Contributor Post Created with Sketch. The Voltaire Project: I Affirm the Armenian Genocide

 

I don’t need to test the proposition that I may say this freely in Turkey, because I’ve done it already and nothing much happened.

A few years ago, I was invited by the American Studies department at Istanbul’s Bahçeşehir University to give a lecture about the way the US media covers Turkish politics. During the question time, a member of the audience asked why the American media insisted upon referring to the events of 1915 as a genocide. There was a collective, agitated murmur in the crowd. The moderator said to me, “You don’t have to answer that,” aware that this was hardly what I’d been invited to discuss.

But I did answer it. They insisted upon calling it a genocide, I explained, because that’s precisely what it was.

The audience disagreed–quite spiritedly–but they were polite. Obviously, I was neither fined nor arrested.

I continued to explain that I believed the real issue was the belief, held by many in Turkey, that the word “genocide” means “exactly like the Nazis, and as uniquely and consummately evil.” Moreover, Turks are justly offended that those who pronounce judgment upon them would be hard-pressed to locate their country on a map, have no deep familiarity with the history of the era, and could no more read documents from the Ottoman archives than decipher a communique from Alpha Centauri. Most do not know that Turks, too, were the victims of horrific massacres; that a great number of Armenians joined the Russian forces invading Turkey and were thus genuinely Fifth Columnists; and that the evidence that these massacres were planned is nowhere near as overwhelming and irrefragable as the evidence that the Nazi Holocaust was planned

Indeed, historians such as Bernard Lewis base their argument upon this. The events of 1915 were not analogous to the Holocaust, he argues, because to make the analogy, one would have to imagine that Jews had been collaborating with the Allies, that the cities of Hamburg and Berlin were exempted from the deportation order, and that order applied only to the Jews of Germany.

So let us follow that analogy: Imagine just that. What would you call that? You’d still call it genocide.

The word genocide is defined by the International Criminal Court as “the deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnic, racial, religious, or national group.” It was coined in 1943 by the Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin to describe the fate of the Armenians in 1915. “I became,” he said, “interested in genocide because it happened so many times. First to the Armenians, then after the Armenians, Hitler took action.”

So there is in fact no doubt: There was an Armenian Genocide because that’s what genocide means.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uCebMq-GmH4

But let’s go a bit beyond this. The man who spoke in this video, Ragip Zarakolu, is an important figure in Turkey:

In December 2004, Zarakolu was first charged for publishing a Turkish translation of British author George Jerjian’s book The Truth Will Set Us Free: Armenians and Turks Reconciled under Article 159 of the Turkish penal code, which made it illegal to “insult or belittle” various state institutions. That article was replaced in March 2005 with the now-infamous Article 301, a new version of the insult law that conservative prosecutors have since used against dozens of writers, journalists, and publishers in Turkey. Article 301 was slightly amended on April 30, 2008.

On June 17, 2008, Zarakolu was convicted of “insulting the State” under Article 301 for publishing Jerjian’s book. He was sentenced to a five-month prison term, which was reportedly subsequently commuted to a fine. He is appealing the conviction.

On May 3, 2007, Zarakolu was acquitted of similar charges under Article 301 in another case for the publication of Professor Dora Zakayan’s book An American Doctor in Turkey: My Smyrna Ordeal of 1922. This case had its first hearing in August 2005, when the prosecutor demanded a six-year prison sentence for Zarakolu for “insulting the Army” and also “insulting Turkishness” by publishing this book. Attila Tuygan, the translator of Dora Zakayan’s book, testified as a defense witness and stated that as translator of the book, he held himself responsible. As a result, Zarakolu was acquitted, but a new trial against the book under Article 301, with Tuygan held responsible, is still expected.

Last October, Zarakolu was arrested again–this time, on charges of terrorism:

Professor Büşra Ersanlı and publisher and human rights activist Ragip Zarakolu were taken under custody on October 28, 2011 within the framework of the KCK (Kurdistan Communities Union) operation.

Another 41 people were taken under custody as well in the scope of this operation. The police raided various pro- Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) offices in İstanbul including the BDP Istanbul Politics Academy and several BDP branches.

