The Voltaire Project: I Deny the Armenian Genocide

 

Don’t get too excited, Turkish friends, because I plan to affirm it as soon as I’m on Turkish soil. My point here is to protest the absurdity of forbidding speech and shutting down a legitimate historical debate.

First, let me point you to a piece by Arun Kapil that describes five specific problems with the bill passed yesterday by the French National Assembly criminalizing the denial of the Armenian genocide. In particular:

[T]here are bona fide historians—who are specialists of Turkey and know Turkish, both modern and Ottoman—who do reject the term genocide for what happened to the Armenians in 1915, arguing that there were massacres committed in the context of war but that there was no plan hatched in Istanbul to exterminate the Armenian population, even in part, let alone in full. These historians include Justin McCarthy, who has published much on the question (notably this; also see this); Guenter Lewy, who published; this, among his many works of history; and Bernard Lewis, who has not written on the matter but has publicly stated his view—most famously in a 1993 interview in Le Monde—that the Armenians were victims of massacres but not genocide, and for which he was hit by a lawsuit in France. McCarthy and Lewy are in a minority among scholars of the Armenian genocide and their work is hotly contested, but their scholarly credentials and competence are not in doubt. Vigorous debates on their work have unfolded in academic journals—e.g. the Journal of Genocide Research and Middle East Quarterly—and where, it should be said, one of their principal detractors in recent years has been the Turkish historian Taner Akçam, who has famously broken the Turkish taboo in asserting that the Ottomans did indeed commit genocide against the Armenians (e.g here and here). That McCarthy and Lewy could be legally prosecuted in France for their scholarship is both outrageous and unthinkable. Their work on the Armenians has not been translated into French and published here but now it should be, just to put the inevitable perverse consequences of the new law, should it come into force, to the test.

Bernard Lewis summarizes his views here:

And here we have the views of another historian of no trivial standing, Norman Stone:

STATEMENT by PROFESSOR NORMAN STONE CONCERNING THE “ADL STATEMENT ON THE ARMENIAN GENOCIDE” ISSUED ON 21ST AUGUST 2007

23rd August 2007

Dear Mr Foxman,

I am writing to you about the resolution, recently-published, of the ADL, concerning the Armenian events of 1915 in Turkey.

My qualifications for doing so are I think such that any historian of the period would vouch for me: I taught at Cambridge and Oxford for thirty years before taking early retirement from the Chair of Modern History, and going to Turkey. I have just had published a book about the First World War (Penguin) which is currently being translated into a number of languages and will no doubt shortly appear in the USA. Beyond that, I have started a book about Russia and Turkey in the 1878- 1930 period. A friend in Istanbul has asked me to write to you about the recent statement concerning the Armenian massacres in 1915. I am afraid to say that there will be some dismay if the Anti-Defamation League makes even such carefully-expressed assertions as to whether the massacres amounted to a genocide.

The chief authority is surely Bernard Lewis at Princeton. He told a French newspaper some years ago that there is no document proving the (genocidal) intentions of the Ottoman government, and, on the matter of definition, ‘it depends what you mean by genocide’. His reward for this was to be sued in the French courts, and he even lost one of the cases with a symbolic franc’s damages. Be it said that the Armenians used as lawyer one Maitre Verges, who defended Carlos the Jackel, a notorious holocaust-denier, and other such unsavoury characters; he volunteered to defend Saddam Hussein as well.

But there are other frankly well-qualified authorities in the USA, better-qualified in terms of academic record than anything to be found on the Armenian side. Guenther Lewy (who has just retired from a Chair at Amherst) has a recent book that is clearly fair-minded (‘A disputed genocide’) and it does material damage to the scholarly performance of the chief diaspora historian, Dadrian. Justin McCarthy, an Ottoman demographer, can also usefully be consulted. In Paris, at the College de France, there is Gilles Veinstein, who wrote a telling summary of the whole question in L’Histoire of 1993. These are frankly in the top flight of scholars, and this subject is an extremely difficult one, requiring knowledge not just of modern Turkish but Ottoman, which is obsolete. There are other scholars who also question the ‘genocide’ account, for instance a young man at Harvard, Michael Reynolds, who can handle both the Ottoman archives and the records of the Russian military administration, which took over eastern Anatolia in 1915. The Russian documents, I gather, support what the Turks have claimed about 1915 — that there was a tremendous Armenian-nationalist provocation, followed by a cruel deportation of the population.

I might add that each of these men has faced vicious attacks, and attempts to stop publication — for instance, the manipulation of peer- review tactics, vastly exaggerating the number and significance of slips. In the case of one celebrated American historian, Stanford Shaw at UCLA, his car was booby-trapped and his house fire-bombed.

