Dr. Stefan Ihrig

After Versailles: International Conference to Draw Lessons of 1915


BERLIN — Can we learn from history? Has the vow of “Never again!” found fulfillment? Or has one historic catastrophe merely paved the way for an even more tragic repetition? These crucial questions are at the center of an ambitious and timely initiative launched by the AGBU Europe in partnership with the Lepsius House in Potsdam, the European Union of Jewish Students (EUJS) and the Roma organization Phiren Amenca.

“Ideas & their Consequences: Genocide and International Justice after 1919” is the name of the project, co-funded by the Europe for Citizens Programme of the European Union. It begins with a series of online events in June, followed by an international conference in late August. The aim of the initiative is to examine two opposing processes that unfolded in Europe in the wake of World War I: on the one hand, the concepts of humanitarianism and international justice came into being and took on concrete form, and on the other, radical extremist political ideologies emerged anew, with the potential for unthinkable savagery. The Ottoman genocide of 1915 plays a central role in the proceedings. As the invitation states, that watershed event will be presented as an integral part of European history, that it “inspired horror, compassion, fascination and passionate debate in European countries before, during and after its occurrence, and that it profoundly influenced political thinking in Europe.”

The speakers represent leading academics who have researched both trends characterizing the interwar period, the history of humanitarianism and international justice and the history of radical ideologies and political violence. Opening the series of webinars (held in English, http://www.lepsiushaus-potsdam.de/) on June 2 is Dr. Rolf Hosfeld, historian and Director of the Potsdam Lepsius House. A member of the German Writers’ Union since 1982, Hosfeld has published numerous articles as well as fifteen books, some of which have received awards. His biography of Karl Marx won “Das politische Buch” (the political book) prize in 2010. His history of the Armenian genocide appeared in 2005 and 2009, and a 2015 revised edition was translated into Turkish (2018) and Armenian (2021). He has also edited, co-edited and contributed to works on Johannes Lepsius and the German Empire.

In the webinar he will present “The Rise of International Law: The Talaat Pasha Trial in June 1921.” This is the centenary year of the event that made legal history, providing Raphael Lemkin with the inspiration to develop the concept and term of genocide. Hosfeld examines the background to the trial that Hannah Arendt referenced in her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, and explores the contribution it made to the forging of international law.

Stefan Ihrig, Professor of History at the University of Haifa, looks into the way German nationalists and the Nazis drew destructive conclusions from the genocide, shaping ethnic policies that were to be implemented in the Shoah. His theme on June 3 is “The Original Sin of Europe’s Dark 20th Century: (Re)Integrating the Armenian Genocide into European and World History.” The intense debates that raged in post-war Germany contributed to the process leading to the Shoah and thus suggest the need to reconceptualize basic assumptions about 20th century history. Ihrig is the author of Ataturk in the Nazi Imagination (2014) and Justifying Genocide – Germany and the Armenians from Bismarck to Hitler (2016).

On June 4, a panel discussion will take the matter out of the past and consider its implications in relation to the current situation in the Caucasus. Organized by the Lepsius House and AGBU Lebanon, this event, entitled “Embattled Dreamlands,” focuses on the history of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. Prof. Ronald G. Suny from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and Dr. David Leupold from the Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient in Berlin look into the renewed outbreak of conflict from various vantage points. Reviewing the developments from the Ottoman and Soviet eras to the ongoing geopolitical confrontation, the experts seek to sharpen our understanding of the consequences that derive from the wanton destruction of cultural heritage monuments, and to explore perspectives for bringing peace to a region devastated by crises and war.

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In August, the threads of the discussion will be picked up again, this time in a three-day conference held at the European Academy in Berlin. There several more renowned historians will join the speakers’ rostrum. Following welcoming remarks on August 27 by Nadia Gortzounian of the AGBU Europe, Rolf Hosfeld will deliver the keynote, “‘No peace to end all violence’: Nationalism, Imperialism and Internationalism after 1919.”

The following day starts with a panel on “Atrocities against Civilians and the Rise of Humanitarian Movements.” Melanie Tanielian, from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, will address the theme, “Violence, Aid and Non-State Actors: Humanitarian Intervention in Nineteenth-Century Anatolia.” In her studies of society and culture during the first World War, Tanielian has devoted attention to the role of philanthropic institutions, including German missionaries, social Protestantism and humanitarian work in the health sector.

Charlie Laderman, a lecturer at King’s College, London, will speak on “The Anglo-American Struggle to Save the Armenians and Remake Global Order.” Laderman, who has taught at the universities of Texas and Cambridge, has probed the relationship between the United States and the world in the 19th and 20th centuries. He has examined the interplay between U.S. foreign and domestic policy, as well as relationship among imperialism, humanitarianism and liberal internationalism.

The lecture by Hilmar Kaiser from Yerevan State University will deal with “The Armenian Origins of the Near East Relief” and Roy Knocke, Deputy Director of the Potsdam Lepsius House, will present “Fridtjof Nansen: The Plight of Statelessness as an International Challenge.” Kaiser is a genocide researcher who has dedicated particular attention to the role of leading officials. Among his publications are “Extermination of Armenians in the Diyarbakir Region” (2014) and several articles, for example, in the Oxford Handbook of Genocide Studies (2010).

