Borne out of a manuscript longlisted for the 2017 KYD Unpublished Manuscript Award, Ashley Kalagian Blunt’s My Name Is Revenge is out this month with Spineless Wonders. In December 1980, two men shot a Turkish diplomat near his home in Sydney, and vanished. From this assassination in Australia, one of a series of international terrorist attacks, Kalagian Blunt’s novella traces back to the streets of 1920s Berlin and the Armenian genocide of World War I. The following is an extract from one of three companion essays.
Carmel Bird has described how, at times, a story’s mechanism begins ‘to tick away like a little clock’ within her. I have experienced this myself. The novella My Name Is Revenge, however, was more like a scratch. Once the idea came to me, it scratched away at the inside of my heart with the persistence of a little clock. I had to write it, even though it scared me.
Although the characters are fictitious, I drew the plot from true events. The assassination of the Turkish consul-general and his bodyguard in Vaucluse, Sydney, in December 1980 was part of a series of international terrorist attacks. The Justice Commandos of the Armenian Genocide were a real group. They and similar groups committed dozens of acts of terrorism across Europe, the Middle East and North America, as well as in Australia, from 1973 to the early 1990s.
The details about the Sydney assassination, including the use of the Honda 500, the escape route, and the offer of a $250,000 reward, all come from newspaper reports at the time. The assassins were never caught, though there are faint whispers in the Armenian Australian community about who they might have been. A second attack, a car bombing, took place in Melbourne in 1986. The bomb went off early, and only the bomber was killed.
Most Australians I meet don’t know about these events, which isn’t surprising. They seem to have faded from the news quickly. Likewise, I’ve met a lot of people who don’t know anything about the history at the heart of this violence, the Armenian genocide of World War I. Or, if they’ve heard of it, they don’t know much about it. I don’t blame them – it’s not like it’s taught in school history classes. But they should know about it, in part because it’s intricately linked with Australian history.
The Armenian genocide began on 24 April 1915. That this is the day before Anzac Day isn’t a coincidence. The Ottoman government knew British forces were about to burst onto their shores, right near Constantinople, the capital. Feeling what historians have described as a ‘state of siege’, they decided to put into action the plans they’d laid to rid themselves of the Armenians. The Ottomans had come to see their Armenian citizens as an enemy, the reason their empire was crumbling. And so, during the long months of the Gallipoli offensive, some Anzac diggers were witness to the genocide. Some were taken prisoners-of-war and held in confiscated Armenian churches, while the Armenians were still being forced from their nearby homes. Some Anzac diggers were able to rescue Armenians. Their stories are preserved in war diaries and other documents at the Australian War Memorial, and now they’re collected in Australia, Armenia and the Great War by Vicken Babkenian and Peter Stanley, published in 2016. Their stories deserve to be widely known. So why are they, and the genocide itself, so forgotten?
The Armenian genocide was part of the last gasp of the Ottoman Empire. By the time it ended, as many as 1.5 million Armenians were dead, and hundreds of thousands were stateless refugees, many of them orphans.
Most Australians I meet haven’t heard of the Armenian genocide of World War I – but it’s intricately linked with Australian history.
When people hear about the Armenian genocide for the first time, they often comment on how similar it was to the Holocaust. This, again, is no coincidence. In World War I, Germany and the Ottoman Empire were allies. While the genocide was planned and orchestrated by the Ottoman government (the documents exist to prove it, as Turkish historian Taner Akçam has shown), German officers witnessed the genocide. A few became involved. Some of them had returned from German South West Africa, where they’d been involved in the genocide of the Herero and Nama peoples less than a decade earlier. The methods of the Holocaust – the train transport, the concentration camps, the propaganda portraying Jewish victims as dangerous bacteria – weren’t Nazi innovations, but refinements of the methods used in the Armenian genocide. And as the wider world had largely forgotten the genocide by the 1930s, Adolf Hitler expected his own violence to fade into historical amnesia just as quickly. In 1939, days before the Nazi invasion of Poland, he connected the legacy of the genocide to his own violent political aspirations: ‘Who today, after all, speaks of the annihilation of the Armenians?’
Even if Hitler hadn’t definitively threaded these two histories together, it would be difficult to discuss the genocide without juxtaposing it against the Holocaust. This is not only because the genocide prefigured the Holocaust, but also because of their key distinction: the newborn Turkish government denied the genocide, and fairly successfully, as Hitler noted. Can you imagine if, after World War II, Germany denied the Holocaust ever happened? Of course they couldn’t, you’re saying. There was too much evidence. Too many people knew.
Just as many people knew about the Armenian genocide. The New York Times covered the story dozens of times. It made the Australian news also, including The Sydney Morning Herald and the Queensland Times and The West Australian. Aid to Armenian survivors was the focus of the world’s first international aid campaign. One of the campaign slogans really caught on, and for years after, when children across the Western world wouldn’t finish their suppers, parents told them to ‘remember the starving Armenians’ (by the time I was child, the starving people we were remembering were Africans). The first international Red Cross mission provided aid to Armenians across the Near East. There were photographs, notably those taken by German soldier Armin Wegner, the negatives smuggled out in his belt. There was even an Australasian orphanage near Beirut that housed 1700 orphans, with milk, flour, honey, blankets and funding donated by Australians and New Zealanders. There were war tribunals that prefigured the Nuremberg trials. There were thousands of pages of evidence. Ottoman perpetrators were found guilty.
