Blaspheming the sacred and the profane

The French classical scholar, Pierre Vidal-Naquet, labelled denialists ‘the assassins of memory’. In the case of the Jews, the denialists are not always the génocidaires; in the case of the Armenians, however, they are.

Turkish denialism of the genocide of 1.5 million Armenians is official, riven, driven, constant, rampant, and increasing each year since the events of 1915 to 1922. It is state-funded, with special departments and units in overseas missions whose sole purpose is to dilute, counter, minimise, trivialise and relativise every reference to the events which encompassed a genocide of Armenians, Pontian Greeks and Assyrian Christians in Asia Minor.

In the face of irrefutable evidence of genocide, Turkey has created a massive industry of denialism. Its actions are spectacular, often bizarre, lacking any effort to distinguish between the serious and the silly. In the 1930s, Turkish pressure was put on the American government and on Hollywood studios not to proceed with an embryonic film based on Franz Werfel’s 1932 novel, Forty Days at Musa Dagh, which depicted Armenian resistance. In the present era, there has been heavy lobbying of the American Congress not to find a path to the two-thirds majority needed for a resolution recognising the genocide. Successful lobbying led to the removal of any reference to genocide in the Armenian entry in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Recently, there have been threats to sever diplomatic relations with France over the French declaration that there was such a genocide. In April 2001, the Turkish government somehow squeezed Shimon Peres, then Israel’s foreign minister, to say in Ankara that ‘Armenian allegations of genocide are meaningless’. (Not even Israel’s geopolitical interests in a time of crisis can condone such a statement; at worst, he could have said nothing.)

There was a demand a few years ago to SBS television in Sydney that the station pulp its 25-year anniversary history book because it twice made passing reference to an event ‘that never happened’. Then there was an extraordinary visit by His Excellency the Ambassador to my office at Macquarie University in 1987 in which he sought to have me delete the Armenian segment of my new course on ‘The Politics of Genocide’.

What still motivates Turkey around the globe? We don’t know, but I suggest the following:

The work of those who contend, or who may even believe, that the Holocaust was and is, in Arthur Butz’s language, ‘the hoax of the twentieth century’ has been analysed by, among others, Lucy Dawidowicz, Deborah Lipstadt and Pierre Vidal-Naquet. We now know a great deal about denialist writings, techniques and vehicles, and about their effectiveness or lack thereof. Apart from tolerance of that especial brand of denialism, so-called ‘comparative trivialisation’, propagated by Ernst Nolte (1985, 1988) and Andreas Hillgruber (1986) in Germany, there has been no denial by the German state, East, West or re-united. The Schuldfrage (guilt question) remains a central issue in daily German life, especially among the young. Perversely, perhaps, there has been a great deal of denial in the very democracies where freedom of speech is sacrosanct: France, the United States, Canada, Britain and Australia. We may well ask why this has happened. I offer a number of reasons.