Knocke, who lectures at the University of Potsdam, has studied the moral and socio-philosophical aspects of genocide and published on Franz Werfel, as well as on forms of extremist political violence in the 20th century.

The second panel, dedicated to “Post-Versailles Europe,” chaired by Hosfeld, will feature a speech by Hans-Lukas Kieser from the University of Newcastle, Australia on “Mass Violence: The Elephant in the Room at the Conference of Lausanne.” Kieser, who is also an honorary professor at the University of Zurich, has studied the late Ottoman Empire as well as the Republic of Turkey. He is the author of Talaat Pasha. Founder of Modern Turkey, Architect of Genocide (2018) and co-editor of The End of the Ottomans: The Genocide of 1915 and the Politics of Turkish Nationalism (2019).

Momme Schwarz is a research assistant and doctoral candidate at the Saxonian Academy of Sciences, Leipzig, where he is engaged in the Encyclopedia of Jewish Cultures project. His lecture will deal with “Jewish Minority Protection during the Interwar Period – The Comité des délégations juives and the Schwarzbard trial.”

Chalak Kaveh, associate professor of history at Volda University College, Norway, will speak on “The Apex of European Traditional ‘Gypsy policy’ in the Interwar Period – A History of Policy Radicalization.” Kaveh, a genocide studies researcher, is the author of ’Vagrancy Plague’: The Treatment of Roma and Romani groups by the Norwegian Police and Judiciary 1900-1960 (2016) and former editor of a genocide studies publication, “Etter Lemkin.”

Ihrig will follow with a lecture on “Learning from the Turks – Interwar Germany, the Nazis and the Quest for Violent Solutions.”

Attendants will have the opportunity to visit an exhibition at the Lepsius House on “Johannes Lepsius and the Armenian genocide.”

The final day of the conference will open with a panel on “The Origins of International Justice,” chaired by Ronald Grigor Suny, a distinguished professor with positions at several universities, among them in Michigan, Chicago and St. Petersburg, Russia. A scholar in Russian, Armenian and Caucasian history, he has conducted research in the history of nationalism and imperialism, ethnic conflicts and genocide. Among his publications are Looking Towards Ararat: Armenia in Modern History (1993), The Soviet Experiment: Russia, the USSR, and the Successor States (1998) and They Can Live in the Desert But Nowhere Else: A History of the Armenian Genocide (2015).

“The Impact of the Istanbul Experience on International Criminal Justice” is the theme treated by Gurgen Petrossian, from the Friedrich-Alexander University, Erlangen-Nuremberg. Petrossian has engaged in extensive study of law, in Yerevan, Heidelberg and Erlangen-Nuremberg. Since 2016 he has been a research assistant and lecturer there in the field of International Criminal Law. In 2019 he became chairman of the German-Armenian Lawyers’ Association.

Hülya Adak, gender director from the Sabanci University and visiting professor at the Free University of Berlin, will talk about “Andrei N. Mandelstam and the History of Human Rights between the World Wars.” In addition to gender and women’s studies, Adak has worked on European, Ottoman and Turkish literature, including drama and film.

“Violence against Women and Children in the Context of the Development of International Law” will be discussed by Edita Gzoyan, Deputy Scientific Director of the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute in Yerevan. Gzoyan is the author of numerous articles and a book, as well as country editor for the “Central and Eastern European Review.”

On August 29, Roy Knocke will chair the fourth panel dedicated to “Remembrance and Transnational Justice in the 20th and 21st Century.” Fatma Müge Göçek, professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, will examine “The Complexity of Denialism in Turkey during the Interwar Period.” Göçek, who has concentrated on the comparative analysis of politics, history, gender and collective violence, has published widely. Her book, “The Transformation of Turkey: Redefining State and Society from the Ottoman Empire to the Modern Era” appeared in 2010 and five years later, “Denial of Violence: Ottoman Past, Turkish Present and the Collective Violence against the Armenians.” At present she is engaged as co-editor of works on cultural violence and violence against the Kurds in current day Turkey.

Gerd Hankel, an expert in international law at the Hamburg Foundation for the Promotion of Science and Culture, HSFWK, will discuss “The Relationship between International Criminal Justice and Remembrance.” Hankel has dealt with the issue of German war crimes in two key cases: he collaborated on the exhibition of the Wehrmacht crimes, “Dimensions of the War of Annihilation 1941-1944,” and authored a book on “The Leipzig trials: German war crimes and their legal consequences after World War I” (2014). His work extends to study of the Rwandan genocide.

The theme of a lecture by Michael B. Elm, from the Tel Aviv University and Free University of Berlin, is “Remembering the Great War in the Middle East. Constructing Cultural Trauma in Aljazeera (English) Documentaries.” Elm has specialized in media and memory culture. He conducted his doctoral work at the Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main on the presentation of Holocaust testimonies in feature and documentary films and will publish a book on film depictions of the first World War in Europe and the Middle East.

The conference will conclude with a panel of Dr. Hosfeld, Prof. Suny and other participants. The organizers plan to circulate the proceedings in an information packet, to conduct video interviews with the speakers and to arrange for a travelling exhibition. In addition, there will be follow-up sessions in Paris, Cologne, Valence, Milan and Brussels. And reports on the single events will appear in these pages.



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