BERLIN — On January 29, historians, human rights activists and students gathered in Berlin and via Zoom internationally for a lively debate on denial, an aspect of genocide studies that has become increasingly prominent in political developments. Organized by the Working Group for Recognition: Against Genocide, for Understanding among Peoples (AGA), the conference dealt with both the Holocaust and the Genocide against the Armenians and other Christian minorities in the Ottoman Empire.
Tessa Hofmann, AGA chairwoman, opened the conference with introductory considerations on what genocide and denial actually mean. “Genocide,” she stated, “occurs when a victim group, defined as such collectively, is robbed of its right to life. This can be reversed if this crime is explicitly condemned as such. In the event the crime is denied, on the contrary, the repudiation of the right to life is continued. Suffering and guilt will thereby be continued. Denial of genocide causes continuing pain for the victims and for their descendants, since it not only denies the crime committed against them, but also accuses the victims and their descendants of deliberate lying or slander.”
She made the point that guilt for genocide is not collective, but personal and individual; subsequent generations of Turks do not bear guilt, but they do have the responsibility to deal with their history, acknowledge the genocide, lest it become a part of national history. According to genocide researcher Gregory Stanton’s 2013 ten-phase model, she said, denial constitutes the last phase. The case in question here is the most stubborn, since it has been incorporated into Turkey’s national history, its law and state doctrine.
The zoom conference examined the issue through the examples of the two genocides committed during the two world wars in the last century, which served as empirical examples for Raphael Lemkin to develop his definition of genocide.
Hofmann explained the need for addressing the issue scientifically, pointing to growing anti-Semitism in Germany, even though the country recognized the genocide against 6 million European Jews, assumed responsibility and worked through its past. According to a recent poll by the World Jewish Congress, one out of three young Germans and one of five adults harbor anti-Semitic views.
Hofmann described various forms of denial, from disputing facts like the deportations, to accepting those facts, but denying there was political intentionality behind them; or dismissing attacks by Kurds, for example, as “collateral damage.” A further tactic is to claim that historians haven’t treated the matter adequately and no conclusions can be drawn; or, to twist facts, claiming that in 1915/1916 civil war conditions prevailed and that attempts by Christian victims at self-defense were illegal uprisings. Minimizing facts and figures is another approach, whereby in the Ottoman case, deniers ignore deaths of deportees during the marches and reckon only those killed in massacres. Or, perversely, the victim/perpetrator roles are reversed; here Hofmann cited the way Ottoman Greeks before the war were designated as “tumors to be excised.”