The Armenian Genocide & the British Response

Gregory Topalian, 10th August 2004ce

This commentary for Head Heritage is an attempt to outline a hidden chapter in history that Julian Cope alluded to in his wonderful description of his time in Armenia via his Armenian Augustrudion. In Cope’s article he mentioned in passing the 1915 genocide of close to one and a half million Armenians, a crime committed by the Ottoman Empire and a crime that is still denied by Turkey today. This piece that Julian Cope has graciously allowed to be published on his site will detail some of the main events of the genocide, and the British governmental fluctuations towards this central theme in Armenian memory. Between the late nineteenth century and up until the 1930s, the tragic nature of anti-Armenian pogroms and then the genocide was commented upon and discussed amongst the general British media and by politicians of note. However, since the end of the Second World War, Armenians have felt beleaguered in their attempts to gain recognition for the crimes that caused such early dialogue, and embittered by various British Governments’ response to their requests for recognition. More recently, the British Government has shown willingness towards allying themselves with the Turkish Government’s denial of the crime of genocide for political purposes.

Armenians in Britain

There is a suggestion that Armenians - an ancient people with a history stretching back some 3,500 years1 - settled in Britain as early as the seventh century. There was almost certainly an Armenian presence in the British Isles by the time of the Crusades in the 13th Century. Contact with the British had been made in India and along trade routes that stretched from the Far East through the Middle East and Europe towards the United Kingdom, and in particular the fast emerging industrial town of Manchester.
However it was not really until the nineteenth century that the Armenians became a British community as such, and initially they were economic migrants to the British Isles, albeit as a result of prohibitive and restrictive conditions in the Ottoman Empire. By the 1830s Manchester was the epitome and standard bearer of modern industrialisation, and King Cotton had natural attractions to the Armenian merchants, especially given their second class status under the Ottomans in their home country. As the Turkish Empire in the West gradually weakened over the period in which Manchester rose, so the Armenians living in the six provinces (or vilayets) of the Anatolian lands found their prospects becoming increasingly precarious and their treatment volatile at the hands of the Turks. From the 1830s up until the orgy of violence that constituted the beginning of the Armenian Genocide in 1915, the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire found themselves continually targeted and set aside for second class treatment. Bustling Manchester was an obvious target as a destination where the Armenians could live and trade without prejudice.

Early Community development

Initial settlers in Manchester2 arrived in 1835, in order to export silk to their various bases in Turkey, although as previously stated, they were not totally voluntary migrants and conditions for the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire were deteriorating rapidly. However initial settlers were not penniless refugees, but those whose wealth allowed them to make the move to England. By 1862, it is estimated that there were thirty Armenian businesses in Manchester. As with all immigrant groups in nineteenth century Britain, once they had accumulated some wealth they desired to mark their presence with a house of worship in the area in which they had settled. As a result, by 1870, the Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church was completed on Upper Brook Street in Chorlton, Manchester. Other Armenian families began to join the now established British Armenian community, arriving from places as diverse as the Caucasus, Tehran and Alexandria. At this stage in the development of the Armenian community, progress was good and there was distinct feeling of gratitude to their British hosts for allowing the Armenians to benefit from free trade in its truest form. Indeed, they referred to Britain as the “Happy Land”. It was also during this period that the British community began to look towards the conditions of those left behind in Turkey, and in 1874 there was a concerted campaign to raise funds for destitute Armenians there. These Armenians were about to become spectators to a conflict that was to ultimately play a role in their relatives’ massacre and genocide. The Russo-Turkish War of 1878 created a Turkish distrust of Armenians that was to be embellished by the Sultan Abdul Hamid II, looking for scapegoats for Turkey’s defeat. In one of many parallels with the Jews of Nazi Germany, the Armenians became vilified as untrustworthy subjects and as economic benefactors from the immiseration of the native, in this case Turkish population.

Turkey’s early executions of Armenia’s intelligentsia began in the Turkish city of Constantinople.

