Historian Sees Contradiction between AHA's Stand on Holocaust Denial and Its Stand on Armenian Genocide

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Historian Jesse Lemisch is questioning the American Historical Association's decision not to take a stand on Armenian genocide. Lemisch, Professor Emeritus of History, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says that the AHA should forthrightly state that Armenians were massacred in World War I just as the organization has stated in the past that millions of Jews were killed in the Holocaust. In short, the AHA should either condemn both genocides or neither. In response AHA President James Sheehan stated, "As a scholarly organization, our efforts should not be directed at issuing proclamations about what happened in the past."


I was glad that President James Sheehan and the American Historical Association Council expressed disapproval of the Turkish government's role in the cancellation of a conference on"Ottoman Armenians during the Decline of the Empire" (Perspectives, September 2005, 3–4). But I found it jarring that, in the midst of this otherwise commendable expression, the AHA and its president felt the need to state that,"Needless to say, the Association does not have a position on the fate of the Armenians." As a veteran of Vietnam-era struggles within the professional associations, I know just how militantly the AHA has held to the notion that, in President Sheehan's words, it"does not take a position on particular historical issues." (And I recall the December 1968 AHA meeting in New York in which a procession of worthies proclaimed that the convention had been moved from Chicago after the police riot during the Democratic Convention in August only as a matter of convenience, with no hint of political or historical judgment.)

As President Sheehan reminds us, the Turkish government has denied that a genocide took place. But can it be that the AHA has no position on the fact of the Armenian Genocide? In response to my query on what I take to be a related question, the AHA's executive director has reminded me of the AHA Council's 1991 statement deploring Holocaust Denial ("No serious historian questions that the Holocaust took place"). I'm sure some readers will see an inconsistency between the AHA's position on the Holocaust and its position on the Armenian Genocide; I'm sure others will find enough angels on the head of this pin to squirm out of it. But doesn't it come down to this: the AHA opposes Holocaust denial in one case but is agnostic in another?


I am grateful to Jesse Lemisch for the opportunity to clarify the point I tried to make in my letter to Prime Minister Erdogan. Let me add that I am now speaking only for myself, not for the Council or the AHA.

In December 1991, the Council approved the following statement:"The American Historical Association Council strongly deplores the publicly reported attempts to deny the fact of the Holocaust. No serious historian questions that the Holocaust took place." The second sentence is, of course, a simple statement of fact: there is agreement among all serious scholars about the basic facts of the Holocaust, even if there are debates about details and interpretations. This consensus did not happen because organizations like the AHA"deplored" the views of those who denied the Holocaust, but because free and open research produced an extraordinarily rich and convincing body of scholarship.

The AHA does not have a position on the Armenian genocide. Should it have one? I don’t think so—even though I am personally convinced that what happened to the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian minority in 1915 was indeed a genocide. As a scholarly organization, our efforts should not be directed at issuing proclamations about what happened in the past. Such proclamations, I suspect, rarely change anyone’s mind. We should concentrate our attention on trying to end restrictions on research and discussion in the present. This was why the AHA protested the political pressures that forced the cancellation of the scholarly conference scheduled to be held in Istanbul last May.

As many readers of Perspectives are aware, that conference, on"Ottoman Armenians during the Demise of the Empire: Issues of Democracy and Scientific Responsibility," took place on September 24 and 25, 2005, at Bilgi University in Istanbul. The success of the conference was a testimony to the courage of its organizers and a victory for academic freedom and scholarly integrity. These values, on which our common labors as historians must ultimately depend, remain the best antidotes to irresponsible scholarship and repressive politics.

Read entire article at AHA Perspectives (Dec. 2005)

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Rowan Arthur Berkeley - 12/21/2005

In my opinion James Sheehan's responses here are not those of what he calls a "serious historian", but of what Harry Elmer Barnes called a "court historian".