Glorification of a Nazi collaborator in Armenia

Glorification of a Nazi collaborator in Armenia

On 2 June, 2016, Germany's Bundestag passed a resolution qualifying the Ottoman era Armenian killings as 'genocide'.  A few days before, the Yerevan population welcomed a monument to Garegin Nzhdeh, a Nazi collaborator. 

Armenian militant Garegin Nzhdeh was born in the Azerbaijani town of Nakhchivan and at the age of 17 joined the Armenian liberation movement. In 1912, he formed an Armenian battalion within the Bulgarian Army to fight against the Ottoman Empire in the Balkan wars. 

During the First World War, Nzhdeh again took up arms against the Turks, this time as a soldier of the Russian troops. However, towards the end of the conflict he returned to Armenia, where he served in the newly declared Republic. According to some historians, he played an important role in the ethnic cleansing of the local Azerbaijanis in Zangezur , a historical province which today is part of the Republic of Armenia. 

Having fled Armenia in the wake of Sovietization in the 1920s and roaming across America and Europe in the 1930s, Nzhdeh re-emerged during the Second World War, when he offered his services to Adolf Hitler. Some historians even attribute to him the words “Those who fight for Germany, fight for Armenia.”  The Armenian military unit created by him was dispatched to the Eastern front, to the Crimean peninsula, in 1943 and got engaged in battles against the Soviet troops.

Towards the end of the war, Nzhdeh proposed his plan of invading Turkey to the Soviet leadership. The plan got rejected, he himself jailed. He died in prison in 1955. 

In 1983, Nzhdeh`s remains were secretly moved to Soviet Armenia. His gravestone was erected a few years later - on 17 June 1989, a day that later turned into an annual pilgrimage day to the monastery's graveyard. Decades after his death, on 30 March 1992, Nzhdeh was rehabilitated by the supreme court of the newly independent Republic of Armenia.

In March 2010, Nzhdeh was selected as the "National pride and the most outstanding figure" of Armenians throughout the history by the voters of the "We are Armenians" TV project launched by "Hay TV" and broadcast by the Public Television of Armenia (H1). 

A 2013 movie titled “Nzhdeh” was dedicated to his life. Produced with the budget of USD 7 million, a record in Armenian cinema history, it was premiered in Russia and demonstrated in other countries as well. An avenue, a large square, and a nearby metro station in Yerevan, as well as a village in the southern Syunik Province of Armenia are named after Nzhdeh.

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The erection of a monument to the Nazi collaborator in Yerevan was either skipped or met with silence by both international community and media. Even in Russia, Armenia`s closest ally, the event did not generate much attention. While Russia seeks and/or fights neo-Nazi trends in other European countries, by accusing some of its Eastern European neighbors of rehabilitating and even glorifying some controversial WWII personalities, it did not show an adequate reaction to the recently unveiled monument to Nzhdeh, who, as a mastermind of the Armenian military unit, was responsible for the murder of the Soviet citizens in Crimea. The Russian experts, who have been accusing Ukraine of elevation of a Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera, avoided commenting on Nzhdeh. 

In the recent years, the Victory over Nazism has turned into a backbone cult in Russia, while everything related to the Great Patriotic War has been quite sensitive for the Russians. This is no surprise, therefore, that it was Russia that initiated the UN resolution entitled “Glorification of Nazism: Inadmissibility of certain practices that contribute to fuelling contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance”, which was adopted very recently, in November 2015 ; amusingly, Armenia was among those voted in favor of the draft resolution. 

The fact that the Armenian leadership, which had celebrated the 9 May Victory Day a couple of weeks earlier, permitted the monument demonstrates Armenia`s official attitude to the Nazi collaborator. President of Armenia, Serzh Sargsyan, who has positioned himself as the main ally of Russia in the South Caucasus, organized a pompous opening in the center of Yerevan and himself unveiled a monument to the historical figure who led Armenian units against Soviet soldiers and civilians (that included Russians, Armenians and other nationalities of the former USSR). It can well amount to a full-fledged provocation for a number of countries that suffered from the Nazi ideology, mainly Russia. 

Some may link the recent event to the growing anti-Russian sentiments in Armenia despite the fact that Russia maintains a military base, which guards Armenian borders and that Armenia feels more secure within the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization. Therefore, the ceremony, which could have needled Russia, had it happened in some other country, might be one of the episodes of an entire anti-Russian process. But the Russian foreign office limited itself with an uncertain reaction: “…the installation of a monument to Garegin Nzhdeh in Yerevan is unclear for us.”

Denunciation came from Israel, but only at an expert level, and was barely heard. Some Israeli political analysts noted that the erection of the monument is an open propaganda of Nazism and that the participation of the senior Armenian officials at the opening ceremony gives reason to believe that they have declared themselves followers of Nzhdeh. 

Nazi-hunter and Holocaust scholar Dr. Efraim Zuroff in his turn said that Nzhdeh and his Armenian Legion should be condemned for fighting with the Nazis. “The fact that they built the statue is quite outrageous,” said Zuroff. “We must object to any glorification of individuals who fought with the Nazis or extended any assistance to the forces of the Third Reich.” 

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As noted above, Nzhdeh has been hailed as a hero in Armenia throughout the decades since his death. The national conservative ideology formulated by him in the early 20th century is called Tseghakron and claimed by Armenians to be a spiritual covenant to respect, defend and perfect their historical kind based on Armenian roots.  Former Prime Minister Andranik Margaryan classified this ideology as “Armenian racism”. 

However, erecting a monument to a Nazi collaborator and organizing a solemn ceremony with the involvement of the Armenian president on the eve of Bundestag`s resolution on the 1915 events should signal a message not only to the international community, but first of all, to Germany, which adopted the very resolution, to Russia, which usually demonstrates concern to similar actions in other countries, and to Israel, which has been combating Nazi ideology everywhere.