The Russo-Turkish War of 1878

At the start of the Russo-Turkish war the Armenians lived up-to their reputation as the ‘loyal millet’, and backed the Turks. However, as a result of their treatment during the war and due to the Sultan reneging on his promised reforms, Armenian sympathies began to shift towards the Russians. Russian forces had captured swathes of territory in areas such as Kars, Sarikamish, Batum and Alshkert, where there was a heavy concentration of Armenians. The Armenian Patriarchate approached the Russians with requests for a level of autonomy, but Britain was anxious to contain the Russian sphere of influence, and the subsequent Treaty of San Stefano was a major disappointment to the Armenians who still found themselves under Ottoman control. The Treaty of Berlin a few months later further reflected British interests in Cyprus and in protecting her trade. Britain guaranteed Turkey immunity from further Russian expansion on the condition that the Turks promise to introduce reforms “to be agreed upon later between the two powers” for the protection of the Christian minorities living in those areas reverting to Turkish sovereignty.
Following the Treaty of Berlin, the six vilayets were now no longer referred to as Armenia, and the Armenian situation there had become even more precarious. The intensity of the discrimination against Armenians increased during the next twenty years, as Sultan Abdul Hamid II armed the Kurds and ordered them to spread havoc in the provinces from where the Russians had withdrawn; and in 1891 the notorious Hamidiye was formed. The promised Western protection of the Christian subjects was about to be tested. In 1894 the massacre of Sassun, a mountainous district in Moush, took place. This was the beginning of a three-year campaign of intense violence resulting in the murder of up to 300,000 Ottoman Armenians. The novelist Victor Hugo succinctly summed up Western reaction to these massacres, when he suggested:
“If a man is killed in Paris, it is a murder; the throats of fifty thousand people are cut in the East, and it is a problem.”

However in Britain there were exceptions to this reaction.

William Gladstone and the Armenian Massacres

Throughout his time as Prime Minister and in-between, William Gladstone was well aware of the conditions under which the Armenians found themselves and was a vociferous opponent of Ottoman misrule. In the 1870’s he made his opposition to the new Sultan’s brutal treatment of the non-Muslims clear and, as conditions worsened towards the 1890s, a concerned delegation of British Armenians approached the, by then retired, PM to intercede on behalf of their fellow nationals. When the Gladstone cabinet came into power in the summer of 1892, the hopes of the Armenians were high, and indeed the Liberal Government began almost at once to send sharp notes to the Porte. However, English influence on Constantinople had become negligent. In fact, some writers have taken the stand that English intervention only made matters worse. "The Turk begins to repress because we sympathise" wrote David Hogarth; "and we sympathise the more because he represses, and so the vicious circle revolves". One American traveller commented further when he suggested that:
"England is more responsible for the cold-blooded murders which have come near exterminating the Armenians than all other nations put together"3

The press faithfully reported the horrific events in late nineteenth century Turkey, an example of which is given under the headline Fresh Massacre of Armenians:
“Tuesday's papers made it plain that the hand of the Turk is not yet stayed. Eguin is a village in the vilayet of Kharput, and seems to have escaped the massacre which occurred in that district in November last, owing to the fact that the Armenians purchased security by payment to the Kurds, both in money and kind. Now, however, the immunity so obtained has come to an end. A few days ago the usual scene of massacre and pillage was enacted at Eguin. The Armenian quarter was attacked by the Kurds, who slaughtered the inhabitants, and then set to work to loot and fire the houses. Large numbers escaped to the mountains, but even according to the accounts furnished to the Porte, no less than 600 persons were killed.”4

As justification for the massacres, the Turks repeated their oft-claimed excuse (that has been repeated for almost a hundred years as the reason for the 1915 genocide), this being reported somewhat sceptically by The Tablet;
“It is stated that the outrage was provoked by the Armenians themselves, some of whom fired upon the Turkish quarter. Europe has already grown accustomed to such explanation, and must take them for what they are worth, in the absence of more authentic details. Meanwhile it is feared that the incident at Eguin may only mark the beginning of a recrudescence in the massacres”.5

These atrocities persuaded Gladstone, then eighty-six years old, out of retirement, and his speeches, in which he denounced the Sultan as " the great assassin," rang around the world highlighting the horrors that were taking place, and they played no small part in bringing a temporary end to the atrocities. Indeed, his last public speech, in Liverpool, saw Gladstone protesting against the massacres of Armenians in Turkey. In gratitude for Gladstone’s help, the British Armenians gave him an illuminated manuscript and donated a stained glass window, which still remains in his local church in Harwarden, North Wales. When, on 19 May 1898, the former Prime Minister died at Hawarden, the British Armenians lost a valuable ally.

