in Russian –
A report by Armen T. Marsoobian at the International conference “UN responsibility for the protection of the cultural heritage of ancient peoples from cultural genocide” on November 2-3, 2021.
Conference materials – https://aga-tribunal.info/conf-2-11-2021-en/
Armen T. Marsoobian is a Professor of Philosophy, Southern Connecticut State University, First Vice President, International Association of Genocide Scholars
I would like to thank the organizers of this important conference, the Armenian Genocide-Museum-Institute, the National Academy of Sciences RA, Yerevan State University and the Society for Armenian Studies. I regret that due to health concerns related to the Covid pandemic, I could not join you in Yerevan. My presentation will of necessity be brief given the limited time available for this session. Hopefully this will allow more time for discussion with the remaining four speakers.
Video (22 min)
What I present is not a formal paper but a series of informal reflections on genocide denialism. My work as a genocide studies scholar, human rights teacher, and moral philosopher has directly or indirectly grappled with the issue of genocide denial. As a diasporic Armenian and a child of genocide survivors, I was, at a young age, made aware of the losses our community experienced in the early decades of the twentieth century. I was also puzzled by the lack of awareness of the genocide amongst my friends, neighbors, and the public in general. It was as if this history had been erased. These brief remarks will focus on the connection between historical erasure and genocide denial. By erasure, I do not simply mean physical erasure, the extermination of individuals, that is, the biological person. By erasure I do mean the erasure of the past, of history.
Having grown out of field of Holocaust studies, the multidisciplinary field of genocide studies has long been concerned with the issue of genocide denial. Gregory Stanton in the 1980s developed the now familiar model of the Ten Stages of Genocide, with “denial” as the tenth stage. The stages are non-linear processes with denial “the final stage that lasts throughout and always follows genocide. It is among the surest indicators of further genocidal massacres.” This appears to fit nicely with our understanding of the Holocaust and aspects of the Cambodian and Bosnian genocides. We think of denial as an active campaign of denying the crime both as it is happening and after the fact of its occurrence. The Nazis perpetrated the elaborate “hoax” of the Terezín (Theresienstadt) ghetto and concentration camp as a “Jewish-administered spa” in order to create propaganda films and deceive the International Red Cross about the genocidal crimes they were committing. Similarly, the Ottoman state and subsequent Turkish Republic covered over their crimes by labeling the death marches as “relocations” resulting from military necessity. In Bosnia and Kosovo, Slobodan Milošević and his henchmen dug up their victims from mass graves and reburied them in multiple new locations in an attempt to hide evidence and facilitate denial of their crime.
Denialism, as we know, often continues long after the physical killing and violence have diminished, though the psychological violence continues in the form of both individual and collective trauma. Often the trauma is intergenerational as evidenced in Marianne Hirsch’s work on postmemory in the context of Holocaust memory. The impunity of the perpetrators is facilitated by continuing denial. Even in cases where perpetrators were brought to justice, as was the case in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, the perpetrators’ narrative of the historical events continue to dominate the collective knowledge of Serbs in the Republika Srpska, the entity created by the successful genocide of the Muslim Bosniaks from much of eastern Bosnia. Public monuments are erected to glorify the war criminals, students are taught that Serbian heroes fought against Muslim jihadists, and that Srebrenica never happened.
A parallel story can be told about Turkey. Within the first decade after the Ottoman defeat in the First War, the process of erasure began, accelerated with the founding of the Turkish Republic and the rehabilitation of nationalist perpetrators from the Committee of Union and Progress. Istanbul’s Monument of Liberty is the burial site of two of the perpetrators, Talaat Pasha and Enver Pasha, the former transferred by the Nazis as a gesture of goodwill in 1943 from Berlin where he had originally been buried. With a highly centralized educational system it has been easy for the Turkish state to erase the events of 1915 and further traumatize its surviving Armenian citizens and their descendants. Atatürk laid out the story of the founding of the Turkish Republic in his 1927 speech, the Nutuk. Deviations from the strict storyline were quickly suppressed. Under pressure from Ankara, the Nazis banned Franz Werfel’s story of Armenian resistance as portrayed in The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. This painful episode culminated with the coercion of Istanbul Armenians into staging burnings of Werfel’s book in the courtyard of the St. Pangalti Armenian Church. In the words of Ayda Erbal and Talin Suciyan, “As a last act of symbolic perversion forced upon them, [Turkish Armenians] would not only denounce the author, but also denounce the book’s content, hence denouncing themselves and denying their own history.”
