From Armenia to Syria, let’s fight for a more truthful record

As the anniversaries of the Armenian genocide and the bombing of Guernica are marked, Michael Petrou asks why we continue to accept ambiguous accounts of events when the truth is not always that hard to find.

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April 26, 2017
A municipal worker washes a ceramic reproduction of Spanish artist Pablo Picasso's Guernica, in the Basque town of Guernica, northern Spain, January 12, 2017. This year marks the 80th anniversary of the mural, painted in 1937 following the aerial bombing of the town by German and Italian aviation allied to Nationalist forces led by General Franco. REUTERS/Vincent West

Eighty years ago Wednesday, German planes of the Condor Legion laid waste to the holy Basque town of Guernica in northern Spain. It was bombed and burned and its civilians were machine-gunned as they fled. As many as 1,000 died.

Guernica was not the first town or city to be bombed in the Spanish Civil War, but it was the first undefended one to be completely obliterated by air. The attack’s severity, and a vivid description of it by journalist George Steer, who arrived at the scene that night, provoked worldwide revulsion.

Despite copious evidence, the Germans, and Spanish rebels led by Francisco Franco, on whose behalf the Germans had launched the attack, spun a disinformation campaign and claimed the Basques had blown up Guernica themselves.

Some in Franco’s regime, victors in the civil war, continued to propagate the falsehood that Guernica was destroyed by its residents into the 1970s.

One wonders, if they had simply clung to the lie just a little longer, they might never have needed to admit the truth.

The bombing of Guernica is not the only atrocity with an anniversary this week. On Monday, Armenians marked the grim date on which their genocide is commemorated. Up to 1.5 million were killed by Ottoman authorities and their paramilitary allies during the First World War.

As with the bombing of Guernica, the evidence of the state-directed mass murder of Ottoman Armenians is voluminous and compelling. It steadily becomes more so, in no small part due to the efforts of Turkish historian Taner Akcam.

And yet Turkey, successor state to the Ottoman Empire, has always maintained that no genocide occurred. This week, a group calling itself Turkish Canadians Peace and Solidarity Platform published an ad in the National Post couching genocide denial in the soft language of unity.

“We, as Turkish Canadians, remember and honour the suffering and pain of all subjects of the Ottoman Empire of different ethnic and religious backgrounds including some of the Ottoman Armenians during the Great War.

“Singling out the sufferings of one group serve nothing but the distortion of history,” the ad reads.

It goes on to condemn motions passed in parliament that recognized the Armenian genocide and declared April “Genocide Remembrance, Condemnation and Prevention Month,” arguing that the motions promote hatred toward Turkish Canadians. 

It’s unclear who’s behind the group. Its Facebook page reflects strident Turkish nationalism and a declared need to refute Armenian “lies.”

It’s worth noting that as much as Turkish genocide denial pains Armenians, it hurts Turkey more. As Akcam told The New York Times: “My firm belief as a Turk is that democracy and human rights in Turkey can only be established by facing history and acknowledging historic wrongdoings.”

Indeed, it’s not hard to see links between Turkish genocide denial, the country’s populist nativism and the grasping autocracy of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

"If past atrocities can be denied, current ones need not be hidden, but simply blamed on someone else."

And while I’m not suggesting newspapers should filter who buys ads on their pages, that the most odious crime can be so casually erased in the present-day equivalent of a public square reflects a society that is becoming increasingly willing to scorn evidence unless it confirms pre-existing belief.

The repercussions are far more serious than, for instance, persistent rumours about a president’s Kenyan birth place. If past atrocities can be denied, current ones need not be avoided or even be hidden, but simply blamed on someone else.

Witness the credibility with which many, even in the democratic West, greet Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s claim that reports of a chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians this month were “100 percent fabrication.”

Murray Dobbin, a columnist at rabble.ca, says there is “no evidence yet” who gassed Syrian civilians. There are, in fact, numerous videos of the attack’s aftermath, eye-witness reports of warplanes attacking the town, the assessment of chemical weapons experts, and American reports on the path taken by Syrian planes from their base, to the target, and back.

No matter. The Basques blew up Guernica. The Armenians died in a horrific war in which everyone suffered. No one really knows what happened to those Syrian kids.

George Orwell, as usual, got it right before most everyone else. “This kind of thing is frightening to me, because it often gives me the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world,” he wrote in 1943, of the mendacious propaganda and media coverage surrounding the Spanish Civil War.

“I am willing to believe that history is for the most part inaccurate and biased, but what is peculiar to our own age is the abandonment of the idea that history could be truthfully written.”

It can, of course, and must. But a fat load of good that does in a world in which even the gravest and most consequential truths are denied or dismissed as subjective matters of opinion.