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Prof. Taner Akcam: We Have to Create Institutions that Carry the Legacy of Vahakn Dadrian

On Sunday Sept. 15, 2019 The Organization of Istanbul Armenians held a 40th day Requiem service dedicated to Prof. Vahakn Dadrian. During the event, Prof. Taner Akcam, a protege and colleague of Prof. Dadrian, and the first recipient of the “OIA Vahakn N. Dadrian Genocide Scholarship Award” delivered the following talk. 

Allow me to begin my speech by expressing gratitude toward the Istanbul Armenians Association for creating such a beautiful award to honor the memory of Professor Vahakn Dadrian and to keep his legacy alive. Needless to say, it is a great honor for me to be first recipient of this award, not only for its symbolism, but its profound meaning for me personally. If I am here, standing before you today and receiving this award, it is because of one person and one person alone: Vahakn Dadrian…

Were it not for Dadrian I would most likely neither have studied the Armenian genocide nor have come to the United States. But this isn’t the half of it…

I spoke previously about Professor Dadrian at an event held in his honor at the Ararat Eskijian Museum, and at the risk of repeating some of the same things, I would like to speak tonight about how and when I got to know Dadrian and to emphasize just how much support he gave me over the years and I will end my talk with some observations on the state of the art of the Armenian Genocide Research and what lays ahead in its possible future.

We start off in the year 1990, the year that Dadrian and I first became acquainted. I had decided to work on the Armenian genocide, but the institute at which I was then working declined my request to do so on the grounds that they simply didn’t know enough about the topic to judge its relevance. Nevertheless, they made the following offer: they would suspend their final decision for now, and if I could put together a workshop and invite some experts on the subject, then, on the basis of the debates and discussions that transpired there they would make a final decision.

But who were these “experts” and where could I find them? I contacted Prof. Petra Kapert, from Hamburg University. She handed me two articles by Vahakn Dadrian and urged me to read them. I remember one of titles was “The Naim-Andonian Documents on the World War I Destruction of the Ottoman Armenians.” At that time, I couldn’t speak English and was not able to read the articles but in scanning them, I saw many Turkish sources cited. “This guy knows Turkish,” I thought. “I should find out where he is and write him a letter.”

So, although I then nurtured relatively little hope that something substantial would come of it—possibly not even a response—I nevertheless sat down and penned a letter explaining my ideas and intended research. To my surprise I received a letter in Turkish that began with the following sentence: “Bu benim 40 yýl sonraki ilk korrespondantýmdýr.” This is my first correspondence in Turkish since I left Turkey 40 years ago.

This letter would represent the beginning of both our friendship and “working relationship”—or, if you will, our master-apprentice relationship. He came to Hamburg, and owing to his passionate engagement, my project was approved, Dadrian serving as its advisor. In those days, I would already use the word “genocide”, but, like most Turks, I was nevertheless under a certain amount psychological pressure from the Turkish government’s denialist policies. I was not entirely sure of myself and I wanted answers for the hundreds of questions that plagued me in order to ensure that I didn’t write or say anything incorrect.

And Dadrian was there, patiently answering every one of my questions and sending me photocopies of the sources on which these answers were based. But there were so many questions that at one point, his patience nearly exhausted, he wrote a brief note on one of the faxes saying, “Hopefully, the questions have come to an end.”

Dadrian did not hesitate to send me special documents that even he had not yet had a chance to analyze. For those of you who are not scholars such a gesture might not seem like much, but we scholars are a jealous and insecure bunch. We don’t want to share any information before we’ve had the chance to use it ourselves. I felt indebted to Professor Dadrian, and I would share with him the evidence I found in return. We both shared a sense of mission, one that had no place for jealousy or selfishness. Our greater cause was that of humanity, not academic status; what at stake was not our careers, but the basic human dignity of the victims.

Dadrian was not only the founder of the field of Armenian Genocide research, he was also one of the founding intellects of the field of comparative genocide studies. There were many qualities that Dadrian had that set him apart from most other scholars and which allowed him to pioneer these fields of research. His expertise was not limited to history or sociology but also extended to international law. Another distinctive characteristic of Dadrian was his elegant and precise command of five languages: German, French, English, Ottoman and modern Turkish…and “a few words” of his mother tongue, Armenian.

