Armenian Genocide Lesson Eight: Denial and Free Speech
During the ninety-one years since the beginning of the Armenian Genocide, officials from the Ottoman government, and later from the Republic of Turkey have refused to acknowledge the mass murder and deportation of Armenians and others constituted genocide. The denial has taken many forms and used many strategies. The readings in this lesson, along with the film clip, provide background for an informed discussion about this pattern of denial. While it is important for students to understand that there is no legitimate debate that the Armenian Genocide occurred, there is disagreement over the motivations of the perpetrators. According to the International Association of Genocide Scholars, "There may be differing interpretations of genocide-how and why the Armenian Genocide happened, but to deny its factual and moral reality as genocide is not to engage in scholarship but in propaganda and efforts to absolve the perpetrator, blame the victims, and erase the ethical meaning of this history."
This lesson addresses the following essential questions:
- What is genocide? What evidence exists to show that the crimes against the Armenians constitute acts of genocide?
- Why do people deny that something happened? What steps has Turkey taken to create the impression that the Armenian genocide did not occur?
- Why might Turkey want to deny that the Armenian genocide took place?
- Should all speech to protected? What about speech that attempts to distort history? Should people be allowed to deny that the Armenian genocide ever took place? What are the implications for Armenians, Turks and the international community of allowing denials of the Armenian genocide?
In this lesson students will...
- Understand the definition of genocide (as defined by Raphael Lemkin and used in the UN Genocide Convention);
- Evaluate historical evidence that supports the theory that the crimes against the Armenians satisfies the UN definition of genocide;
- Recognize the Turkish government's interpretation of events and consider the implications of this denial for Armenians, Turks and others;
- Debate the limits of free speech as it relates to genocide denial.
Ask students to complete the sentence: The crimes committed against Armenians should be called..... What word or phrase would they use to describe these crimes? Ask students to share responses.
1. Explain that in 1915, there was no official word to describe what was happening to the Armenians. People used different terms such as "race murder" or "massacre" when depicting the horrible atrocities being committed by the Ottoman government. Now this moment in history is called "The Armenian Genocide." It was not until 1944 that Raphael Lemkin created the term "genocide," as a response to what happened to Armenians as well as a response to the Holocaust of World War II. Article 2 of the United Nations Genocide Convention defines genocide as "acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group..." As a way to make this legal definition more concrete for students, help students connect parts of the definition to their understanding of the Armenian Genocide. For example, historical evidence demonstrates that the Armenians have been a distinct national group for centuries. Documents show that there was an intent to destroy the Armenians. The killing was well-planned in stages. And, the massive scale of the destruction, over one million Armenians died, shows that this planning was unfortunately effective.
2. Transition the discussion by explaining to students that they will now view a film that examines how an historical event has come to be denied. Show the clip from the film The Armenian Genocide on denial (minutes 38:00-44:30). Before students watch the video, ask them to pay close attention to the following questions:
- How do Turkish officials explain their position on the Armenian genocide? What do they think happened in 1914-1915?
- According to scholars in the film, what motivates people to deny the Armenian Genocide took place?
- What actions does Turkey take to deny that the Armenian Genocide took place?
Review these questions after the video. The next segment of the video (46:20-48:50) focuses on laws and actions that help the Turkish government reinforce their version of history. If you have time, watch this segment. If not, inform students that in Turkey speaking or writing about the Armenian Genocide is considered "an insult to Turkishness" and is a crime, punishable by imprisonment. Share that the Armenian genocide is not mentioned in schools; there are no references to the Armenian genocide in history books published and sold in Turkey. Turkish scholars and writers who make even the slightest reference to the Armenian Genocide have been imprisoned.
Give students the following statements: (For emphasis, you might ask a different student to read each quote aloud to the class.)
- In 1939, just before the Nazi invasion of Poland, Adolf Hitler told his generals, "The aim of war is not to reach definite lines but to annihilate the enemy physically. It is by this means that we shall obtain the vital living space that we need. Who today still speaks of the Armenians?"
- In October 2006, the French parliament passed a law making it a crime, punishable by fines and imprisonment, to deny that the Armenian Genocide took place.
- "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." Voltaire, French philosopher
You can have students discuss these quotations using the Think-Pair-Share teaching strategy: First, give students the opportunity to react to these three points in writing. Second, ask students to discuss what they wrote with a partner. Third, ask a member from each pair to share an interesting idea or question that emerged from their conversation. Finally, facilitate a class conversation, drawing on theideas and questions raised by the pair conversations. Prompts: What might be the impact of Armenian Genocide denial on survivors and their families? Some people have called denial the final stage of genocide. Do you agree?
Ask students to consider how a study of the Armenian Genocide and its denial contributes to their answer to the question, "Why does studying history matter?"
(Note: The following assignments could also be used as a final assessment for the Armenian Genocide unit.)
1. In 1939 Hitler asked: "Who today still speaks of the Armenians?" What did Hitler learn from the world's response to the Armenian Genocide? Ask students what they learned from the study of this history about preventing mass violence and genocide?
2. Have students create a found poem about the Armenian Genocide. Ask students to look through all of the documents they have used and have created as part of this unit (i.e. journal entries, essays, excerpts from the book "Crimes Against Humanity and Civilization: The Genocide of the Armenians," etc.). They should select key words and phrases that stand out to them and use these to create a poem.
Option: Ask students to write an artist statement explaining their poem. What message do they want it to send? How did they select the text to use?