How does something so well-known become forgotten? Easy. American advisors pointed out what was left of Armenia was nothing but rocks, and it didn’t have oil. The remaining sliver of Armenian territory was sucked into the Soviet Union, where history began with Lenin. International attention turned elsewhere. Meanwhile, the hundreds of thousands of Armenian survivors scattered around the world didn’t have a vocabulary to describe what they had experienced. They were refugees, trying to learn the languages of their new countries, trying to find work to support themselves, trying to have families and move on with their lives. They felt shame at their inability to protect their families and the loss of their homeland. They suffered survivor’s guilt and PTSD. None of this was discussed at the time. The term ‘genocide’ and its legal framework were yet to exist: after learning of the annihilation of the Armenians, a Polish Jew and lawyer named Raphael Lemkin created the concept and dedicated his life to campaigning for both recognition of the term and international laws. It wasn’t until Lemkin had lost more than forty members of his own family in the Holocaust that the United Nations adopted his suggested framework, which became the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948.
Germany didn’t have a chance to deny the Holocaust, though the Nazis had started destroying documents before the war ended. The British and Americans weren’t going to let the German government rewrite history. Because of this, the Holocaust offers a model of what recognition could look like.
But after World War I, it was genocide deniers that formed the government of the newfound Turkish Republic. They have an international platform, and their ongoing denial isn’t passive. The term ‘Armenian genocide’ is illegal in Turkey, and the Turkish government spends millions of dollars on its campaign to erase this dark chapter from its history. They insist on their rewritten, somewhat incoherent version, in which there were never any Armenians in Turkish territory, and even if there were, they killed many more Turks, so really Turks are the victims in all this. They fund academics in countries like the US to mould history to fit their narrative, exaggerating the importance of certain facts while ignoring others. This purposeful eradication of memory has been described as the final phase of genocide.
The term ‘Armenian genocide’ is illegal in Turkey, and the Turkish government spends millions of dollars on its campaign to erase this dark chapter from its history.
While the Turkish government is the driving force behind a century of genocide denial, it is also a major geopolitical player. Turkey is a strategic military partner of the US, which has two bases in Turkey. Not coincidentally, the US, the UK and Australia are among the countries that haven’t recognised the genocide, though the European Union has. The US has tried, but every time the Turkish government threatens repercussions. Likewise, in An Inconvenient Genocide, Geoffrey Robertson notes that the UK Foreign Office described the Turkish government as ‘neuralgic’ on the subject of genocide recognition. Considering Turkey’s political and commercial significance, the British government decided it was better not to upset them by acknowledging the truth.
You can see how there are injustices piled on top of injustices. Here’s another: In 2018, Poland made it illegal to speak of Polish involvement in the Holocaust. As in Turkey, the Polish government seems to believe that silence will make their own black history fade away. Yet the Polish government has officially recognised the historical fact of the Armenian genocide.
Israel, of course, is outraged about Poland’s stance on the Holocaust. Fair enough. And of course the Israelis feel solidarity with the Armenians, having suffered such similar and historically connected traumas, and Israel has long championed the international recognition of the genocide, right? Well, it’s complicated.
There are many people in Israel, as well as Jewish Holocaust scholars and activists around the world, who are vocal about the importance of Armenian genocide recognition. In 2016, a sub-committee of Israel’s national legislature announced its recognition of the genocide, noting the moral obligation to do so. Nationally, however, Israel has not officially recognised the Armenian genocide. As with the US, the UK and Australia, Israel is strategically allied with Turkey. And as with its other allies, Turkey puts intense diplomatic pressure on Israel to avoid mention of the genocide, and especially official recognition. In 2018, amid discussion of a possible federal debate regarding genocide recognition, the Jerusalem Post noted the response from Turkey’s Foreign Ministry: ‘We believe that the fact that Israel is placing the events of 1915 on the same level as the Holocaust will cause harm to Israel itself.’
In the decades after World War I, the ongoing denial exacerbated the sense of rage and loss experienced not only by survivors but their children and grandchildren.
In the years following the Holocaust, Turkey’s international denial campaign created a rift with the one community that could have most intimately connected with Armenians in an effort toward mutual healing. Eminent Armenian historian Richard Hovannisian traces this back to Turkish efforts to create animosity between Armenians and Jews. As he writes, Turkish denialists ‘uphold the truth and criminality of the Holocaust and make an appeal to keep it uncontaminated by confusing it in any way with the hoax of a so-called Armenian genocide.’ Likewise, the imbalance in Western recognition of these two interconnected histories seems to fuel a strand of anti-Semitism I’ve encountered among some older Armenians. Denial ripples through communities in this way, from the geopolitical level to the personal.
This is all to say that Armenians have long been the underdogs of history. In the decades after World War I, the ongoing denial exacerbated the sense of rage and loss experienced not only by survivors but their children and grandchildren. For some, these feelings grew into frustration and disenfranchisement. Many Armenians feel persecuted. Can anyone blame them for wanting, even just for a moment, to take justice into their own hands?
A few of them did, of course, forming the Justice Commandos of the Armenian genocide and targeting Turkish diplomats around the world. The Justice Commandos were the grandchildren of survivors. They wanted to ensure justice would happen while their grandparents were still alive to experience it. They wanted Turkey to acknowledge the genocide, to apologise and pay reparations. Political diplomacy had done nothing, and besides, it was the 1970s, so Armenia was still trapped under the boot of the Soviet Union, unable to voice its own opinions, unable even to tell its own history.
I’d been researching the genocide for years before I first learned about the Justice Commandos. Only a few history books mention these attacks, generally with a mere paragraph or two. I’d been so accustomed to reading about Armenians as victims, but now this handful of Armenian perpetrators – violent murderers – leapt off the page, shocking me. I couldn’t condone or even empathise with their methods. And yet I understood their motives intimately.
So the scratch began.