On April 24, 1915 hundreds of Armenian community leaders and intellectuals were rounded up in Constantinople, arrested, and killed by the Ottoman government then ruling Turkey. That event marked the beginning of the government-sponsored massacres of 1.5 million Armenians. It is why April 24 has officially marked the day of remembrance of the Armenian genocide for nearly a hundred years.
Holocaust Remembrance Day, known in Hebrew as Yom HaShoah, memorializes the 6 million Jews who perished at the hands of the Nazi government during World War II. It is a remembrance based on the twenty-seventh day of Nisan in the Jewish ecclesiastical calendar. It doesn’t always fall on the same day by a standard calendar, but variously falls sometime in April or May.
This year Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day and Holocaust Remembrance Day coincide on the same day: April 24, 2017. The coincidence is especially noteworthy this year.
Ignorance of History Leads to Its Repetition
There has always been a strong object lesson in the connection between the Armenian genocide during World War I and the genocide of the Jews during World War II. It is a lesson inscribed on one of the walls of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in the form of a statement by Adolph Hitler. He rationalized mass slaughter and expected people simply to avert their eyes and forget: “Who, after all, today speaks of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
I think Hitler’s point was that merciless slaughter is never a public relations disaster as long as you’re in it for the ruthless consolidation of power. That’s because people forget. All the time. The powerful also often use propaganda tools to promote such lethal forgetfulness.
Humans are very susceptible to groupthink, ignorance, propaganda, agitation, and psychological manipulation that weakens their resolve. People are also often all too eager to blame their own problems on convenient scapegoats. These human flaws clarify why “Never forget” is the cry associated with the Holocaust and all crimes against humanity.
This is why everybody must respect the study of history. After all, studying history is about remembering. It’s about learning from experience, which is why we must emphatically reject any attempt to water down the accurate teaching and study of history.
There is a startling déjà vu in the air. Those who study history can feel history repeating itself in the wholesale persecution and slaughter of Christians in the Middle East. We can feel it in the intensified challenges to Israel’s right to exist and in the jihadist terrorist attacks in the name of Islam that are becoming almost mundane headlines. Elements common to both genocides also seem to be re-emerging in today’s restless world: new technologies that potentially deliver greater lethality; realignments of world powers; great displacements of peoples; and, more than ever before, the pivotal role of propaganda and information warfare in inciting aggression.
‘Why’ Is the Reoccurring Question
As the granddaughter of Armenian genocide survivors, I am keenly tuned in to the history of genocide. My grandfather left written memoirs describing the horrors he and his family endured. In observance of the 2015 centennial of the Armenian genocide, I wrote articles about it in The Federalist and Weekly Standard. For in-depth documentation of the genocide online, I recommend this website with its map of genocide activity and chronology.
In the wake of massive tragedies, we hear a wail of “Why?” It happened after the attacks of September 11, 2001, although it didn’t take long for the shock to wear off once a semblance of normalcy seemed to return. “Why?” is a good question as long as we’re truly interested in real answers. Too often attention spans are fleeting, and tragedy isn’t fun to think about. So when the answers seem too difficult to process, people tend to fall into a default position of forgetting, then repeating mistakes. The only real cure is a disciplined interest in understanding the answers.
So let’s try to consider a few possibilities as we assess why genocide happens, and how it happens. These possibilities would include groupthink, propaganda, vilification campaigns, ignorance, and a disregard for the necessity of virtue in any functioning society.
How Genocide Begins with Groupthink
Perhaps most important to a genocidal plan is neutralizing any possible support for the victims. The Ottoman government maintained a well-coordinated propaganda campaign that vilified the Armenians in the eyes of their Turkish neighbors. In like manner, the Jews were demonized among their neighbors in Nazi Germany.
