Blogs > Cliopatria > Sometimes forgetting seems a good idea

Apr 22, 2004 3:26 pm

Sometimes forgetting seems a good idea

There’s an article by a businessman/journalist named Kim Iskyan in Slate on Armenia, Turkey, genocide and trade. It’s interesting in its own right. But I bring it up here because it brought me back to a heretical thought that I have had more and more over the past decade.

The heresy? Sometimes history is a prison. Sometimes it really would be better to forget.

OK. I can hear it now. “Do you mean that the victims of atrocities should be forgotten? Do you mean justice should not be done?” And the answer is, no. I want the slain remembered; I want the killers brought to justice.

But after the generations have passed, after justice can no longer be delivered to those who deserved it, must memory and the hate it brings be boiled in the cauldron of every anniversary and served to old and young alike?

About the Armenians, one can say with justice some of the direct victims are still alive, and many who knew and loved the survivors still live and remember. They have rights.

But remembered hatred can last a long time. And it can be creative, a binding force. There are nationalities that are founded on loss, like the Serbs and the Battle of the Field of Blackbirds. That old battle became part of 19th and 20th century Serbian nationalism; that old pain still lives.

And how much have people paid for the memory?
And generations from now, will Armenians and their enemies (Turk or other) still be paying?

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

aydin bakir - 6/4/2004

Why Turks started to kill only armenians but not jews or christians. There were a very big amount of chiristians populations that time in Turkey.

Lets say that genocide is happened the way armenians tell.

Why they dont also tell about how they massacred kurds and turks.

I always believed to armenian thesis on the genocide. Even at some degree, I was feeling bad for what had happened to them. But all my feelings have changed latter learning more about the things happened. Since I listened to thesurvivors of Turkish genocide by Armenians in Turkey, I started to think that armenians are telling a lie to the world.
Armenians never tell how they killed women, men and children, etc. They dont tell how they trigered things trusting in russia. So when we look back, October revaluation in Russia helped Turks to gain power on Armenians.

Name Removed at Poster's Request - 4/26/2004

"And practically speaking, I think you describe is what does happen."

Only generally. I think that in such situation there can be intense politicking, much of it covert. Historians, university and academic presses, and powerful or well-healed history buffs, and politicians, can all play a part, and perhaps there's a pattern to it that's repeated between instances of past injustice. It seems like something a historian should look into. :)

"I am more and more convinced that this point should be as soon after the generation involved is gone as is possible."

I can see that, but it concerns me that Turkey was an Axis ally, it had at least a couple decades ago a large, active fascist movement (the Grey Wolves), it suppresses its Kurdish population, AND it still denies its Armenian genocide, to where, if I'm not wrong, denial of that genocide is the _respectable_ viewpoint among educated people in Turkey. So I see a country that isn't that far from pulling another genocide. That's why I think the Armenian genocide should continue to be actively taught and commemorated.

Oscar Chamberlain - 4/25/2004

I wish there was something as simple as a single authority to wish for. And practically speaking, I think you describe is what does happen.

You did raise a good point in your last post about looking to changes in the behavior of the nation involved. That must fit into an answer.

At some point, the need for justice at all costs must be outweighed by the needs of the present and the future. I am more and more convinced that this point should be as soon after the generation involved is gone as is possible.

Name Removed at Poster's Request - 4/25/2004

"But who is to say what change is enough?"

Are you hoping to look to some central authority that will drop the boom at the right time, or to a consensus of "people who matter"? I think it's up to each individual who knows about the history in question to make that decision.

Oscar Chamberlain - 4/24/2004

That's a fair argument. But who is to say what change is enough?

Name Removed at Poster's Request - 4/23/2004

There may be good times to let of a past historical injustices and atrocities. But you shouldn't do so if the perpetrator hasn't changed enough since the crime.

Jonathan Dresner - 4/22/2004

I agree. I was a member of an Arab-Jewish dialogue list many years ago, and the worst fights were over history, and those fights really marked and deepened the divide. The best discussions were about culture (food, and linguistic roots), and personal experience, which, even when it was inherently accusatory ("my family was expelled from...") was nonetheless seen as legitimate in a way in which generalized history was not.

It is hard. But I still can't see any way out but through.

Oscar Chamberlain - 4/22/2004

Actually, I think incorporating bits of middle east history into my US course has been bringing these thoughts to mind lately. But they have been with me a long time.

Of course you are right, a "proper" memory, and you describe it well, can be part of the solution. Indeed it probably has to be when an irrational nationalism and its sense of memory is part of the problem

But it seems so hard some times.

Jonathan Dresner - 4/22/2004


A student asked me almost exactly the same question yesterday, after our class on WWII atrocities (and I did mention the Armenian Genocide, too). It comes up almost every year, around this time. Would it be better if we just forgot this stuff, because memory causes trouble?

I think the answer is that wiping out historical memory is no way to make the world better. But we do have to make sure that the history is very clear about the flexible and changing and contingent nature of "nations" and "peoples" and "identity" so that the logic of vengeance is broken, at least after a time.

History is not the problem. Irrational essentialized nationalism is the problem.