Among Interstate 94 and I-494 billboards is a striking sign imploring motorists not to consume, but consider an event many are unaware of.
“THE ARMENIAN GENOCIDE,” the unexpected billboard reads, along with “100 Years of Remembrance 1915-2015” and a purple flower — a forget-me-not.
“It’s unfortunate that the Armenian Genocide is often referred to as ‘the forgotten genocide,’ ” said the Rev. Tadeos Barseghyan, whose St. Sahag Armenian Church in St. Paul sponsored the billboards in advance of the global commemoration on April 24.
Other genocides, rightly, are not forgotten. There’s near universal awareness of the horrors of the Holocaust, and relatively broad knowledge of Cambodia’s “killing fields” in the 1970s and the Rwandan Genocide a generation ago, among others.
Not so with Armenia. “It’s a shame we have to let people know, to raise awareness, but it is important to remember,” said Barseghyan.
Beyond the billboards, the pope and pop culture recently have highlighted the centenary, too. Reality TV stars Kim and Khloe Kardashian, who are Armenian-American, laid flowers at the Armenian Genocide Memorial Museum’s eternal flame.
More consequentially, Pope Francis inflamed Turkish leaders after affirming the Vatican’s stance that the killing of up to 1.5 million Armenians was in fact “the first genocide of the 20th Century.”
Reflecting Turkey’s long-standing dispute of this view, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu tweeted, “The pope’s statement, which is out of touch with both historical facts and legal basis, is simply unacceptable.”
The historical facts, however, have created consensus among most academics. “I am in agreement with the vast majority of historians, including an increasing number of Turkish historians, who believe that this constituted a genocide beginning in 1915,” said Joachim J. Savelsberg, a University of Minnesota professor of law and sociology who is an expert on genocide.
“I understand the power of words,” said Dan Wildeson, faculty director of St. Cloud State University’s Center for Holocaust and Genocide Education. “It should be called that. At the same time I understand the political implications, the identity implications, the legacy implications of calling it a genocide.”
The geopolitical implications indeed are stark, given Turkey’s key strategic role in a region roiling with conflict. Yet the legacy implications are stark for Turkey, too.
Other countries have benefited from reckoning with their past, said Savelsberg. “You look at countries like my own home country Germany in the way they memorialize the Holocaust, the way they live up to the responsibilities of the past. It does not do them any harm in the international community. To the opposite, it has increased acceptance in the international community. Turkey would gain more than they would lose.”
Germans certainly gained. In fact, for the second year running, Germany was the world’s most widely admired country in a BBC World Service global poll. If the Turks were to take Germany’ example, Turkey may not top next year’s list, since several other dynamics factor into Germany’s ranking. There’s no doubt its interpretations of century-old events that transpired during the Ottoman Empire have an effect on Turkey today.
Obama used the term genocide as a candidate, but not as a president. “The U.S. should recognize it,” St. Cloud’s Wildeson said, adding that, “I understand the problems, but we’ve worked through more difficult diplomatic issues than this before.”
Indeed, it would create complications at a crucial time with a fellow NATO nation that is a bridge between Europe and Asia and Islam and Christianity. But it creates problems not to acknowledge it, too. America should be a beacon.
And so should people worldwide, said Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas.
On Thursday — Holocaust Remembrance Day — Hunegs noted the “diabolical linkage” between the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust, since Hitler infamously asked, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” Hunegs, who will speak at the April 24 commemoration at St. Sahag, is one voice. “It’s important for Jews and all people to join in solidarity with others who have suffered similarly. … The obscuring of the Armenian Genocide for geopolitical reasons — that’s wrong, and should be addressed,” Hunegs said.
Most important, said the Rev. Barseghyan, “If we don’t learn our lessons about history, genocide will happen again and again and again.”
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.