He was indeed a great scholar, but his heart always beat for his own people. I cannot recount how many times he told me that he frequently could not sleep at nights. In his dreams he would see the heads of children, bashed against the rocks, their bodies dismembered, and he would be awakened by their screams. In his work, Vahakn Dadrian possessed the rare combination of an objective, analytical eye of a scholar with a neverending search for justice for those who had perished and for their descendents. I believe that it was this guiding principle that produced his greatness, both as a scholar and as a human being.

When Michael Hagopian made his first, highly acclaimed documentary on the Armenian Genocide in 1975, he called it “The Forgotten Genocide”. Since then decades have passed and hundreds of publications in a variety of languages have been printed on the subject. It can now be said that the Armenian genocide has taken its rightfully important place within the field of genocide studies; it is a “forgotten genocide” no more. And for this, we have the pioneering researchers of this field to thank, Vahakn Dadrian first and foremost among them.

The academics of that era weren’t just combating a large and powerful state Turkey that had mobilizes all of its resources in a campaign against them. They were engaged in an enormous battle against the silence and indifference of the academic world at that time. Even in the United States, most historians of the late Ottoman period have avoided the forced deportations, expulsions, massacres, and genocide that took place during the demise of the Empire. These events have been “non-existent” in their works. What is more, the broaching of this subject has generally been dismissed as a disturbing expression of narrow-minded ethnocentrism by members of the targeted ethnic groups. Not so long ago, it was common practice to shun anyone who tried to broach the topic at the annual meetings of the Middle East Studies Association, the umbrella organization for scholars in this field. It was as if ignoring mass deportations and annihilation were an academic virtue and noble act.

Since Armenian genocide scholars of the early period were pre-occupied with gaining acceptance on two different fronts, the main focus of their studies was the question “What really happened?” and their aim was to show that “it was genocide.” This is why one can observe and feel all through their works a deep well of anxiety and tension in trying to prove something.

I liken them to the first Armenians who struggled against the gigantic armored men of the despotic Babylonian King Bel, who, according to Armenian mythology, demanded that they see him as a god and give him unquestioning obedience. And Dadrian was their Hayk, the mythical founder of the Armenian kingdom under the shadow of Mt. Ararat who in this story shot the arrow that pierced Bel’s armor.

Just as Hayk and his followers succeeded in somehow establishing the Armenian kingdom, the early scholars of the genocide under Dadrian’s leadership succeeded in somehow reminding the world of the Armenian genocide and establishing it as a legitimate subject for study. In subsequent years the Armenian genocide has taken its rightful place within the field of genocide studies.

Naturally, we cannot have expected either Dadrian or the other pioneers of this field to answer all the questions concerning the genocide. The immense pressure under which they operated simply in order to “prove what happened” has led to two significant academic weaknesses in this field. The first was the neglect—even conscious avoidance—by many scholars of the Armenian sources in their works, no doubt in an effort to avoid accusations of being swayed by “biased sources”. Even those that did use select Armenian sources tended to approach them with an excess of caution. Dadrian told me dozens of times that “If I were to use the Armenian sources, they would tell me: ‘All Armenians and their sources are biased towards Turks and since you are also one, what you write based on Armenian sources has no academic credibility’. I am therefore obliged to prove the truth of the genocide by means of the perpetrators’ own sources.”

Second, the first researchers—and Dadrian chief among them—worked as hard as they could to liken the events in the Ottoman Empire to the Nazi Holocaust—the “gold standard of genocides”, if you will—so as to give their claims greater credibility. At the time, the Holocaust occupied–and still occupies–a central place in genocide research and became the yardstick in the entire genocide field against which an event might or might not measure up as a genocide. It was as a sine qua non. At the time, everyone researching instances of mass violence other than the Holocaust spent enormous amounts of energy trying to prove that the event they were studying shared similarities with the Holocaust, so as to strengthen their case.

