Thomas de Waal’s Great Catastrophe Book Talk at Tufts


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By Aram Arkun

Mirror-Spectator Staff

MEDFORD, Mass. — Thomas de Waal has been on a whirlwind tour of the United States to promote his new book, Great Catastrophe: Armenians and Turks in the Shadow of Genocide. He visited Boston on February 17. First he spoke at the Massachusetts Historical Society at noon about his book and then went on to two events at Tufts University. He was sponsored at Tufts by Education for Public Inquiry and International Citizenship (EPIIC), a program of the Institute for Global Leadership (IGL), and the Initiative on Mass Atrocities and Genocide (IMAGe). He gave a lecture called “The Caucasus: Security and Insecurity at the Crossroads of Eurasia” during the day to EPIIC students, and then a book talk called “Great Catastrophe: Armenians, Turks and the Politics of Genocide.” The latter talk, which this article covers, was hosted by the Tufts chapter of Hillel, a center for Jewish life on campus.

Sherman Teichman, executive director of IGL, introduced de Waal. He pointed out that he lived and studied in the region, and learned the languages, making many friends across the divides. Senior Associate in the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, de Waal has worked for the BBC World Service in London, the Economist, the Times of London and the Moscow Times. He has three previous books, on Chechnya, an introduction to the Caucasus, and on the Karabagh conflict. From 2002 to 2009, he worked as an analyst and project manager on the conflicts in the South Caucasus for the London-based non-governmental organizations Conciliation Resources and the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. He has occasionally published articles in foreign policy forums which provide policy recommendations. Interestingly, Teichman that evening declared that he hoped for “a very respectful interaction.”

De Waal began by declaring that he was not an academic historian. He said, “I’m more a kind of a –paradoxical phrase—a historian of the present, someone who tries to bring scholarly inquiry to events of the present and recent past.” His focus in his book is on what happened in the last 100 years after the Armenian Genocide, on “the cascading effects of a mass atrocity on different generations…on Armenians, Turks and Kurds, and … what do we owe to the past, to events that have happened 100 years ago, particularly since the perpetrators and victims of these terrible events are long dead.” He is interested in how US relations with Turkey and Armenia are affected.

De Waal used slides as the anchor to his talk, starting with one of Archbishop Khajag Barsamian of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America (Eastern) in Diyarbekir in 2012. De Waal felt Turkey has opened up a great deal in the recent past, and parts of Turkish society are starting to confront what has happened in the Ottoman past, about which he gave a brief précis.

On the other hand, he felt that there was a type of enforced amnesia both in Turkey and in Soviet Armenia on the Armenian Genocide in the decades immediately after the events. He showed a slide of orphans in Alexandropol/Gumri to point out that they became assimilated into the Soviet system. Armenian deportees to the Middle East in the same period were too busy rebuilding their lives to think much of Turkey.

The next big change de Waal highlighted was Armenian repatriation after World War II, with Stalin’s “crazy scheme, madcap scheme” to settle 300,000 Armenians in territories he demanded from Turkey. Instead, the West opposed this and we see the start of the Cold War. Turkey joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1952, while Armenians fell on the other side of the political divide.

Meanwhile Raphael Lemkin coined the word “genocide” at the end of World War II and in 1948 the United Nations passed a convention on its prevention, but soon, “it is being used in a very politicized way; it is being used as a term of abuse.” De Waal gave the example of Senator Herbert Lehman of New York who was invited to speak by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation on the anniversary of the independence of the first Armenian republic in 1918, and talked about genocide being committed in the Soviet Union, especially in Soviet Armenia. He did not mention Turkey at all.

Yet by the 1960s Holocaust consciousness developed, as well as identity politics in general, with the civil rights movement in the US. A whole generation of Armenians growing up in exile in the diaspora were affected by this, while the fiftieth anniversary of the Armenian Genocide mobilized Armenians throughout the world, in Armenia and in the diaspora.

In the Middle East, Armenians were further radicalized due to regional instabilities and wars. Many looked to the example of the Palestinians, another people deprived of their homeland, to use acts of terrorism to force Turkey to remember the Armenian issue. The two Armenian groups formed began assassinating Turkish diplomats, and Turkey is forced to create a new narrative on the Armenian issue. Only one book had been published between 1930 and the mid-1970s on it.

Armenian terrorism spread to the US, and, de Waal feels, this was an absolute disaster for the Armenian cause. The US government decided that Turkey is on its side and Armenians on the other. The State Department bulletin suddenly wrote about the “alleged” Armenian Genocide, and US policy became “a complete mess.”

The terrorism did lead to a brief attempt at rapprochement in 1977, when Turkish Foreign Minister İhsan Sabri Çaglayangil met in Zurich, Switzerland with representatives of the three “traditional” Armenian political parties. With a change in the foreign minister, the episode disappeared into history.

A few decades later the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in Turkey in 2002, opening up new opportunities. Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink founds the bilingual newspaper Agos and as “a leftie, an anti-imperialist,” rejects foreign intervention on the Armenian issue in Turkey. Instead, he wants a dialogue within Turkish society. De Waal finds him to also be a “brilliant wordsmith,” encapsulating the nature of Armenian-Turkish relations. For example, both suffer from clinical medical conditions—trauma for the Armenians and paranoia for the Turks. Dink was not so much interested in genocide recognition as in democratizing and opening up Turkey, with rights for Kurds and women. De Waal said that Dink felt that democratization would then allow the Armenian issue to be sorted out of its own accord. Both Armenian nationalists of the diaspora and Turkish nationalists became his enemy. In January 2007 a Turkish teenager assassinates him, leading to a mass outpouring of great grief and indignation, with tens of thousands marching in the streets carrying signs that we are all Hrant Dink, we are all Armenians.

