Left to History
A talk for Holocaust Memorial Day 2005 - by Mike Joseph - delivered on 26 January 2005 at the Temple of Peace, Cardiff
Copyright © Mike Joseph January 2005
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Mike Joseph is an independent investigative journalist and broadcaster. He is writing about the encounter of three generations of his family with genocide, and is studying the links between the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust. This is a transcript of a talk given at a multi-faith, multi-ethnic and multi-lingual commemoration for Holocaust Memorial Day 2005. It was given in the presence of Wales' First Minister, Rhodri Morgan, political and religious leaders from Wales, and members of the Jewish and Armenian communities in Wales and England. The Welsh Centre for International Affairs hosted the commemoration. Notes for this web transcript appear in square brackets. For source information, contact the author via CRAG.
Boneddigion a boneddigesau. Ffrindiau. Teulu. Sut ydyn ni'n medru cofio? Blwyddyn arall wedi mynd heibio - another year passes. Sixty years now since the liberation of Auschwitz. Ninety years since the start of the Armenian Genocide. And every time we remember the past for the sake of the future, we are challenged to see it as a real place, not as a land so distant that we may doubt its relevance to our own lives. If remembering becomes mere repetition, it ceases to be memory and begins to be forgetfulness. And how seductive that voice, always urging that it is time for things to be left to history. Because there is nothing comfortable about remembering genocide. It leaves us exposed, raw, forever shocked at finding new depths to our inhumanity.
Today I am privileged once again to speak to you in this Temple of Peace, some four years after I first spoke here. That occasion was momentous not least in the acceptance by our First Minister of a new edition of the report on the Armenian Genocide [The Treatment of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire 1915-1916, Documents Presented to Viscount Grey of Falloden by Viscount Bryce , James Bryce and Arnold Toynbee, Uncensored edition, Ed. Ara Sarafian, Gomidas Institute, Princeton, 2000] first published by the British Parliament in 1916, only months after that genocide. By that simple act, you demonstrated, First Minister, that we in Wales are ready to set our own pace in recognition of that long-denied genocide. [That earlier event was a ceremony to commemorate the Armenian Genocide held on April 24 th 2001, held at the Temple of Peace, Cardiff. The remembrance service was conducted by representatives from many Christian denominations in Wales, with the Church in Wales represented by Rowan Williams, then Archbishop of Wales (now Archbishop of Canterbury). It was attended by the First Minister of the National Assembly of Wales, Rhodri Morgan. In attending and laying a wreath, Rhodri Morgan is seen as acknowledging the historical truth of the Armenian Genocide, in contrast with the continued reluctance of the UK government in the face of Turkish disapproval.]
But what can I say genuinely new, here and now, four years later? One transient outcome of that event here in 2001 is that two of the speakers have been denounced ever since in a web site devoted to denial of the Armenian Genocide [http://www.tallarmeniantale.com/apologists.htm] : the site castigates Jenny Randerson, then Minister for Culture, Sport and the Welsh Language, and myself, as "hypocrites", "religious bigots" and "two of the worst Pharisees I've ever encountered" [http://www.tallarmeniantale.com/wails.htm] - well, these are its more restrained slurs. But it is worth noting in passing that this denialist site recognises that Wales leads the world in the assertion of the actuality of the Armenian Genocide.
But far more momentous things have happened in these four years:
In North America, the Canadian House of Commons voted to recognize and condemn the Armenian Genocide. In the United States, Senator John Kerry called for international recognition of the Armenian Genocide. In Europe, the Swiss Lower House of Parliament voted to describe the mass killings of Armenians as genocide. The Dutch Parliament moved to recognise the Armenian Genocide. And the Slovak parliament resolved to recognise the genocide of Armenians as a crime against humanity.
Here in Wales, we continue to lead the move towards British recognition: Gwynedd Council was the first local authority in Wales to recognise the genocide. Now Cardiff City Council has decided to incorporate specific reference to the Armenian Holocaust in commemorations from 2005 on. And of course our National Assembly is the first UK government to express its majority opinion calling on Turkey to recognise the Armenian Genocide.
Meanwhile, Turkey itself is now in accession negotiations with the European Union. The issue of recognition of a genocide perpetrated by Turkey's predecessor state, has never been more central to European politics. Britain, of course, is "strongly committed to supporting Turkey's accession ... and assisting Turkey in the process of reform necessary to achieve this goal" - I quote from the Foreign Office - and our Europe Minister Denis MacShane has expressed his "good feeling" about Turkey's chances of accession.
A country which is both Muslim and a democracy - I mean a democracy arising from the will of its people, not delivered by invaders - could be a great prize for Europe. A prize we could welcome.
We have enjoyed 60 years of relative peace and stability in Western Europe. It is built on one remarkable fact, something so fundamental that we take it for granted. The country at the heart of Europe, at the heart of the European Union for 60 years is the very country that during the twentieth century perpetrated two genocides, and at the very least, failed to intervene to stop a third - I refer to the genocide of the Herero people of south west Africa, [ Enteignet Vertrieben Ermordet , Ed Schaller et al, Chronos, Zürich, 2004 is a recent compendium of studies on the first Twentieth Century genocide] the genocide of the Armenian people by Germany's First World War allies the Ottoman Turks, and the genocide of the Jewish and Roma people. Without Germany's unequivocal acceptance of the facts of genocide, of its guilt for genocide, of its legal and moral duty to make reparation for genocide, our peaceful European order could not exist. This was understood even by Germans with a Nazi past, such as Hitler's top spy in Turkey, Paul Leverkuehn, who came out of the Second World War a democrat, and a leading German promoter of european union.
