By Alin K. Gregorian
WORCESTER, Mass. — To mark the 95th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University put together a two-day in-depth study on the state of Armenian Genocide research. The program included workshops as well as a panel discussion on Friday, April 9.
Friday night’s panel featured new faces, as well as some standard-bearers in the field.
Taner Akçam, the Robert Aram and Marianne Kaloostian and Stephen and Marian Mugar professor of Armenian Genocide studies at the Strassler Center, one of the organizers of the program, summed up the point of the program, saying that he wanted academics to see what the problems are regarding Genocide research and set future research goals. “We aspire to take a picture of where research and scholarship starts,” he said. The aim, he said, is to help Turkey shed light on the “dark side of [its] history and acknowledge [its] historic wrongs.”
Deborah Dwork, the director of the Strassler Center, concurred, saying the program aimed to “move us all forward on research on the Armenian Genocide. This is a pivotal moment in the struggle for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide as a Genocide by the Turkish government.”
The seminar aimed to find out what resources and materials are available in archives “scattered around the globe,” she said. Dwork added that in light of the Historic Commission proposed as part of the Protocols proposed to open diplomatic relations between Armenia and Turkey could benefit from the timing of the conference.
Dr. Ugur Ungor, from the University College of Dublin, spoke about his study of genocide studies and mass violence. Ugur, who was born in Turkey, was raised in Holland and said that his interest in studying mass violence came from Dutch war novels, which he explained sensitized him about violence. In addition, his upbringing — “a local outsider” — that of a Turk in Holland, affected his decision to enter the field of Armenian Genocide research.
Ungor said his grandmother started talking about the Armenian Genocide in 2001 without ceremony one day when discussing the family genealogy. In addition, he said he did field work and took oral histories of a family from Erzincan. The efforts led up to a documentary. Ungor showed several brief clips from the award-winning documentary, “The Land of Our Grandparents,” for which he teamed with Alexander Goekjian, the grandson of Vahram Goekjian, whose moving Genocide survival story Ungor had read. The two traveled to various villages in Diyarbekir to find the home of the Goekjians. The film aired on Dutch television. (Now it is available for sale, though it is in Turkish and Dutch.) The scenes, showing depopulated villages and roofless, gutted Armenian Churches, touched the audience. The clips also featured his grandmother, who was telling him of the stories her own grandmother had told her about the fate of the Armenians.
Richard Hovannisian of the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) was also one of the panelists. “In five years, it is going to be a century since the beginning of the end of the Armenian people from where they had lived for a millennia,” he said. “The challenge for those of us concerned with this issue and the ethics and humanity and justice,” he said, is that if this issue of the Armenian Genocide is going to not disappear, it has to “become part of the human historical record.”
“If it doesn’t,” he warned, “it will be lost like so many others.”
Hovannisian also reflected on the influences that shaped those of his generation, the children of survivors, who wanted to shed their identities. “We grew up with survivors all around us. Most of us lived to become as Anglo or integrated as possible. That was the story of them, [we thought] but not of us, because we had had a different experience.”
Then, he said, came 1965, a “watershed year. People like myself became somewhat politically motivated.”
Combined forces allowed the construction of the Genocide monument in Montebello, Calif., the first monument dedicated to the Armenian Genocide on public land.
Hovannisian said he had noticed while doing some research that there had been a passing reference to the Armenian Genocide in 1973 at a United Nations sub-commission report. The disproportionate response of the Turkish UN delegation in getting that brief, almost unnoticed reference expunged, grabbed his attention and “made me angry,” he said.
“I went through every card catalogue in every library to document” what is available on the Armenian Genocide, he said. “That’s where it all began.”
The field, he said, continued to gain and came into its own in the 1980s, in conjunction with Holocaust scholars who were doing comparative studies between the Holocaust and the Genocide, including people such as Robert Melson, Helen Fein and Israel Charny.
“We [Armenian scholars] too developed. We used to be dependent on [British historian Arnold] Toynbee, [Viscount] Bryce and reprints of [Ambassador Henry] Morgenthau’s memoirs. We wanted to be dependent on non-Armenian sources. Then we began to develop ourselves.”
The watershed year of 1982, he said, was when the Armenian Assembly was invited to go to Jerusalem to speak at a Holocaust and Genocide conference. Yet, the Turkish government used all sorts of pressure to force out the Armenians and close down the conference. “It was crippled, but did not close.” Hovannisian recalled that he gathered the papers that were to be presented there and published them.
Now, he said, the state of the profession has changed. Instead of printing books on the proof of the Genocide, it is not assumed that that has been proved and “we want to know why.”
What are needed now, he said, are Armenian scholars who are fluent in Ottoman Turkish in order to decipher Ottoman documents to find out just what happened. For example, he asked, why was it that in Kutaya, where Komitas Vartabed was born, Armenian were mostly left unscathed, while in other areas, the annihilation was absolute. He pointed to Ungor and said that he film and his walking in the footsteps of survivors and victims is precisely where Genocide scholarship should be headed.
“There are an increasing number of young, conscientious, trained scholars of various ethnicities” who are going to advance the field, he said. And when the truth is discovered, “one has to ultimately take a stand on these issues.” He also specifically praised Turkish scholars who are fighting for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide. “When I began, this was inconceivable.”
Panelist Margaret Anderson, a German history professor at the University of California at Berkeley, spoke about the circuitous route she took to understanding the Armenain Genocide. She now teaches a course about the German response to the Armenian Genocide and said her interest in the subject came from the study of German and Ottoman relations. She noted that while she was studying history in college, she realized that each century offered a betterment over the previous one — the Renaissance leading to the Reformation and the Enlightenment — until the 20th century, when mass killings became commonplace. Her points of entry into Armenian history were Johannes Lepsius, the German missionary who documented the Genocide as it happened, and Franz Werfel, the Austrian author of probably the most famous work of fiction based on a true episode in the Genocide, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh.
Anderson spoke about her first trip to Eastern Turkey — Western Armenia — and said, “There was nothing there. All the remnants of the churches and villages are gone.”
She explained that the role of the Ottoman Empire in the history of Europe, both positive and negative, needs further study.
Panelist Nazan Maksudyan, a Turkish-Armenian historian from Berlin, suggested in her talk that her name, age and gender cause conflict in how people perceive her. Maksudyan, explained she is half Jewish, said that in fact, she is neither a typical polsahay nor an average Sephardic Jew. Also, she said that while she is a historian of the 19th-century Ottoman Empire, specifically studying orphans and women, it should not be assumed that she would tackle Armenian subjects. The assumption, she said, that “Armenians should work on Armenian history is dangerous.” She added, however, that she had delved into the Hammidian massacres and the Adana massacres of 1909.
After the discussion, both Akçam and Ungor addressed the issue of being scholars of Turkish descent who have dedicated their careers to the study of the Armenian Genocide, a line of work that can cause hardships on several levels for them.
Ungor humbly downplayed his role. “I’m not half as brave as Taner,” he said, adding, “I keep a low profile. There is a Dutch proverb: Fear is a bad advisor.”
Akçam acknowledged his concerns, saying, “I am scared as a human being. Any time I want to go to Turkey, I have to think a thousand times. I ask myself why am I doing this [field]? Then the other side comes up: what makes a human different from an animal? We think and we say what we think. This [work] makes me human and nobody can shut me up,” he said with emotion, to thunderous applause.
“We Turkish scholars don’t have any other choice than to serve” the legacy of Hrant Dink, concluded Akçam. “We can never give up.”
The program on Friday night was organized by Akçam, NAASR and Eric Weitz of the University of Minnesota.