By the 1960s, Armenians were awakening to atrocities of 1915 at the hands of the Ottoman Turks, which had left an entire generation of parents and grandparents traumatized into silence. In the last sixty years, their descendants have been making up for lost time. Today there is an entire literature about the Genocide, which could likely fill a small library (there’s an idea!), consisting of scholarly texts, novels, newspaper articles, documentaries, photo stories and more. But one medium remained curiously absent: podcast.
Until recently, there was no resource dedicated exclusively to telling the detailed history of the Armenian Genocide in a compelling, narrative audio format. James Robins, a New Zealand-based journalist, has taken on the challenge in his latest project The Great Crime: A Podcast History of the Armenian Genocide.
Historical podcasts which unpack specific time periods or significant historical events—like revolutions, empires or wars—are not a new genre. Robins hopes that by tapping into the style of this genre, those eager to learn more about the Genocide will have a new, exciting and comprehensive audio resource. Alternatively, fans of the historical genre who enjoy podcasts like Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History or Mike Duncan’s Revolutions may be curious to investigate a new, lesser-told history, which intersects with other events of the World War I era.
Our interview with Robins about how he got started, his hopes for the project, and how you can support is below.
The Armenian Weekly: How did you get onto the topic of the Armenian Genocide to begin with?
James Robins: I was totally ignorant of the Genocide until 2015, the centenary year. And it was through boredom, believe it or not, that I first encountered the topic. It was a rainy Tuesday evening in early April, and with nothing better to do, I attended a panel discussion and film screening at the University of Auckland. There, a visiting Greek-Australian genocide scholar named Panayiotis Diamadis aired some fragmentary early details of the connections between the Genocide, and Australia and New Zealand.
At first, I thought this might make for a good magazine feature, and that would be it. But the deeper I dug into the story, the more fascinating and troubling it became. Nobody, I thought, had worked on this angle before, though my good friend Vicken Babkenian has since published Armenia, Australia, and the Great War, which is a really important book. Anyway, the single magazine feature grew into a book project very quickly. When We Dead Awaken: Australia, New Zealand, and the Armenian Genocide will hopefully emerge into the world very soon.
A.W.: Why did you see the need for a podcast?
J.R.: Being something of a Luddite, I hadn’t had much contact with the world of podcasts until their popularity began to boom. By then, I’d already written two drafts of the book. My brain was overloaded with details of the Genocide, details that were swimming around my head while I waited for the book to be published. The key to the door was listening to Mike Duncan’s Revolutions series: histories of tumultuous periods narrated in a simple and easily understandable manner. It was such a simple model to replicate. All I needed was my own voice and knowledge, some theme music, and a microphone. And nobody had tackled the Genocide in podcast form before.
A.W.: What makes the research you’ve done different from the research many others have done in the past? Do you maybe have a different angle on the Genocide that you’re exploring?
J.R.: The Great Crime was also partly born because many of the books written about the Genocide and the violence of the late-Ottoman, early-Turkish Republican period are quite dense: they are intended for an academic audience, or at least heavily involved readers. This is partly, I think, the influence of Turkish denialism, that historians feel the need to prove the ‘case’ in rigorous detail. Aside from Peter Balakian’s The Burning Tigris and Eugene Rogan’s The Fall of the Ottomans, few writers have attempted the history of the period in an explicit narrative style – storytelling, rather than fact-finding. The principle goal therefore was to maintain the scholarly rigor, while also being clear and easy to follow. The hope is that people who would otherwise be intimidated by the academic works could have an introduction to the topic through an ongoing podcast with short, concise, chronological episodes.
A.W.: What kind of investigative work did this project entail (traveling, interviews, readings, etc)? What was the most influential reporting/reading you did?
J.R.: By far the most influential figure in my own understanding and learning has been Taner Akçam, who I had the pleasure of meeting and speaking alongside at the New Zealand parliament last year. Akçam really is, in my eyes anyway, the Raul Hilberg of Armenian Genocide scholarship. He has an unparalleled command of the archival materials and the fortitude to view the Genocide from the perspective of the perpetrators and their descendants, which is not an easy thing to do. One can easily become coarsened by the extreme cynicism displayed by the killers, and yet Akçam is clear-eyed and undaunted and maintains a deep empathy for the victims. His writing also helped me see that Turkish denialism was not a question of history. I mean, that it’s not a question of facts and figures, but politics. Denialism is a political argument, not a historiographical one. He’s also suffered terribly for his work, and still managed to carry on with his work courageously, and with a dedication to truth and justice. He is one of those rare models for how a public intellectual should conduct themselves in times of crisis.
A.W.: What has the support been like so far? How are you supporting your work?
J.R.: For me, The Great Crime really is a labor of love and a way to put my knowledge to good use while I wait for my book to be published. And it is growing steadily. There are members of the Armenian community from all over the place—not just in California—who are very supportive, either in writing or in their modest donations. Honestly, I cannot thank them enough. But in a way, I’d like to see the audience of the podcast expand beyond the boundaries of the Diaspora and into non-Armenian life. The Genocide really was the inaugurating horror of a bloody century, and in looking at this story we can see the emergence of ideologies and attitudes that governed the twentieth century. To understand the Armenian Genocide is to understand a crucial formative part of our recent history.
A.W.: Does this project have a final “end” point? At what point will the “story” of the historic Genocide be told? Or will you continue using the podcast as a way to comment on the modern happenings?
J.R.: That’s a very interesting question. The original brief I set for myself was to cover the late-Ottoman period up to the founding of the Republic. But I soon realized that I’d need to go deeper into that early period of imperial breakup and the emergence of nationalism to truly present the context for the mass violence that followed. And of course, that violence did not stop after 1918 or 1920. It carried on afterwards. If I stopped in 1923, that would mean ignoring the emergence of structured denialism in the 1980s and the emergence of the recognition movement after 1965. Because I want my listeners to understand the context of our current debates and be able to engage with them intelligently, it would be a shame to stop too soon. The topic is still very much alive and kicking today, and I suspect that finding a point at which to end The Great Crime will be very difficult indeed.
A.W.: It says in your biography that you are a journalist. How did you get into this line of work, and what other work have you done?
J.R.: It seems that I’m doomed to be a writer, having no other discernible skills in any other area. I’ve bounced around a few newsrooms in New Zealand, but have since settled on being freelance because of the independence it affords. Books, essays, the long form, this is what I like the most. And, not to be too sentimental, but I earnestly believe that journalism, that good writing and good research, and well-told stories have the capacity to make a little dent on the world. At the very least, I would like to think that I have a tiny bit of what George Orwell called “a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts.” And that’s all that one really needs.