Turkey won’t say genocide, but U documentary does

University film covers controversial Armenian genocide and garners Emmy nomination

Don M. Burrows

Armenian Genocide: 90 Years Later,” takes on one of the biggest geopolitical controversies of the 20th century, even in its title: Was the massacre of Armenians in 1915 an act of genocide?

The Republic of Turkey, the successor state of the Ottoman Empire that carried out the killings, denies it was genocide, and has even banned discussion in that vein.

The documentary, co-produced by the University’s Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, uses interviews with historians and family members of survivors to continue the discussion many avoid.

What is known is this: As many as 1.5 million Armenians were killed from 1915 to 1917 in an apparent depopulation strategy by the Young Turk government. Much like Jews were singled out in Nazi Germany, Armenians – an ethnic and religious minority of artisans and skilled laborers in Turkish society – were removed from their homes and killed. The Turkish government, however, claims the killings were part of ethnic clashes and denies that so many were slain.

The most compelling part of the film is the testimony of those whose families survived the killings. Many remember their parents telling of the horrors of leaving their homes and hiding from Turkish officials, and recount how a remembrance of the events of 1915 is now embedded in Armenian identity.

The documentary features two University history professors, Eric Weitz and Taner Akcam. Akcam is a Turkish historian who was jailed in the 1970s for broaching human rights. It first aired in April and has since been nominated for an Upper Midwest Regional Emmy award in the News Special category.

The timing couldn’t be better.

Just last weekend, a Turkish court canceled the academic conference that was to occur at Bogazici University regarding this topic. The action sparked a wave of protest from European leaders and Turkish officials wary of bad press amid their bid for entrance into the European Union. A previous conference was likewise banned in May amid comments from the Turkish minister of justice, who called it treasonous.

Stephen Feinstein, director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, said more than 200 copies of the film have been distributed to organizations and schools since its airing.

Feinstein said that although the current Turkish government is different than the one that committed the slayings in 1915, it has been defiant in recognizing it as genocide. This is despite a consensus among genocide scholars and similar recognitions by state governments worldwide, including the state of Minnesota. He attributes this to fears of demanded reparations and damage to the Turkish Republic’s grand narrative and national pride.

His main concern, and that of scholars worldwide, is that Turkey, a supposedly free democracy, is suppressing academic discussion.

“In a democracy, you should be free to talk about the past,” Feinstein said.

Weitz agreed, and said that while there are many Turks who accept that genocide occurred, there are also those ideologues who fit their denial of the genocide into their concurrent distaste for Turkey’s entrance into the EU.

“When they challenge the ability of scholars to discuss these issues, they are provoking the EU deliberately,” he said.

Feinstein said many documents from Turkey’s own archives prove that a systematic killing took place, but are written in the Arabic script that

was replaced by the Latin alphabet after World War I. Consequently, many Turkish government officials can’t even read them.

As stated in the documentary, German records are perhaps the best source of information on the massacres, given Germany’s alliance with Turkey during World War I.

It was the Nazis’ knowledge of the Armenians that contributed in part to their own policy of extermination, scholars argue.

And those involved in the now Emmy-nominated film hope it will educate the public so as to contradict Hitler’s famous quote in defense of his genocidal plans: “Who remembers the Armenians?”