Especially given the Turkish Republic’s denialist stance, the question of whether or not the 1948 definition of genocide could appropriately be applied to the events of 1915 became the lodestone for all debate. The fear that the events of 1915 would not be considered genocide if they did not sufficiently resemble those of the Holocaust tended to hinder efforts at serious analysis and a conscious and concerted effort was made to ignore all the differences that naturally would arise between Armenian genocide and Holocaust. To give just one example, even though the forced religious conversion and assimilation of Armenian boys and girls, was one of the structural components of the Armenian genocide, this element had, until recently, never been the focus of any serious effort at scholarly research.

Today, we can happily say that we have moved on from the fledgling period of genocide research. Academics working in our field today have branched out and grown more confident, in line with the way genocide research has developed in general. The emerging young scholars have produced series of valuable works through the extensive usage of Armenian language materials. Once overlooked or avoided, the oral and written testimonies of survivors—one of the most important sources for genocide research—are now studied intensively and comprehensively. And the new generation of scholars has shown the confidence to abandon the impulse to try and liken the Armenian genocide to the Holocaust. Of course, comparison is still one of the best tools we have to understand the mass atrocities, but today’s scholars can compare and contrast the Armenian genocide with all other mass atrocities, and no longer feel the need to constantly be saying “See? Just like in the Holocaust?”

My purpose here is not to summarize in a few minutes Dadrian’s and other early genocide scholars’ merit and contributions and the lacuna that remain for us. During his acceptance speech upon receiving the Adorno Prize in 1977, the Jewish-German sociologist Norbert Elias stated that he bears a torch lit well before he arrived, and that there will be others coming after him to carry it into the future. Dadrian, was not only the principal bearer of the torch during his time, he was one of those who first lit it. And the task which falls to us today, is to pick up the torch and to carry it as far and wide as we are able before one day passing it on to the next generation.

We must ask ourselves: Are we up for this task? I cannot say with any assurance. I would like to paint you a positive picture of the current state of Armenian genocide research, but I am unable to do so. It is true that in recent years significant new publications have appeared and that at American universities and in the field of genocide research in general the Armenian genocide has now been accepted as an established fact. It is also true that my recent publication, Killing Orders proving the authenticiy of the cables from Ottoman Interior Minister Talat Pasha ordering the annihilation of the Armenians—something that successive Turkish Governments have claimed to be Armenian forgeries—has been a serious blow to the denialist policies. Over the decades Turkish governments and its allies have loudly boasted that there were simply no Ottoman governmental documents showing an intentional program of genocide.

And just last month I published an article featuring some new Ottoman archival documents that show without a doubt that the first genocidal decisions, albeit of a local character, were taken already at the beginning of December, 1914. In many aspects, this early decision resembles the initial extermination of Jewish males at the hands of Nazi Einsatzgruppen in the summer of 1941.

Even so, we must be honestly acknowledge just how extensive the denialist “machine” that confronts us is. Facing this “immense industry” (as Professor Dadrian once called it) is the field of Armenian genocide research, one which is largely dependent upon the efforts of a handful of individuals. And it has only been through the self-sacrifice and dogged devotion of these individuals that any work in this field is being produced at all.

It is a harsh truth, but one that needs to be spoken: the future of such an immense field of potential research is almost wholly dependent upon the efforts of a few individuals. Each one of these individuals is thus a bright star in an otherwise black night. But they are not eternal, and each time their light is extinguished, they leave another hole in the vast expanse of ignorance, one that is not certain to be filled. One thing should be very clear for all of us: you cannot defeat a large, well-funded industry through individual efforts alone. A number of disparate individuals cannot prevail against an entire state-sponsored industry of denial machinary.

At this point, I would like to share with you one of my principal concerns. I was struck by just how faint the reaction was in the Armenian Diaspora to the news of Vahakn Dadrian’s passing. Indeed, had the Ararat Eskijian Museum not shown initiative—and here I would like to thank Maggie and the other directors—it is possible that not a single memorial for him would have been held. Moreover, there were only around 60 attendees at this event—and even more disconcerting, I am not aware of any other gathering being held in his honor. This is unusual, to say the least.

