Theriault Lectures at Haigazian University on the ComparativeDimensi

Department of Armenian Studies, Haigazian University
Beirut, Lebanon
Contact: Ara Sanjian
Tel: 961-1-353011
Email: [email protected]


BEIRUT, Tuesday, 22 June, 2004 (Haigazian University Department of
Armenian Studies Press Release) – Prof. Henry C. Theriault lectured at
Haigazian University on “The Armenian Genocide and the Comparative
Dimension of Denial” on Friday, 30 April, 2004.

Theriault has a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of
Massachusetts. He serves as Assistant Professor of philosophy and
coordinates the Center for the Study of Human Rights at Worcester State
College (Massachusetts, USA). His research focuses on genocide,
nationalism, and the philosophy of history, with particular emphasis on
issues of genocide denial.

Theriault first described the active, state-sponsored denial of the
Armenian Genocide. In the United States alone, the Turkish government
pours millions of dollars into its negationist campaign, hiring
lobbyists (like Bob Livingston and Steven Solarz) to defeat
congressional recognition legislation, as well as public relations firms
to put its version of the events in question out. Ankara also uses its
own diplomatic personnel, funds different initiatives, prints denialist
books and then sends these out free to school districts and newspapers.
When the French Parliament was voting to recognize the Armenian
Genocide, the Turkish government threatened to shut French companies out
of billions of dollars of contracts. “The explicitness, the extent and
the state sponsorship of denial of the Armenian Genocide make it perhaps
the great example of denial,” concluded Theriault. He pointed out that
the Turkish campaign is happening on almost every level and it appears
to encompass every feature of similar denialist attempts, including
state sponsorship and the targeting of the media, educational
institutions and the political realm. Theriault said that the
appointment of Heath Lowry, an American denier of the Armenian Genocide,
as tenured professor at Princeton shows that joining the denialist
bandwagon often has its rewards. The struggle against denial, therefore,
has to be constant, for positive signs in this regard are often
counterbalanced by negative developments.

After asserting that the Turkish campaign is not the only case of
denial, Theriault dealt at some length with two other similar examples.
The first was the attempt by some Japanese circles to deny the
atrocities committed by the Japanese military in Asia between 1931 and
1945, including the Nanking massacre of 1938, when between 100 and 260
thousand of the total 600 thousand inhabitants of the then capital of
Nationalist China were killed in extremely brutal ways. Although the
Japanese government burned in 1945 a tremendous amount of evidence
related to its military activities, a great deal of indirect evidence is
still available on the Nanking massacre. The latter has been brought
together and used by a number of Japanese scholars. There are also many
eyewitness accounts by Westerners, some of whom tried to set up safe
zones for refugees fleeing the Japanese. Nevertheless, attempts to deny
this particular massacre and Japanese wartime atrocities in general have
heated up significantly since the end of the Cold War. While this denial
is not state sponsored per se, many important Japanese government
officials, including the current mayor of Tokyo and functionaries in the
Ministry of Education, are either outright deniers or very sympathetic
to denial efforts. There are also deniers in well placed university
positions, including the prestigious Tokyo University. The deniers are
also usually advocates of the remilitarization of Japan. They see the
Japanese defeat in World War II and also the claim that Japan committed
atrocities as the major hindrance for the re-assertion of Japanese power
in Asia. It is evident, said Theriault, that their sophisticated
campaign has considerable effect on young people. In 2001 deniers
attempted to enforce the use in Japanese schools of a new textbook
reflecting their views. Theriault added that this effort was opposed by
local grass-roots movements of average citizens, an important sign of
the strength among the Japanese population of the kind of full
recognition movement absent in Turkey.

Within the Japanese context, Theriault also referred to the denial of
the ordeal of about 200 thousand Asian (and some Dutch) women and girls,
the so called ‘comfort women,’ who were used as sexual slaves by the
Japanese military. Some of these women were raped 30 times a day, six
days a week. Many of them lasted for only a few months, while others
were massacred at the end of the war because the Japanese government
feared that their plight might lead to yet another war crimes trial.
Among other arguments, denialist historians in Japan have resorted to
relativism to undermine the credibility of the stories of these women.

