By Adam Strom
Facing History’s Chief Officer of Content and Innovation
In September 1939, just before the invasion of Poland and the beginning of the Nazi Holocaust, Adolf Hitler asked his generals, “Who today still speaks of the massacre of the Armenians?”
Hitler’s reference was to the systematic murder of the Armenians by leaders of the Ottoman Empire during World War I. Within a generation, the heinous crime had faded from public memory. Hitler learned a lesson: he could act with impunity.
During the Armenian Genocide, Henry Sturmer, a journalist for the German newspaper Kolnische Zeitung, was outraged. He wanted Germany to use its influence as an ally of the Ottoman Empire to stop the extermination of the Armenians. When the German government failed to do so, Sturmer wrote:
The mixture of cowardice, lack of conscience, and lack of foresight of which our government has been guilty in Armenian affairs is quite enough to undermine completely the political loyalty of any thinking man who has any regard for humanity and civilization.
In July 1915, the United States Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Henry Morgenthau, begged the U.S. State Department to take action against what he called the “race murder” of the Armenians. Instead, the nation chose to remain neutral. While his government stayed silent, Morgenthau pleaded to find a way to save the lives of Armenian children, women, and men.
“Why are you interested in the Armenians anyway?” Mehmet Talaat, the Minister of the Interior for the Committee of Union and Progress, asked Morgenthau. “You are a Jew; these people are Christians. The [Muslims] and the Jews always get on harmoniously. We are treating the Jews here all right. What have you to complain of? Why can’t you let us do with these Christians as we please?”
“I am not here as a Jew but as American Ambassador,” Morgenthau replied. “I do not appeal to you in the name of any race or any religion, but merely as a human being.”
This month marks the Armenian Genocide’s 100th anniversary, and what Morgenthau understood then is just as important today. On the anniversary, there are additional questions we can and should ask.
What have we learned about responding to genocide and the prevention of violence in the past century that can help young people understand what it means to be part of what sociologist Helen Fein calls a “universe of obligation” (the circle of individuals and groups “toward whom obligations are owed, to whom rules apply, and whose injuries call for [amends]”)?
The story of the Armenian Genocide and its legacies raises important questions about our own responsibilities as individuals, and as members of groups and nations to those beyond our borders. And it also raises important questions about the role of law and education in bringing understanding about past genocides to citizens today.
Ten years ago, Facing History published our resource book, Crimes Against Humanity and Civilization: The Genocide of the Armenians. At the time, genocide in Darfur had just begun. Since then, violence has continued in those regions, and indeed around the world.
In July 2008, the International Criminal Court charged Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir with genocide. Those charges were dropped in late 2014 after several years of inaction by world leaders. And last summer, reports began to circulate about what the United Nations called the “attempted genocide” of the Yazidi religious minority in Northern Iraq and a resulting refugee crisis. Social media and 24-hour news channels brought the news to people around the world who expressed outrage, but struggled to find ways to meaningfully engage. The historical echoes of impunity are striking.
Scholars of mass violence note that when confronted with genocide, individuals and leaders often fail to imagine a range, or a toolbox, of possible responses. So how can we help build a generation that does? How can we answer young people who ask, “How do I make a difference?”
In the face of this news and history, it is easy to become cynical. But we must continue to face history, in all its complexity, and consider what we can learn from the past to guide our responses today.
Download a free copy of our resource Crimes Against Humanity and Civilization: The Genocide of the Armenians.
Find lessons and units, videos, library resources, readings, and more in our Armenian Genocide Resource Collection.
This post originally appeared on Facing History’s Facing Today blog.