Two weeks ago, I gave a lecture on the Armenian Genocide which took place in 1915-16. I cannot help but see the strong similarities with what we are witnessing today.
The history and historiography of the Armenian genocide is, unsurprisingly, complex. The Armenians had struggled from increased persecution in the late-nineteenth century, and the rise of radical Turkish nationalism in the early twentieth-century launched a new and fatal phase. Between 1915 and 1923 (and especially 1915-16), almost 1.5 million Armenians were killed. Deported, concentrated, massacred, raped, starved, made to join the death marches. Those who survived either managed to flee or were forced into conversion. The memory is even more controversial, not least because Turkey continues to deny the genocide to this day.
At the time, the great powers knew about the massacres of Armenians, but the priorities of the Great War meant that no one did anything to help. At the end of the war, the League of Nations was born in order to address a number of international problems, not least that of Russian and Armenian refugees fleeing civil war and genocide respectively. However, the rise of Ataturk and the creation of the Turkish nation saw a significant geopolitical shift in the region. The international powers dropped all mention of the Armenians in order to maintain important diplomatic relations with Turkey.
Aleppo was at the heart of the Armenian genocide in 1915-16. Indeed, hundreds of thousands of women, children and men were deported via Aleppo on their way to the camps before being marched, to death, through the Syrian and Mesopotamian deserts.
One hundred years later, Aleppo is again at the heart of a humanitarian crisis.
One hundred years later, the great powers still struggle to respond.
I don’t like to talk to much about the ‘lessons from history’, or that ‘if we don’t know the past than we risk repeating it’. But there is no doubt that history can open our eyes to present situations. It helps us create links with other times, other scenarios, other tragedies. It opens our eyes to the fact that anything is possible – no matter how terrible – and therefore hopefully makes us think twice about where we want to be heading.
In the comfort of my own kitchen, sipping my nice coffee, my world is a million times removed from the lives of those in Aleppo. But the material I teach, and the material I want my students to think about, helps me see the connections between between then and now, between us and them.
Last night I wrote to the Foreign Office about my concerns (firstname.lastname@example.org), which are that the 100,000 civilians remaining in Aleppo must be allowed to safely leave the city. Before then, I donated to the White Helmets who are out there. I have academic friends who are actively involved in refugee charities, and others who are actively involved in writing the history of humanitarianism and internationalism. I don’t know what these tiny steps help in the long run, but in one hundred years I dread to think that someone will be teaching about Aleppo in a lecture room, saying how the world saw, and did nothing.
For more on the Armenian genocide, the award-winning documentary Aghet is available on youtube.