“Instead of resisting reality of genocide, Turkey could have educated its people”

Dr. Rouben P. Adalian, a specialist on the Caucasus and the Middle East and Director of the Armenian National Institute (ANI) in Washington DC, is a prominent figure in Armenian Genocide studies. We talked with him about the mission of ANI, its new site about Armenian Genocide in Turkish, as well as Turkey`s counting denial policy.

What are the missions and objectives of the Armenian National Institute (ANI) and its website?

Broadly defined the Armenian National Institute (ANI) is dedicated to the study, research, and affirmation of the Armenian Genocide.  Within those parameters, based on the public interest, the Institute has concentrated on documenting specific aspects of the Armenian Genocide as well as its lasting legacy.  This service is readily visible on the ANI website: www.armenian-genocide.org.  While the website provides a wide range of information to researchers, educators, the media, and the public at large, it also has a focal point, which is the record of formal acknowledgments of the Armenian Genocide.  From the very start, it was evident that public demand for this information needed to be addressed as it reflects upon the extent of international awareness of the Armenian Genocide and the extent of acknowledgement of the fate of the Armenian people.  The ANI website is mostly textual.  To share the visual evidence of the Armenian Genocide, a related website was created in 2015 in the form of an online museum, Armenian Genocide Museum of America (AGMA) with interactive components.  The site www.armeniangenocidemuseum.org provides illustrations from the past and the present to showcase the extent of the destruction of Armenian civilization in its homeland.

There are Turkish translations of the documents concerning genocide on ANI website. How did you decide to launch the Turkish version of the website?

The Turkish-language version of the ANI website addresses the standing problem of misinformation about the Armenian Genocide.  The Institute decided that the best and most direct method of reaching Turkish-speaking audiences is to present the evidence in their own language and provide them the resources to reach their own conclusions without the prejudices that continue to cloud understanding of the scale of devastation that permanently ruined Armenian society in its ancestral homeland.  This initiative was guided by the chairman of the Institute, Van Z. Krikorian, based on his firsthand experience as a member of the Turkish Armenian Reconciliation Committee, which revealed that the absence of agreement on the most basic facts was a very serious impediment to dialogue between Armenians and Turks.  The Turkish version of the ANI website is an attempt to create common ground.

Have you received any feedback from Turkish visitors?

Typically the Institute receives two diametrically opposed opinions from Turkish visitors.  There are notes of appreciation for making the collected information available by persons making an effort to view the matter objectively.  Then there are standard denialist comments rejecting everything that is available to examine.  For persons with that attitude there will never be enough evidence to convince them of the truth of the matter.  Their views are tied up with ultranationalist sentiments that accept government policies uncritically.

It’s been more than a century and Turkey still insists on denying the genocide. How do you assess this insistence? Do you think that there have been changes in Turkey’s policy concerning this issue since the foundation of the republic?

Considering the extent of international affirmation of the Armenian Genocide now supported with superb and extensive scholarship based on an ever-growing mass of historical documentation, the official Turkish position has become untenable.  There was at one time a different attitude in Turkey.  In the postwar period the Ottoman government tried and condemned a number of the perpetrators.  Even Mustafa Kemal found reason to call for the punishment of Young Turk conspirators.  The first commemoration of the Armenian Genocide on April 24 was held in Constantinople under the auspices of the Armenian Patriarch.  The Kemalist regime subsequently changed course and official policy, while using different tactics, has basically to adhere to a denialist line.  Your readers are better aware than those outside Turkey of the price Hrant Dink paid for exploring politically tabooed subjects.  Nonetheless civil society efforts to address the problem have been registered in recent years.  The government line, however, remains unaltered.

Do you think that international pressure on Turkey is positive or negative?

The position taken by the international community over the course of the past two to three decades has been constructive and helpful in reviving interest in the Armenian Genocide, in contextualizing the perpetuating problem of genocide, and in weighing the consequences of these horrendous crimes.  The history of the Armenian Genocide is intertwined with these other instances of genocide.  This is clear from the case made by the person who created the word genocide, Raphael Lemkin.  The United Nations resolution calling for the adoption of the convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide refers to prior instances, and there was no doubt in the mind of the jurists of that era, which preceding instances were being referenced.  Lemkin, whose own family perished in the Holocaust, viewed the Armenian case as a definitive example of genocide.  The introductory film on the AGMA site includes a clip with Lemkin speaking in his own words on this matter.

Thus the origins of the universal understanding of the crime of genocide emerged from the comparative analysis of the two examples of the first half of the 20th century.

Punishment in the aftermath of genocide has never matched the scales of injustice committed during gross violations of human rights.  Each instance of recognition by the international community is a direct confrontation of the Turkish government’s denial policy.  That certainly has been the pattern of reaction.  Instead of resisting this new reality, a more tolerant country could have viewed the process of recognition as a means of educating its own people. The most significant recent act of affirming the Armenian Genocide was registered by the German Parliament in 2016 because it also acknowledged that a predecessor regime during World War 1 had been complicit by ignoring its responsibility because it exercised a position of influence in the Ottoman Turkey.  The Turkish government’s policy on the Armenians is now completely out of step with the prevailing understanding about the Armenian Genocide and its distressing legacy.  Turkish officials have been unable to work out a reasonable policy that will allow a reconciliation between past and present.  Therefore, the attention of the international community to this matter has played a constructive role in reminding the Turkish government that it bears the responsibility of addressing the results of the Armenian Genocide.

