When last Sunday Pope Francis took the brave step of acknowledging the Armenian tragedy as the ‘first genocide of the 20th century’, he knew he was entering a minefield. On 24 April Armenians will commemorate the 100th anniversary of their genocide. There can be no single date for a genocide but that was the day the entire leadership of the Armenian people was arrested by the Ottoman government in Constantinople, now Istanbul, whose successors are the modern Turkish state. The Ottomans had never trusted Armenians, who were Christians, and had long suspected them of being a fifth column within the empire. There had already been pogroms.
But now began a sustained campaign of massacre, eviction and cultural suppression at the end of which somewhere between 600,000 and 1.5 million Armenians had been murdered, and the survivors scattered to the four winds to become the enormous diaspora that expatriate Armenians constitute today, even though there is now an Armenian state and government.
The whole ghastly episode remains the subject of deep and neuralgic controversy on both sides, the only agreement being that it was indeed a ghastly episode. Turks furiously deny that the mass murders were planned or systematic and that this could therefore amount to a genocide; everyone disputes the numbers though all agree they were huge; and countries like ours rather feebly decline to go beyond words like ‘tragedy’, for fear of upsetting a strategically important ally: Turkey. If you want to start a fight in a bar in Ankara, Nicosia, Beirut or a score more places where Armenians have settled (and on the whole prospered), then just mention the Armenian genocide.
An Inconvenient Genocide, by the barrister Geoffrey Robertson (which I came across this winter when judging the Political Book Awards), argues the Armenian corner with informed eloquence. Others too have remarked on how, among the diaspora, this massive shared grievance remains raw and strong — and a unifying national and cultural cause, stories of its horrors handed down through generations born long after the event. Comparisons with the Jewish Holocaust and its reverberations through modern history are too obvious to ignore, though this comparison too touches raw nerves.
But my purpose here is not to enter the fray. Instead I want to reflect on the power — for good and ill — of a tremendous sense of collective grievance, in unifying a people, and perhaps even in forging a national identity. During the general election campaign, we English have only to watch Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish Nationalist leader, to understand the centrality to her cause of that Braveheart feeling that the English are the alien oppressors: usurpers, bullies and cheats, and a yoke to be thrown off. Without that shared sense of victimhood — without England — Scotland, beneath whose surface lurk deep fractures and clashes of interest and identity, would find it much harder to muster the unity that the coming election looks likely to advertise. ‘You bully us, therefore we are.’
But the same cannot be said of England vis-à-vis Scotland or indeed vis-à-vis anywhere else. We feel English more in the contemplation of those we’ve bullied than those who have bullied us. We don’t really know how it feels to be insurgents, there’s no symmetry with Scotland, and I wonder if in our nation’s history there ever has been. Certainly France was seen as a fearsome enemy, but also as a worthy rival. Maybe the closest we came to that Braveheart feeling was during the dark days of the second world war — that British Tommy’s ‘very well, then: alone’ spirit whose sense of being outnumbered proved an energising force. But our hatred of the Nazis was contempt for an adversary, rather than the passive-aggressive complaint that we had been cheated of our birthright.
The other small nation with which I’m particularly familiar is Catalonia. In their long history, the Catalans have lost every war in which they have engaged — and they actually boast about that. Their shield of four blood-red stripes on a yellow field is supposed (romantic nationalist legend has it) to represent the lines drawn across the dying Wilfred I the Hairy’s golden shield by the fingers of Charles the Bald in 987, bloodied in the Catalan duke’s fatal wounds.
Today, recrudescent Catalan nationalism’s uniting idea is horror of the government of Spain, which (they insist) not only cheats them of their money, but denies their language and culture its rightful status, and denies them the freedom they crave as a nation. Any Catalan will recite with ease the wounds and insults their nation has received at the hands of Spain all down the ages. General Franco’s ban on the use of Catalan in public is seized on with particular relish, though the country is now bilingual. If you argue with Catalan nationalists that Madrid is not the monster they imagine, they respond with anger and disappointment. Again, the passive aggression; again the wish to be the underdog. And just as in Scotland, this shared sense of national grievance knits the nation together, reinforcing identity.
I submit that we English have little direct experience of feeling together because we are persecuted together. We are not defined by our enemies. Instead we have tended to find our nationhood in the swagger rather than the cringe: a kind of Rule Britannia bravado. America, which started as a salon des réfusés, feels today (as, despite the evidence, we still do) like a boss nation too. But this isn’t just about power and size. Russia, always a great power, looks for cohesion in a kind of vast collective persecution complex — which we unwisely feed with our Putin-reinforcing economic sanctions.
The closest we have in England to a rallying of national feeling by a feeding of national paranoia is Ukip; but though some of the English buy this, most never will. For us the bark stirs patriotism more readily than the whimper. I’m not sure I care for either. I simply point it out.