Professor Ersanli is a constitutional law expert and a member of the BDP Assembly. She is an academic at the Faculty of Political Science and International Relations of Istanbul’s Marmara University and a member of the BDP Constitutional Commission.

As far as I know, the United States government has said not one word about this. When asked, the US State Department spokesman, Victoria Nuland, replied:

”We do not want to comment at this stage on specific issues before the court. However, the execution of the trial process transparent and timely manner, and all defendants are subject to call for a fair hearing”.

Doesn’t that robust defense of human rights make you feel proud to be an American? (For those of you who are irony-impaired, please put in your hearing aids.)

Now, back to the Armenian Genocide. Look at this map:

The numbers of dead are legitimately disputed. The degree of central planning is legitimately disputed. But the dots indisputably represent Armenian deaths–probably as many as a million–and the lines represent the routes on which Armenians were forced into the desert, without food or water, where they died of starvation and heat exhaustion.

No, this was not the Nazi Holocaust. The Armenians were not the only victims of the First World War. Yes, this was a terrible time, during which massacres occurred on previously unimaginable scales throughout the world. No Turk now alive is responsible for these crimes. Indeed, it is fair to say that ethnic Kurds, not ethnic Turks, bear a greater historical responsibility; they were the primary agents of the killings.

Yet the facts remain: Before the war, an ancient community of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, established long before the Sultanate of Rum, numbered somewhere between 1.3 and 1.8 million. By the end of the 1920s, only a handful were left in what had become the Turkish Republic.

I will defend your right to say this–particularly because it is true–as vigorously as I will defend your right to deny it. But I doubt I’d defend your right to deny it to the death. I’d rather go down fighting for something a bit more noble.

There are 18 comments.

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  1. jonorose Inactive

    That map is very interesting. Seems to suggest there was a clear cut decision and plan to drive the Armenian population eastward.

    The Turks need to take ownership of this and then just try to move on. The denial means the crime is still being committed and by proxy shifting the responsibility onto modern Turks who, almost a century later, should have had closure with this black mark on their past some time ago. No one holds modern Germans responsible for the crimes of 70 years ago because they have accepted responsibility for their past.

    • #1
    • December 26, 2011, at 5:28 AM PST
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  2. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    jonorose: The Turks need to take ownership of this and then just try to move on. The denial means the crime is still being committed and by proxy shifting the responsibility onto modern Turks who, almost a century later, should have had closure with this black mark on their past some time ago. No one holds modern Germans responsible for the crimes of 70 years ago because they have accepted responsibility for their past. · Dec 26 at 4:28am

    What’s bizarre to me is that I don’t think I’ve ever met a Turk who denies that something terrible happened. They use the phrase “tragic events,” or “massacres.” What they deny is the word “genocide.” And I think it truly is a matter of not understanding what the word means. They think the world is calling them Nazis–and they don’t know much about Nazis, but they know that means “ultimate evil.”

    • #2
    • December 26, 2011, at 5:52 AM PST
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  3. Israel P. Inactive
    jonorose: No one holds modern Germans responsible for the crimes of 70 years ago because they have accepted responsibility for their past. · Dec 26 at 4:28am

    Well, some of them anyway. For now.

    • #3
    • December 26, 2011, at 6:03 AM PST
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  4. Israel P. Inactive

    Well done, Claire. Very well done.

    • #4
    • December 26, 2011, at 6:03 AM PST
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  5. jonorose Inactive
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.

    They think the world is calling them Nazis–and they don’t know much about Nazis, but they know that means “ultimate evil.” · Dec 26 at 4:52am

    I think its fair to say that “The Holocaust” was unique in human history, and it deserves its own lexicon. The Nazis version of “genocide” was so extreme, and so unique that it has tainted the word. Its like there’s evil, and then there’s something worse than evil.

    • #5
    • December 26, 2011, at 6:35 AM PST
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  6. James Of England Moderator
    James Of EnglandJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member
    jonorose

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.

