
caves beneath the Syrian desert. Thousands of Armenians had been driven
into this subterranean world in 1915 and Turkish gendarmes lit bonfires
the mouths of the caves. The smoke was blown into the caves and the
were asphyxiated. The caves were the world's first gas chambers. No
wonder, then, that Hitler is recorded as asking his generals -- as
planned his own numerically far more terrible holocaust -- "Who does
remember the Armenians?"
Could such a crime be denied? Could such an act of mass wickedness be
covered up? Or could it, as Hitler suggested, be forgotten? Could the
world's first holocaust -- a painful irony, this -- be half-acknowledged
but downgraded in the list of human bestiality as the dreadful 20th
century produced further acts of mass barbarity?
Alas, all this has come to pass. When I wrote about the Armenian massacres
in The Independent in 1993, the Turks denounced my article -- as they
countless books and investigations before and since -- as a lie. Turkish
readers wrote to the editor to demand my dismissal from the paper.
Armenian civilians had been killed, they wrote, this was a result of
anarchy that existed in Ottoman Turkey in the First World War, civil
in which countless Turks had died and in which Armenian paramilitaries
deliberately taken the side of Tsarist Russia. The evidence of European
commissions into the massacres, the eye-witness accounts of Western
journalists at the later slaughter of Armenians at Smyrna -- the
present-day holiday resort of Izmir where British sunbathers today
idea of the bloodbath that took place around their beaches -- the
denunciations of Morgenthau and Churchill, are all dismissed as
When a Holocaust conference was to be held in Israel, the Turkish
government objected to the inclusion of material on the Armenian
slaughter. Incredibly, Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel withdrew from
conference after the Israeli foreign ministry said that it might damage
Israeli-Turkish relations. The conference went ahead, but only in
miniature form. In the United States, Turkey's powerful lobby groups
attack journalists or academics who suggest the Armenian genocide was
fact. Turkish ambassadors regularly write letters -- which have appeared
in all British newspapers, even in the Israeli press -- denying the
of the Armenian Holocaust. No one -- save the Armenians -- objects
denial. Scarcely a whimper comes from those who would, rightly, condemn
any denial of the Jewish Holocaust.
For Turkey -- no longer the "sick man of Europe" -- is courted by the
Western powers which so angrily condemned its cruelty in the last century.
It is a valued member of the Nato alliance -- our ally in bombing Serbia
last year -- the closest regional ally of Israel and a major buyer
and French weaponry. Just as we remained largely silent at the persecution
of the Kurds, so we prefer to ignore the world's first holocaust. While
Britain's massive contribution to the proposed Euphrates dam project
south-eastern Turkey was in the balance, Tony Blair was not going to
mention the Armenian atrocities. Indeed, when this year he announced
Britain was to honour an annual Holocaust Day, he made no mention of
Armenians. Holocaust Day, it seems, was to be a Jewish-only affair.
was to take a capital "H" when it applied to the Jews.
I've always agreed with this. Mass ethnic slaughter on such a scale
Hitler's murder of six million Jews -- deserves a capital "H". But
believe that the genocide of other races merits a capital "H". Millions
Jews -- despite Wiesel's gutlessness and the shameful reaction of the
Israeli government -- have shown common cause with the Armenians in
suffering, acknowledging the 1915 massacres as the precursor of the
"Shoah" or Jewish Holocaust. Norman Finkelstein in his angry new book
the "Holocaust industry" makes a similar point, adding that the Jewish
experience -- both his parents were extermination camp survivors --
not be allowed to diminish the genocide committed against other ethnic
groups in modern history. Indeed, the very word "genocide" was invented
for the Armenians in 1944 -- by a Polish-born Jew, Raphael Lemkin.
Nor can I myself forget the Armenian Holocaust. The very last survivors
that genocide are still -- just -- alive, and several of them live
Beirut where I am based as Middle East correspondent of The Independent.
have read extensively about and, occasionally, researched the Jewish
Holocaust -- my own book about the Lebanese war, Pity the Nation, begins
in Auschwitz, where I found frozen lakes filled with the powdered bones
the dead from the ashpits of Birkenau. But the Armenian Holocaust has
"my" story because it is part of the Middle East's history as well
world's. Only this year, I interviewed Hartun, a 101-year-old blind
Armenian in an old people's home in East Beirut who remembered how,
Syrian desert in 1915, his mother pleaded with Turks not to rape her
18-year-old daughter -- Hartun's sister. "As she begged them not to
my sister, they beat her to death," Hartun recalled. "I remember her
dying, shouting 'Hartun, Hartun, Hartun' over and over. When she was
they took my sister away on a horse. I never saw her again." Hartun
after years of bitterness and longing for revenge -- was overcome with
what he called "my Christian belief" and decided to abandon the notion
vengeance. "When the Turkish earthquake killed so many people last
he told me, "I prayed for the poor Turkish people."
It was a deeply moving example of compassion from a man whose suffering
those Turks will not admit and whose Holocaust we prefer to ignore.
Stirred partly by Hartun's story, I wrote an article for The Independent
in January of this year on the "sublimation" of the Armenian genocide,
wilful denial by US academics who hold American university professorships
funded by the Turkish government, and the absence of any reference
Armenians in the British Government's announcement of Holocaust Day.
yes, I referred to the Armenian Holocaust -- as I did to the Jewish
Holocaust -- with a capital "H". Chatting to an Armenian acquaintance,
mentioned that I had given the Armenian genocide the same capital "H"
which I believe should be attached to all acts of genocide.
