Futurelearning

NZ’s heroic response to a faraway genocide

Maria Armoudian and James Robins revisit the connection between NZ and the Armenians by recalling efforts by our newspapers, soldiers and civic leaders to rescue and support Armenians targeted for genocide

“The Horrors of Armenia, Unspeakable Cruelties,” read the New Zealand Herald in 1895. “The Turkish government has determined upon the obliteration of the Armenian race by the most frightful campaign of murder, wholesale massacre, forced starvation and unspeakable tortures ever conceived in the history of the world.” 

This was one example of the tens of thousands of articles published by New Zealand newspapers before, during and after the official date of the Armenian Genocide, 24 April, 1915. Through their newspapers, New Zealanders could learn about Armenians’ long suffering under Ottoman Turkey’s decades-long pogroms against the Armenian people. They could read about massacres, murders, rapes, pillaging and attempted annihilations—for decades before what we now acknowledge as the Armenian Genocide, which resumed again after the conclusion of World War One. Through their newspapers, New Zealander readers could learn about the struggle to survive under constant repression, discrimination, extortion and regular human rights violations. 

Political communication scholars debate about the effects of media coverage. But in the case of New Zealand, the reporting of these atrocities prompted New Zealand humanitarians to help, rescue and assuage the suffering of Armenians. From across the country, leaders such as James Adam, Reverend Wright, and poet, writer and suffragette Jessie Mackay organised relief efforts and humanitarian aid to alleviate the survivors’ suffering. New Zealanders contributed from their own pockets to help an indigenous people killed in their own lands. 

These great humanitarians of our small, remote country could not have acted had they not known about the atrocities occurring in another land. That only happened because of the dedicated newspaper corps covering the atrocities afflicting the Armenians. But they did and this is a proud part of New Zealand’s history that should not be forgotten.

Sadly, today, our intertwined history, our deep connection between New Zealanders and Armenians has been lost, even while Armenians have become part of the New Zealand fabric.

New Zealand and the Armenians’ intertwining of fates converged more intimately in 1915. On April 24, 1915, the evening before the Gallipoli invasion, the Turkish government of the Ottoman empire began implementing a plan to annihilate the Armenians once and for all: They rounded up the Armenians and slaughtered, drowned, crucified, burned alive and deported them to concentration camps in the deserts. Anzac soldiers witnessed parts of the executions, writing in their diaries and letters back home about “Armenian homes smashed in and corpses half-covered with soil or flung down a hollow, where the Turk had passed.” Some New Zealand soldiers fought to rescue Armenians and Assyrians. At least one died in the process.

Within two weeks of the Young Turks’ execution of the Armenian Genocide, the news of mass annihilation reached New Zealanders again via their newspapers. Headlines acknowledged a “Wholesale Massacre” of Armenians. At least eight newspapers reported in late April, 1915 that “Mahommedans are massacring Armenians wholesale. The inhabitants of 10 villages were slaughtered.” 

Again New Zealand citizens responded. For example, the Herald published appeals by one of the Armenian relief organisers, Dr L.L. Wirt to support the thousands of surviving Armenians, including some 100,000 orphans.  Kiwis again donated from their own pockets, and one Christchurch couple, Lydia and John Knudsen, dedicated their efforts to help build the Australasian orphanage for the Armenian children whose parents perished in the Genocide. 

The shrouding of these realities also arises from the New Zealand government’s diplomatic aid to Turkey, the country responsible for the genocide, by erecting monuments to Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

Sadly, today, our intertwined history, our deep connection between New Zealanders and Armenians has been lost, even while Armenians have become part of the New Zealand fabric. This is partly because Gallipoli, and perhaps World War One itself, has been reframed as a fraction of the reality that it was, a reframing that fails to recognise either the heroic efforts of New Zealand citizens, soldiers and journalists, or of Turkey’s genocide of its indigenous Christian populations — Armenians, Assyrians and Pontic Greeks. 

The shrouding of these realities also arises from the New Zealand government’s diplomatic aid to Turkey, the country responsible for the genocide, by erecting monuments to Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. This masks Ataturk’s continuation of genocidal policies of the region’s indigenous populations, the Armenians, after World War One and robs New Zealand of its rich and generous history. 

As we have passed the 103rd anniversary of the two events, we can revisit the connection between New Zealand and the Armenians by recalling heroic efforts by New Zealand newspapers, soldiers and civic leaders to rescue and support Armenians targeted for genocide. This gives us a richer, more truthful understanding of World War One, one in which New Zealanders, as they often have, acted with a strong sense of ethics and compassion for suffering people. It simultaneously gives substance to the credo of “never again”, by refusing to enable genocide denial, all while supporting the healing of our fellow Armenians. 

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