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Genocide Deniers

Note: Comments on this article may be posted either here on HNN or at the website of Inside Higher Ed, where this article was first published. -- Editors

In the buildup to the vote by a House of Representatives committee officially calling for U.S. foreign policy to recognize that a genocide of Armenians took place during World War I, at the behest of the “Young Turk” government of the Ottoman Empire, a flurry of advertising in American newspapers appeared from Turkey.

The ads discouraged the vote by House members, and called instead for historians to figure out what happened in 1915. The ads quoted such figures as Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, as saying: “These historical circumstances require a very detailed and sober look from historians.” And State Department officials made similar statements, saying as the vote was about to take place: “We think that the determination of whether the events that happened to ethnic Armenians at the end of the Ottoman Empire should be a matter for historical inquiry.”

Turkey’s government also has been quick to identify American scholars (there are only a handful, but Turkey knows them all) who back its view that the right approach to 1915 is not to call it genocide, but to figure out what to call it, and what actually took place.

Normally, you might expect historians to welcome the interest of governments in convening scholars to explore questions of scholarship. But in this case, scholars who study the period say that the leaders of Turkey and the United States — along with that handful of scholars — are engaged in a profoundly anti-historical mission: trying to pretend that the Armenian genocide remains a matter of debate instead of being a long settled question. Much of the public discussion of the Congressional resolution has focused on geopolitics: If the full House passes the resolution, will Turkey end its help for U.S. military activities in Iraq?

But there are also some questions about the role of history and historians in the debate. To those scholars of the period who accept the widely held view that a genocide did take place, it’s a matter of some frustration that top government officials suggest that these matters are open for debate and that this effort is wrapped around a value espoused by most historians: free and open debate.

“Ultimately this is politics, not scholarship,” said Simon Payaslian, who holds an endowed chair in Armenian history and literature at Boston University. Turkey’s strategy, which for the first 60-70 years after the mass slaughter was to pretend that it didn’t take place, “has become far more sophisticated than before” and is explicitly appealing to academic values, he said.

“They have focused on the idea of objectivity, the idea of ‘on the one hand and the other hand,’ ” he said. “That’s very attractive on campuses to say that you should hear both sides of the story.” While Payaslian is quick to add that he doesn’t favor censoring anyone or firing anyone for their views, he believes that it is irresponsible to pretend that the history of the period is uncertain. And he thinks it is important to expose “the collaboration between the Turkish Embassy and scholars cooperating to promote this denialist argument.”

To many scholars, an added irony is that all of these calls for debating whether a genocide took place are coming at a time when emerging new scholarship on the period — based on unprecedented access to Ottoman archives — provides even more solid evidence of the intent of the Turkish authorities to slaughter the Armenians. This new scholarship is seen as the ultimate smoking gun as it is based on the records of those who committed the genocide — which counters the arguments of Turkey over the years that the genocide view relies too much on the views of Armenian survivors.

Even further, some of the most significant new scholarship is being done by scholars who are Turkish, not Armenian, directly refuting the claim by some denial scholars that only Armenian professors believe a genocide took place. In some cases, these scholars have faced death threats as well as indictments by prosecutors in Turkey.

Those who question the genocide, however, say that what is taking place in American history departments is a form of political correctness. “There is no debate and that’s the real problem. We’re stuck and the reality is that we need a debate,” said David C. Cuthell, executive director of the Institute for Turkish Studies, a center created by Turkey’s government to award grants and fellowships to scholars in the United States. (The center is housed at Georgetown University, but run independently.)

The action in Congress is designed “to stifle debate,” Cuthell said, and so is anti-history. “There are reasonable doubts in terms of whether this is a genocide,” he said.

The term “genocide” was coined in 1944 by Raphael Lemkin, a Jewish-Polish lawyer who was seeking to distinguish what Hitler was doing to the Jews from the sadly routine displacement and killing of civilians in wartime. He spoke of “a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.” Others have defined the term in different ways, but common elements are generally an intentional attack on a specific group.

While the term was created well after 1915 and with the Holocaust in mind, scholars of genocide (many of them focused on the Holocaust) have broadly endorsed applying the term to what happened to Armenians in 1915, and many refer to that tragedy as the first genocide of the 20th century. When in 2005 Turkey started talking about the idea of convening historians to study whether a genocide took place, the International Association of Genocide Scholars issued a letter in which it said that the “overwhelming opinion” of hundreds of experts on genocide from countries around the world was that a genocide had taken place.