As the death marches of the Armenians progressed from all areas of the Ottoman Empire, those that did not perish on route and reached their destination of Der Zor, were tied together and bundled into caves...

Genocide and the response of Lloyd George’s British Government

Following world outrage at the massacres of 1894-96, especially the high profile ones in Constantinople, Sultan Abdul Hamid II, was forced to cease his bloody activities. Meanwhile, political parties were sprouting up all over the Ottoman Empire, and these became known as the Young Turks. The most prominent of these groups was the Committee for Union and Progress, who initially appeared to be a forward-looking liberal group in comparison to the Sultan. The Armenians encouraged and supported their coup d’etat, which was successful in 1908. However, once in power, the CUP began to look towards a means for uniting the Turkic peoples of the East in response to the crumbling Ottoman Empire in the West. This did not bode well for the Armenians, who were the main barrier to such progress. As Germany’s allies during World War I, the Young Turks saw the opportunity to rid themselves of this perceived troublesome group under the camouflage of total war. That this plan was to be detrimental to the German war effort meant little to the Turks as they set about a genocidal campaign that resulted in the murder of up to one- and-a-half million Armenians. The Minister of the Interior Talaat Pasha orchestrated the genocide, and it spread across the whole of Ottoman controlled territories and beyond. On April 24th 1915, 250 Armenian leaders and intellectuals were arrested in Constantinople and shot. With the Armenian community of the Ottoman Empire thus decapitated and the young Armenian men serving the Turkish army (but soon to be annihilated), the remaining population constituted the vulnerable, women, children and the aged. At this point the death marches into the Syrian desert began under the euphemism of ‘relocation’. Talaat Pasha had learned from the mistakes of Sultan Abdul Hamid II and, therefore, focused on the interior, leaving cities such as Constantinople relatively free of bloodshed - thereby avoiding Western scrutiny. As the death marches progressed from all areas of the Ottoman Empire, those that did not perish on route and reached their destination of Der Zor, were tied together and bundled into caves before being set alight. These crimes featured great brutality with babies being thrown into fires or skewered on bayonets, and there are reports of children being made to march with horseshoes nailed to their feet. A population of approximately 2,500,000 Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire in 1915 had been utterly decimated and, by 1923, numbered less than 200,000.

Arnold Toynbee, writing in the British Parliamentary Blue Book published in 1916, details the systematic nature of the genocide with supreme accuracy and integrity. As a result of his detailed study the Western media was outraged. Yet, due to the constraints imposed upon them by the conditions of war, foreign intervention was muted. It was only after the war, and consequently after the murder of the Armenian nation, that the Western powers felt that they could do something to aid the Armenians. In 1917, Lloyd George spoke in parliament assuring the Armenians that their land, soaked in the blood of innocents, would never return to their oppressors the Turks. In 1918, he repeated that Britain would not forget its responsibilities to the Armenians. However, by 1920, the seismic upheavals resulting from WWI created further changes that rendered these promises irrelevant. Independent Armenia, founded in 1918, lasted only two years as the Turks, under Kemal Ataturk, and the Soviet Union under Lenin reached an agreement with which the Western powers could not interfere. This resulted in a Soviet Armenia and the ceding of Kars and Adahan to Turkey. One suspects that Lloyd George always regretted this turn of events, for, as late as 1939, he was writing in his memoirs of the Peace Conference;
"In the province of Armenia, Abdul Hamid and the Young Turks had deliberately set themselves to the simplification of the Armenian difficulty by exterminating and deporting the whole race, whom they regarded as infidels and traitors."

It might therefore be argued that the British under Gladstone attempted with real passion and with some limited success to help the Armenians, whilst Lloyd George was powerless to do anything to help them. However two further politicians of note were to remember the Armenian Genocide in the lead up-to the Second World War, but for very different reasons. In 1929, another British politician Winston Churchill wrote in the World Crisis vol. 5:
"In 1915 the Turkish Government began and ruthlessly carried out the infamous general massacre and deportation of Armenians in Asia Minor … there is no reasonable doubt that this crime was planned and executed for political reasons."6

He also refers to it as an “administrative holocaust”. A decade later, on August 22nd 1939, Adolf Hitler assuaged his generals fears about future punishment for the massive crimes they were about to commit with the words;
“Who today speaks of the Armenians?”7

It seemed that few people did, not least of all the Armenians.

