Genocide Deniers


Mr. Jaschik is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed, where this piece first appeared. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, resources, and interactive features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere.

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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    More Comments:

    ingrid ericsen - 10/12/2009

    Turks being subhuman back then...

    I think it's a very well earned label because that is how the Turks treated the Armenians.....like they were
    And it continues today in Turkey's cowardly denials of the globally and well documented Armenian genocide.
    God bless!

    ingrid ericsen - 10/12/2009

    As the grandaughter of An Armenian survivor (who as a teenager, witnessed the slaughter of half his siblings by the Turks! I'm appalled that this genocide is still being discussed and negotiated as if it was a figment of their imaginations! Teh Turks stole their food, their churches,thier homes and their familes. Before butchering them, the Turkish soldiers raped Armenian women and young girl's. These atrocoties all well cdocumented by many countries and it disgusts me that this slaughter garners a mere fraction of the attention of another genocide, one that happened approx 20 years later with the groups hated by the Nazi's. If better technology (via video footage)was available back then, this would not be something to debate today. Funny thing is, my grandfather told his stories to us but he never spoke ill of the Turks, even after surviving what they did to hm and his family.
    A true Christian.

    Fahrettin Tahir - 11/4/2007

    In 1914 Armenians were seen as first world and Turks as subhumans.

    mike morris - 10/27/2007

    "The Armenian disaster was the only event in history where a third world nation hit white skinned christans."

    Mr. Tahir, I have Armenian friends and Turkish friends, and their complexions are remarkably similar. And Armenia is less 'third world' than Turkey? I don't even know what Third World means, truthfully. But I understand your larger point: murderous Europeans slaughter and enslave innocent non-Europeans. Yes, and Europeans have slaughtered Europeans; non-Europeans have and continue to slaughter and enslave non-Europeans (Sudan, the Congo, Burma, etc.); and, yes, non-Europeans have slaughtered and enslaved Europeans. Would it be impolite to remind you that Islam attacked Christendom previous to any Christian attacks on Islam? I haven't heard any apologies for the Islamic slave trade, Constantinople circa 1453, or anything like that, either.

    But on one very important point you and I seem to be in agreement: right now the West, in the unfortunate person of George W. Bush, is inflicting unjustifiable devastation (and threatening more) upon more than one non-European nation. He is a war criminal, and I make no excuses for him.

    Fahrettin Tahir - 10/23/2007

    Between 1820 when the entire moslem population of what became independent as Greece was slaughtered and 1912 when what had been moslem majority areas for half a millenium were turned into christian majority areas by mass murder and deportations, 5 Million Europeans of Turkish Culture were murdered to make Islam disappear from Europe. One of the allied targets of the first world war was to complete this process by dividing up what was left Turkey ( today Turkey) among Armenia, Greece and Russia. The Turks were to disappear from history. In 1914 the democratically elected representatives of the Armenians minority in the Ottoman parliament ran off to Russia for this purpose. They started a guerilla war behind the front by massacres on the moslem population to which the Ottoman government reacted the way which governments at that point in history did. Remember: the USA finished off the Indians, the British murdered tens of millions of their Indians, Marx called Russia the state which had left no crime not done, the Germans solved the Hottentot problem, the French were last seen in Rwanda in the 1990ies. The only two differences to what Turkey did was: 1- The existence of these European nations was not being endangered by the people they were killing and 2-They were white skinned christians killing third world nations. The Armenian disaster was the only event in history where a third world nation hit white skinned christans. These are now working for revenge.

    An act of parliament, which the US congress is, is a political act with political intentions. This resolution has two targets. One is what can be seen in Europe, where members of the Turkish minority in order to have influence in the countzries where they live are asked to parrot christian claims, and refusing are refused influence, thus efectively preventing the Turks in Europe from exercising their democratic rights and two preparing the ground for Armenian demands that Turkey give apart of her territory to Armenia, which had already occupied a fifth of the territory of the neigboring Aserbaijanian republic. In a context where the west would also be discussing return of the formerly Turkish territories in Europe this might even be acceptable, but there is of course no thinking of this. The resolution is effectively a declaration of war on Turkey. Armenian fight for revenge is poisoning Turkey’s relationship with the west. Again this would not be happening if anybody in the west thought about those 5 Millions, but they think that was quite ok, and have erased this event from their history books.

    Turkey of course is not the only country being treaded badly by the West. In each and every individual case the West convinces her inhabitants that they are dealing with nasty regimes, but the bottom line is that the situation has deteoriated to a level where Mr Bush has seen himself forced to warn about WWIII. He wasn’t saying that that would be because of the way the West is treating the rest of the world. But that exactly is the issue.

    Vernon Clayson - 10/23/2007

    I grant that history is largely analyzing past events but had you read the original acrticle you would have observed that it was the House of Representatives attempting to define history. They, not even pretending to be scholarly, brought up events of long ago that have faint bearing on their duties and responsibilities, and those were in a foreign country that may or may not be defined by boundaries of the long ago nor are governed by the same people or government of that ancient time. History should study the events, it is certainly not something feuding politicians should use to sway politics. Rep. Pelosi pursued this only to bring trouble to the current president and in the process approached being treasonous by endangering the efforts of our military. You didn't read the original artical, did you?

    S. McLemee - 10/22/2007

    <em>Great article, I don't thinks so -unless beating a dead horse is within your parameters for judging articles.</em>

    Perhaps you may have noticed that this site is called the History News Network. Evidently you are unaware that the study of history routinely involves discussion of the past.

    Perhaps you should keep that in mind. It may make things around here less confusing for you. To judge from other comments, you seem to think this is like talk radio, but with typing.

    Vernon Clayson - 10/22/2007

    Great article, I don't thinks so -unless beating a dead horse is within your parameters for judging articles. With all the problems we ourselves have as a nation the House of Representatives bothering with this matter was as stupid as Harry Reid taking time out of his leadership responsibilities to condemn Rush Limbaugh. Turkey is a sovereign nation, how about if their parliament decides to vote on whether we were engaged in genocide when we bombed civilians in WWII? Our media is nearly hysterical when we kill civilians in Iraq, what would the tender hearts have done in the 1940s?
    People who live in glass houses, etc., etc.

    David Whitman - 10/21/2007

    Dear Scott Jaschick

    This is a fabulous article, it helps expose how crafty the denial of the Armenian Genocide has become. An attempt is being made to make something which is so black and white to appear as being Grey. This article is of a very high standard and worthy to be in the HRN.