    They think the world is calling them Nazis–and they don’t know much about Nazis, but they know that means “ultimate evil.” ·

    I think its fair to say that “The Holocaust” was unique in human history, and it deserves its own lexicon. The Nazis version of “genocide” was so extreme, so unique that it has tainted the word.

    To be fair to users of the term “genocide” in other contexts, we do have a different word for the Holocaust, once used in this sentence and in your comment.

    There are all sorts of words to which this applies. To give a couple of examples of relatively innocent measures painted in the blackest of colors: People criticize British Boer war concentration camps under the implication that they were kind of like Belsen. Almost the same, although admittedly not German, people talk about Japanese “waterboarding” as if it were a similar thing to what Americans did.

    Sometimes people’s use of these terms is correct, but often it is in bad faith. It can be hard for the defender of the better version to differentiate. Legitimate horror at Boer counter-insurgency can sound similar to vile equivalency.

    • #6
    • December 26, 2011, at 7:50 AM PST
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  7. David Holtkamp Inactive

    I know you love Turkey, Claire – but please be careful. The knock on the door was benign…this time.

    • #7
    • December 26, 2011, at 8:11 AM PST
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  8. King Banaian Contributor

    Claire, you will not know how wonderful a Christmas gift this post is for me. Thank you, all the way from my grandparents Culenia and Hovhannes through my father to me on to you.

    • #8
    • December 26, 2011, at 8:44 AM PST
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  9. King Banaian Contributor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.

    What’s bizarre to me is that I don’t think I’ve ever met a Turk who denies that something terrible happened. They use the phrase “tragic events,” or “massacres.” What they deny is the word “genocide.” And I think it truly is a matter of not understanding what the word means. They think the world is calling them Nazis–and they don’t know much about Nazis, but they know that means “ultimate evil.”

    We held a conference on opening the border between Armenia and Turkey a few years ago, in Yerevan. Turkish scholars and business leaders were invited, which made it newsworthy in Armenia. Same thing: Awful, tragic events, but no g-word. And a request from some to stop making that word an issue — to summarize, “we can do so much to make relations better if you do not insist on this. When you do, it makes it harder for us in Turkey to push for change.” Your insight into their understanding of Nazism could very well be true — I don’t know, but it sounds right.

    • #9
    • December 26, 2011, at 8:49 AM PST
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  10. Gaby Charing Inactive

    Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, Article 2: “… any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

    The scope of the phrase “in part” is key, and (d) and (e) suggest that, while members of the group may survive, the culture is to be destroyed. The first such genocide was the destruction of Carthage by the Romans.

    Lemkin coined his definition in 1943. He identified the Armenian as one of a number of genocides that had occurred during the C20.

    Turkish sensitivities are understandable, and fuelled by the mendacity of sections of the Armenian diaspora. But the important thing is to establish what happened and why. The Turkish and French states should leave that to the historians.

    • #10
    • December 26, 2011, at 8:55 AM PST
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  11. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    King Banaian: Claire, you will not know how wonderful a Christmas gift this post is for me. Thank you, all the way from my grandparents Culenia and Hovhannes through my father to me on to you. · Dec 26 at 7:44am

    I’m glad it meant that much to you.

    If you follow the Turkish press, you’ll know that recently the prime minister apologized for the Dersim massacre–the first official apology in the history of the Turkish Republic. It was a completely cynical maneuver designed to undermine the CHP, but it opened a door nonetheless to the idea of apology. There have been some very interesting columns lately in the Turkish press about the Armenian genocide. And the word they’re using is genocide.

    Things are changing. But what everyone needs to watch out for is this: I’m afraid I know Turkey well enough to say that it will be the Islamists, ultimately, who will push for recognition of the genocide. They’ll do it so they can accuse the secularists of yet another crime–genocide-denial. They wouldn’t be wrong, either.

    But where they’re concerned, be careful what you wish for.

    • #11
    • December 26, 2011, at 9:52 AM PST
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  12. Gaby Charing Inactive
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.

    Things are changing. But what everyone needs to watch out for is this: I’m afraid I know Turkey well enough to say that it will be the Islamists, ultimately, who will push for recognition of the genocide. They’ll do it so they can accuse the secularists of yet another crime–genocide-denial. They wouldn’t be wrong, either.

