On the dangers of forgetting
By Bernard-Henri Levy
I write this in remembrance of the renowned Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, murdered two years ago, on Jan. 19, 2007, for his comments on the slaughter of up to 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman forces during WWI … in horror that the police officers guarding the 17-year-old murder suspect, Ogun Samast, saw fit to take a video in which he proudly held the Turkish flag as they recorded their brief association with him for posterity … in solidarity with the brave group of 200 Turkish writers and intellectuals who recently signed an online petition apologizing for the massacre, risking their freedom to keep pressure on the Turkish government.
Outrages like Dink's murder will continue. They will continue as long as Turkey, fearing the loss of prestige and alarmed by the possibility that it will be obliged to pay reparations to survivors and their descendants, continues to deny that the Armenian genocide took place. This struggle will continue as long as there are no laws in place penalizing genocide denial — and these laws are needed not only in Turkey, but around the world.
Critics may say, “It is not for the law to write history.” That is absurd. History has been written a hundred times over. The facts have been established, and new laws will protect them from being altered.
In 1929, the British statesman and author Winston Churchill wrote that the Armenians were victims of genocide, an organized enterprise of systematic annihilation. The Turks themselves have admitted it. In 1918, in the aftermath of WWI, Mustafa Kemal — soon to be granted the honorific “Ataturk” — recognized the massacres perpetrated by the Young Turk government.
The laws already in place in many countries regarding Holocaust denial do not touch historians — for them the question of whether the slaughter of the Jews was or was not genocide is no longer at issue. What is at stake is preventing the erasure of such crimes from our society's memory.
Take France's Gayssot law, which criminalized the denial of crimes against humanity, and which as yet has been applied only to denial of the Jewish Holocaust. This is a law that reins in the fringe and extremist politicians who engage in lightly cloaked anti-Semitism and who may be tempted to advocate Holocaust denial. This is a law that prevents masquerades like that of historian David Irving's trial in London in 2000.
Irving brought a libel case against Deborah Lipstadt, author of “Denying the Holocaust,” who had labeled him a spokesman for Holocaust deniers. Though the judge ruled in notably strong language that Irving was indeed a Holocaust denier, in the absence of laws penalizing this offense, Irving walked free. Meanwhile, the tabloid journalists and talking heads muddied the issues and ultimately drew more attention to Irving's work, which may well have been his intention all along.
Critics will say, “Where will the law stop?” since technically we could also extend this law to include the denial of the crimes that took place during the colonial era, the publication of the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, even the sin of blasphemy. Must we forbid the expression of opinions that do not mirror our own? This is a trap, for two reasons.
First, the law would be focused specifically on genocide, a large-scale criminal enterprise in which, as Hannah Arendt said, someone gets to decide who has the right and who does not to inhabit this earth. Second, the deniers don't just have conflicting or nonconformist opinions. They categorically deny that this horrific crime took place at all.
The logic and pattern of the crime of genocide was clarified and refined over the 20th century, with the massacre of Armenians as a seminal event. Hitler was impressed, nay, inspired by the scope of the Armenian genocide. In August 1939, days before he invaded Poland, he said to his generals, “Who still talks nowadays about the extermination of the Armenians?”
It was a genocidal test firing. It was the basis for the Allies' use of the phrase “crimes against humanity” in their May 24, 1915 statement regarding the massacre of Armenians “with the connivance and help of the Ottoman authorities.” It was a reference for the Polish jurist Raphael Lemkin — who coined the term “genocide” and is responsible for developing our understanding of this crime — when he was incorporating the definition of “genocide” into the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
I have spent some time perusing the Armenian genocide deniers' literature, which is remarkably similar to the literature on the destruction of the Jews. The same arguments minimizing the number of deaths (“sure, there were some, but not as many as they say”) and the same reversing of roles — just as Holocaust deniers render the Jews responsible for the war and their own martyrdom, their Turkish counterparts claim the Armenians betrayed the Ottomans by allying with the Russians, thus sealing their own fate.
Some may ask, “Can't the truth defend itself?” No, I am afraid not. Consider that in 1942, Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, ordered the formation of Sonderkommando 1005, whose mission it was to dig up the dead, to burn their bodies and dispose of the ashes. In one of his memoirs of the camps, Primo Levi recalled that the SS militiamen enjoyed admonishing their prisoners that when the war was over, there would not be a single Jew left to testify and if by chance one did survive, they would do whatever was necessary to make sure his testimony would not be believed.
A similar logic drives those who proclaim to Armenians, “No, your brothers and sisters are not dead. Your parents, grandparents and great-great-grandparents are not dead, as you're so foolishly claiming.” Such statements betray the absolute, insane hatred they harbor, against which factual evidence and debate are useless and the truth is impotent.
Laws prohibiting Holocaust denial are expressions of the fact that genocide, a perfect crime, leaves no traces. In fact, the obliteration of those traces is genocide's final phase. Holocaust deniers are not merely expressing an opinion; they are perpetrating a crime.
Bernard-Henri Levy's new book, Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against The New Barbarism, was published in September by Random House. This article was translated from the French by Sara Sugihara.
Source: “The New Republic”, 13 January 2009