In my current research, I am particularly interested in a variation of post-genocide denialism evidenced in the examples I cited from Bosnia and Turkey. This most insidious form of denialism attempts to erase the history of the victim group. This is not a denial of the crime per se but a denial of the existence of the victim group itself. By denying the existence of the group, the nature of the violence perpetrated against individual victims changes. It is important to recall that genocide is a crime against groups. If there is no group, there is no genocide. The physical acts of violence do not disappear but they can be reattributed to a lesser set of wrongdoings, or, in some cases to no wrongdoings at all. This is central to the rhetoric of denialism that attacks the legitimacy of the victim group, reverses the identity of victim and perpetrator, and claims victimhood for the perpetrator. The victim groups are turned into foreigners, aliens, settler-colonists, a force from without assisted by traitors operating within. We saw this in the radical Hutu delegitimizing rhetoric that characterized their fellow Tutsi Rwandans as alien foreign oppressors. This rhetoric was endemic to the radical CUP ideologues who labeled Ottoman Armenians as traitors, traitors whose allegiance was to their compatriots in the Russian Empire and not to the Ottoman state. Delegitimizing group identity by erasing the history of the group facilitates this reversal. What has occurred in Azerbaijan for more than three decades is a prime example of what I am talking about here. I will illustrate this with a few examples in the time I have left but first, a little more elaboration of the conceptual apparatus I am employing. This will take us back to Raphael Lemkin and the development of the concept of genocide.
As has been well established, Lemkin’s work on developing the concept of genocide finds its conceptual origins in his reflections on what we now identify as the Armenian Genocide. As early as 1933, well before the codification of genocide into international law, he emphasized the collective nature of this crime: “These are attacks carried out against an individual as a member of a collectivity. The goal of the author [perpetrator] is not only to harm an individual, but, also to cause damage to the collectivity to which the later belongs. Offenses of this type bring harm not only to human rights, but also and most especially they undermine the fundamental basis of the social order.
.” Such crimes against groups can take a further social dimension when culture is singled out for attack. Lemkin wrote: “An attack targeting a collectivity can also take the form of systematic and organized destruction of the art and cultural heritage in which the unique genius and achievement of a collectivity are revealed in fields of science, arts and literature. .” Some would like to separate this cultural destruction from the intentional act of the extermination of a peoples, by labelling it cultural genocide. I — and I believe Lemkin — would strongly disagree. Remember, genocide is a group crime. Destroying the cultural heritage of the group is the surest way to destroy the group. 
There is no need to reiterate the century long evidence of the Turkish state’s destruction of Armenian cultural heritage across the Armenian highland and Anatolia. Much of my work on its recovery through the medium of photography has focused on this cultural loss. The work of Armenian, non-Armenian, and Turkish scholars and activists has attempted to reveal, recover, and celebrate the rich heritage that has been lost — evidence the work of Housamadyan, Project SAVE, Anadolu Kültür, the Hrant Dink Foundation, and many others. The ability to engage in this work within Turkey has become much more difficult with the rise in authoritarianism under President Erdogan. Yet this work of recovery now needs to expand beyond the borders of Turkey, because these crimes are fully evident in the Caucasus. Shifting the focus to this region, I would like to cite some obvious and some less obvious examples of how Azerbaijan has been laying the groundwork for the historical erasure of the indigenous Armenians of this region.
In the more than two decades leading up to the November 2020 war in Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh), there had been an on-going and systematic campaign of erasure of Armenian cultural heritage in the regions under Azeri government control, primarily in Nakhichevan and the Armenian population centers of the republic. As has been well-documented in a variety of sources, 89 medieval churches, 5,840 intricate khachkars, and 22,000 horizontal tombstones have been completely erased from the landscape beginning well before the fall of the Soviet Union. The Armenian researcher Argam Ayvazyan, probably well known to this audience, created a rich documentary photographic archive of these treasures beginning in the late 1960s. His largely individual, yet high-risk effort, provides incontrovertible proof that such an erasure could not have been accomplished without an intentional and state-sponsored plan of destruction. Despite such documentation, including video evidence of the Azeri military destruction of the Djulfa cemetery, there was next to no response by UNESCO and Western nations. As we know and will be discussed at this conference, there is an on-going threat of similar destruction in the newly captured territories from the November 2020 war. My purpose here is not to raise the alarm. Those in this audience are well aware of the continuing catastrophic consequences of the successful Azeri-Turkish aggression. What I would like to conclude with are two illustrations of Azeri denialism, a denialism not of their crimes but of the very existence of Armenians in Artshakh and the eastern Caucasus.