That is why a Turkey that acknowledged its past, just as Germany has acknowledged its past, would be a great prize for us, for the world, for Turkey.
But all this makes article 306 of Turkey's new Penal Code, drawn up in response to European pressure for reform, a challenge indeed. In two months from now, it will become an offence punishable by up to 15 years imprisonment, to assert the historical truth of the Armenian Genocide. We may have more to fear than web sites.
This is a strange way for Turkey to persuade Europe that it is harmonising its legal system with ours.
But Britain's Europe Minister is not easily abashed. In November Denis MacShane told parliament that "Article 306 ... is about the recruitment of militia against a foreign state".
We have this wrong then, do we? Not according to US Congressman Frank Pallone, who is urging the State Department to condemn the new code, calling it a dramatic display of the Turkish government's campaign to deny the Armenian Genocide.
Now Congressman Pallone is a Democrat, and so perhaps not from the party most influential in New Labour circles. But the protests go far wider - recently the International Publishers Association and International PEN, organisations that defend fundamental freedoms to read, write and publish, urged the EU to call on Turkey to decriminalise references to the Armenian Genocide. As a former trade unionist, journalist, broadcaster and President of the NUJ, would Denis MacShane not lend half an ear to this?
In parliament last October, Denis MacShane said, "I am a Foreign Office Minister, not an historian, and there are times when history should be left to history. Turkey wants to look to a better future in the European Union and that will require it - as it requires of all member states - to look with tolerance and sensitivity at some of the problems of the past. Sometimes the past is best dealt with by ceasing to rake it up incessantly."
So we get closer to the heart of this matter. Remembrance is fine as long as it doesn't get in the way of practical politics. You historians can get on with raking about in the bones of the past, in the bones of genocide if you must, but don't ever imagine it has anything to do with the real world.
Now this may be hard to take coming from a former left-wing journalist, a former militant trade unionist, and indeed from a former historian - has Denis MacShane forgotten that he has an MA in History from Oxford? Indeed, has he forgotten his inheritance?
Denis MacShane was born Denis Matyjaszek, the son of a Polish Army officer from Lublin, wounded fighting the Nazis. Now that's raking up the past.
I wonder if Jan Matyjaszek would have criticised the campaign by his countrymen, the "League of Descendants of Lwow Professors murdered by Gestapo in July 1941". This massacre of 25 Polish professors and their families in the university city of Lwow has burnt in Polish memory for 64 years: there was something symbolic and brutally cold about the Nazi round-up of leading intellectuals, shot in full view of their neighbours: men and women of renown, including no less a figure than Kazimierz Bartel, a former Polish Prime Minister.
These murders, just 25 amongst millions, were led by a German, SS Hauptsturmführer Hans Krüger, and a Ukrainian, Untersturmführer Roman Szuchewycz. Just two years ago, this Polish League petitioned Ukraine's President Kuchma to remove a statue of Szuchewycz from the front of a Lwow school, and to have Szuchewycz Street renamed. "We are compelled to direct your attention, Mr. President, to the necessity that you condemn in the name of Ukrainian Republic the genocide committed on Lvov's Professors."
Would Jan Matyjaszek's son consider this to be a history that should be left to history? It can hardly be helping Polish-Ukrainian relations at such a critical time in Eastern Europe.
My sympathies are entirely with the Polish campaigners, but then, this is a history that has touched me too. A fortnight after leading the slaughter of the Polish professors, Hans Krüger moved south to the nearby town of Stanislawow, and there launched the Holocaust in Poland. By the time he left Stanislawow a year later, he had killed 127,000 Jews (a figure tallied by a court in Germany in 1968). That ledger of death perpetrated by one man, similar in scale to the death toll in the tsunami in Indonesia, includes my grandfather, my grandmother, aunt, uncle and 40 other close relatives. Today I remember them.
64 years ago, in October 1941, as Hans Krüger and his militia opened fire on the Jews of Stanislawow, Paul Leverkuehn, Hitler's head of intelligence in Turkey, was preparing a new edition of this book, Posten auf ewiger Wache .
This is a very remarkable book. It is Leverkuehn's biography of a First World War comrade who had later become Hitler's right-hand man in the 1923 Munich putsch. Max Erwin von Scheubner-Richter and Paul Leverkuehn were German agents in the Ottoman Empire in the First World War. They witnessed and reported the Armenian Genocide. In October 1941, 26 years after that genocide, Leverkuehn was preparing to rake up that past again, in the midst of the Second World War. And why? This is how he concludes his account of the Armenian Genocide:
"Der Vorhang fiel über der Tragödie. Von 1,8 Millionen Armeniern lebten bestenfalls noch vierhunderttausend."
"The curtain fell over the tragedy. Of 1.8 million Armenians, at most there survived only four hundred thousand. German consuls like Scheubner-Richter distributed money and other charity. But what could these few men do against a Turkish Empire bent on annihilation, deaf even to the most direct warnings from Berlin, against the monstrous speed of implementation of the Armageddon?"
This book, by a Nazi opposed to Hitler, is a graphic account of the Armenian Genocide, written by a personal witness of that genocide, and published at the very moment that the Holocaust was launched - new intelligence to which the author was privy as Head of Military Intelligence in Turkey. This book was a warning to his own people, the Nazi regime, the perpetrators of the new genocide. If only this warning had been heeded.
And that, First Minister, is why history is far too important to be left to history.