Ara Sarafian

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A historian specializing in the late Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey. He was a founding director of the Gomidas Institute, and has edited and written critical introductions to several of the institute’s publications. Now director of the Taderon Press, he is developing the Sterndale Classics imprint.

Sarafian’s wide network of European and Middle Eastern contacts helps Armenian Forum bridge the gap between Armenian scholars on both sides of the Atlantic as well as the Middle East.

Letter to the Editor

The Times Higher Education Supplement May 25 2001

Letter & Opinion Page 15

Turkey's ambassador in London (Letters, THES, May 11) is perhaps unaware of my report ( wherein I narrate the systematic manner in which Turkish archival authorities impeded my work. Incidentally, those records made available to me corroborate western accounts of the Armenian genocide.

Ara Sarafian
Gomidas Institute, Princeton, US

The Armenian Genocide and Turkey

distributed by Gomidas Institute

(The French translation of original interview below appeared in Sept. 2008 edition of Nouvelles d'Armenie)

Q: On April 24th 2008 you went to Istanbul to participate in a conference on the genocide of Armenians. Was this the first time you participated in this kind of meeting in Turkey with Turkish historians?

A: The April 24th meeting was a commemorative event organized by the Istanbul branch of the Turkish Human Rights’ association. This was not the first time I have worked with the Turkish Human Rights Association.

Q: The Turkish speakers who participated in this meeting organized by the Human Rights Association in Turkey were, it seem, honest researchers. But that still was not the case. What is the utility of participating in meetings alongside notorious deniers such as Justin McCarthy.

A: There were no deniers on the panel. All were outspoken proponents for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide, the democratization of Turkey, and upholding the human rights of all social groups in Turkey. None of the speakers shirked from talking about the Armenian Genocide in explicit terms. The speakers included Eren Keskin and Ragip Zarakoglu, who have over a dozen court cases against them because of their opinions.

Q: Do you believe that it is worth speaking with deniers?

A: As a historian I have to look at what deniers say and sometimes I have to address what they say as part of my work. Denialist historiography has currency in Turkey and it has some impact in the English speaking world. So I do not ignore it as a matter of course. For example, I worked on Ottoman archives regarding the Armenian issue in the 1990s. I found that these archives did not support the Turkish thesis on the Genocide, but supported the consensus that the events of 1915 constituted genocide.

I published my findings in Armenian Forum, and my findings have been used by others. Now Taner Akçam has even produced a book on the same materials. Last year I challenged Turkish historians (deniers) to undertake a case study on the Harput plain, where they would produce details of deportations from the Harput plain and state where the deportees were resettled according to the Ottoman deportation decrees and regulations (cited by Turkish historians at face value). Yusuf Halacoglu, having accepted to undertake the case study, stated that the records in question did not exist. Dr. Halacoglu never explained why the records did not exist, though people can draw their own conclusions: his disclosure had an immediate impact in Turkey as people asked why such Ottoman records did not exist (or remain inaccessible) if the deportations were supposed to be an orderly event.

Similarly, when Turkish historians and parliamentarians denied the integrity of the 1916 British parliamentary blue book, I decided to respond to their position with a critical edition of the blue book, where the denial of the Armenian Genocide was the main focus. I decided to engage them on this occasion because of the prominence of the deniers (practically the whole Turkish political establishment) and because all of the relevant materials on the blue book were in western archives and could not be manipulated.

So, the answer to your question is that I do engage deniers of the Armenian Genocide as part of my work.

Q: What about Turkish research on the issue of the genocide? Is there any evolution about it, a change on the approach and the conclusions? What are today the various kinds of Turkish historians?

A: Turkey today is a more open society and there is a lot more critical interest in the events if 1915. Some historians there are also doing worthwhile, even groundbreaking, work related to the Genocide. At the same time, there is more pressure on professional deniers to make a better case for the Turkish nationalist position. While the starting point of professional deniers is the same, some argue the same nationalist themes in a more slick manner, while others try to make the Turkish position stronger by making some concessions (eg. “During the deportations of 1915 there were some massacres but it was not genocide.”) Such concessions are forced, but they are significant.

Q: What about the Armenian position on the Genocide?

A: I personally think that there is a need to always appraise and reappraise the so-called “Armenian position.” The current Armenian position is somewhat reactionary and shaped by the denial issue, with a fixation to "prove" the genocide over and over again. Lobbyists have made the situation much more rigid. However, as historians and intellectuals we have to maintain a critical perspective and keep asking the hard questions, many of which have been elided. Our conviction as academics has to be based on research and open debate and not the manipulation or restriction of research agendas. For example, we have to explain why over 100,000 Armenians were sent to western Syria and not massacred; why there were no more major massacres in Der Zor after 1916; why were some people not killed in exile, such as Aram Andonian or Yervant Odian? Is it possible that the CUP was not as powerful and omnipresent as sometimes thought? Is it possible that there was more opposition to the CUP than previously thought or admitted? Is it possible that even Jemal Pasha did not share the anti-Armenian zeal of Talaat Pasha or Behaeddin Shakir?

Q: Do you feel an evolution amongst Turkish people regarding the Armenian Genocide?

A: Yes, it is possible to talk about the Armenian issue in Turkey today, and there is a lot more sympathy for Armenians. Even if the word "genocide" is not used, there is a recognition that Armenians were cleansed from their ancestral homelands in Turkey today. I would even say that deniers, that is those people who only castigate Armenians, are a minority in Turkey. That is why much of the denialist efforts today are geared towards Turkish audiences, and that is why Armenians would do well in addressing Turkish audiences in a more sympathetic manner—unless their only objective is to hurt Turks, which I find is the case in some quarters.

Q: Are the Turkish archives open to all researchers including Armenian?

