By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

More on the Armenians

Michael Jonas’ column in the current Boston Globe City Weekly is on state Sen. Steve Tolman, D-Watertown, who was the co-author of the 1998 law that requires Massachusetts schoolchildren to be taught about fate of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire during World War I. Jonas writes:

Tolman, who urged the state to remove from the curriculum guide any references to Turkish websites that contest the genocide label, says he’s all for freewheeling debate about matters on which reasonable people may disagree. He says this simply is not such a case.

“You cannot change historical fact by saying it did not happen,” he says. “They tried to wipe out everything to make it look like Armenians never existed,” he says of the Turkish rampage. Tolman points to a well-known 1915 telegram to the US secretary of state from the American envoy to Turkey, Henry Morgenthau, in which he warns of a “campaign of race extermination” underway against the Armenians.

Because the question of whether or not the deaths of up to one million Armenians was genocide has become controversial, I thought I’d check and see what the Turkish government has to say about the matter. I found an essay titled “Armenian Allegations of Genocide: The Issue and the Facts.” Here is a sample:

A century of ever-increasing conflict, beginning roughly in 1820 and culminating with the founding of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, characterized the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire participated in no fewer than a dozen named wars, nearly all to the detriment of the empire and its citizens. The empire contracted against an onslaught of external invaders and internal nationalist independence movements. In this context — an imperiled empire waging and losing battles on remote and disparate fronts, grasping to continue a reign of over 700 years — must the tragic experience of the Ottoman Armenians of Eastern Anatolia be understood. For during these waning days of the Ottoman Empire did millions die, Muslim, Jew, and Christian alike.

Yet Armenian Americans have attempted to extricate and isolate their history from the complex circumstances in which their ancestors were embroiled. In so doing, they describe a world populated only by white-hatted heroes and black-hatted villains. The heroes are always Christian and the villains are always Muslim. Infusing history with myth, Armenian Americans vilify the Republic of Turkey, Turkish Americans, and ethnic Turks worldwide. Armenian Americans bent on this prosecution choose their evidence carefully, omitting all evidence that tends to exonerate those whom they presume guilty, ignoring important events and verifiable accounts, and sometimes relying on dubious or prejudiced sources and even falsified documents. Though this portrayal is necessarily one-sided and steeped in bias, the Armenian American community presents it as a complete history and unassailable fact.

A lot of observers, including Michael Jonas and Media Nation, have tried to draw an analogy between the Armenian catastrophe and the Holocaust — that is, we have asked, without knowing the answer, whether this is a story with two legitimate sides, or whether the no-it-wasn’t-genocide faction is no more credible than those who deny that the Holocaust took place.

In that light, I think the Turkish statement is important, not because I accept it at face value (I don’t), but because of what it represents. There is no credible person, government or organization that denies the reality of what happened to the Jews during World War II. But the Turkish government — a semi-democratic, friendly, pro-Western regime — does deny that what happened to the Armenians during World War I was genocide.

Regardless of who’s right and who’s wrong, I think Turkey’s position needs to be taken into account.

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  1. steve b

    As I mentioned after a previous post, I would agree whole-heartedly that their position needs to be taken into account. However, you have to look at the argument that they’re making. Even in the section you posted, the interpretation is completely unclear. Specifically regarding the idea that this somehow paints a picture of “villians” and “heroes,” there is no way to say that the Young Turks were the only ones implicated in the genocide. Turkey was, and still is, a complete meld of different cultures. The government simply denies involvement, and therefore public conversation ends at that point. It sounds like they are the ones doing the dividing. I do agree, however, that it’s important to acknowledge both sides of the debate, especially when the educational exercise of forming an arugment that could result would be so rich, and so informative about a past happening that usually isn’t illuminated until later on in life. Clearly the Turkish interest groups wouldn’t use that argumentation and neither would a judge, but it seems pretty clear to me that we are talking about education here, where, as John Dewey noted, sometimes the value taken away from an exercise is much more important than the facts you can regurgitate.

  2. Mike Stucka

    I live within walking distance of Watertown’s Armenian museum and have yet to make it; I’m feeling embarrased now.The official Turkish government line seems to be something along the lines of, “There’s a lot to look over here, and many people from many areas died, so it’s hard to look at numbers and see that genocide was targeted against one group.”That may be true, but it may be very, very wrong. The Holocaust is a very good, parallel example. Jews were targeted for genocide by Hitler, who essentially set up production lines for their slaughter. Nazi Germany is responsible for an estimated 6 million Jewish deaths in the Holocaust.Yet at the same time, the Nazis killed an estimated 6 million other “ubermensch”: Slavs, Gypsies, the mentally retarded and ill, the physically disabled, homosexuals and more.And to cloud the picture further: At the same time, Ole Blue Eyes himself, Josef Stalin, was murdering 18 to 24 million people he didn’t consider subhuman; he was killing 18 to 24 million people he considered his countrymen.In the end, then, we see that Hitler’s Holocaust against the Jews accounted for “only” about 20 percent of the civilian murders during the time period _in Europe._ Throw in Japanese attrocities …I think with this background, the Turkish government comments about the numbers and hectic times seem particularly interesting. Does a parallel seem really unbelievable?I still don’t know much about this, but a quick search turned up a page of quotes via At the top is one by the Turkish leader known as Ataturk in 1926: “These left-overs from the former Young Turk Party, who should have been made to account for the millions of our Christian subjects who were ruthlessly driven en masse, from their homes and massacred, have been restive under the Republican rule.” Visit Ataturk’s page, though, and the genocide link leads directly to a government statement.Sounds suggestive to me …

  3. Dan Kennedy

    The point about the Turkish government statement isn’t whether it’s true or false. It’s that it exists. Personally, I lean strongly toward the “it was genocide” camp. But the question is whether there is an actual public debate on this subject. I think there is. Turkey isn’t Nazi Germany — or North Korea, for that matter.

