“In 1939, Hitler said to his army: ‘Who, afterall, speaks of the annihilation of the Armenians?’” Bedross Der Matossian, assistant professor of modern Middle East history at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said to open his lecture in White Hall on Wednesday evening. “Well, here we are today, remembering the Armenian Genocide.”
Der Matossian’s talk, “The Armenian Genocide and Historiography on the Eve of the Centennial: From Continuity to Contingency” served as a remembrance of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, which began on April 24, 1915.
Widely recognized as one of the first modern genocides, the Armenian Genocide was a campaign of systematic extermination that included deportation and mass murder carried out by the Ottoman Empire against its minority Armenian subjects. It is estimated that up to 1.5 million Armenians were massacred, according to a History Channel article.
Addressing an audience of more than 70 students and faculty members, Der Matossian began by giving a brief historical background of what he described as the three main phases leading up to the genocide.
The first phase, according to Der Matossian, included the Hamidian massacres from 1894 to 1896, in which Ottoman officials killed between 200,000 and 300,000 Armenians, who had led an uprising against over-taxation.
As for the second phase, Der Matossian cited the Young Turk Revolution of 1908, in which a group of reformers overthrew the Sultan Hamid and established a modern constitutional government.
The third phase, according to Der Matossian, was the 1909 Adana massacre, in which Islamic theological students and the Ottoman military led a counter-coup against the government that led to the deaths of between 15,000 and 30,000 Armenians, who were blamed for supporting the new constitution.
Der Matossian also discussed the development of the historiography on the Armenian Genocide by scholars, which has become increasingly publicized despite the Turkish government’s refusal to recognize the killings.
“The prohibition by the Turkish government of speaking about the genocide is crumbling,” Der Matossian said.
Der Matossian listed arguments that provide interpretations as to why the genocide took place, such as the significant role of religious conflicts between Muslims and Christians and the growth of Armenian nationalism.
He also discussed the Ottoman Empire’s demographic engineering and assimilation of minority groups. For example, in the 1912 Balkan Wars, the Ottoman Empire lost 90 percent of its European territories and deliberately relocated Muslim populations in Armenian regions in an attempt to neutralize ethnic differences.
The increasingly nationalist Turkish ideology at a time when its empire was crumbling called for extreme security measures to preserve the Ottoman Empire, according to Der Matossian.
Der Matossian’s areas of interest include the ethnic politics in the Middle East, inter-ethnic violence in the Ottoman Empire, Palestinian history and the history of the Armenian Genocide, according to his profile on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln website.
Aside from Der Matossian, Distinguished Emory Professor of the Liberal Arts and Sciences Sander Gilman and Visiting Distinguished Professor of History at the Georgia Institute of Technology Nikolay Koposov also gave brief talks on the genocide. Walter Kalaidjian, the English department chair, moderated the lecture.
Gilman stressed the importance of literature in remembering the past.
“It is poets who capture the memory of the past,” Gilman said. “It is literature that remembers and memorializes the Armenian Genocide.”
Gilman discussed the importance of preserving historical memory by giving examples of historical works like Franz Werfel’s 1933 novel The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, which is based on events that took place in the Armenian Genocide, and Edgar Hilsenrath’s The Nazi and the Barber, which depicts the Holocaust in Nazi Germany from the perspective of a German.
Associate Professor of Russian Studies Juliette Stapanian-Apkarian, who helped organize the lecture and whose father was a survivor of the Armenian Genocide, said that, although Der Matossian was invited to speak because of the centennial anniversary of the genocide, the implications of the event resonated far into the modern day.
“How can violence be understood when it is so tied to other aspects of national consciousness?” Apkarian said. “We continue to be challenged by the recognition of certain incidences of violence, for instance against the Native [Americans] and against the African American population.”
The lecture is relevant to modern times because of the ongoing political challenge to recognize the historic past and the question of how to address historical cases of mass violence, Apkarian said.
“How can we move forward without remembering history accurately?” Apkarian asked. She added that the Armenian Genocide does not receive enough attention because of contemporary politics.
“History is often something which is utilized, packaged, reconfigured,” Apkarian said. “The question is how to address national constructions of history to find a truth.”
Since Turkey has been a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally since 1952 and is a strategic partner for United States foreign policy interests in the Middle East, Apkarian noted that the United States government has been reluctant to recognize the Armenian Genocide.
“Obama had said [prior to becoming president] that he would recognize the genocide, but he has not,” Apkarian said. “This is because politics and history often go together.”
The lecture was co-sponsored by the Emory Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies Program (REES); the Tam Institute for Jewish Studies; the Departments of Russian and East Asian Languages and Cultures (REALC), History and Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies (MESAS); the Institute for Liberal Arts (ILA) and the initiative in Intercultural Studies.
College freshman Becky Lebeaux said that while the lecture was informative, she would like to have seen a more balanced argument.
“It was informative, especially about the historical, political and economic background of what is known as the Armenian Genocide,” Lebeaux said. “However, I felt it was a one-sided presentation on the violence as a genocide. I felt it would have been interesting to discuss the opinions of the denialists.”
Kate Cyr, a College senior, described the lecture as one of the best ones she’d attended at Emory.
Cyr wrote her undergraduate thesis on Turkish policy toward Kurds, the largest ethnic minority in Turkey and will be travelling to Turkey on a diplomatic mission next year.
“I really liked how [the lecture] discussed the Armenian conflict from a historical, literary and legal standpoint,” Cyr said. “I am very interested to see how the past and the influences of history impact Turkey today.”
— By Emily Lim