By Prof. Stefan Ihrig
HAIFA, Israel (Forbes) — Writing this is dangerous: Speaking out on the Armenian Genocide means taking a huge risk. At the very least, it will be an exhausting experience, getting harassed online, trolled, threatened, down-rated on Amazon and publicly vilified. Until now, this was true mainly for individuals — academics, artists and activists. Now, it seems to apply to Hollywood movies, too. The Armenian Genocide remains one of the most controversial topics of 20th-century history and, even after its centennial, there is little reason to believe that controversy will come to an end and that some sort of consensus will come into being any time soon. Quite the opposite. Just in the last weeks, Turkey left the European Union’s cultural program in protest over a piece honoring the victims of the genocide by the Dresden Symphonic Orchestra which was sponsored by the program. Most recently, Turkey prevented a concert — again the very same piece — at the German Consulate in Istanbul. And now, we are in the middle of the next anti-Armenian campaign. This time its object is a Hollywood movie, The Promise, an epic focusing on the Armenian Genocide, starring amongst others Christian Bale. Yet, this time it might actually backfire and go another way.
All this has a long tradition. Eighty years ago the Turkish government forced Hollywood to drop a movie project based on The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, then a best-selling novel on the Armenian Genocide by German-language author, Jew and outspoken Hitler opponent Franz Werfel. The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, originally written as a warning against Hitler through the prism of the Armenian Genocide, never saw the silver screen. Such a movie could have also raised awareness of the fate of the Jews in Nazi Germany at the time and later of the ongoing Holocaust. It could have shaped the “narrative” of the struggle against Hitler. Many have since been interested to finally turn the novel into a major production, most recently, for example, Mel Gibson and Sylvester Stallone, but Turkish opposition and obstruction seemed insurmountable.
Much seemed to have changed in the last years, especially in the centennial last year. A whole barrage of new publications, academic and non-academic, add to recent milestone publications by the great historians of the Armenian Genocide, such as Raymond Kevorkian, Taner Akçam and Ronald Grigor Suny. Academic conferences were held all over the world. It was not without reason that, at all the conferences on the Armenian Genocide in Israel last year — at the Open University, at the Hebrew University, or at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute — participants and organizers made a point to talk about past efforts to put on a conference about the Armenian Genocide and how these had been thwarted by intervention of the Turkish government. Israel was a prized battleground in the conflict over acceptance and denial. Hollywood was and is another.
And while a lot has changed, a lot has stayed the same. One sure indicator is the lack of reviews these many new, well-written and well-researched books that appeared last year have received in the mainstream media outlets in the Western world. Furthermore, even a rudimentary survey of last year’s press coverage of the centennial of the Armenian Genocide shows that it were mainly authors of Armenian descent who spoke out for the Armenians and their story. Despite a series of resolutions by various European national parliament recognizing the Armenian Genocide, most of the public opinion-makers remain silent. This applies not only to journalists but also, for example, historians writing the big histories of the 20th century or World War I. It is thus not surprising that the press coverage of The Promise betrays the fact that the Armenian Genocide is still perceived as a “new” and relatively unknown topic to the public at large.
The Turkish government has constructed a very solid and relatively successful wall of enforced silence, blocking attempts not only to acknowledge, but even to discuss the topic through various forms of intimidation. Armenian Genocide denial must be counted as one of the most successful lobbying campaigns of the last 100 years when it comes to influencing our understanding of the past. Even if methods of intervention have changed, Turkish denialism is not a thing of the past. It is less often direct intervention by the government or the embassy, but rather a general atmosphere of intimidation, fear and enforced silence. One can only imagine what the threatened repercussions for media companies are — papers, networks and movie distributors — but we know that they exist and are very real. What is also real and tangible is the instant slandering, the bullying reflex of an amorphous body of Turkish nationalists and denialists who will use social media to attack people who speak out.