  4. Steve

    A couple of points here -Take that sample of “Armenian Allegations of Genocide” and replace “Armenians” and “Christians” with “Jews” and “Turkey” with “Germany” and it reads like stock holocaust denial rhetoric.And there is state-condoned, if not state-sponsored holocaust denial in the world today, most notably in the Saudi Arabian government-controlled media.”Life stopped in ‘Israel’ yesterday for two minutes, while the warning sirens whistled all over the occupied territories of Palestine, in memory of the 6 millions Jews, about whom ‘Israel’ lies saying that they were killed in the Nazi crematoriums during the World War II”.- Ar-Riyadh, April 10, 2002

  5. Anonymous

    Dan,2 Points.1. Denial ain’t just a river in EgyptHypothetically, if the next chancellor of Germany were to repeal the anti-Nazi laws, to repudiate the Judgements at Nuremberg, and to officially deny the Holocaust, would that make Holocaust Denial an academically respectable question? How many crackpot rightwingnut professors at Bible Colleges does it take to make Intelligent Design academically respectable? (More than will fit on an Ark!)Turkey’s official denial of academically undisputed* fact is something that needs to be in the curriculum — not as relativist alternate position, but as the remaining, continuing wrong. (*undisputedTurkish academics don’t count, as they do not have academic freedom of conscience on this issue; as you note, they’re at best semi-democratic yet.)The Right Wing is right on at least one thing … the well-meaning Relativism of us Liberal Secular Huminists has gone too far if Turkish Denial and Intelligent Design must be accorded “equal time” as if they were legitimate subjects of discourse. The Numeric and Alphabetic tags in a Dewey Decimal library do not have equal standing — Non-fiction trumps Fiction except in literature class.I can agree literally that the “Turkish statement is important“, but it must not literally be “taken into account” — added or subtracted from some other statements in a grand accounting in the calculus of reason — but rather, must be boldly displayed for the brazen Big Lie that it is and denounced. The Big Lie is dangerous because if it is debated point by point, it gains credibility, but if dismissed outright, they can claim the evidence still stands. (Ditto with Intelligent Design and Iraqi WMDs or pre-ware Iraq-Quaida connections.)If Turkey would kindly stop denying the Armenian Genocide, perhaps the Amernenians could finally move on too.2. “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.A.J. LieblingAs to the First Amendment, I think you got that correctly settled already — it’s irrelevant to the geneocide curriculum. The First Amendment Freedoms of Speech and of the Press prevent the State from preventing a private publisher from publishing, or from gagging most forms of expression. It prevents true censorship qua prior state approval of publications, and also post-publication punishment for content (which leads to so-called self-censorship in the chilled penumbra). It does not guarantee a forum for an idea, just the right of a forum to publish the ideas the forum wants.Equal Time is not a right. The FCC requires spectrum licensees to provide responsible response equal-time; this does not apply to Cable TV, Print, or Web media, and is not a First Amendment issue — though the TV Generation misconstrue it as a “right”.”Censoring” is a misused, overused, loaded word; it properly applies only in the case of mandatory submission for prior approval. The State is surely capable of editing and redacting its own tracts, screeds, and curricula. (Open Government and Sunshine laws may require it to admit that it does so, but it can do so.)Massachusetts has not issued a take-down order against any Turkish society’s own websites. We don’t have European hate-crime / thought-crime laws here yet; attempts at them have been found to be First Amendment violations. This is one freedom, perhaps the only, that we might expect the new even-more-right-wing Supreme Court to defend ably.- Bill R”I’m not a lawyer, but I played in lawschool as an undergraduate”

  6. adamreilly

    Bill R. makes some great points, Dan. A controversy exists only if Turkey’s allowed to create one–you’re giving the Turkish government far too much credit when it comes to historical analysis. Look at what Turkey’s doing to author Orhan Pamuk, who had the temerity to say Turkey killed 30,000 Kurds and one million Armenians: He’s now accused of “insulting Turkey’s national character,” and faces a three-year jail sentence. Simply put, Turkey’s not a credible source on this issue, and shouldn’t be treated as such.

  7. adamreilly

    One other point that’s mentioned in that BBC article: since Turkey’s trying to join the EU, it has an extra incentive (or thinks it does) to play down its historical misdeeds.

  8. Dan Kennedy

    Adam and Bill — The issue is not who’s right. The issue, simply put, is whether there’s an issue. I am pretty well convinced that what happened to the Armenians was genocide. But let’s set the Holocaust as a baseline, with the evidence being 100-0. I’m not saying the Armenian question is 50-50 or even 80-20. I’m saying that, even if it’s 95-5, there is something to discuss here. And as I’ve said, the Turkish government deserves to be taken with some degree of seriousness. Turkey’s not Nazi Germany and it’s not North Korea. It’s a large, sophisticated, semi-democratic, pro-Western country that should not be dismissed as though its officials were nutcase Holocaust-deniers.

  9. Steve

    Dan, when you first looked at this topic, you were looking for “legitimate scholarship” on this issue. The issue Adam raises which I think you’re ignoring is that Turkey (as a matter of national law and policy) will not allow such scholarship to be done.So does Turkey really deserve to be taken with some degree of seriousness, when dissenting scholars within Turkey are facing prison for their scholarship?

  10. Ron Newman

    Dan, I’m surprised you are retreating from your original position. Just because the Turkish government continually asserts something doesn’t mean it should be considered to have any element of truth. (For that matter, substitute “US” for “Turkish” above.)

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