Little could I have guessed how quickly the dead would rise from their
graves. When the article appeared in The Independent -- a paper which
never failed to dig into human wickedness visited upon every race and
creed -- my references to the Jewish Holocaust remained with a capital
"H". But the Armenian Holocaust had been downgraded to a lower case
"Tell me, Robert," my Armenian friend asked me in suppressed fury,
we Armenians qualify for a capital 'H'? Didn't the Turks kill enough
us? Or is it because we're not Jewish?"
There are no conspiracies on The Independent's subs desk; just a tough,
no-nonsense rule that our articles follow a grammatical "house style"
conform to what is called "common usage". And the Jewish Holocaust,
through common usage, takes a capital "H". Other holocausts don't.
is quite sure why -- the same practice is followed in newspapers and
all over the world, although it has been the subject of debate in the
United States, not least by Finkelstein. Harvard turned down a
professorial "Chair of Holocaust and Cognate Studies" because academics
objected to the genocide of other groups (including the Armenians)
lumped together as "cognate". But none of this answered the questions
my Armenian friend. To have told him his people didn't qualify for
capital "H" would have been shameful and insulting.
A debate then opened within The Independent. I wrote in a memo that
word "holocaust" could be cheapened by over-use and exaggeration --
the agency report last year which referred to the "holocaust" of wildlife
after an oil-spill on the French coast. But I said that I still had
answer worthy of the question posed by my Armenian friend.
One of the paper's top wordsmiths was asked to comment -- a grammatical
expert who regularly teases out the horrors of definition in an imperfect
and savage world. He cited Chambers Dictionary, which stated that the
Jewish Holocaust was "usually" capitalised. And, said our expert on
paper, "It is in the nature of a proper noun to apply to only one thing."
Thus there may be many crusades but only one Crusade (the Middle Ages
one). There may be many cities but the City is London. Similarly the
"There can be only one Holocaust," he wrote. "Is the Holocaust really
unique? Yes. It was perpetrated by modern Europeans. Its purported
justification was a perversion of Darwin, one of the great thinkers
modern Europe. Above all, in the gas chambers and crematoria it
manufactured death by modern industrial methods. The Holocaust says
modern Western man that his technological mastery will not save him
sin, but rather magnify the results of his sins. There have been acts
genocide throughout history and some of them have killed more people
the Nazis did, but we call the Nazi holocaust 'the Holocaust' because
is our holocaust."
Must we, our grammarian asked, "commit grammatical faux pas and overturn
an accepted usage for which there is ample justification? Finally,
does it end? Are, for instance, the crimes of Stalin against minority
nationalities in the Soviet Union not just as bad as the Armenian
slaughters? What of the Khmer Rouge? Rwanda? The Roman destruction
Carthage? Are these also to be 'Holocausts'? If not, why not?"
Powerful arguments, but ones with which I disagreed. The Jewish Holocaust,
I wrote back, should be capitalised not because its victims were European
Jews, or those of any other race, but because its victims were human
beings. Human values, the right to life, the struggle against evil,
universal -- "not confined to Europeans or one ethnic or religious
or involving those who distorted Darwin's theories of biological
evolution". It was, after all, The Independent's editorial policy that
world must fight against all atrocities -- a belief which underlay
demand for humanitarian action in East Timor and Kosovo. This did not
that I regarded Timor and Kosovo as holocausts, but that we should
accept the idea that one group of victims had special status over others.
I spend hours telling Arabs that they must accept and acknowledge the
facts of the Jewish Holocaust, but if we are now to regard this as
specifically European crime, as "our" crime, I have few arguments left.
The Arabs can say it is none of their business.
As for the question, "Where does it end?" Yes, what about Armenia? And
Rwanda? If Armenians are disqualified from a capital "H" because they
lost one and a half million, what is Rwanda's sin of exclusion? Religion?
Race? Colour? When Armenians in Israel speak of their people's suffering,
they use the Hebrew word Shoah -- which means Holocaust.
The Independent's editor suggested that we should debate these questions
in an article in the paper -- this is the article -- but the issues,
course, remain unresolved. "Common usage" is a bane to all us journalists
but it is not sacred. It doesn't have to stand still. My father fought
what he called the Great War -- common usage which was later amended,
after 1945, to the First World War. Similarly, I believe, the Holocaust.
In the aftermath of my January remarks on the Armenian genocide, The
Independent published a denial of that same genocide by a Turkish Cypriot
academic, in which we printed the word Holocaust with a capital "H".
world did not end. The Turks did not complain. Nor did any members
Jewish community. Indeed, only last year, a prominent academic at the
Hebrew University's Armenian studies programme in Israel talked of
Armenians and Jews having "suffered holocaust".
In the meantime, Holocaust -- or holocaust -- denial continues. President
Chirac has declined to endorse the French parliament's acknowledgement
the Armenian genocide and forthcoming Holocaust conferences have not
invited Armenians to participate. Mr Blair doesn't mention the destruction
of the Armenians. They don't count, literally. Common usage -- and
concern for Turkish sensitivities -- has seen to that, even though
genocide is anything but normal. Germany dutifully acknowledges its
historical guilt for the wickedness of the Jewish Holocaust. Not so
Turks. Armenians accept that a few Turks Ð courageous, outstanding
risked their lives in 1915 to shelter their Armenian friends and
neighbours, just as "righteous gentiles" did for the Jews of Europe.
Turkey cannot honour these brave men. Since the Armenian Holocaust
supposedly did not exist, nor did they. A holocaust rather than a
Holocaust helps to diminish the suffering of the Armenians. What's
name? What's in a capital letter? How many other skulls lie beneath
sands of northern Syria? Did the Turks not kill enough Armenians?