A: Turkish archives are open and present interesting records. However, they are compromised and need to be evaluated in an appropriate professional manner. Where there are difficulties, they need to be addressed, also in an appropriate manner.

I worked in such archives in the 1990s, I had some difficulties in gaining access to the catalogued materials, then I was banned for several years, and I was recently told that I was readmitted and should not have any problems.

Some of the rules to gain access need to be changed, such as restrictions of the number of documents one can examine. Sometimes these documents only contain a few lines and should be given out in batches rather than sheets (eg in the case of telegrams). However, such problems can be solved over time. Right now the main restrictions to the use of Ottoman records are appropriate training and funding. After the early 1990s I was practically bankrupted and could not continue with my work in Turkey. I hope future historians will not face the same problems.

Q: Do you feel that these archives were falsified?

A: I have no evidence that the records in these archives were falsified, and I have not heard anyone else make the same claim. However, the available records are not complete and we need to investigate why this is the case. [Perhaps an example would be the deportation and resettlement records Yusuf Halaçoglu stated did not exist around Harput and elsewhere].

Q: Are there still any documents in these archives which attest the existence of the Armenian Genocide?

A: In my opinion, the answer is yes, especially in conjunction with other records.

The Ottoman records show that the central authorities, and Talaat Pasha personally, had complete control over the deportation process. They issued orders and supervised the implementation of these orders on a daily basis through the telegraph. The state had both custody and control over the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. However, the available Ottoman records do not account for what ultimately happened to these deported people.

That is why the voices of survivors, as well as western archives, are so important.

Q: Turkish officials, based on these archives, deny the genocide and defend the thesis of the deportation, without criminal intention. Erdogan had stated, that the Ottoman officials in 1915 gave money to the Armenian people during the deportation. What can we think about it?

A: It is up to us to argue well against deniers. For example, if Prime Minister Erdogan has mentioned that Armenian deportees were given pocket money in 1915, we could tell him that such state support was rarely given to deportees and often Armenian recipients were subsequently killed. A concrete example to make such a case would be the fate of the 24 April 1915 deportees from Constantinople. We know from Armenian sources that they were given a sum by the authorities and most of these deportees were subsequently killed. So, Erdogan's statement can be used as an occasion to engage him in a critical manner, to set the agenda, perhaps by pointing out that Turkish official historians have never stated what happened to the April 24th deportees. Why not? If they are not able to account for the fate of these people, or to substantiate the charges against them, then what can we say about the Turkish nationalist thesis and its sources? To stress once again, it is up to us to engage the issues that arise in a meaningful manner.

Q: Are Armenian archives open to all researchers, including the Turks?

A: I can not answer that question in a definitive manner, though I know that some "Armenian archives" in the diaspora are not open to researchers for a variety of reasons. The most important ones are the Jerusalem Patriarchate archives. I have tried to access them twice and turned away. The other archives are the Zoryan Institute archives, composed of the private papers of Armenian survivors, whose families deposited their records with the Zoryan Institute in the 1980s. A far as I know, these materials are still not catalogued and accessible to scholars. I understand that the ARF archives in Boston have been catalogued up to 1925, while the AGBU Nubarian Library archives in Paris have been open for at least a decade.

Q: Do we still have anything to prove on the reality of the Armenian Genocide?

A: The fact of the Armenian Genocide is a given. There are no more Armenians left to speak of in modern Turkey, where most Armenians lived before WWI. They were forced out with much bloodletting and never allowed to return. Their properties were confiscated by the Ottoman state in 1915, and the record of Armenians in Turkey was erased over the past 90 years.

However, historically there is still a lot we can learn about the events of 1915, and there is a lot more that can be said about the Armenian Genocide conceptually, in terms of the contemporary context of the diaspora, Armenia, Turkey and even further afield.

Q: What kind of department of research the Armenians should concentrate their studies to stop denial effectively?

A: As a historian, I would still stress the importance to study the Armenian Genocide in all of its details and complexities, the way Jews have studied the Holocaust. It is important that Armenian themselves are in a position to represent themselves.

However, the denial of the Armenian Genocide is a political exercise, rooted in an authoritarian Turkish state. The democratization of Turkey today is thus an essential element in countering the denial of the Armenian Genocide, by allowing both Turks and Armenians to examine the past in a critical manner. Most Turks will probably be open to a critical examination of the past, including the fact and the denial of the Armenian Genocide over the past decades.

But I should say that there is an ethical dimension to resolving the issue. My fear is that we might be entering into a new phase of treating the Genocide as an ideological instrument—whether it is to render the recognition of the Genocide a meaningless gesture, or to seek to dispossess Turkish peasants from their lands in eastern Turkey.

Q: What do you think about the Erdogan proposition to create a mixed Turkish Armenian historian commission regarding the events of 1915? And what is your reaction, after Sarkissian's recent answer, which is strongly different from Kotcharian's position?

A: My understanding is that Kotcharyan's position was that we already know what happened in 1915, and such issues should be discussed in a broader manner, with open borders and diplomatic relations between Turkey and Armenia.

Sarkissyan has said much the same thing, but he seems to have accepted in principle that a mixed commission from Turkey and Armenia could look at the events of 1915.

I think both Kotcharyan's and Sarkissyan's answers have merit (and pitfalls ahead of them). The current Sarkissyan position is a higher risk strategy that could open new doors and yield dividends. However, Sarkissyan should have a more explicit offer of what would constitute a meaningful mixed commission in terms of approach, scope, access, material resources and work schedule. Perhaps Sarkissyan should ask for specific materials to be produced, such as Ottoman deportation and resettlement records, or the indictment records for the 1919 trials. If the offer is a reasonable one, Erdogan may have to accept it, and let Turkish nationalists fight their own corner.