This sort of thing happens in all mass killings, including those done for reasons other than ethnicity. For example, in Stalinist Russia, several million peasant farmers in the Ukraine were deliberately starved to death in the winter of 1932-33 in what is known as the Holodomor. Soviet propaganda demonized these people, known as “kulaks,” as enemies of the people because they resisted the forced collectivization of agriculture, i.e., the confiscation of their farms. In Rwanda, Hutu propaganda vilified and scapegoated the Tutsis, often through radio, priming the popular mindset for the mass slaughter of 800,000 Tutsis during a 100-day period in 1994. The list of “final solutions” goes on and on.
Information warfare through a centrally controlled media is key to turning neighbor against neighbor. It plays a huge role in caricaturing perceived enemies and growing an us-versus-them mindset. In short, propaganda that psychologically manipulates a population is key to laying the groundwork for extreme social polarization, and ultimately for genocide.
This sort of propaganda thrives on ignorance and dissipates under conditions of social trust and general goodwill. This is why free speech and freedom of expression are not negotiable to any free society.
Propaganda Is a Behavior Modification Tool
Free speech, the free exchange of ideas in a society that cherishes virtue, is critical to overcoming the noxious weed of propaganda. Yet look around and you’ll see some eerie indications that the conditions for genocide seem to be ripening. They are pervasive in the very institutions that are supposed to guard against this sort of thing.
At least in the United States we have institutions intended to protect us from the dangers of runaway propaganda and vilification campaigns. These include a free and open press and institutions of higher education that are supposed to challenge conformity of thought and promote the free exchange of ideas. But these institutions are now dangerously compromised. Our media’s bias has been obvious and well-documented for decades.
The universities are no better, and getting much worse. Whole generations have been infected with groupthink on college campuses, where they have been conditioned to shout down speakers because “hate.” They have been intellectually kneecapped by a corps of radical elites. In a recent National Review Online article, Stanley Kurtz gave an excellent rundown of the hostile takeover of higher education that’s been in the works for generations.
There’s a Confluence of Dangerous Trends
The inability of so many college students to think and to reason has reached critical mass. It is very dangerous to social stability. What happens at the university has huge ramifications for society at large. Just consider this short list of what we are seeing today in academia, the media, and popular culture to view a rising tide of intolerance to differing viewpoints.
- Mob mobilization to promote an anti-speech movement (under the guise of “anti-hate”).
- Mob mobilization to shut down local police forces (under the guise of “Black lives matter”).
- A call for re-education to enforce conformity of thought, from agitator Bill Ayers in 1969 to Wellesley College students in 2017 (under the guise of anti-fascism).
- A rising tide of “my way or die” jihadism that sees itself engaged in total war against perceived enemies (under the guise of religion, in this case Islam).
- Cult behavior in a society that is woefully ignorant about how cults operate and unaware of how susceptible we are to coercive thought reform.
- The cultivation of ignorance in K-12 and higher education that cuts off information about history and civics (under the guise of multi-culturalism).
- The erasure of Western Civilization—i.e., the study of universal human experiences and ideas—from education.
- Heightened vilification campaigns (excessive use of epithets such as “hater,” “bigot,” or “phobic” to demonize perceived political opponents).
- Forced self-criticism at colleges (under the guise of “white privilege”).
- The huge leap in social distrust in the General Social Survey, indicating higher levels of social polarization than ever.
- Scapegoating on a grand scale.
- The corruption of language.
- Growing contempt for the ideal of a virtuous society.
Obviously, we cannot keep traveling down this road to self-destruction. These attitudes have been worming their way into society at large for too long. They feed into the same conditions that laid the groundwork for deadly disasters in world history.
As we memorialize those who perished in the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, and all senseless slaughters, we ought to zero in on the role of propaganda. Information warfare today has intensified as never before. We ought to ponder how propaganda-cultivated groupthink has always been key in the vilification campaigns that have ended in the tragedy of genocide. To enable such campaigns is to play with fire.
So we have no choice if we hope to remain free. We must push back hard, and push back smart. That’s because the freedom to express one’s conscience has always been a use-it-or-lose-it proposition. And history shows when we lose it, there’s hell to pay.