Richard Hovannisian on Genocide and Denial at Marquette Law School
By David Luhrssen
MILWAUKEE, Wis.—Richard Hovannisian opened his Oct. 18 talk at Marquette University Law School by reflecting on this year’s Centennial observation of the Armenian Genocide. The UCLA professor emeritus commented on the amount of good press and academic conferences the Armenian cause received in 2015, Pope Francis’s proclamation, and the unity shown by the Armenian community. But the events of a century ago and their ongoing implications, rather than the commemoration, were the primary subject of his talk. The event, sponsored by the Wisconsin Armenian Genocide Centenary Committee, drew an overflow audience.
Speaking extemporaneously from a deep well of emotion as he articulated the horror of the genocide, Hovannisian recounted memories of growing up in California as the child of survivors. When he began his academic career he had no thought of becoming one of America’s foremost authorities on the genocide and focused instead on Armenia’s First Republic. “I backed into this field because my father was called a liar,” Hovannisian said, referring to his work of refuting genocide deniers. He denounced the Turkish Coalition of America, funded by a Turkish-American industrialist, for “expending millions of dollars to silence the Armenian case. It may be discouraging but one doesn’t stop. The dream must be continued.”
Hovannisian asked the question, “What have we learned after 100 years?” He began his answer by citing “utter admiration” for the resilience shown by the survivors. “After seeing such cruelty, how could they ever sing and dance and joke again? But most did recover and recreated an existence—a new space.”
The initial strategy of the Kemalists—not to deny as much as prevent discussion—crumbled after 1965 when Armenians from around the world, from Yerevan to New York, took to the streets in protest on the 50th anniversary of the genocide. He added that the trial of Holocaust mastermind Adolf Eichmann “opened the door. The Holocaust is now not just part of Jewish history but part of human history. The Armenian Genocide should be remembered as the prototype for the mass killings of the 20th century. It set the model.”
Hovannisian suggested ideology and technology as the causes of such mass killings. In the case of the genocide, the ideology was the extreme nationalism of Turkism and the technology was the telegraph, which allowed Talat Pasha to wire instructions to subordinates across the Ottoman Empire and to expect detailed reports in return. The outbreak of World War I gave the Turkish regime its opportunity. Without the cover of war, Hovannisian suggested, the genocide might never have occurred.
He added that in every story he has collected of Armenian Genocide survivors, “there was a good Turk, or a good Muslim, who sheltered Armenian victims.”
Although the war against the memory of the genocide continues to be waged by the present Turkish government and its lobbyists, Hovannisian sees reason for optimism. “There is a crack in the wall,” he said. “Young Turkish intellectuals are challenging the official narrative and using the ‘G’ word, which even the president of the United States is afraid to use.”