The first illustration comes out of what is known as the Baku School of Historiography, the main objective of which is to propagate a history employed in secondary through university curriculum that delegitimizes the Armenian presence in the southern Caucasus, and Artsakh in particular, by portraying Armenians as late settler colonists on the ancestral Turkic lands. While holding no scholarly legitimacy outside of Azerbaijan itself, this pseudo-history is pumped out in thousands of publications not only to the Azeri public but the country’s neighbors and the West in general. Georgian-language books spreading this pseudo-history and hate speech are freely distributed to libraries in Georgia by the Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism that contain passages such as: “Armenians are newcomers to Turkey and the Caucasus and have found perfectly habitable lands. They have taken advantage of the hospitality of Turkic peoples and have decided to settle here for good. Nevertheless, they have not been able to rid themselves of their gypsy ways and have become the political puppets of powerful states.”5 Expensive-looking beautifully illustrated books are produced in English and distributed widely in print and electronic versions. In 2016, IRS Publishing House, financially supported by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of the Republic of Azerbaijan, published an illustrated online book, Karabakh Over the Centuries, where all historical references to the Armenian presence in Karabakh are erased. In a chapter titled, “Proud Albanians,” gems of Armenian medieval architecture such as the Gandazar monastery are captioned, “One of the pearls of Albanian architecture.” The only mention of Armenians is in a chapter “Unsubdued Shusha: Not to Forget or Forgive” that chronicles a one-sided narrative of Armenian “aggression” in the First Karabakh War. One can find this book on the shelves of public and university libraries such as Harvard in the United States.
The second illustration of erasure is even more insidious and is taken right from the pages of George Orwell’s 1984. This involves the wholescale sanitizing of Azeribaijani literature from before the break up of the Soviet Union. In 2001 the government slowly started the process of adopting a Latin alphabet replacing the Cyrillic one imposed on them by Joseph Stalin. Researchers such as Ararat Sekeryan have discovered that this process accelerated in 2004 under Ilham Aliyev’s government. The opportunity opened up for Azeri propagandists to expunge any favorable treatment of Armenians from the Azeri literary cannon. The Republic of Azerbaijan launched a large literary-cultural campaign to transliterate Soviet-era Azerbaijani literature from the Cyrillic alphabet into the Latin script. As Sekeryan remarks: “During this state-sponsored campaign, more than 2,000 works of fiction have been transliterated with a particular type of censorship: Armenian characters and any kind of ethnic reference to Armenia and Armenians were cleansed from the fictional world of Soviet Azerbaijan.” Armenians disappeared from the Azerbaijani imaginary. With a clean slate to work with, the government would have an easier time to indoctrinate young people with the racist stereotypes of Armenians necessary to facilitate their campaign of genocidal violence. Such stereotyping has culminated in the post-Karabakh war creation of the Military Trophy Park in Baku. Wax mannequins of Armenian soldiers are displayed at the park in a highly degrading and racist manner. Children are encouraged to play with these trophies of war. This will be their only experience with Armenians, the Armenians whose existence is denied in the literary and physical landscape of their country. Critics have rightly labeled this “Baku’s Genocide Park.” As the American journalist Lindsey Snell has aptly remarked, “If a society’s children are indoctrinated from birth, the cycle of hatred will never end.” I sincerely worry that she is correct.
 Ayda Erbal and Talin Suciyan, “One Hundred Years of Abandonment,” April 2011 Magazine, Armenian Weekly, April 29, 2011. https://armenianweekly.com/2011/04/29/erbal-and-suciyan-one-hundred-years-of-abandonment/ Accessed 10 September 2021.
5 Rahim Shaliyev,“Libraries full of hate: from Azerbaijan to Georgia,” OC Media, 30 May 2019. https://oc-media.org/features/libraries-full-of-hate-from-azerbaijan-to-georgia/ Accessed 11 September 2021.
 Ararat Sekeryan, “The Disposables: Literary Ethnic Cleansing of Armenians in Azerbaijani Literature,” unpublished Masters Thesis, Columbia University, 2019.