Below Mt Ararat, before even Rome adopted Christianity, the first Etchmiadzin Cathedral was built upon a Mithraic fire temple, ensuring that Armenia’s practises would forever foster the suspicions of her Islamic neighbours.
Contemporary memory of the Armenian Genocide

In 1992 Judith Lewis Herman published `Trauma and Recovery', which deals with the aftermath of violence and specifically for our purposes, survivors of the Holocaust.

Herman begins by saying:
“The ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness. Certain violations of the social compact are too terrible to utter aloud; this is the meaning of the word unspeakable. Atrocities, however, refuse to be buried. Equally as powerful as the desire to deny atrocities is the conviction that denial does not work. Remembering and telling the truth about terrible events are prerequisites both for the restoration of the social order and for the healing of individual victims. The conflict between the will to deny horrible events and the will to proclaim them aloud is the central dialectic of psychological trauma.”8

This state of affairs is applicable to both the memories of the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust. The initial response to both crimes was silence, as survivors and spectators alike struggled to comprehend what they had witnessed. In both cases, it was a public event that triggered off the flood of memories resulting from the trauma. In the Jewish case it was the 1961 trial of Eichmann in Jerusalem. In the Armenian case it was the publication of Franz Werfel’s epic novel the Forty Days of Musa Dagh, which makes historical fiction out of the heroic Armenian defence of Musa Ler in the face of a massive Turkish onslaught. The main difference between these two triggers is that the Armenian memory lever was tugged just as the scourge of the Swastika began to sweep across Europe. By the time the Nazis had finished their demonic work, the horrors of the Holocaust had all but obliterated the memory of the Armenian Genocide. Consequently, it was not until the fiftieth anniversary of the genocide that the Armenians managed to persuade the Soviet authorities that a memorial site (the one Julian Cope visited at Tzidzernagaberd) should be dedicated to the memory of Armenian victims. This sequence of events enabled the perpetrators of the Armenian Genocide to muddy the waters. Herman goes on:
“…when the traumatic events are of human design, those who bear witness are caught in the conflict between victim and perpetrator. It is morally impossible to remain neutral in this conflict. The bystander is forced to take sides. After every atrocity one can expect to hear the same predictable apologies: it never happened; the victim lies; the victim exaggerates; the victim brought it upon herself; and in any case it is time to forget the past and move on.”9

This description is the example of holocaust denial par excellence, the Turkish prototype that has been taken up by deniers of every genocidal event since. The saddest indictment of this has been the willingness of the British government to go along with such base claims in the name of raison d’etat. Turkey’s powerful geopolitical position has enabled her to persuade the British Government, (along with the United States and, shamefully, Israel) to assist in the denial of this crime. From Thatcher through to Blair, British Armenians have been resolute in their request that the government recognise the crimes that took place in 1915, the crime that Raphael Lemkin used as a guide for which to define his concept as ‘genocide’. As time has passed, and arguably as Armenians have felt more comfortable in their status as British citizens, this request has gained volume to the point in 2001 when it could no longer be ignored. Writers such as Robert Fisk, who has been to the killing fields of Der Zor, and had previously been criticised as being shrill and polemical in his attempts to highlight this injustice, suddenly found himself being joined by others in the media. As the British public was being prepared for its first Holocaust Memorial Day in 2001 (whilst remaining unaware of the disgusting and unseemly attempts by the Holocaust Memorial Day Committee to exclude the Armenians), Fisk suddenly found himself joined by the Times, the Telegraph, the Guardian, the Economist, the BBC and Channel 4. The days of marginalising the issue were temporarily over. Attempts were made by writers, officials and academics to justify the exclusion of the Armenians, but all left a nasty taste in the mouth. Eventually, in a gesture of belated tokenism the Armenians were included. But, since that first Holocaust Memorial Day, they have remained somewhat on the periphery. Meanwhile, whilst the British Government continues to covet Incilirk air base in Turkey and it’s use for exerting authority over certain areas of the Middle East, they are duty bound to continue with this sad state of affairs. This is exemplified by a correspondence I recently had with the current British Ambassador to Armenia. It is indicative of the British denial of the fact that the Armenian case was indeed genocide.

