Vicken Babkenian & Judith Crispin
‘Australia’s Armenian Story‘, Inside Story, 6 April 2017
This is a long extract from chapter 3 of The Honest History Book, published by NewSouth. It deals with the Armenian Genocide, which commenced 24 April 1915 – and led to the deaths of at least one million Armenians – and the efforts that Australians made to relieve the suffering of Armenians during the war and in subsequent years.
It is the argument of The Honest History Book that downsizing Anzac in our history – putting it in its proportionate place – depends partly on recognising events like the Armenian Genocide which show that the Great War was not just about Australians fighting well for King and Country. The final paragraphs of the extract make this point succinctly:
Many Australians recognise the Gallipoli campaign as a seminal event in the shaping of Australia’s national identity. For Armenians, on the other hand, the genocidal eviction from their country was a defining moment in their quest for national survival. These two seemingly unrelated events had more in common than a mere coincidence of dates and a shared setting in Ottoman Turkey. They were also brought together by a humanitarian bond that helped save the Armenian people from complete annihilation. In the Ottoman war theatre, Anzacs witnessed the Armenian genocide and helped rescue survivors of the death marches. At home, a combination of patriotism, Christian solidarity and public outrage at Ottoman atrocities sparked a relief movement in Victoria that eventually spread throughout the nation.
There is always more to war than heroism and fortitude under fire. Similar qualities can be displayed in a variety of settings, with or without proximate violence. Australians showed such qualities to the benefit of Armenians a century ago and since. Yet, despite the strong connection between Australia’s Gallipoli experience and the Armenian Genocide, the latter does not form part of modern Australia’s collective memory of the first world war. The events that began on 25 April 1915 are burnished and sacralised; the events that began the day before are glossed over. The historical anthropologist Paul Shackel argues that “public memory is more a reflection of present political and social relations [in this case, the relations between Australia and Turkey] than a true reconstruction of the past.” After 101 years, it is time that Australia’s connection to the Armenian tragedy formed part of our reconstruction of the past.
Vicken Babkenian is an independent researcher for the Australian Institute for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. He has written for peer-reviewed history journals, including the Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, and is the co-author with Peter Stanley of Armenia, Australia & the Great War (2016).
Judith Crispin is active in music, poetry, photography and cultural heritage. She is leading a virtual heritage project at the Australian Catholic University, and preparing for overseas exhibitions of her photographs and scans of monuments from Northern Iran and Armenia. She is also managing a venture to crowd-fund an app to prevent suicide by Indigenous Australian youth.