By Edward Thurber
Dr. Richard Hovannisian, this semester’s Henry S. Khazandian Visiting Professor of Armenian Studies at Fresno State, gave an evening lecture on October 8th titled “The Armenian Genocide: Remembrance and Denial,” the first of the three-part Henry S. Khazandian Kazan lecture series that deals with topics related to the Armenian Genocide.
Dr. Hovannisian gave an account of the historical framework of genocide in general and placed the Armenian experience within that context. Perhaps the most poignant topic of all in Hovannisian’s lecture was the denial by perpetrators of genocide and how it relates to the experience of today’s descendants of Armenian Genocide survivors.
In the historical framework, Hovannisian pointed out that twentieth century genocides are different from genocides of the Middle Ages. He used the example of Genghis Khan to illustrate how genocides of the Middle Ages were intended to instill terror. Genghis Khan massacred the populations of walled cities with the intention of coercing the next walled city he came to into opening it’s gates without a fight. Using strategy of this sort, Genghis Khan was very successful in forming the largest empire the world had ever known up to the 13th century.
Twentieth century genocides were different in type from these earlier genocides. Hovannisian said the twentieth century justifies mass killing through ideology; these mass killings had a greater goal. Nazi Germany serves as an example of how ordinary Germans turned into killers because they were made to believe the ideology that what they were doing was for the greater good.
According to Hovannisian, “The perpetrator views the world as he or they will define it.”
“The Young Turk government of 1915 defined the future of the Ottoman Empire in the way it wanted it to be,” Hovannisian said. It believed that the multi religious society that existed had been the reason for the weakness of the Ottoman Empire and the reason why they had been losing territory to Russia and other countries.
The view of the Young Turks to combat this was to form a homogeneous country based on one people, one religion and one language. If you did not follow the Turkish culture, speak Turkish and convert to Islam, you were seen as an alien and an enemy.
Hovannisian illustrated the Young Turk rationale by saying, “How easy it is for a Muslim peasant, a Turkish peasant, to understand the symbolism of weeds and plants and the weeds choking the healthy plant. Well, if you have weeds, in this case Armenians and Christians, who are choking the good plant, in this case the Turks and Islam, then you need to chop the weeds.”
The Pan-Turkish ideology of homogeneity was the driving force behind the Armenian Genocide. Yet Hovannisian indicated that not all Turks participated. A number of Turkish officials were removed from office or punished for not participating in the Genocide. They intervened to save Armenians, even though a majority of Turks did participate in the Genocide.
“I always say that one of my saddest sentiments is that Armenians cannot do what Jews do, and that is to recognize the righteous Germans and righteous gentiles; Christians who helped them,” Hovannisian said.
“Wouldn’t it be nice and wonderful if Armenians could have, after these eighty years, acknowledged and recognized the righteous Turks, the good Turks who didn’t persecute them, who tried to help them, who harbored them, who felt that this was against the Islamic religion, that this was against the faith of their God, and that this was an aberration,” he said.
Hovannisian described the Genocide as “background music” during his years growing up as the child of a survivor. “When I grew up, survivors spoke incessantly of the Genocide or not at all, they were too busy getting on with their lives and rebuilding.”
There were the Armenian women in the field during his childhood, drinking Turkish coffee. Hovannisian portrayed these survivors after their day in the field, gathered under a tree, drinking coffee and telling stories. “This was their therapy; this was the way the coped,” Hovannisian said. “They didn’t have psychiatrists.”
Sharing with one another was their way of healing and carrying on. “Why should we remember the Genocide?” asked Hovannisian. He then answered, “The crime remains unrequited; the wound remains open.”
Exacerbating the wound is denial. During the fiftieth anniversary of the Armenian Genocide in 1965, there came a new awareness. A new generation of Armenians believed in going into the streets and vocalizing their anger. They brought attention to the Armenian Genocide.
The perpetrators of the Genocide came up with a new strategy of denial due to the threat of being exposed by the new generation of Armenians who were speaking out. Hovannisian described the Turkish government as actively engaged in a cover-up since 1965, with millions of dollars spent on it. “Absolute denial doesn’t get anywhere,” Hovannisian said. “They tried it; they tried to say nothing happened, but when you say that, even your friends don’t believe you.”
He described the current Turkish strategy as one of rationalizing the atrocities they committed during the Genocide. They make excuses for what happened. They describe the Armenians as enemies and provocateurs. They also use blackmail, threatening the business, political and any other special interests of certain governments such as the United States.
“The arguments go on,” Hovannisian said. “There is a struggle against forgetting.” “Hopefully acts of redemption may someday lead to acts of reconciliation,” Hovannisian ended. For Hovannisian, this continued a busy fall semester of instruction on the subject of genocide at Fresno State. He is now winding down his class at Fresno State titled “Armenian Genocide in Comparative Context,” and has lectured this fall on related topics. Having attended many of these events, I have marveled at how much I have learned about the Armenian heritage this semester.