The trouble with the Armenian Genocide

The trouble with the Armenian Genocide

14:31, December 14, 2012

By Cecilie Banke

(The following opinion piece appeared in the December 14, 2012 edition
of the Copenhagen Post)

Machiavelli once wrote that you can conquer a people, but you can’t
conquer their memories. Suppressed memories, he concluded, will only
have a way of cropping up whenever they get the chance. There can
hardly be a better modern example of this than the massacre of the
Armenians during the First World War.

Even though over 90 years has passed since Armenians living in the
former Ottoman Empire were forcibly deported, and even though the
memory of what happened was first suppressed and then later neglected,
the past two decades have seen increasing international focus on what

Most recently, the Danish Royal Library came under hefty criticism
from both sides for its decision to organise an exhibition about the
Armenian Genocide.

First, they were criticised by the Turkish Embassy. Then, when the
library decided to allow the Turks to present their side of the story,
the Armenian side protested. The decision was seen as kowtowing to
Turkey and continuing the denial that lies at the heart of the

But how can something that happened over 90 years ago continue to
divide two countries? And why should the Royal Library be dragged into
a conflict that boils down to the Armenians’ struggle for the world to
recognise what happened to them during the war – before modern Turkey
even came into existence? It has happened because the question of the
Armenian genocide has become a part of the global culture of memory,
which over the past two decades has come to play an increasingly
significant role in inter-state relations and in the relationship
between minority groups and states. The question touches on not just
state policies towards minorities, it also touches on foreign policy
and security policy. States can improve their relations with their
neighbours if they own up to past crimes. The most famous example is
West Germany accepting its responsibility for crimes committed against
the Jews during the Second World War, symbolised by the spontaneous
gesture of humility and penance by the chancellor of West Germany,
Willy Brandt, when he fell on his knees at the memorial to the victims
of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Other gross violations of human
rights have come to define which historical signals states choose to
show to the rest of the world.

The row over the Royal Library’s exhibition shows how even a small
country like Denmark can get caught up in other countries’ conflicts
over how a specific period of history should be interpreted.
Disagreements about how the past should be interpreted can grow into a
diplomatic dispute and come to determine which signals independent
states show the rest of the world. The US Congress has, on more than
one occasion, been close to ratifying a resolution that would
recognise the Armenian Genocide, but each time pressure from Turkey
has prevented this from happening.

It is actions like these that Armenian interest groups, as well as
historians and other scholars, say constitute a Turkish attempt to
downplay the brutal deportation of Armenians and other Christian
groups. As Taner Akcam, a Turkish historian now teaching at Clark
University in the US, wrote in the New York Times recently: `Turkey’s
attitude towards the Armenians sends a worrying signal to the
Christian minority in the region. In such an interpretation,
responsibility for preserving not just Turkey’s modern history, but
also its Ottoman history, needs to be seen in terms of overarching
questions of security, stability and democracy in a region where
continued denial of past transgressions only adds to tensions between
ethnic and religious groups.’

Akcam’s views can also be seen as part of another trend in this global
culture of memory; it is expected that countries will own up to their
pasts the way Germany did. Germany has admitted its historical guilt
and has set the standard for how other states should act when faced
with a problematic past.

Nowadays, we expect that a state admits its guilt, atones for its
transgressions and compensates its victims. This is precisely what
Turkey is fighting against. Turkey does not believe it is responsible
for crimes committed by the Ottoman Empire during the First World War.
Nor does it see itself as having done something comparable to Germany
or that it needs to atone for anything or compensate anyone. As long
as there is an expectation that Turkey will face up to its violent
past, Turkey will continue to resist international pressure to
recognise the genocide.

However, letting Turkey present its version of the massacre of the
Armenians will not contribute to the process being carried out by
European and American historians to draw up a modern picture of the
Armenian Genocide. The Armenians will feel Denmark has bowed to
Turkish pressure. Instead, the library should support the efforts of
historians to place the Armenian Genocide in a historical context
together with other religiously motivated violence that arose as a
result of the decline of the Ottoman Empire. Doing so would move the
discussion away from the difficult issue of whether or not it was
genocide and towards historical research and documentation, for the
benefit of everyone involved.

Memory is the way we recall what happened in the past. History is what
makes us wiser about it.

(The author is the head of the Danish Institute for International
Studies’ holocaust and genocide research unit)