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The Untold Story of Armenia and Australia

Australian humanitarians worked for decades with orphans and survivors of the Armenian Genocide. With now over 50,000 Armenian-Australian’s sharing direct family links to the Genocide, this terrible moment in history that is being shared for the first time. Armenia, Australia & the Great War is co-authored by Peter Stanley and Vicken Babkenian. 

Armenia… that’s a country in, what, the Caucasus, right? Is that Central Asia? Where there’s a war with Azerbaijan over somewhere, or something, called Nagorno Karabakh?

Armenia seems very remote from Australia: but it really isn’t, not once you read the story Vicken Babkenian and I tell in Armenia, Australia & the Great War.

It’s mid-April, and already Canberra, where I live, is gearing up for Anzac Day. Gardeners are cleaning up Anzac Parade as I cycle to work at UNSW Canberra, where some of the usual crop of Anzac-Day-books-for-review sit on my desk. Gardeners are sprucing up the memorial to the Turkish leader on Gallipoli, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, at the top of Anzac Parade, because Australia has a special relationship to Turkey through Gallipoli.

The shared ordeal of Gallipoli, in which the nations of both Australia and Turkey claim to have been created, has brought Australia and Turkey closer. But the friendly relationship – arguably one of the most successful reconciliations between former enemies – conceals a secret.

As all Australians know, the Gallipoli invasion began on 25 April 1915. Just hours before the first Australians leapt out of their boats onto the beach that became Anzac Cove, the Ottoman empire had begun rounding up the leaders of the Armenian community in Constantinople (the very place the invading Allies hoped to occupy). About 230 men were arrested and taken into Turkey’s interior. A handful survived: no one knows what happened to the rest.

The 24 April arrests marked the beginning of what is now called the ‘Armenian Genocide’. Over the next several years – up to and beyond the war’s end – the Ottoman empire attempted to destroy its two million or so Armenian subjects. Tens of thousands of men were executed, with some still wearing the uniform of the Ottoman army. Virtually the entire Armenian population of Turkey, most living in the empire’s east, were evicted from their villages and forced to walk into the deserts of Syria and Mesopotamia. Most died, of starvation or illness, or  were murdered along the way. Armenian women were abducted and raped; their children either left to die or brought up as Muslim Turks.

The Armenians were a Christian minority in the mainly Muslim Ottoman empire. For centuries, though discriminated against, they  lived among Muslim Turkish and Kurdish neighbours. In 1915, in a pattern repeated from Srebrenica to Rwanda, their neighbours turned on them. Why? In short, because through the nineteenth century the Ottoman empire’s contraction and demise sparked tensions within the empire. Military defeats and diplomatic humiliations culminated in massacres of Armenians in the 1890s and 1910s, scapegoats of a dying empire.

The Ottoman attempt to destroy Turkey’s Armenian population resulted in the deaths of at least one million people, with the survivors scattered across camps and refuges in the countries around the old Ottoman empire. It was one of the greatest human tragedies of the twentieth century. It inspired Raphael Lemkin to invent a word to describe the attempted extermination of a whole people: ‘genocide’.

This is tragic, but what has it to do with Australia?

The fact is that Australians were a part of this saga of extermination from the beginning: not as perpetrators of murder and deportation, but as witnesses and saviours.

Australian troops serving on Gallipoli and in the Middle East became witnesses. On Gallipoli, and in Palestine, Armenians worked with the Australians as interpreters. Australian prisoners of the Turks saw Armenians being abused and deported; one recorded in his diary that a million and a quarter people had died, a figure close to the accepted number. In Palestine, as the Light Horse advanced northwards towards the Turkish border they came upon evidence of the atrocities, even rescuing Armenian refugees, survivors of massacre. In the remote reaches of northern Persia, Australians serving in ‘Dunsterforce’ rescued thousands of Armenians.

After the war, Australians joined the massive international humanitarian missions launched to succor the survivors of genocide. Nurses, doctors, churchmen and individuals, with no special skills but a calling to compassion, worked in Lebanon, Soviet Armenia, Greece and all over the region to bring relief to traumatised survivors. Australian churchmen sent ships loaded with food and supplies and even established an Australasian Orphanage in Lebanon. Australian women activists worked for the League of Nations, which tried to rescue women and children who had been abducted during the war. This was the largest humanitarian effort to date in Australia’s history, and we tell its story virtually for the first time.

Australia’s involvement with the Armenian Genocide continued. From the 1960s, Armenians began to migrate to Australia. Many of them were the children and grandchildren of Genocide survivors, living all over the Middle East. Now Australia has a community of about 50,000 Armenian–Australians, almost all of them with family stories of the Genocide. Their stories are now part of Australia’s story.

Australia has also welcomed about the same number of Turkish migrants. Many of them deny or diminish the Genocide; Turkey, as the Ottoman empire’s successor state, officially rejects that the destruction of the Armenians was genocide – in defiance of scholarly opinion worldwide. Turkey is now Australia’s friend, and part of that friendship should include an acceptance that these events occurred. As Vicken and I say in our book: ‘friends tell the truth’. Our book seeks to tell the truth about Armenia, Australia and the Great War.

Prof. Peter Stanley | UNSW Canberra

Peter Stanley and Vicken Babkenian's Armenia, Australia & The Great War was published by NewSouth in April 2016. 

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Related books
Armenia, Australia & the Great War
April 2016
Australian civilians worked for decades supporting the survivors and orphans of the Armenian Genocide.