Nearly Nine Decades After the Massacres, A Battle Still Rages To Define
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
TheWashington Post, Arts Section
Sunday, November 24, 2002; Page G01
The festive atmosphere last month at an advance screening of Atom Egoyan's
"Ararat" wasn't what one would expect at an evening devoted to a movie about
genocide and denial.
The Library of Congress event, hosted by the Congressional Caucus on
Armenian Issues, felt decidedly celebratory, with a young congressional
staffer all smiles as he spoke of the progress toward greater recognition of
the crimes perpetrated on Armenians by the Ottoman Turks during the final
years of the First World War. Members of the caucus introduced the film, and
celebrated the accomplishments of Egoyan, a Canadian filmmaker of Armenian
descent. Genocide and genocide denial are grim but perennial topics in human
history, but this was a night to enjoy the success of Armenian muscle in the
halls of American power.
And then Egoyan's film began to roll. It is an onion of a film, with
historical events wrapped inside layers of memory, confusion and argument,
with everything unsettled and elusive. Miramax is now promoting it with
blunt ads that play up expectations that the film's direct treatment of the
Armenian genocide will anger the Armenians' most ardent critics, Turks and
the Turkish government: "Uncover the shocking secret of the movie they don't
want you to see" and "the most controversial film of the year." But this is
not a punch-in-the-gut film. It is not even a slick potboiler like
In that sense, Egoyan's movie mirrors the strange fate of the Armenian
genocide in cultural memory: The Armenian tragedy is a fact of history kept
permanently unsettled, not because it didn't happen, but because -- like a
shuttlecock in a badminton game -- a small number of people have succeeded
in keeping it up in the air.
Some facts are simply read into the record of history. Others are contested
every step of the way. Even as writers of popular history, mainstream
journalists, politicians and academics find greater comfort with attaching
the label "genocide" to the events in Eastern Turkey 85 years ago, the Turks
still contest the basic facts so successfully that it doesn't make much
sense to speak of a "middle ground" between the contested viewpoints.
Rather, like the efforts of creationists to question established
evolutionary science, there is a vast planet of accepted truth around which
orbits a satellite of vocal dissent.
At What Point Is Killing 'Genocide'?
In the final years of the First World War, the Ottoman Empire was falling
apart, under stress from a war being fought against the Russians and Western
allies, across several fronts. Within the empire's vast, polyglot territory
were Christians and Muslims, Turks, Kurds, Armenians and Jews; it was a
fractious world. Spurred in part by a fear of Armenian sedition that was
vastly disproportionate to any real threat, the Turks rounded up Armenian
intellectuals and killed them. There followed a series of mass deportations
and killings, and soon horrendous starvation. No settled figure for the
death toll is agreed upon, though estimates run from the hundreds of
thousands to more than 1.5 million.
The suffering was documented, at the time, in American newspapers, and the
American ambassador to the empire, Henry Morgenthau, repeatedly decried the
genocide. Morgenthau, whose account of the events has been criticized by
Turkish scholars as being exaggerated and perhaps fabricated, appears as a
character in a film-within-the-film that frames Egoyan's story.
When Raphael Lemkin, a Jewish lawyer and activist, coined the term
"genocide" in the 1940s he was inspired, in part, by the fate of the
Armenians. Adolf Hitler took inspiration, too: "Who, after all, speaks today
of the annihilation of the Armenians?" he is supposed to have asked while
planning his invasion of Poland in 1939. Those words appear in the U.S.
Holocaust Memorial Museum, as an ominous warning about memory and
conscience; and their presence in the museum has been vigorously opposed by
Turkish Americans and the Turkish government.
Fast forward to this past spring. Samantha Power, author of "A Problem From
Hell: America and the Age of Genocide," was speaking at the Holocaust
Museum. Her book began with a brief sketch of the Armenian genocide, perhaps
two dozen pages out of more than 600. Those few pages were enough to inspire
a fusillade of angry questions from people who identified themselves as
Turkish American and, in one case, a staffer from the Turkish Embassy.
"It was a very crowded event, and person after person called on asked about
that," she remembers. "It was spooky. At one point, I said, 'Look, I don't
have a dog in this fight.' "
Asked whether this was an organized confrontation, a Turkish official said,
"This is an issue that Turkish people are very sensitive about." He also
said that Power, a scholar at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of
Government, is not a specialist in Ottoman history, and takes an
idiosyncratic view of the United Nations genocide convention.
In that official's broadside on Power are the major elements of the Turkish
strategy for controlling the argument: a general appeal to treat the Turks
(who are U.S. allies and who form a significant minority community in the
United States) with sensitivity; a warning that only specialists in Ottoman
affairs are qualified to sort through the relevant history; and the
exploitation of the gap between what genocide means in international law and
what it means in most people's common understanding. The last of these has
been particularly fruitful.
Genocide, in the popular imagination, means the crimes perpetrated by
Hitler: the boxcars and death camps, the industrial efficiency of killing
and the seven-figure body count. But neither Lemkin, who invented the word,
nor the diplomats who forged the United Nations convention on genocide
wanted Hitler to be the last word on the subject. While Germany established
the benchmark for genocidal madness, the club is easier to get into than
most people realize.
