Erasing Memory, Erasing People: Armenian Genocide Remembrance and Denial at Harvard
Updated: Jul 13, 2021
By Professor Alexandros K. Kyrou
Salem State University
Last March, I attended a public event to commemorate the Armenian Genocide, titled “Armenia 1915–Auschwitz 1945: Small Nations and Great Powers.” The program was sponsored and organized by the Harvard Kennedy School European Club and the Harvard College Armenian Students Association, along with the Mashtots Chair of Armenian Studies at Harvard University and the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research. Given this prestigious background, I was unprepared to encounter a genocide denial protest there.
The event’s panel included three leading Armenologists. Simon Payaslian of Boston University began by discussing the interrelationship between the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust. Marc A. Mamigonian of the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research then analyzed how the Turkish state and its academic, public policy, and media advocates in the United States worked in service of genocide denial. Harvard University’s James R. Russell concluded the program with an existential reflection on the Armenian Genocide through an invocation of Armenian history, language, and poetry, and the way his own life is connected to genocide through the destruction of much of his family in the Holocaust.
Russell offered a beautiful, sacred prayer, in Armenian and Hebrew, in remembrance of the victims of genocide. It cast a powerful silence over the gathering. I noticed many people quietly drying their eyes. But I also could not help noticing several young men and women who sat, rigid and unmoved, seemingly indifferent to the prayer for the dead, for the murdered, as the rest of the audience stood in reverence. Moments later I would realize that this peculiar show of indifference was the disrespectful prelude to an outburst of genocide denial.
The audience, which had filled the 175-seat auditorium to standing room only, was invited to ask questions. What followed was disturbing. An obviously well-planned and coordinated genocide denial protest erupted. Ten or more Turkish and Azeri students and activists, strategically scattered throughout the auditorium, simultaneously held up posters they had been hiding. These displayed such slogans as “History Cannot Be Distorted” and “Remember Khojaly Massacre"—statements attacking the Armenian Genocide as a historical distortion, claiming that Turks, not Armenians, were the victims of genocide during the First World War, and ridiculing the Armenian loss of life. This obviously choreographed effort to disrupt the event was punctuated by Turkish students and activists from beyond the university taking the microphone not to ask questions of the panelists but to make inflammatory and derogatory statements about the history of the Armenian Genocide and, by extension, the Armenians as a people. Several more protesters, without benefit of the microphone, shouted their disappointment that the "Turkish point of view” was not represented on the panel and that the event did not involve an open debate on the veracity of the Armenian Genocide.
Immediately, other audience members made appeals to reason, the historical record, and human decency—responses centered on academic integrity, respect for procedure, and liberal ideals—asking for an end to the disruption of the event and for the memorial and discussion to be allowed to proceed without interruption. Armenian Americans from several generations related personal stories of loss of family in the genocide. The panelists themselves spoke of the unconscionable actions of the protesters. As to the disruptive students’ complaint regarding the absence of the “Turkish point of view” from the discussion, Russell responded with a comparative rhetorical question: “Can you imagine a commemoration of the Nazi Holocaust and a bunch of German students would get up and say, ‘The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, how disgraceful, Germans were killed, we need both sides to be represented.’ I’m sorry we don’t have the SS represented here.”
Deeply troubled, I requested the microphone. I informed the protesters that many scholars would consider their organized denial of the Armenian Genocide and deliberate disruption of the commemoration an act of genocide in itself. To the audience, I explained that many scholars and legal experts of genocide have posited that organized, systematic genocide denial is, in fact, the final stage of genocide—its goal being the total annihilation of a people by erasing their history and the sheer memory of their existence. Therefore, what we were witnessing was an act of genocide.
(L-R): Simon Payaslian, Marc A. Mamigonian, and James R. Russell during the “Armenia 1915-Auschwitz 1945: Small Nations and Great Powers” panel with Turkish and Azeri students and activists holding signs with provocative slogans.
After a momentary pause, the Turkish protesters returned to their mantra of “free speech and open debate,” sidestepping the inconvenient fact that full freedom of speech and open debate on the Armenian Genocide as a genocide remains illegal in Turkey. Despite the formal trappings of an open society, Turkey has an abysmal human rights record, including notorious restrictions on speech and media freedoms. Ironically, genocide-denying Turkish students have more free speech liberties in the United States than in their native country, where publicly acknowledging the genocide can lead to imprisonment under article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, the infamous law against “insulting Turkishness.” Worse, ultranationalists have killed citizens of Turkey for openly discussing or writing about the genocide. Notwithstanding these proscriptions, it should be noted that today in Turkey there is more openness about the genocide, related prosecutions have declined, and some courageous artists, intellectuals, and journalists have begun to refer to the genocide as such. Yet the risk of state prosecution and vigilante violence persists.
Of course, the reality is that the protesters were not motivated by a commitment to free speech. To the contrary, the objective of the disruptive students was to prevent others from exercising their right to engage in freedom of speech. As Payaslian told the Turkish students, they had every right to organize their own events to freely discuss the genocide, but they had no right to disrupt memorial events and attempt to prevent others from speaking freely. The protesters’ actions were a striking example of one of the standard tactics (invoking “free speech” to promote denial) that the Turkish genocide-denial campaign has used increasingly since the 1980s to target the American academy. In short, the masquerade of “free speech” perpetuates denial by replacing irrefutable historical facts with debate about the veracity of those facts.
The actions of individuals who conspire and organize with others to deliberately cast doubt on the reality of the Armenian Genocide should be understood for what they truly represent: a continuation of the genocide they seek to erase from history and memory. There are no legal prohibitions against engaging in propaganda and historical distortion in this country, but there must be consequences for such actions. For example, if a group of students disrupts a university-sponsored Holocaust or Rwandan Genocide commemoration with demands for “free speech and open debate” along with genocide denial rants, anti-Semitic posters, and race baiting, those students should face consequences within their universities for their actions, even if “free speech and open debate” are hallmarks of the university. Such a standard of accountability and consequences should be applied consistently to all students who would deny and thus perpetuate genocide, including the Armenian Genocide.
In the case of students who engage in organized genocide-denial efforts, administrations should make it absolutely clear that while they support free speech, the commitment to free speech must be accompanied by a commitment to respect for procedure and organized events. Universities should reiterate that supporting free speech does not endorse a policy of genocide denial. Conversely, by ignoring and not applying any consequences to such actions, universities are emboldening apologists of genocide. The centennial of the Armenian Genocide affords an opportunity for university administrations to develop such policies where none currently exist for dealing with this issue.
To be clear, I am not making an argument for silencing genocide deniers, however morally reprehensible, politically insidious, or intellectually dishonest they may be. What I am arguing is that genocide deniers, such as those students at Harvard’s Kennedy School, by their very acts of denial in the face of overwhelming and incontrovertible empirical evidence of genocide, continue to perpetrate that crime against humanity with their efforts to deny and silence scholarly research and pubic remembrance. I am also arguing that universities have a responsibility to avoid becoming the unwitting accomplices of genocide deniers, whether by caving in to their demands and pressures to cancel or prevent events such as the one detailed in this article, or by failing to make clear to disrupters who would seek to silence others that there are consequences for their failures to play by the rules of free speech and norms of respect that are the hallmarks of “the university.”
“Erasing Memory, Erasing People: Armenian Genocide Remembrance and Denial at Harvard” was written by Alexandros K. Kyrou for the November 2015 issue of Perspectives on History.