Turkish textbooks, which are required readings in Armenian schools as well, still characterize Armenians as traitors who “aim to split the country and who murdered Turks and Muslims.” The Armenian Genocide (which referred as “Armenian question”) is described as a lie that is told for realizing “Diaspora’s goals” and as the biggest threat to Turkish national security. There is a direct connection between the textbooks and Turkish government’s policies regarding Armenian Genocide denial. In your opinion, how does this type of education affect children and civil society in Turkey, leaving aside the denial itself?

The Turkish government is doing a disservice to its own people by continually generating incorrect and accusatory information when it comes to the subject of Armenians. In the age of mass communication, with open access to resources all around the world, the misinformation spread through the school system condemns the people of Turkey to forming unrealistic views that isolates them more than educates them. Some societies resort to inventing imaginary threats as methods of internal consolidation. In the case of the Armenians vis-à-vis Turkey, however, this notion almost smacks of the comic when compared to the resources available to the Turkish state and those available to the Armenian people.  Considering how small a minority Armenians constitute today in Turkey, the type of education promoted by the Turkish state is a sad reflection of the failure to create a democratic state where human rights and civil rights are equal, respected, and enforced.

In April, ANI opened “Armenian Genocide Museum”. What is the aim of opening such a center in the U.S. capital?

The library represents once more facet of the Institute’s effort to collect resources on the Armenian Genocide and make them available to researchers.  The Armenian Genocide is no longer the subject of a debate and so the demand for documentation has grown such that scholars want and are exploring more and more deeply the many aspects of the Armenian Genocide because, as it turned out, that crime against humanity was the first in a chain of atrocities right into the present.  The wanton killing of children in Syria through chemical weapon, regardless of who is responsible for their murder, is an unsettling reminder that without firm condemnation of atrocities, government and other agencies continue to operate with impunity.  Without a fundamental commitment to respecting human life, the world remains a dangerous place.  It needs not be so.

Can you tell us what it was like personally to research and write an in-depth study of the Armenian Genocide as an Armenian?

A scholar does not approach a subject from the standpoint of his ethnic heritage.  As a trained historian I examine all the evidence that has been uncovered and that I can access.  Numerous archives have been mined by now for the documentation on the Armenian Genocide. These include the German Foreign Ministry archives, the Austrian, Italian, French, British, Danish, Greek, and other repositories holding the state records from the time of the Great War.  Researchers have turned up a wealth of documents from the Vatican Archives in more recent years.  Of course the American records constitute a critical component of this gigantic puzzle.  Daunting as the amount of uncovered documents has become, scholars have been successfully connecting and explaining this evidence.  As I spent some time collecting the documents from the United States National Archives, I was struck by the quantity of records.  There were thousands of pages of reports detailing many features of the Armenian Genocide.  All these records, 37,000 pages which I compiled, are available in microform through the publishing firm of Chadwyck-Healy that specializes in issuing large collections.  The crimes committed in 1915 did not go undetected.  As a matter of fact they were registered blow by cruel blow.  Moreover, the documentary records covered nearly the entire episode from start to finish.  The length of that records therefore attested to something else, the unremitting persecution of Armenians across the Ottoman Empire and even beyond into Iran and Russia.  Year after year after year, reports were sent to the U.S. Department of State by American and other officials attesting to the continuation of the mistreatment of the Armenians, down to the helpless remnants.  Every person born Armenian faced a sentence in Turkey, whether they were selected for expulsion, expropriation, forcible conversion, or dealt the finality of extermination.  Difficult as it is to read all this material, it is rewarding to see that scholars in the United States, abroad, and even in Turkey are relying on these official records and matching them with the resources that can be accessed from the Ottoman Archives.  Despite arguments to the contrary, all these one-time confidential records in all these languages are in accord with the republic reporting of the calamities of the First World War.  In this respect, then, the work of scholars based in and from Turkey, who are tackling these records, will prove to be decisive in correcting the historical record and in creating understanding among Armenians and Turks.

Who is Dr. Rouben Adalian?

Dr. Rouben P. Adalian is the Director of the Armenian National Institute in Washington, DC.  He is a specialist on the Caucasus and the Middle East, and has taught at a number of universities, including George Washington University, Georgetown University and Johns Hopkins University.  In 1993 he completed a project to document the Armenian Genocide in the United States National Archives. As a result Chadwyck-Healey Inc. published 37,000 pages of American evidence on microfiche. The accompanying 476-page Guide to the Armenian Genocide in the U.S. Archives 1915-1918 was issued in 1994. He is also the associate editor of the award-winning Encyclopedia of Genocide (1999).


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