When the convention on genocide was adopted in 1948, the United Nations
didn't interpret the term to mean the utter annihilation of a people, only
the "intent to destroy, in whole or in part." And by destroy, the U.N. meant
not just killing, but "serious bodily or mental harm," or the deliberate
creation of conditions that are deadly or destructive.
"Those who don't believe that what the Turks did to the Armenians, or what
the Iraqis did to the Kurds, is genocide have in their mind a standard of
genocide which requires the systematic extermination of every member of an
ethnic group," says Power. "But the standard isn't based on 6 million
people, or mechanized killing, or outright extermination. The Armenians know
the definition of genocide and they know it's not even a close call. It was
The Turkish view, as articulated on the Web site of the Turkish Ministry of
Culture, and echoed by a Turkish official, is a collection of arguments, and
it is a scorched-earth affair.
Some highlights: The Ottoman Turks are not to be confused with the Republic
of Turkey; both Turks and Armenians died, as well as Kurds and Jews; the
charge of genocide doesn't fit the crime; the country was at war and feared
Armenian disloyalty; there are no hard numbers to justify the case of
genocide; evidence used to support the claims of genocide may have been
fabricated; and because the Ottoman empire was on the wrong side of the
First World War from the point of view of the United States and Britain,
sources from those countries can't be trusted. The Turkish argument throws
out a lot of firsthand testimony as politically tainted.
If it were a legal argument, say pro-Armenian scholars, it would be rather
like saying that my client wasn't there, couldn't have done it, has been
charged with the wrong crime and it was self-defense.
But it has been enough to chill scholarship. A distinguished professor of
Ottoman studies who asked not to be identified because he wants to avoid
alienating both Turkish- and Armenian-identified colleagues, says: "I
believe there is a lot of self-censorship taking place. People are afraid to
go down certain paths, so they avoid controversy."
It is easy to understand why there is self-censorship. To become expert in
the issues involved in the Armenian genocide, a scholar would ideally need
to know both modern and Ottoman Turkish as well as Armenian, which all use
different alphabets. Scholars who devote years of study to learn these
skills also need access to important archives in Turkey, which, according to
some scholars, has impeded access and evicted scholars deemed too
pro-Armenian. And the Turkish government has generously supported the
creation of powerful academic chairs at prestigious American universities,
including Princeton and Georgetown.
Seeking Truth Through Public Policy
Armenian Americans have sought some settlement of the issue not only in the
academic world, but also through congressional resolutions recognizing the
genocide (which so far have failed to pass). For Aram Hamparian, executive
director of the Armenian National Committee of America, the facts of the
matter have long been settled.
"We're at the point of waiting for public policy to catch up with the
truth," says Hamparian, whose organization has fought hard for a
congressional resolution that recognizes the genocide as fact. "When we
debated this resolution in 2000, there was only one member of the House
International Relations Committee who questioned the facts of the genocide.
For everyone else, the debate wasn't about the facts -- they know it
happened -- but about how recognizing it would affect U.S.-Turkish
After pressure from President Bill Clinton, who cited national security
issues, House leaders pulled the resolution from its agenda in October 2000.
One of the central conflicts in Egoyan's film takes place between an actor
of Turkish descent and a young man of Armenian descent, in which the latter
gets the upper hand. It is a moment of reverse aggression, the Armenian
refusing an overture from the Turk. That, too, captures an important nuance
in the political debate of historical fact.
"Some of the main protagonists on the Armenian side have assumed a
prosecutorial role," says Ara Sarafian, an Armenian scholar who has compiled
volumes of material documenting the genocide. "There are so many different
camps, including a very strong Armenian nationalist camp. I personally don't
approve of it all."
Looking to politicians for confirmation of historical fact may unleash more
forces of confusion and conflict than it offers comfort of official
sanction. Over the years, debate about Armenian genocide resolutions has
spawned charges that there are larger, hidden goals to Armenian political
activism, including even claims for restitution or Turkish territory. And
once the debate becomes purely political, there is no predicting the fault
lines. Supporters of Israel, for instance, have not been strong supporters
of congressional efforts to recognize the Armenian genocide, especially
since the mid-1990s, when Turkey and Israel forged a close relationship. A
shared past of genocide does not necessarily make allies of people.
There is also a philosophical dilemma. If a political body can lend weight
to historical fact by passing a symbolic resolution, what does it mean if
that resolution fails to pass? Are the facts thereby less certain? If you
turn truth over to people who negotiate, you may end up with negotiated
Egoyan's film ends with an act of leniency, forgiveness and healing that has
nothing to do with the Armenian genocide, as if to say that it is not the
protagonists of a battle, but those on the outside, who will move things
forward. And it may be true of genocide recognition as well, which makes
Miramax's efforts to promote the "controversy" of Egoyan's film rather odd.
Egoyan takes the genocide for granted, as do most people these days. By
calling it controversial, Miramax has joined forces with the Turks. Both
stand to profit.
The Washington Post Company
A horrific time that is still viewed through a fractious lens: An Armenian
woman and her son examine a boy's body in Turkey's Konya province. (File
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