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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Sins of the Father: Tribalism and the Armenian Genocide

He did this after being forced to visit to Ohrdruf, a labour camp not far beyond city limits.  This visit was demanded by one General Eisenhower, who at the time was Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces. 

It was Germany, 1945 - the end of World War II.  Ohrdruf was a sub-camp of Buchenwald, one of the Nazis' infamous Concentration Camps and the setting of the attempted genocide traditionally referred to as The Holocaust.

I know a bit about Buchenwald.  In fact, I was there but a week ago, celebrating the 69th Anniversary of the camp's liberation by Eisenhower's forces.  My grandfather, as you may know, spent time in Buchenwald as an inmate. 

While other Allied soldiers experienced the atrocities of Buchenwald in the immediate aftermath (due to a very wise decision by Eisenhower), my grandpa was one of 168 Allied Airmen who were there at the peak of the Camp's operation.

I've heard the faith-shattering stories from many, many survivors: the inhuman conditions of the camp, the dehumanizing treatment by the SS and Camp Kapos, the illness, starvation and being worked to death.  And always, the constant plume of smoke rising from the crematorium's chimney.

Buchenwald rests on the far side of a hill visible from Weimar, once the centre of German intellectualism.  The smoke from that chimney would have been visible to the naked eye of the people of Weimar.  It's hard to imagine the gunshots from the hill wouldn't have echoed as far of the town as well.

The people of towns like Weimar and Gotha would have known, or at least have had ample evidence to piece together what was happening just beyond their borders.  Yet they chose not to see, not to hear - they didn't want to be responsible.

But they were responsible.  In turning a blind eye and by their inaction, they chose to do nothing and evil triumphed. 

At least for a time. 

The war ended, atrocities came to light and consequences began to be felt.  The people of Weimar were made to visit Buchenwald and see what exactly they'd turned a blind eye to.  When they could no longer deny what had happened - when they were forced to look upon the horrors they had permitted to happen in their midst - they wept.

Times have changed in Germany; now, the City of Weimar has pledged to condemn and fight against such tyranny in the future.  It doesn't matter whether such matters are federal in nature.  Matters of jurisdiction don't matter any more - what's morally just does.

The same holds true of a new initiative in Spain seeking to create a community of municipalities that declare themselves anti-Fascist.  Municipalities are realizing that, while their federal counterparts get mired in the complexities of foreign affairs and strategic diplomacy, they are unfettered in their ability to stand up for what's right.

Today, when my grandfather and other Buchenwald survivors from across the globe return to Weimar, they are greeted as friends.  These survivors, in turn, view the people of Weimar as friends.  In fact, some of the best friends we have are young Germans who volunteer their time to support commemoration efforts because they feel exactly the same way we do; the Holocaust happened, it was horrible, and it's up to all of us to remember the past and prevent it from happening again.

One of the most important lessons my grandfather has taught me is that it is wrong to blame the child (or grandchild) for the sins of the father.  It's possible that one of my German friends is the grandchild of an SS guard who worked in Buchenwald - I don't care.  I know who they are, what they believe in, and that's what matters to me.

The Armenian Genocide was just that - a systematic and intentional attempt to eradicate an entire people.  It was immoral, wrong, inhuman and those who perpetrated the massacre of 1.5 million Armenians deserve to be remembered for all time for what they did.

But it happened in 1915, a very long time ago.  None of the Turkish politicians fighting against the Armenian Genocide being called what it is were alive when it happened.  They are not to blame for the sins of a past generation.

Look, I get their concerns.  People by and large are still tribal - we generalize people all the time and heap whole hosts of assumptions and lineages of the past.  Politics in particular is bad for this - Parties will take credit for the work done a century ago by people who had completely different perspectives than they did, while equally tarring opponents with the negative legacies of anyone who shared their brand once upon a time.

In a tribalized view of the world, a Turk is a Turk and an Armenian an Armenian - ne'er the twixt shall meet, each generation carries the weight of their tribal past.  By the same token, in a tribalized view of the world, there's us, who are real people, and them, who aren't.  

The Nazis didn't view Jews or Poles or Homosexuals as fellow human beings - they dehumanized them, which is why they were able to to treat them like animals.  The same held true for the Turks who killed Armenians, or the Americans who massacred First Nations, or any other ethnic conflict anywhere in the world.  

Tribalism perpetuates false divisions and dehumanizes anyone you can describe as not like you, which is a group that invariably grows larger the more you pursue a path of exlcusion.

But the world isn't tribalized any more, is it?  There are children out there of mixed Turkish, Armenian, Dutch and whatever else descent who don't view themselves as the embodiment of one lineage, but the progenitors of something new.

My children are a mutt-mix of European lineages, plus a couple strands of East Asian.  How do they self-identify?  As Canadian.

To me, that's the whole point of Canada - we're not a competing tribe.  We're not a monochrome people.  We are a confluence of every ethnicity, every ideology, every religion and every way of looking at the world.

By virtue of being a bit of everyone, we don't have the luxury of cherry-picking arguments or picking one side over another.  The very mix of our population forces (or at least, should force) us to look at the bigger picture, empathize, take the time to understand and focus on what we can learn from the past to improve the future.

This has been a trend this week which has carried through writings by Don Lenihan and Andrew Coyne; we must get passed entrenched ideologies, we must embrace this thing called responsibility. 

Today's young Germans are no more the perpetrators of the Holocaust than today's young Turks caused the Armenian genocide or young Canadians build the residential school system.  But we do have responsibility to learn from these sad chapters of history so that we don't repeat the mistakes of our forefathers.

Fortunately, this is starting to happen.  In fits and spurts, the people are recognizing that they aren't tied to one history, nor one brand; even in Turkey,Young Turks are pushing back against the official denial of the Armenian Genocide.

It's unfortunate that we have a rising tide of politicians taking the "not my problem" approach once favoured by the Mayor of Gotha.  It's not going to work out very well for them in the long run.

Fortunately, we have a growing mass of individuals stepping out of the dark cave of tribal identity and seeing the world for what it is - a complex dynamic environment that doesn't live in the past, but rather evolves rapidly into the future.

As always, it will be our governments shaming us either through "strategic" positioning in places like the Ukraine or "strategic" ignoring of crises such as that in Syria or the Sudan.

It takes an engaged people who recognize that not knowing isn't an option to speak truth to power and break the sway of tribalism.

One day, we will be the mothers and fathers whose actions will be discussed by our grandchildren.  Instead of focusing on what someone did in the past, maybe it's time we start thinking about what legacy we want to leave behind ourselves.

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