Lewis letter to the Princeton Alumni Magazine
In your issue of April 17, a number of distinguished writers joined the hue and cry against Professor Heath Lowry and now extend it to other historians of the Ottoman Empire. Since I am one of those named, I write to clarify the passage in their letter which concerns me personally.
According to the writers of the letter, I "was found guilty in a French court last August under a French 'hate speech' law for denying the Armenian genocide . . . ."
The facts are as follows: In all, four suits were brought against me in Paris, all arising from an interview in Le Monde on November 16, 1993, and a brief (and abridged) subsequent clarification. Among other matters, the interviewers questioned me concerning the Armenian massacres of 1915. Knowing the hazards of any critical comment on these events, I was not happy discussing them in the narrow framework of a newspaper interview. But the question was fairly put and, having agreed to the interview, I did not feel that, as a professional historian, I could decently refuse to answer a question in my own field of specialization. In this, as in most other discussions of the subject, the question was not whether the massacres took place-this is universally accepted-but whether they took place in accordance with a previous decision and predetermined plan of the Ottoman government. Like many other historians of the Ottoman Empire, I expressed doubt about this and observed that there was no serious proof of such a decision. The attempt to deal with such doubts by litigation and vilification has not allayed them.
These actions were brought by several organizations whose spokesmen found my opinions, or to be precise, my doubts, objectionable and therefore went to court to demand their suppression and punishment. One of the four cases, presumably that referred to by the signatories of the letter, was a criminal action brought under what they call the "hate speech" law making it an offense to deny that there was any Holocaust. The other three were civil actions brought under clauses of the French civil code making it a tort in certain circumstances to cause distress to an individual or group. The verdict in the criminal case was given on November 18, 1994; the verdicts in the three civil cases on March 1, June 21, and July 12, 1995. In two of the civil actions, the plaintiffs were represented by Maître Tremolet de Villers, a lawyer well known for his interest in some legal problems arising from the Holocaust. The criminal action and two of the three civil actions were dismissed by the courts. In the remaining civil action, the court ruled that while it was "in no way established" that I had "pursued a purpose alien" to my "mission as a historian," I was at fault in not having cited, in the course of the interview, "elements contrary to my thesis" and had thus "revived the pain of the Armenian community." For this I was ordered to pay one franc in damages to each of the two plaintiff parties as well as a contribution to their costs. In the other civil actions, the plaintiffs were ordered to make contributions to the defendants' cost.
I hope I may be forgiven for adding one other detail, since it throws some light on the character of the debate. While these proceedings were in progress, I was elected a Correspondent of the Institut de France.
The assumptions that your correspondents and some others have been persuaded to accept are (1) that the Armenian massacres of 1915 and the near extermination of the Jews in Nazi�ruled Europe between 1940 and 1945 are essentially events of the same type, and (2) that any critical discussion of any aspect of the first is equal to the neo�Nazi denial of the second. Anyone with even a minimal acquaintance with the historical evidence and the scholarly debate will know that both equations are, to say the very least, far-fetched.
I have written elsewhere about the Armenian massacres and their historical context. This is not the place to discuss the various interpretations of these events and the varying quality of the evidence adduced in their support. Your readers might, however, ask themselves whether someone who cannot get the facts right about lawsuits in Paris last year can be trusted on the decisions of the Ottoman government in Istanbul 81 years ago.
Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies, Emeritus