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From the From the President column of the September 2005 Perspectives

Contested Histories

James J. Sheehan, September 2005

One of the days in Mike Leigh's film, Four Days in July, is July 12, when Protestants in Northern Ireland march to celebrate King William's victory over the Catholics in the late 17th century. Set in the mid-1980s, the film follows two families, one Catholic, one Protestant, as they make their way through a landscape blighted by the troubled relations between their two communities. Although nothing dramatic happens to any of the characters, the atmosphere is heavy with anxiety, aggression, and the potential for violence. The final scene takes place in the ward of a maternity hospital where two women, one from each family, rest side-by-side after having given birth. One asks the other what she is going to call her son. "William" is the answer, and as soon as the name is spoken we know that the sympathetic connection that had been building between the two new mothers has been severed. Packed into the name "William" are three centuries of Irish history, with its competing visions of victory and defeat, liberation and oppression, domination and resistance. Against the corrosive power of this divided memory, the common bond of motherhood doesn't have a chance.

Irish history (the "nightmare" from which Joyce's Stephen Dedalus was trying to awake) is a classic example of a contested past. Similar contests can be found between Serbs and Croatians, Palestinians and Israelis, Hindus and Muslims. Many of these contests have to do with the founding of a nation; all of them set individual events into a national narrative with which each side sustains its historic identity and defines its political program. Contested pasts sometimes repeat themselves; more often they are reenacted, as happens every July in the streets of Derry and the Bogside.

The fate of the Ottoman Empire's Armenian minority is one of the most active contemporary examples of a politically charged contest over the past. Everyone agrees that in 1915, when the empire was engaged in a desperate struggle for its survival during the First World War, a large number of Armenians perished and many others were removed from the towns and villages in which they lived for centuries. At issue is why and how the Armenian population of eastern Anatolia disappeared. One side claims that the Armenians died or were displaced in what amounted to a civil war, in which they were active participants rather than passive victims. Allied with the Russian invaders, they betrayed their country and its army, and killed tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of their Turkish neighbors. The other side regards what happened in 1915 as the result of orders given by the government in Constantinople to cleanse Anatolia of its Christian population—Nestorians, Assyrians, and Greeks, as well as Armenians—by killing the men and driving the women and children into the desert. This was not civil war but genocide, the intentional destruction of a particular culture and community, a foreshadowing of what would happen to Europe's Jews a quarter of a century later.

For the Turks, the events of 1915 are part of a heroic story of nation building carried out against deadly enemies at home and abroad. For Armenians, they are the culmination of years of persecution, the destruction of ancient communities, which live on in the memory of the survivors and their descendants.

Although there are scholars on both sides, I think it is fair to say that the overwhelming majority of researchers outside of Turkey support some version of the Armenian narrative—even if some are uncertain about the term genocide. The scholarly discourse, however, is deeply affected by the involvement of the Turkish government, which has vigorously and consistently denied that a genocide—or indeed any government-directed massacres—took place. (The official position can be found on the web site of the Turkish Embassy: http://www.turkishembassy.org/governmentpolitics/issuesarmenian.htm.) As a result of government pressures, discussion of the issue within Turkey is difficult and perhaps dangerous; access to relevant archival sources has been limited to those with "reliable" views. In response, Armenians and their supporters have lobbied parliamentary bodies throughout the world to pass resolutions affirming or commemorating the genocide. Up until now, 17 assemblies have voted to recognize the genocide, and in three countries (Uruguay, Argentina, and France) recognition has the force of law. Obviously, Turkey's application to join the European Union has increased the political salience of these issues, including the demand that an official acknowledgment of the genocide be a condition for Turkish membership in the Union.

Those who hoped that in Turkey the Armenian question would become the subject of scholarly discourse rather than of political proclamations were encouraged by the announcement that a conference on "Ottoman Armenians in the Period of the Empire's Collapse," sponsored by three Turkish universities, was to be held in Istanbul on May 25–27, 2005. An interdisciplinary meeting of Turkish scholars, this was to be the first open and critical discussion of the Armenian question to be held in Turkey. The proposed conference was vigorously attacked by a number of Turkish politicians, including the Minister of Justice, who labeled it "treason" and a "dagger in the back of the Turkish nation." The rector of Bosphorus University, which was to have been the site of the conference, fearing for the security of the participants, decided to postpone the conference indefinitely. A number of distinguished Turkish scholars as well as several important public figures have come to the conference organizers' defense.

In the light of these events, the AHA Council instructed me to write a letter to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, expressing the Association's regret that political interference had prevented the conference from taking place and our hope that he would support free and open discussion of the Armenian question. (A copy of the letter is reprinted at left) As an organization, the AHA does not take a position on particular historical issues, but it does have a clear and unambiguous commitment to unrestricted access to historical sources and to providing uninhibited opportunity for scholarly debate. Nowhere are these principles more important than in the study of contested pasts.

"The future," Milan Kundera once wrote, "is an apathetic void of no interest to anyone. The past is full of life, eager to irritate us, provoke and insult us, tempt us to destroy or repaint it." Our task as historians is to understand the past's provocative power and to resist the efforts of those who would destroy or repaint it.

—James Sheehan (Stanford Univ.) is the president of the AHA.