The readings in this chapter describe the difficult struggles toward justice and reconciliation in the aftermath of war and mass violence. But what happens when those struggles never even begin? What happens to a history that has not been judged or even acknowledged?

In April 2015, people around the world marked the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Armenian Genocide (see reading, Genocide under the Cover of War in Chapter 3). Yet in Turkey and the former lands of the Ottoman Empire, where the murder of more than a million Armenians took place, these events have never been officially accepted as true by the government. At the end of World War I, the three leaders most responsible for planning the destruction of the Armenians escaped from Turkey; though they were tried in absentia, they never faced punishment. One of those leaders, Mehmed Talaat, claimed in his memoirs that there were no deliberate plans to massacre Armenians. When those memoirs were published after Talaat’s death, they set the pattern for the arguments still used to distort the history: the false claim that the Armenians were traitors who deserved to be deported and who died as a result of a civil war in which both sides committed atrocities.

Within Turkey, individual citizens and scholars have acknowledged the genocide, holding academic conferences and organizing commemorative events. But despite overwhelming historical evidence, including primary sources, eyewitness accounts, testimony of perpetrators, survivor recollections, and physical evidence, the government of Turkey denies that a genocide took place. Those who deny what happened have used many strategies in their attempt to turn a historical fact into a matter for debate or even a myth. They have funded their own academic centers dedicated to spreading a revised history, and they have intimidated scholars who study and write about the genocide. Some authors who wrote about the genocide have been brought to trial for insulting “Turkishness,” which is a crime in Turkey. Turkish officials worked to censor United Nations reports by blocking mentions of the genocide and by countering resolutions in the United States that would have recognized April 24 as a national day of remembrance of the Armenian Genocide. While some countries, including France and Germany, have officially recognized the Armenian Genocide, many others have not. Leaders of many countries, including the United States, have been reluctant to force Turkey to acknowledge the genocide because they don’t want to embarrass or alienate an important ally.

Denial has consequences. It prevents attempts to seek appropriate restitution for the victims, and it can undermine the feeling of belonging and security for Armenians still living in Turkey. In 1998, more than 100 prominent scholars signed a petition that opposed denial of the Armenian Genocide. It said, in part:

Denial of genocide strives to reshape history in order to demonize victims and rehabilitate the perpetrators. Denial of genocide is the final stage of genocide. It is what Elie Wiesel has called a “double killing.” Denial murders the dignity of survivors and seeks to destroy remembrance of the crime. In a century plagued by genocide, we affirm the moral necessity of remembering.1

In 2015, on the 100th anniversary of the genocide, journalist Raffi Khatchadourian described how denial of the genocide affects the Armenian community worldwide. He wrote: 

Armenians continue to struggle with the official negation: to endlessly combat it is its own form of prison, but to try moving past it unilaterally, abandoning the horrific events of 1915 in the shadows of denial, is to succumb to willful blindness and injustice.2

Denial, he says, is not just an absence of truth but a “wounding instrument. And, after a hundred years of it, it is hard to feel Armenian in a meaningful way without defining oneself in opposition to it.”3

Historian Taner Akçam has said that acknowledging the genocide matters deeply outside the Armenian world, too. He responded with three key reasons when asked, Why is recognizing the Armenian Genocide important?

One, to respect the victims, to accept their dignity and to give an end to their traumas. Second, it is very important for the reconciliation in a society, for the democracy and for the human rights. If a society cannot face its own history, it cannot establish a democratic future. And the third factor is, related to the second one, if you want to say the sentence “never again,” it can only be possible if society faces its past, its history. If a society, if a state, doesn’t acknowledge its wrongdoing in the past, this means there is a potential there, always, that it can do it again.4

Citations

Connection Questions

  1. What are some of the consequences of the denial of the Armenian Genocide? How does it influence people who have ties to Armenia? Does it matter for people who do not?
  2. What are some reasons why the official Turkish denial of the genocide has persisted for more than a century? 
  3. Why did the authors of the petition believe that there is a “moral necessity of remembering”? Do you agree?
  4. How is a nation’s identity connected to its history? Why does Taner Akçam say that acknowledging the past is important for democracy and human rights? Do you agree?

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