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Armenian Genocide: Act in view of a future and not only of a past.

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Armenian Genocide: Act in view of a future and not only of a past.

Michel Wieviorka


Michel Wieviorka

French social scientist

In this article, Michel Wievorka reviews the process of the « Armenian awakening » and its changing forms through recent times, which emerged far from Turkey then made its way within the Turkish society, in particular under the impetus of journalist Hrant Dink, assassinated in 2007. Recalling the reasons for the Turkish State to negate the Armenian genocide, the author discusses the question of land and material reparations while underlying the importance of the Armenians’ Christianity at a time when other Christian populations are threatened or brutally attacked. Finally, Wievorka reflects on the future of Armenians once recognition of the genocide by Turkey has happened. He wonders in particular whether they will be able to not just remember the past but also to “project themselves into the future as a human group”.

A hundred years ago, Armenian communities sustained mass murdering assaults which must be called by their name: genocide. Since then, descendants of survivors, who now form a numerous Diaspora across several Middle East countries as well as in Russia, the United States, France, Canada, Argentina, etc., are waiting for the Turkish State to officially recognize that crime.

The Armenian awakening that took place after a half century of near total silence first erupted as terrorist actions targeting Turks or Turkish interests, until the July 1983 blind attack by ASALA (the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia, a movement both nationalistic and Marxist-Leninist) at Paris-Orly airport caused revulsion in public opinion and the final rejection of such a mode of action among Armenian communities. 

That awakening initially happened far from Turkey, in countries with strong Armenian diasporic presence – namely the United States, Canada, and France – where governments were urged to put pressure on Ankara by diplomatic means. Then it developed in Turkey as well, under the impetus of intellectuals of Armenian descent supported by ever larger segments of the Turkish secular intelligentsia. In January 2007, the most prominent figure in the movement, journalist-writer Hrant Dink, was assassinated by a young Turkish nationalist at the door of his weekly newspaper in Istanbul. That murder elicited a fantastic wave of solidarity from democrats, lovers of truth and justice and descendants of Armenians. In that same social context, the rediscovery of the Armenian past in Turkey and, for many, of their own Armenian origins, has shaped a previously unknown cultural life and history. Although it is not officially accepted to talk of the “genocide”, the taboo has started to crumble in the Turkish civil society. 

The existence of the State of Armenia – although its interests and geopolitical stakes may not be always attuned to the expectations of the Diaspora – also played a role in encouraging the recognition of the genocide by Turkey. Then, on 12th April 2015, while jointly celebrating Easter mass with Armenian Catholics, Pope Francis called on “opposing evil”, recalling those who were “beheaded, crucified, and burnt alive for their faith”.

In other countries, societies have worked out and recognized the wrongs and responsibilities of their state in an act of genocide. Thus, West Germany truly and extensively faced up to its Nazi past and the destruction of the Jews of Europe by Hitler. But all the Turkish governments have done so far is to adamantly refuse to talk of genocide. Is it a negation of history? The successive Turkish governments do not deny the existence of mass crimes and even mention that the founder of modern Turkey himself, Mustafa Kemal, used to call them “infamous”. However, they refuse to view them as a State project of annihilation of a whole people, which is the definition of the word “genocide”. That acknowledgement would indeed question the national storytelling, reducing its highest figures to the rank of criminals and many other citizens to the quality of thieves and profiteers. They also know that such recognition could have considerable, territorial implications. An Armenian state – formerly Soviet, but now independent – now exists, which could carry such claims as well as financial one to the forefront: should not victims be compensated and indemnified, should not real estate or land be handed back? What is more, Armenians being Christians, recognizing their claim could appear as a mark of weakness on the part of a self-proclaimed Muslim state. Thus, when Pope Francis spoke of the Armenian genocide upon Easter, he not only pointed out the existence of a scarred nation, but also of a Christian nation as whole – which is a powerful statement to make in our troubled times, when Christians are under threat or the victims of terrible violence in several countries of the Muslim world.

Sooner or later, international pressures as well as domestic ones will make the posture of the Turkish government untenable, enabling the genocide to be recognized. But the paradox is that for the communities of the Armenian Diaspora, the Armenians of Turkey and those of Armenia, such recognition might not so much mark the end of an era than the opening of a new one. Once they have obtained satisfaction on such a crucial issue, will they be able to maintain a community life, a culture and an educational system true to their own identity? Will they be able to project themselves into the future as a human group? Whereas making claims as victims keeps the cohesive strength needed to lead a fight steeped in the reminiscence of historical suffering, it does not necessarily allow for the deployment of dynamics of cultural creativity. And sometimes it even tends to block their development, by locking those who try to implement this creativity within mechanisms of “melancholy” – to put it in Freudian terms. Is being Armenian today, or tomorrow, only being one who survived the genocide, or his descendant? Isn’t it limiting the identity of today to the destruction of yesterday?

By bringing his support to the current struggle for the recognition of the Armenian genocide, Pope Francis did not just act at diplomatic level. Through this specific intervention and involvement, he offered the beginning of an answer to the above question: Armenians may also define themselves through faith, through religious beliefs, which could give direction to their existence. Will it be enough to prevent new generations of Armenians from experiencing melancholic confinement and allow them to operate some form of mourning – that is to act in relation to a conceivable future while not forgetting the past? Other dynamizing alternatives exist, such as mobilizing energies in the Diaspora to help the Armenian state, whose economy is wobbly, and still others implying to reflect on the democratic role that self-defined Armenians living in Turkey could play. It was actually one of Hrant Dink’s strong ideas as respects the right of minorities and the democratisation of Turkey in general, and not just in relation to the Armenian minority. In any case, this crucial issue will not fail to arise as soon as the genocide has been officially recognized by Turkey.

Armenian genocide : recognition and reparations


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