The more vociferous Armenian diaspora historians like to claim that ‘historians’ support them but this is just not true. Quite the contrary: on the whole, the people who know the subject at first-hand do not accept the thesis of ‘genocide’.

The whole business of 1915 remains murky, but perhaps I can bullet-point some of it.

I can easily supply references for these, but I think that anyone familiar with the subject — including diaspora historians — will know my sources. In general, Professor Lewy’s book (University of Utah Press) will serve in this respect.

1) The documents allegedly proving the genocide are forgeries, and the British law officers who were trying to find evidence over a four-year period of occupation in Constantinople refused to use them. With much regret, they said that they could not establish a case against some hundred men whom they were holding. The State Department were unable to help. This has not stopped the diaspora Armenians in France from using the most notorious of these forgeries (the ‘Naim-Andonian documents’) in their museum in the south of France.

2) The Ottomans themselves in 1916 put on trial some 1300 men for crimes committed during the deportation of the Armenians in 1915, and executed a governor.

3) The Armenians’ leader, Boghos Nubar, was offered a post in the Ottoman cabinet in 1914, but turned it down on the grounds that his Turkish was not up to it.

4) The figure given by Boghos Nubar to the French for Armenian losses for use in the post-war treaties was 700,000. Most died of disease or starvation, but in eastern Turkey at the time at least one quarter of the entire population, Moslem and Christian, died of such causes. It was a terrible time.

5) The internal Ottoman documents talk of ‘deportation’, in the context of widespread Armenian nationalist risings in the early spring of 1915. The Russians and the French (on Cyprus) used Armenian regiments and legionaries.

6) The Armenian populations of Istanbul, Izmir and Aleppo were not affected by the deportation order. As Lewy says, it is as if the Jews of Berlin, Frankfurt and Vienna had been exempted from the Hitler genocide.

7) In the run-up to this tragic period, the Armenian nationalists murdered prominent Armenians who warned against risings – the Patriarch in Istanbul, for instance, and the mayor of Van (and many others).

8) The diaspora Armenians have never allowed this to come before a properly-constituted and competent court. Instead, they prompt parliamentary and other bodies to ‘recognize the genocide’ – Canada, France, Lithuania, Chile, Wisconsin, Edinburgh City Council etc. That will be where the ADL comes in.

9) The diaspora historians also refuse to meet Turkish historians even under neutral and well-intentioned auspices (for instance, in Vienna two years ago).

It is true that diaspora historians will find answers, of greater or lesser plausibility, to these points, but they have to try very, very hard, and their attempt to muzzle transparently competent and honest historians surely speaks for itself.

I might add incidentally that I consider myself neutral and I have never written anything to deny the possibility that a genocide (in the classic sense) was considered. However I do not think that the evidence that we have really adds up, and I quite agree with Professors Lewis, Lewy and Veinstein. I also know, from my ten years in Turkey, how strong the feeling is, there, among quite ordinary people, that the diaspora Armenians are being quite vindictive and perverse about an affair in which the Armenian nationalists have far more responsibility than the diaspora would ever admit. This does Turkish-Armenian relations no good, as I am sure the 100,000 or so Armenians in Turkey, their Patriarch at the head, agree.

The important thing is to bury the hatchet, and Armenia herself, a poor, land-locked place that has lost about a quarter of its population through emigration (a good part to Istanbul) also needs this before she withers on the vine.

Yours sincerely,

Norman Stone

As for me, I don’t read Ottoman Turkish and have done no archival research on the subject, because I can’t: If you can’t read the language, you’re stuck with secondary sources.

However, respecting very greatly the scholarship of Bernard Lewis and Norman Stone, both of whom I know personally and believe to be excellent historians, I hereby agree with their sentiments.

So, France, come lock me up.

Tomorrow: The opposing view.

(And remember, dear Ricochet members, if you’re in France or Turkey, you are forbidden by law from commenting on these posts, depending where you are and what position you espouse.)

There are 9 comments.

  1. Inactive

    I haven’t the credentials to comment on the legal definition of genocide, no do I have the knowledge to address the facts of the Armenian tragedy.

    Perhaps what defines genocide is, as Arun Kapil says above, a plan to exterminate.

    But even if there were such a plan for Armenians or others, what makes the Holocaust unique is the way the Germans (“and their collaborators from the other nations,” as we say in our memorial prayer) industrialized murder. Shooting masses of civilian is terrible and criminal. Deliberately starving masses of people is as well.

    The uniqueness of the Holocaust in my mind is both the “leave no stone unturned, find them all to the third generation” and the fact that it was done in places built or renovated for that purpose, using tools purchased and developed for that purpose, based on processes and programs designed for that purpose. Nothing else compares.