Specifically it referred to a consensus around this view: “On April 24, 1915, under cover of World War I, the Young Turk government of the Ottoman Empire began a systematic genocide of its Armenian citizens — an unarmed Christian minority population. More than a million Armenians were exterminated through direct killing, starvation, torture, and forced death marches. The rest of the Armenian population fled into permanent exile. Thus an ancient civilization was expunged from its homeland of 2,500 years.”

Turkey has put forward a number of arguments in recent years, since admitting that something terrible did happen to many Armenians. Among the explanations offered by the government and its supporters are that many people died, but not as many as the scholars say; that Armenians share responsibility for a civil war in which civilians were killed on both sides; and that the chaos of World War I and not any specific action by government authorities led to the mass deaths and exiles.

Beyond those arguments, many raise political arguments that don’t attempt to deny that a genocide took place, but say that given Turkey’s sensitivities it isn’t wise to talk about it as such. This was essentially the argument given by some House members last week who voted against the resolution, saying that they didn’t want to risk anything that could affect U.S. troops. Similarly, while Holocaust experts, many of them Jewish, have overwhelmingly backed the view that Armenians suffered a genocide, some supporters of Israel have not wanted to offend Turkey, a rare Middle Eastern nation to maintain decent relations with the Israel and a country that still has a significant Jewish population.

Dissenters or Deniers?

Probably the most prominent scholar in the United States to question that genocide took place is Bernard Lewis, an emeritus professor at Princeton University, whose work on the Middle East has made him a favorite of the Bush administration and neoconservative thinkers. In one of his early works, Lewis referred to the “terrible holocaust” that the Armenians faced in 1915, but he stopped using that language and was quoted questioning the use of the term “genocide.” Lewis did not respond to messages seeking comment for this article. The Armenian National Committee of America has called him “a known genocide denier” and an “academic mercenary.”

The two scholars who are most active on promoting the view that no genocide took place are Justin McCarthy, distinguished university scholar at the University of Louisville, and Guenter Lewy, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Both of them are cited favorably by the Turkish embassy and McCarthy serves on the board of the Institute of Turkish Studies.

McCarthy said in an interview that he is a historical demographer and that he came to his views through “the dull study of numbers.” He said that he was studying population trends in the Ottoman Empire during World War I and that while he believes that about 600,000 Armenians lost their lives, far more Muslims died. “There’s simply no question,” he said, that Armenians killed many of them.

The term genocide may mean something when talking about Hitler, McCarthy said, “where you have something unique in human history.” But he said it was “pretty meaningless” to use about the Armenians. He said that he believes that between the Russians, the Turks and the Armenians, everyone was killing everyone, just as is the case in many wars. He said that to call what happened to the Armenians genocide would be the equivalent of calling what happened to the South during the U.S. Civil War genocide.

So why do so many historians see what happened differently? McCarthy said the scholarship that has been produced to show genocide has been biased. “If you look at who these historians are, they are Armenians and they are advancing a national agenda,” he said. Cuthell of the Institute for Turkish Studies said that it goes beyond that: Because the Armenians who were killed or exiled were Christians (as are many of their descendants now in the United States), and those accused of the genocide were Muslims, the United States is more sympathetic to the Armenians.

Lewy said that before he started to study the issue, he too believed that a genocide had taken place. He said that intellectuals and journalist “simply echo the Armenian position,” which he said is wrong. He said that there is the “obvious fact” that large numbers of Armenians were killed and he blamed some of the skepticism of Turkey’s view (and his) on the fact that Turkey for so long denied that anything had taken place, and so lost credibility.

In 2005, the University of Utah Press published a book by Lewy that sums up his position, Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey: A Disputed Genocide. Lewy’s argument, he said in an interview, “is that the key issue is intent” and that there is “no evidence” that the Young Turks sought the attacks on the Armenians. “In my view, there were mass killings, but no intent.” Lewy’s argument can also be found in this article in The Middle East Forum, as can letters to the editor taking issue with his scholarship.

The Evidence for Genocide

Many scholars who believe that there was a genocide say that Lewy ignored or dismissed massive amounts of evidence, not only in accounts from Armenians, but from foreign diplomats who observed what was going on — evidence about the marshaling of resources and organizing of groups to attack the Armenians and kick them out of their homes, and the very fact of who was in control of the government at the time.

Rouben Adalian, director of the Armenian National Institute, called the Lewy book part of an “insidious way to influence Western scholarship and to create confusion.” He said it was “pretty outrageous” that the Utah press published the book, which he called “one of the more poisonous products” to come from “those trying to dispute the genocide.”

John Herbert, director of the University of Utah Press, is new in his job there and said he wasn’t familiar with the discussions that took place when Lewy submitted his book. But he said that “we want to encourage the debate and we’ve done that.”

