'Leave It to the Historians': Scholars from the Diaspora Reflect on the Commission

Historians in the News

The protocols signed by the Turkish and Armenian foreign ministers in Zurich on Oct. 10 contain a clause that states the two sides agree to “implement a dialogue on the historical dimension with the aim to restore mutual confidence between the two nations, including an impartial and scientific examination of the historical records and archives to define existing problems and formulate recommendations.”

In the past few years, the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS) has issued several statements against the historical commission proposal. Most recently, the letter from the organization’s president William Schabas to Armenian President Serge Sarkisian and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated that “acknowledgment of the Armenian Genocide must be the starting point of any ‘impartial historical commission,’ not one of its possible conclusions.”

In turn, Roger Smith, the chairman of the Academic Board of Directors of the Zoryan Institute, sent an open letter to Sarkisian that considered the commission “offensive to all genocide scholars, but particularly non-Armenian scholars, who feel their work is now being truly politicized.”

Several academics in Armenia have also expressed their views on the sub-commission through comments and interviews to local media outlets, with very few coming out in support of it.

In this document, compiled and edited by Armenian Weekly editor Khatchig Mouradian, Diasporan Armenian scholars who are among the most prominent in the field of modern Armenian history and social sciences share their views. These scholars closely follow developments in Armenian Genocide scholarship, and some are prominent in producing that scholarship. They, more than any politician, millionaire businessman, or showbiz personality, would know the problems associated with the “impartial and scientific examination” of the already established facts of the Armenian Genocide. This document gives the microphone to them.


Hovannisian: Recognition, then commission

Prof. Richard Hovannisian, the chair of modern Armenian history at UCLA, wrote:

International commissions have significant value in easing historical tensions and promoting mutual understanding. Such commissions, presently at work in Central Europe and elsewhere, have registered noteworthy progress. But these commissions are based on acknowledgement of particular human tragedies and injustices. They could not function if one of the parties was a denialist state, intent on obfuscating the truth and deceiving not only the world community but also its own people. The record is too long and too well tested for there to be any doubt about the intent of the denialist state in advocating such a commission. It is a snare to be avoided and rejected. The proper order must be recognition of the crime and only then the formation of commissions to seek the means to gain relief from the suffocating historical burden.

Balakian: Integrity of scholarship is at stake

Peter Balakian, a professor of the humanities at Colgate University and author of The Burning Tigris, wrote:

A “historical commission” on the Armenian Genocide must proceed from the unequivocal truth of the historical record on the Armenian Genocide. The historical record shows conclusively that genocide was committed by the Ottoman Turkish government in 1915. This is the consensus of the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS) and is the assessment of the legal scholar, Raphael Lemkin, who invented the concept of genocide as a crime in international law, and who coined the word genocide in large part on the basis of what happened to the Armenians in 1915.

Because Turkey has criminalized the study and even mention of the Armenian Genocide over the past nine decades, it should be impossible for Turkey to be part of a process that assesses whether or not Turkey committed genocide against the Armenians in 1915.

If there is a need for an educational commission on the Armenian Genocide in order to help Turkey understand its history, such a commission should be made up of a broad range of scholars from different countries, but not denialist academics or a denialist state.

The international community would not sanction a commission to study the Holocaust that included denialist scholars, of which there are many, nor would it invite a head of state like Mr. Ahmadinejad and his government to be part of such a commission. The integrity of scholarship and the ethics of historical memory are at stake...

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