    (All my grandparents and almost all their siblings were in the US before WWI, so the Holocaust is personal to me only in a general sense.)

    • #1
    • December 23, 2011 at 4:12 am
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  2. Thatcher
    Israel P.:

    The uniqueness of the Holocaust in my mind is both the “leave no stone unturned, find them all to the third generation” and the fact that it was done in places built or renovated for that purpose, using tools purchased and developed for that purpose, based on processes and programs designed for that purpose. Nothing else compares.

    Your points, especially in regard to industrialization are well taken. I agree that makes The Holocaust uniquely evil.

    What is Rwanda then?

    Where does the incident in Armenia fit on the same spectrum?

    • #2
    • December 23, 2011 at 6:06 am
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  3. Inactive
    Instugator

    Israel P.:

    The uniqueness of the Holocaust in my mind is both the “leave no stone unturned, find them all to the third generation” and the fact that it was done in places built or renovated for that purpose, using tools purchased and developed for that purpose, based on processes and programs designed for that purpose. Nothing else compares.

    Your points, especially in regard to industrialization are well taken. I agree that makes The Holocaust uniquely evil.

    What is Rwanda then?

    Where does the incident in Armenia fit on the same spectrum? · Dec 23 at 5:06am

    Very high up (or low down, if you prefer) but on a different spectrum. My point is exactly that the Holocaust is qualitatively different, not just worse than others.

    There were Rwandas all through history, I’d think.

    • #3
    • December 23, 2011 at 6:23 am
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  4. Member
    Israel P.:

    But even if there were such a plan for Armenians or others, what makes the Holocaust unique is the way the Germans (“and their collaborators from the other nations,” as we say in our memorial prayer) industrialized murder. Shooting masses of civilian is terrible and criminal. Deliberately starving masses of people is as well.

    Dec 23 at 3:12am

    I certainly think the Holocaust takes the “greatest evil” sweepstakes, however I don’t think its uniqueness resides in the industrialization aspect. Rather, that distinction belongs to the uniquely nihilistic core of Nazism itself. The Bolsheviks were not too far behind the Nazis in the department of brutal, clean efficiency. Now, if only the USSR were as industrialized as Germany, the most technologically advanced country in the world at that time, it might vie for the blue ribbon prize.

    The final minutes of Andzrej Wajda’s extremely beautiful and deeply sad and disturbing film Katyn leaves absolutely no doubt as to the sheer mechanized iniquity of the Bolsheviks.

    • #4
    • December 23, 2011 at 6:30 am
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  5. Inactive

    I think we should criminalize denials of the French genocide of the Russians during Napoleons invasion, or the French genocide of the French during the French revolution.

    I have no problem supporting the Armenian Christians in every way, but we need to move on . . .

    • #5
    • December 23, 2011 at 6:58 am
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  6. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed. Post author

    So, I’m here at the airport, waiting for my flight to Turkey, and so far, so good, except that by horrible coincidence, my cab driver was Turkish. He’s been in France for eleven years. All I wanted was a quiet ride to the airport, and instead I got an uninterrupted Franco-Turkish screed about how idiotic both countries are. I kept saying, “Yes, yes, no argument from me,” and trying to indicate politely that I was in a quiet mood, but he’d found his perfect victim: someone to whom he could bilingually lecture.

    • #6
    • December 23, 2011 at 7:06 am
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  7. Inactive

    The Holocaust was indeed unique. The legal definition of genocide is wide and almost trivialises the concept. What disturbs me is the way good people can be guilt-tripped by diaspora movements such as the Armenian. Accepting that what happened to the Armenians was genocide becomes a test of decency almost. I am intensely suspicious of that kind of politics, because it ineveitably leads to twisting of the facts.

    The Armenians are free to say what they like, but it doesn’t take much imagination to guess the effect in Turkey. Turkey is at a turning point (isn’t it always?) and the last thing Turkish democracy needs is this kind of thing. Unfortunately, from Gladstone through Woodrow Wilson, people who should know better have been suckered by unprincipled nationalist movements. It’s still going on. All one can do is cry ‘foul’.

    • #7
    • December 23, 2011 at 8:53 am
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  8. Member

    I recall passing through Los Angeles… drivng down Wilshire Blvd.. my Turkish wife was confronted with a billboard declaiming on the 1.5 million Armenians slaughtered etc etc.

    She was stunned.. she had Armenian friends in school in Ankara.

    I really could not explain it at all to her satisfaction except to point out the strong Armenian faction in the California electoral construct.

    Is there any “method” to this French “madness”?

    Curiouser and curiouser

    .

    • #8
    • December 23, 2011 at 11:06 am
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  9. Inactive

    The nonsense begins

    • #9
    • December 24, 2011 at 6:33 am
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