When a genocide can hide another one: the Pope, the Armenians and Namibia

Pope Francis yesterday stirred controversy in Turkey as he referred to the massacre of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire as "genocide." The Turkish government reacted angrily to say that the Pope's words were inaccurate. Ankara could be somewhat right to say that, but not because of the reasons it argues. A post by David Forniès*

Pope Francis in his yesterday's message to the Armenians was talking about the massacres undergone by this people under the Ottoman Empire from 1915 onwards -some 800,000 to 1.8 million Armenians were killed- as "what is generally referred to as the first genocide of the twentieth century." In fact, this quote is not even original to Francis, but is contained in a 2001 joint declaration by Pope John Paul II and Patriarch of the Armenian Church Karekin II. Francis simply repeated it yesterday.

The Convention on the Prevention of Genocide (1948, United Nations) defined genocide as (more than) one act "committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such," through, among other mechanisms, "killing members of the group." The Turkish government admits that massacres of Armenians indeed were committed in 1915, but denies that they come to amount to full-fledged genocide. On the one hand, Ankara argues not enough people died in order for those events to qualify as a genocide. On the other hand, the Turkish goverment points out that members of other ethnic and religious groups were also killed. And furthermore, it says the deaths occurred not as a result of an Ottoman government plan, but because of First World War turmoil.

The International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS) denies that the Turkish government's view can hold. In a 2006 letter addressed to genocide deniers, the scholarly group stated that "the documentation on the Armenian genocide is abundant and overwhelming," and that it is searchable "on thousands of official records," including those of the Ottoman Empire and its war allies Germany and Austria-Hungary. Furthermore, the IAGS wrote that "thousands of pages of eyewitness accounts from relief workers, missionaries, and survivors" complete that documentation. According to the group, "it is indisputable that the Armenian Genocide is a proven history."

From one genocide to others

IAGS itself noted that, while carrying out massacres against the Armenians, the Ottoman government also perpetrated genocide against the Assyrians and the Anatolian Greeks. Obviously, the existence of three parallel genocides does not deny the substance of each of them. In the Assyrians' case, a story of persecution has come to our days. From 1915 to 1918, Assyrian communities living in Hakkari (Kurdistan, then part of the Ottoman Empire) were massacred, some of them managed to flee. In 1925 they resettled to Simele, in then-nascent Iraq's Kurdistan. But in 1933, some of those survivors again suffered a massacre, and those who were able to again flee this time took refuge in French Mandate of Syria's Kurdistan, where they settled in the valley of the Khabur river. Their present-day descendants are again facing mass murder threat as Islamic State fighters are trying to occupy their villages.

In any case, why can be said that the Turkish government might be right to a certain point when its says Francis's words yesterday do not match historical reality? This is not because the Armenian genocide did not occur, but because it was possibly not the first 20th century massacre deserving such label. Thousands of kilometers to the south, in present-day Namibia, German General Lothar von Trotha managed to record his name in one of the most ignominious pages of history, as he was responsible for the mass slaughter of the Herero and Namaqua peoples.

In 1904, the Hereros revolted against German colonial rule over their land, and they indeed killed a number of German soldiers -less than 200, according to  available documents. The German military power was infinitely greater to the Hereros, and it allowed Von Trotha to crush their resistance. In October 1904, already having defeated them, Von Trotta determined that the Hereros "will have to leave the country." From then onwards, any Herero within German-controlled territory, "armed or unarmed", would be "shot." As he said this, Von Trotha also wrote a letter, in which he said of the Hereros: "I believe that the nation as such should be anihilated, or, if this was not possible [...], have to be expelled from the country [...]. The constant movement of our troops will enable us to find the small groups of the nation who have moved back westwards and destroy them gradually."

"By today's standards and in accordance with the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide of 1948, von Trotha's proclamation was a purposeful order for genocide," Herero and Namaqua genocide researchers Reinhart Kössler and Henning Melber have written. According to them, out of 100,000 Hereros in Namibia at Von Trotha's time, only 20,000 survived. The others were killed by German soldiers or pushed into the Omaheke desert, where they died of thirst. United Nations issued in 1985 the Whitaker Report, which quoted the Herero massacre as the first genocide of 20th century, one decade before the Armenian genocide started. According to the report, only 15,000 out of 80,000 Hereros managed to survive.

Both the Herero and the Armenian genocides bear connection points. Most obvious is the mass murder of the majority of members of both peoples. Also the fact that parallel genocides were carried out -against the Namaqua, the Assyrians, the Greeks. The episode of the Omaheke desert is also recognizable in the case of the Armenians, part of which were forced to die of thirst in the desert of Syria. Meanwhile, denial was another common aspect: senior German authorities for decades ignored the facts, and only in the 1990s they started to clearly admit that the killings had indeed taken place. In 2004, the German government apologized for the massacre. The Von Trotha family did so, too.

* David Forniès is Nationalia coordinator.

(Image: New York Times headlines in 1915.)