Those who peer into the Armenian diaspora from the outside tend to harbor the belief that the struggle to have the Armenian genocide recognized is the highest concern for its members. Even to point that they receive criticism for “being obsessed with the genocide to the detriment of everything else.” Now, consider the stark contrast between this widespread belief and the paucity of reaction to the death of one of its leading scholars. Doesn’t this strike you as strange?

Dear Friends, if we are sincere and serious in our struggle for recognition of the Armenian genocide, in our demands that the Turkish government finally acknowledge the Armenian Genocide, we should keep one thing in mind: you cannot win this political war leaving it only to certain individuals. In the end, all of these individual, they might be like big schining stars, they will pass away and their light eventually fades with them. Dadrian was one of those stars of the Armenian people, but since there was no academic institution to house him; to refract his light, it is in danger of fading to the point of being extinguished. And the concern—or lack thereof—to his passing would seem to serve as a warning sign…. I sincerely hope that I am mistaken.

Dear Friends, the field of Armenian genocide research simply must be “institutionalized”. Here is the bitter pill: there is not a single Armenian Genocide research center in all of North America. If we compare this with the Holocaust research, for which there are around 250 such centers, it is a grim picture indeed. I know my Armenian friends often complain about the dominance of the Holocaust in the field of genocide research. Even though they know that the reason for this state of affairs is the investment that Jewish people have made in genocide research and education, my Armenian friends and colleagues continue to bemoan the vast disparity instead of doing something about it. I admit, I find this situation puzzling and more than a little frustrating.

Dear Friends, individual stars shine and then fade … what is essential here in this fight for truth and justice is the institutionalization.

Merely invoking the abstract notions of justice and truth in support our cause would have little effect, since our adversaries lay claim to the same language. Indeed, the practice is one of the principal characteristics of “denialism”. They develop their own “alternative” facts and truth… In such as situation, the claim that you are a claimant to truth and justice simply becomes an echo of your opponent’s claim—and vice-versa. After all, no one declares his or herself to be an advocate of injustice. Denialism can thus only be effectively fought if there is an institution with the vision, organizational ability and funding to engage in a protracted struggle to advance its viewpoint, and to regularly and systematically produce knowledge.

The institutionalization of Armenian Genocide Research is an essential and critical next step if there are serious concerns among Armenians for the recognition of Armenian Genocide. Without first winning the fight for knowledge you cannot win the political struggle. Knowledge is power. If the recognition of the genocide is still an important issue for the Armenians, the war will first have to be fought—and won—in the area of knowledge and information; for failing to gain control over knowledge makes it well nigh impossible to achieve a political victory.

I am well aware of the fact that Denialism cannot be defeated through the efforts of academic scholarship alone; denialism must be defeated politically. It is only in the area of politic the battle will be determined. Even so, if you don’t armed with knowledge you cannot carry the fight on political arena. Knowledge is the most important ammunition of the political fight. And we currently lack the institutions that can more readily supply such ammunition. No enduring political victories can be won so long as we fail to recognize the Power of Knowledge and, having recognized its power, laying the foundations for its “institutionalization”. We must honestly face up to this reality. Merely repeating that one is on the side of justice, of history, doesn’t help much…

Again: individual stars shine and then fade … what is essential is the institutionalization. If we wish to honor Vahakn Dadrian, to truly keep his memory alive, if we want his light continue to brighten our path; it is our task—yours and mine— to “institutionalize” the field of Armenian genocide research. We have to create institutions that carry the legacy of Dadrian. Only in this way will we be able to successfully facilitate and preserve research on the Armenian genocide. This was what Dadrian all about…

I call upon all of us here today to this crucially important task. Let us devote our time, our energy, and our money to the creation of a long-overdue Armenian Genocide Research Center. This is the most appropriate way to honor his memory. I thank you for honoring me with this award. May I prove myself worthy of it and of Vahakn Dadrian’s legacy.

https://massispost.com/2019/09/prof-taner-akcam-we-have-to-create-institutions-that-carry-the-legacy-of-vahakn-dadrian/

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