The Armenian village of Kassab, amid the apple orchards of northern Syria, boasts three churches. Each serves a branch of the Christianity practised there, Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant. The Protestant church, understandably, is the least ornate, lacking the Catholics’ rococo angels and the gold-leaf icons of the Orthodox. When I visited in 1986, I was struck by a simple painting that I wrote about at the time.
It showed Jesus Christ, the good shepherd, holding in his arms the body of a slain boy, the boy’s head and arms dangling like Christ’s own in Michelangelo’s Pietà. Behind him were the mountains of Armenia, and at his feet were a mound of skulls and bones with the date “1915” written on them.
An inscription in Armenian proclaimed: “So much blood. Let our grandchildren forgive you.”
The grandchildren of the Armenian survivors of the First World War massacres came of age years ago, and they have yet to forgive the Turks. Turkey’s leaders have not made it easier for them by their refusal to acknowledge the Ottoman Empire’s attempt to exterminate its Armenian subjects. To me, as to anyone else who has listened to the stories of old people who were children in 1915, Turkey’s attempted “genocide” of the Armenians is an undeniable historical fact. The sooner Turkey grows up and admits it, the sooner those grandchildren can forgive.
The French parliament has weighed in, not merely to support the view that the Armenians suffered genocide, but to punish with prison and fines anyone who says otherwise. In 1990, it enacted a similar prohibition against denying another historic genocide, that by the Nazis of Europe’s Jews in the Second World War. The question is: can any country legislate history? Doesn’t history along with other arts and sciences require free inquiry, free research, free discussion and the right to hold the wrong opinion?
Unfortunately, the French and Turkish governments have chosen to set themselves up as history’s arbiters. France initiated its involvement in Ottoman historiography in 1991, when parliament declared Turkey’s wartime policy genocide. Making denial a crime this year puts the French police, already busy tearing off women’s burqas, a further step on the road to enforcing one view of history. When President Nicolas Sarkozy signs the bill into law, anyone who states that there was no Armenian genocide will be subject to a year in prison and a €45,000 (Dh 217,000) fine.
Turkey, despite its protests to Paris, has behaved with equal determination to impose its historical beliefs by prosecuting writers for daring to state that genocide took place. In France, you can go to prison for stating one thing and in Turkey for maintaining the opposite.
While Turkey is attempting to conceal its past and absolve national heroes of murderous crimes, French politicians have been acting even more cynically. The Paris daily Libération commented that passage of the law by the French Chamber of Deputies and Senate was “not entirely free of ulterior political motives, considering that there is a 500,000-strong French-Armenian community in France”. The bill was sponsored by a member of the lower chamber in President Nicolas Sarkozy’s party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire, who represents Marseille and its large Armenian population. This is an election year that is expected to be close for both the presidency and the parliament, and even minority votes count. Nonetheless, enthusiasm for the measure in the Senate was so lukewarm that its Laws Commission rejected it and 212 out of 348 Senators did not vote at all.
France is paying for the measure in terms of its relationship with Turkey and the loss of its citizens’ freedom of expression. Apparently, the traditional liberté, fraternité et égalité excludes the liberty to espouse a view with which the state disagrees. When some future French president needs the Arab vote, will he make it a crime to deny the Nakhba under which three-quarters of the Palestinian population were expelled and their property seized by Israel from 1947 to 1949? When he or she seeks the African vote, will historians be banned from suggesting that Africans themselves participated in the slave trade? (Actually, that is already the law in France.) If there were a substantial Chinese vote in France, would the law criminalise denying the rape of Nanking?
Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyep Erdogan, recently stated that France herself is not untainted by the genocide charge. “In Algeria, an estimated 15 per cent of the population had been subjected to the massacre of French from 1945 on. This is genocide.” An estimated two million Algerians died during the struggle for independence, about a half million more than the number of Armenians who died at Ottoman hands.
France’s action makes it harder for any Turkish politician to address his country’s history. All Turks are aware that France during World War I played a decisive role in subverting the loyalties of Ottoman subjects, particularly Christians. Are modern Turks more or less likely to make a serious investigation of their country’s past when France claims to have decided the issue for them? In recent years, intellectuals such as Orhan Pamuk have found space in which to bring up what was a taboo subject – the Ottomans’ murder and dispossession of one and a half million Armenians. That space will narrow considerably if the government, media and public identify such intellectual discussion with interference by foreign powers.
Less than a century has passed since 1920, when French, British and Greek troops marched through the streets of Istanbul in a futile attempt to dictate terms to Turkey. Anyone who stands up to France today can claim the mantle of Ataturk, who finally expelled the European invaders and prevented Turkey from being colonised as its former empire was.
The former Oxford historian Norman Stone, who moved from England to Turkey, wrote: “The fact is that there is no proof of ‘genocide’, in the sense that no document ever appeared indicating that the Armenians were to be exterminated.”
If he wrote that in France today, he could find himself in prison. It is better, though, not to grant him martyr’s status and let other historians deal with him. His statement that “no document ever appeared” perches on the same moral and historical plane as David Irving’s assertion that no document ever linked the extermination of Europe’s Jews to Adolf Hitler. Irving served time in an Austrian prison for Holocaust denial, but his real penance is to have been disowned by credible historians who have examined the corpus of documents relating to the Nazi Final Solution, heard the testimony of witnesses and examined the sites where the murders took place.
Investigation and argument, not laws, make history.
The great British historian Eric Hobsbawn wrote: “It is time to re-establish the coalition of those who believe in history as a rational inquiry into the course of human transformations, against those who distort history for political purposes – and more generally, against relativists and postmodernists who deny this possibility.”
Is it possible to establish a coalition of historians, when their opponents are subject to imprisonment and fines for disagreeing? Must historians seek refuge from governments that endorse their views, like medieval scholars obtaining patronage from pope or emperor depending on whose claim to supremacy they supported? If that day returns, will they be historians or courtiers?