From the Letters to the Editor column of the December 2005 Perspectives

James Sheehan Responds

James Sheehan, December 2005

I am grateful to Jesse Lemisch for the opportunity to clarify the point I tried to make in my letter to Prime Minister Erdogan. Let me add that I am now speaking only for myself, not for the Council or the AHA.

In December 1991, the Council approved the following statement: "The American Historical Association Council strongly deplores the publicly reported attempts to deny the fact of the Holocaust. No serious historian questions that the Holocaust took place." The second sentence is, of course, a simple statement of fact: there is agreement among all serious scholars about the basic facts of the Holocaust, even if there are debates about details and interpretations. This consensus did not happen because organizations like the AHA "deplored" the views of those who denied the Holocaust, but because free and open research produced an extraordinarily rich and convincing body of scholarship.

The AHA does not have a position on the Armenian genocide. Should it have one? I don’t think so—even though I am personally convinced that what happened to the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian minority in 1915 was indeed a genocide. As a scholarly organization, our efforts should not be directed at issuing proclamations about what happened in the past. Such proclamations, I suspect, rarely change anyone’s mind. We should concentrate our attention on trying to end restrictions on research and discussion in the present. This was why the AHA protested the political pressures that forced the cancellation of the scholarly conference scheduled to be held in Istanbul last May.

As many readers of Perspectives are aware, that conference, on "Ottoman Armenians during the Demise of the Empire: Issues of Democracy and Scientific Responsibility," took place on September 24 and 25, 2005, at Bilgi University in Istanbul. The success of the conference was a testimony to the courage of its organizers and a victory for academic freedom and scholarly integrity. These values, on which our common labors as historians must ultimately depend, remain the best antidotes to irresponsible scholarship and repressive politics.

—James Sheehan, Stanford University, and 2005 president of the American Historical Association