Notably, other presses passed on the book. Lewy said he was turned down 11 times, at least 4 of them from university presses, before he found Utah. While critics say that shows the flaws in the book, Lewy said it was evidence of bias. “The issue was clearly the substance of my position,” he said.

Of course the problem with the “encouraging the debate” argument is that so many experts in the field say that the debate over genocide is settled, and that credible arguments against the idea of a genocide just don’t much exist. The problem, many say, is that the evidence the Turks say doesn’t exist does exist, so people have moved on.

Andras Riedlmayer, a librarian of Ottoman history at Harvard University and co-editor of the H-TURK e-mail list about Turkish history, said that in the ’80s, he could remember scholarly meetings “at which panels on this issue turned into shouting matches. One doesn’t see that any more.” At this point, he said, the Turkish government’s view “is very much the minority view” among scholars worldwide.

What’s happening now, he said, outside of those trying to deny what took place, “isn’t that the discussion has diminished, but that the discussion is more mature.” He said that there is more research going on about how and why the killings took place, and the historical context of the time. He also said that he thought there would be more research in the works on one of “the great undiscussed issues of why successive Turkish governments over recent decades have found it worthwhile to invest so much political capital and energy into promoting that historical narrative,” in which it had been “fudging” what really happened.

Among the scholars attracting the most attention for work on the genocide is Taner Akçam, a historian from Turkey who has been a professor at the University of Minnesota since 2001, when officials in Turkey stepped up criticism of his work. Akçam has faced death threats and has had legal charges brought against him in Turkey (since dropped) for his work, which directly focuses on the question of the culpability of Young Turk leaders in planning and executing the genocide. (Akçam’s Web site has details about his research and the Turkish campaigns against him.) Opposition to his work from Turkey has been particularly intense since the publication last year of A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility.

In an interview, Akçam said that his next book — planned for 2008 — may be “a turning point” in research on the genocide. He is finishing a book on what took place in 1915 based only on documents he has reviewed in Ottoman archives — no testimony from survivors, no documents from third parties. The documents, only some of which he has written about already, are so conclusive on the questions Turkey pretends are in dispute, he said, that the genocide should be impossible to deny.

To those like Lewy who have written books saying that there is no evidence, “I laugh at them,” Akçam said, because the documents he has already released rebut them, and the new book will do so even more. “There is no scholarly debate on this topic,” he said.

The difficulty, he said, is doing the scholarship. In the archives in Turkey, he said, the staff are extremely professional and helpful, even knowing his views and his work. But he said that he has received numerous death threats and does not feel safe in Turkey for more than a few days, and even then must keep a low profile. As to legal risks, he said that laws on the books that make it illegal to question the Turkish state on certain matters, are inconsistently enforced, so while he has faced legal harassment, he generally felt that everything would work out in the end. But Akçam is well known, has dual German-Turkish citizenship, and a job at an American university, and he said those are advantages others do not have.

He plans to publish his next book first in Turkey, in Turkish, and then to translate it for an American audience.

Another scholar from Turkey working on the Armenian genocide is Fatma Müge Göçek, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Michigan. Until she came to Princeton to earn her Ph.D., Göçek said that she didn’t know about the Armenian genocide. For that matter, she said she didn’t know that Armenians lived in Turkey — “and I had the best education Turkey has to offer.”

Learning the full history was painful, she said, and started for her when Armenians she met at Princeton talked to her about it and she was shocked and angry. Upon reading the sorts of materials she never saw in Turkey, the evidence was clear, she said.

Göçek’s books to date have been about the Westernization of the Ottoman Empire, but she said she came to the view that she needed to deal with the genocide in her next book. “I have worked on how the Ottoman Empire negotiated modernity,” she said, and the killings of 1915 are part of “the dark side of modernity.”

So the book she is writing now is a sociological analysis of how Turkish officials at the time justified to themselves what they were doing. She is basing her book on the writings these officials made themselves in which they frame the issue as one of “the survival of the Turks or of the Armenians” to justify their actions. While Göçek will be focusing on the self-justification, she said that the diaries and memoirs she is citing also show that the Turkish leaders knew exactly what they were doing, and that this wasn’t just a case of chaos and civil war getting out of hand.

Göçek said she was aware of the harassment faced by Akçam and others from Turkey who have stated in public that a genocide took place. But she said scholars must go where their research leads them. “That is why one decides to become an academic — you want to search certain questions. If you do not want to, and you are not willing to, you should go do something else.”

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  • This article was first published at the website of Inside Higher Ed and is reprinted with permission of the author.