    But where they’re concerned, be careful what you wish for. · Dec 26 at 8:52am

    And the genocide itself, surely? The CUP was the government during WWI.

    You have put your finger on something very important. A secular nationalist movement can commit atrocities, deny them, and end up hoist by its own petard, as it were.

    • #12
    • December 26, 2011, at 11:21 AM PST
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  13. James Gawron Thatcher
    James GawronJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Claire, what is important now is just what you are doing. We must not fall down to childish newspeak games where suddenly a word has a significantly different meaning absurdly eradicating the existence of a crime. It is clear that Murder means Murder and Genocide means Genocide.

    When I studied History at the Graduate level with a world renowned Historian (a very long time ago), he asked the entire class of Masters students a question. “What do Historians do?” There were many answers. He seemed to prefer the answer “They Periodize”. Although I was in awe of him, I disagreed. My one sentence answer to “What do Historians do?” was “They create Deep Context”.

    What is going on is an attempt to destroy the Deep Context of modern history. Eliminating a genocide as if it were just a minor unpleasantness that would be too impolite to mention. Your honesty and intelligence is preventing this intellectual crime from taking place. Keep on keepin’ on.

    • #13
    • December 27, 2011, at 2:32 AM PST
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  14. Gaby Charing Inactive

    I am reminded of Galileo, who was a devout Christian. He said, “Guess what, I think the earth goes round the sun”. The Aristotelian philosophers, who controlled the whole of intellectual life, persuaded the Church that this was a direct threat to its authority, when it was nothing of the sort. The result: the Church silenced Galileo. Turks have been persuaded that the integrity of the state is at risk if the events of 1915 are discussed openly and honestly. That is the problem. What is needed is for there to be space to debate whether the earth goes round the sun without Turks fearing the body politic is going to fall apart.

    • #14
    • December 27, 2011, at 2:43 AM PST
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  15. Profile Photo Member

    Good to know that there’s no short supply of Turks (dissenters abound, I’m sure), motivated by a crude and manifestly puerile nationalism, who are unwilling to concede the painfully obvious, much like the recalcitrance described by Christopher Hitchens of many of his communist allies in the 1970s who refused to yield to his critique of the Soviet Union.

    • #15
    • December 27, 2011, at 3:24 AM PST
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  16. Mollie Hemingway Contributor
    Gaby Charing: I am reminded of Galileo, who was a devout Christian. He said, “Guess what, I think the earth goes round the sun”. The Aristotelian philosophers, who controlled the whole of intellectual life, persuaded the Church that this was a direct threat to its authority, when it was nothing of the sort. The result: the Church silenced Galileo. Turks have been persuaded that the integrity of the state is at risk if the events of 1915 are discussed openly and honestly. That is the problem. What is needed is for there to be space to debate whether the earth goes round the sun without Turks fearing the body politic is going to fall apart. · Dec 27 at 1:43am

    That Galileo myth is quite strong, isn’t it. Almost all untrue. But strong.

    • #16
    • December 27, 2011, at 8:11 AM PST
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  17. Gaby Charing Inactive
    Mollie Hemingway, Ed.
    Gaby Charing: I am reminded of Galileo, who was a devout Christian. He said, “Guess what, I think the earth goes round the sun”. The Aristotelian philosophers, who controlled the whole of intellectual life, persuaded the Church that this was a direct threat to its authority, when it was nothing of the sort. The result: the Church silenced Galileo. Turks have been persuaded that the integrity of the state is at risk if the events of 1915 are discussed openly and honestly. That is the problem. What is needed is for there to be space to debate whether the earth goes round the sun without Turks fearing the body politic is going to fall apart. · Dec 27 at 1:43am
    That Galileo myth is quite strong, isn’t it. Almost all untrue. But strong. · Dec 27 at 7:11am

    No sources are quoted in the piece you link to. I am relying on Stillman Drake, but may have over-simplified his account. My purpose was not to attack the Church, but to make a point about what is and isn’t the proper concern of those in authority, be they church or a nation state.

    • #17
    • December 27, 2011, at 8:52 AM PST
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