Theriault’s second example was related to denialist attempts in the
United States. After referring briefly to Holocaust denial attempts by
neo-Nazi groups, he stated that “the real strong denials, beyond the
Armenian Genocide, happen with what the United States has done in its
own past and present.” He argued that “the United States was founded by
genocide, through slavery.” Theriault’s focus was on the genocide of
native Americans. He said that something like nine million natives lived
on the territory of the United States before the European influx. By
1890, however, the United States government recognized that only
approximately 200 thousand natives remained. Theriault said that
exterminatory deportation, like that of the Cherokee and the Navajo, was
a common tool used to get rid of the natives. Even in their designated
points of arrival and resettlement, conditions of starvation were often
imposed. Many continued to die of disease, because they were extremely
weak and starving. Nevertheless, denial of the genocide of native
Americans is still very strong. It works primarily
through omission; people just refuse to talk about the issue. There was
a strong backlash to newspaper editorials urging free discussion of this
topic, which were published in 1992, the fifth centenary of the European
discovery of the Americas. That pitch of denial has continued in the
past decade, and deniers try to explain the extermination of the natives
as just an unfortunate thing. Even when native Americans sue the
government to reclaim their lands on violated treaty grounds, the courts
usually throw these cases out. Moreover, when uranium was discovered in
the twentieth century in native American reservations, the United States
claimed the uranium in the name of national security, without proper

Theriault then briefly pointed out a few other instances of genocide
denial. For example, the German genocide of the Herero in South West
Africa in the first decade of the 20th century is still more or less
omitted from German and world history. The Herero refused to leave their
land and resisted German colonial expansion. They were defeated,
however, and massacred; out of 80 thousand Herero only an estimated
10-15 thousand escaped. Recent calls by their survivors for some kind or
recognition and reparation have been ignored. In the modern era, the
Indonesian, Australian, British, American and other governments denied
the atrocities committed during the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in
1975 because of oil interests in the region and Indonesia’s value as a
Cold War ally. The United States was the main arms supplier to Indonesia
and aborted all attempts to have the East Timor issue discussed at the
United Nations. Finally, the United Nations, the United States, France,
Belgium and others covered up the Rwandan Genocide as it was happening
in 1994. The United Nations headquarters ignored requests from its
personnel on the ground to increase the number of its troops keeping the
peace in Rwanda and actually cut them down. Even after the genocide
began, the American media presented the violence as an ongoing ethnic
conflict, rather than a case of orchestrated genocide by a perpetrator
group against a victim group. Over 800,000 people were killed in Rwanda
in just 100 days.

Theriault closed the first section of his talk by arguing that denial of
past and ongoing genocides allows other perpetrators to come along; “the
strength of denial and the willingness maybe to give in to denial
ourselves allows us to think that it’s not happening again and we don’t
have any responsibility.”

Although each genocide had its particular characteristics, Theriault
stated that denials of various genocides sound exactly alike; deniers of
different genocides usually use the same types of arguments again and
again. In the second and concluding part of his lecture, he mentioned
some of these arguments:
(a) The ‘civil war’ thesis: the violence was not committed by a
perpetrator group against a victim group; instead, the two groups were
both combatants.
(b) Blaming the victims, by arguing that through their behavior and
actions they provided the initial cause of violence.
(c) The absence of any central plan or intent on the side of the
perpetrator; the acts of violence were spontaneous.
(d) The ‘wartime propaganda’ arguments; the enemies of the perpetrator
group exaggerated and even fabricated the evidence in order to mobilize
public opinion for their war effort.
(e) The ‘numbers game’; the manipulation of pre-genocide population
figures, the number of casualties, and the causes of death to make it
appear that the mass violence did not amount to genocide. This argument
usually does not work alone, said Theriault, but can be very effective
if used together with other arguments.
(f) The argument of ‘insufficient evidence’. However, this line of
reasoning is becoming increasingly untenable in light of new historical
(g) ‘Definitionalism’ or the claim that a particular instance of mass
violence does not fit the United Nations 1948 definition of genocide.
Sometime the definition itself is manipulated and misrepresented to
attain the desired goal of denial. Theriault argued, however, that “if a
lot of people are killed unjustly by a government, the labeling is not
as important.” Deniers who resort to definitionalism often mislead
people into thinking that these are ‘either/or’ cases and that we should
not care if a particular case of group violence is not a genocide.

In the lively question-and-answer session that followed, Theriault
expressed anxiety that “the rhetoric of human rights is now very clearly
being used by the United States and by others as a tool for violating
human rights.” He said that people in the United States and elsewhere
have an arrogance about their susceptibility to propaganda; they think
that they are not susceptible to propaganda and do not realize that
their minds are being manipulated in certain ways. Hence, they are not
critical towards what they are being told. Theriault also said that he
was working on a book on the subject of his lecture.

Theriault’s talk at Haigazian University was part of his first-ever
lecture tour in Lebanon, initiated by the Lebanese-Armenian Heritage
Club of the American University of Beirut. He also gave public lectures
on genocide-related themes at the American University of Beirut, the
Hagop Der Melkonian theatre hall and at the Armenian Catholicosate of
Cilicia, based in Antelias, north of Beirut.

Haigazian University is a liberal arts institution of higher learning,
established in Beirut in 1955. For more information about its activities
you are welcome to visit its web-site at <;.
For additional information on the activities of its Department of
Armenian Studies, contact Ara Sanjian at <[email protected]>.