Meanwhile, Armenia left the Soviet Union to become independent in 1991. The new republic signed a protocol in Zurich in 2009 with Turkey negotiated by the Swiss with Hilary Clinton in the background, but there were too many spoilers to allow it to be ratified. Parts of the Turkish government were opposed as well as Azerbaijan, while the Armenian diaspora was unhappy.

De Waal concluded with a slide of American Armenians protesting in front of the Turkish embassy in Washington DC with “gruesome pictures” saying Turkey, accept your guilt. Recently, Turks have begun organizing counterdemonstrations. He felt this was not a recipe for moving forward. Instead on April 24 Armenians should be having a requiem service or reading Taniel Varuzhan’s poetry.

De Waal on a trip with Armenians in 2012 went to Marash and met a family descended from Armenians left behind who had been converted. De Waal felt, “if there is a way forward, it is through many, many more encounters like this, in which Armenians and Turks and Kurds are trying to retie the threads that used to bind them together. I guess … it is just one small fragment of a whole civilization that was destroyed.” He thought family by family, citizen of Turkey by citizen of Turkey, this was the way “to come to terms with this terrible atrocity of 1915.”

The audience at Tufts appeared largely to be made up of Armenians, and asked many questions. De Waal was questioned as to his choice of the term “Great Catastrophe,” for the Armenian Genocide. He responded that he was using the translation of the term Medz Yeghern which Armenians used, like Jews calling the Holocaust Shoah.

De Waal believed what happened to the Armenians fits the term genocide but “it has become a very politicized term; it is also a very legalistic term…it is a term which has become very controversial across the world.” Despite his dislike of this term, when forced to choose, he continued, “I much rather would be with those who call it Armenian Genocide than those who don’t.” To a different interlocutor, a professor at Tufts, de Waal pointed out that religion was not a primary motivation of the Armenian Genocide.

In response to another question, he declared that he was “pretty pessimistic” about a relaunch of Armenian-Turkish talks but found Turkish president Recep Erdogan’s statement of condolences to Armenians in 2014 an important step forward as it moved Armenians out of the category of outright enemies of Turks. New contacts between Turkish and Armenian civil society or steps such as renaming streets in Turkey with Armenian names are small signs of progress.

When asked by this reporter what he felt would constitute justice in the case of the Armenian Genocide, he replied that he should not be its arbiter—it is for Armenians and Turks to decide. However, he added, the passage of time changes the situation and makes things more difficult. For example, the Circassians in the 19th century experienced genocide at the hands of the Russian Empire but they no longer make any claims against Russia. De Waal felt some things were crystal clear. Armenians had a very strong claim on their churches in Turkey, as no other people are identified with them, but “when we are talking about other issues it becomes harder, much harder to decide, particularly when we are talking about events that are more than a century ago.”

Armenian historian Dikran Kaligian pointed out that demonstrating in front of the Turkish embassy was the direct result of the Turkish state denial campaign. De Waal explained that he has read a lot about the passing down of trauma through generations and understands how it can happen, but still felt personally that it was undignified and gruesome to hold up pictures of dead people, who are possibly someone’s grandparents.

When asked about expectations of a statement from President Barack Obama on April 24, de Waal said, as “an interested odar in your midst,” he questioned why Armenians need the Great Powers to tell the world that what took place was a genocide, since it is already something known.

Harry Parsekian, president of the Friends of Hrant Dink-Boston organization, asked what de Waal thought about restitution. In response, de Waal said it is pretty unrealistic and part of Turkish clinical paranoia. The UN Genocide Convention, he believed, is for prevention, without retroactive legal dimensions. He said, “This is my personal opinion: I think the idea that one can somehow relitigate the properties of the Ottoman Empire in 1915 is pretty problematic. There were massive population flows here and there.” This is why he mentioned churches, which are more tangible and specific.

A Turk in the audience from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy said Turkey took many steps such as renovating Armenian churches, showing solidarity with Armenians after the murder of Dink, and opening the Ottoman archives on the Armenian issue and offering to form a commission of investigation. He asked what in turn was Armenia doing? De Waal explained that there was asymmetry in the Armenian-Turkish relationship: “This was the single biggest trauma in Armenian history. They were basically erased from their homeland.” As Armenians suffered more, de Waal said, “it is unrealistic to expect countermoves from the Armenian side until more is done by the Turkish side.” It is important for Armenians to regard Turks not simply as genocidal murderers but as human beings.

Jirair Libaridian, former Armenian diplomat and scholar, interjected that in fact the independent Republic of Armenia offered normalization of relations without any reference to the Genocide or demands concerning it. This was the biggest thing that Armenia could do, but Turkey did not respond to it.

While this report is not the place for a critique of de Waal’s lecture or his approach to the nature of “genocide politics,” I cannot refrain from pointing out that “Great Catastrophe” is an incorrect translation of Medz Yeghern, as yeghern means crime (aghed would be a better word for catastrophe).