The ziggurat-like Tzidzernagaberd is a modern shrine to the Armenian holocaust.
The Ambassador, Thora Abbott-Watt, had suggested in a television interview that the British Government condemned the massacres in 1915-16 as an atrocity at the time and continued to do so, but that she referred to the debate among historians as to what the events were labelled, rather than over what took place.
By refusing to make a stand on the definition of that crime, both Ms Abbott Watt and the British government is guilty of moral cowardice. A cursory glance at the history of the Armenian Genocide via the British Blue Book (a copy of which resides in the Embassy library) exhibits the facts that this was without doubt genocide. Likewise the trials and sentencing to death the architects of the crime in 1919 by a Turkish Court, would also suggest that what occurred was a crime of horrific proportions. By suggesting that we leave it to historians to debate as to whether the crime was genocidal, is simply providing the denialists with added leverage with which to pursue their goal, which surely incriminates the British Government in that same denial. The ‘debate’ is simply a nuance in the mechanism of denial. In fact, Ms Abbott Watt was made aware that two such historical symposia have been held - one in Montreal and one in Philadelphia, both of which found unequivocally in favour of the term 'genocide' being used with regards to the Armenian case. They also suggested that Turkey take a moral and politically correct stance on the issue. Realpolitik obviously blinds her to this information. Would a British Ambassador to Israel dare to suggest that we leave the definition of the Nazis crimes up to the historians? So why do the British question horrific atrocities that occurred ninety years ago? I pointed out to Ms Abbott Watt that the following statement was listed on the Foreign and Commonwealth website:
"In 1915-18, up to 1.5 million Armenians (one third of the Armenian population) died of starvation or were systematically killed during the final years of the Ottoman Empire."

'Systematic' suggests some form of central planning, which in turn would suggest that the British Government does indeed view the case as genocide, as defined by Raphael Lemkin. The British Ambassador’s last words on the matter in an email dated 13th August 2003 were:
“Seriously, I think the best that I can say is that I am not going to move on this one, but that I note what you have said. I appreciate your time in writing to me. T.A.W. (Thora Abbott-Watt)”.10

It is ironic that the British position as put forward by Thora Abbott-Watt and the current British Government, contradicts two former British Prime Ministers of immense standing. It also flies in the face of the evidence detailed in the Parliamentary Blue Book report on the genocide compiled by one of the most notable historians of all time.
The very British protestations of ‘fair play’ in looking at both sides of the argument are simply further mechanics of denial.

British Armenians and Memory

Armenians in Britain have more reason than most to be cynical about the government of their host country. In Blair’s spin riddled era, the denial of the Armenian genocide is just one of many orchestrated variations on the truth. However British Armenians have had to put up with this level of deception for decades now, and have had to watch as their hosts have consistently and blithely denied genocide. On April 24th every year, an Armenian delegation marches down Whitehall and presents a petition to the Prime Minister asking that the events of 1915 be recognised as genocide. The fact that this a symbolic gesture and that no-one on that march seriously expects any notice to be taken of it is a tragic indictment of the souring of what was once a special relationship. For survivors of the genocide, now numbering only one in Britain, the pain of having the horrors you went through minimised and marginalised have eroded any gratitude they may have had towards Britain for their initial asylum. Their memories have been trampled on and their histories have had doubts cast upon them. Denial, Elie Wiesel has suggested, means the murder of the victims twice. Sadly Britain amongst others has held the Armenian victims still whilst the Turks have slashed their throats once more.

  1. is a good and easy to grapple with source for further information
  2. Joan George, MERCHANTS IN EXILE (Gomidas Institute Books 2002) is a full account of how
    the Armenians came to settle in Manchester.
  3. William L. Langer, THE LANGUAGE OF IMPERIALISM (Alfred A. Knopf, New York 1960) pages 157-160.
  4. Tablet 26th September 1896
  5. Ibid.
  6. Winston Churchill wrote THE EASTERN FRONT World Crisis Vol. 5.
  7. Kevork Bardakjian Hitler and the Armenian Question details the veracity of this quote which is
    also displayed on a wall in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
  8. Judith Lewis Herman, ‘Trauma and Recovery’ 1992
  9. Ibid.
  10. Personal Correspondence