Sunday, November 8, 2009

History: An Argument with an End

by Paul Doolan

Dutch historian Pieter Geyl penned the now famous line “History is indeed an argument without an end”. But in Switzerland, historical debate is over. Disagreement might mean running the risk of imprisonment.

In a court of law in Lausanne on March 9, 2008 a judge ended a historical controversy by pronouncing that the Armenian genocide in the Ottoman Empire in 1915 is “an established historical fact”. Consequently, Judge Winzap handed down sentence on Turkish politician Dogu Perincek, who in a speech in 2005 in this neutral country dared to state otherwise. Perincek received a suspended sentence in jail and a fine of 3,000 Swiss francs.

This raises the issue of the role of the judiciary in implementing state sanctioned historical truth. Few deny that hundreds of thousands of Armenians were slaughtered in the Ottoman Empire during World War One. But, as historian Caroline Finkel recently wrote “the devil is in the details, and only genuinely disinterested historical research will establish whether the deportation and death of the Armenians of Anatolia constituted a genocide or not”. With the spectre of jail in Switzerland if you come to the conclusion that it was not genocide, and jail or even assassination in Turkey if you conclude that it was, such disinterested research is unlikely to happen very soon.

The practice of history is gradually becoming something of a risky business. Increasingly Holocaust denial has become an illegal offense in European countries and the European Union has recently agreed that all 25-member states should pass legislation on this issue. At the instigation of Poland and the Baltic States the EU has promised to create a committee that will examine the necessity for also outlawing the belittling of, denial of, or justification for Stalin’s crimes. Meanwhile the French and Swiss parliaments have both made moves to ban outright any sort of denial of the Armenian Genocide. The USA has become the most recent country to recognize the slaughter of Armenians to have been genocide. Turkish authorities have reacted angrily. Indeed they have threatened the French with proposing a law of their own recognizing French colonial policies in Algeria as constituting genocide, and will imprison anyone who denies this. Turkey already uses article 301, which forbids insulting “Turkishness”, to prosecute those of its citizens brave enough to accept the accusations of genocide. These have included Nobel Prize winning novelist Orhan Pamuk and the late Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, murdered in January by a seventeen-year-old assassin. We could be facing a future when the historian, before embarking upon her lecture tour, will not only have to check for visas and vaccinations, but will also need to go over a thorough checklist of what opinions are allowed and what are disallowed. Perhaps Kazakhstan would like to declare the Irish Famine a form of genocide and ban its denial.

The majority of commentators regard the actions of the Ottoman authorities to have been a centrally planned atrocity, that is, genocide. Harvard’s Samantha Fox, refers to the Armenian tragedy as being the 20th century’s first genocide. Edinburgh’s Donald Bloxham declared the massacres to be genocide and asserted that the entire discussion around “the G word” is a waste of time. Turkish historian Taner Akcan bravely faced harassment during lecture tours and slander from Turkish nationalist fanatics on genocide denial websites, as well as accusations of insulting “Turkishness” under article 301 of Turkey’s penal code, by publishing a number of books calling for Turkey to accept responsibility for the shameful act of genocide. Journalist Robert Fisk has attacked what he sees as the cowardice of politicians, from Blair to Bush, as well as leading US universities and The Wall Street Journal, all of who are guilty of cynical collaboration with the Turkish state in denying the genocide.

So who are the non-Turkish deniers? Fisk quotes Shimon Peres, former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Israel: “It is a tragedy what the Armenians went through, but not a genocide”. American historian Justin McCarthy claims that the killings of Armenians during the World War must be understood within the context of an internal war and that is does not constitute genocide. Among British historians Norman Stone ruffled feathers a few years ago when he published letters in the Times Literary Supplement claiming that there was no genocide. More recently, he commented on the Perincek case in Switzerland and wrote of a “ridiculous and contemptible business – bad history and worse politics”.

Whenever historical truth has been established, it has been the result of unfettered research, with historians engaging in open dialogue and disputation, testing the evidence and arguing over the interpretations, without fear of persecution. With parliamentarians now calling for majority verdicts on historical issues and with judges in neutral countries handing down verdicts on historical disputes and pronouncing sentence on those who deviate from the state sanctified version of the past, such a view is under threat.

Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt, who has locked swords with the world’s most repugnant anti-Semitic Holocaust deniers, perhaps surprisingly, is against outlawing Holocaust denial, considering it to be counter-productive and wrongly implying that we do not have the facts with which to answer the deniers. Upon hearing of the Perencek case she wrote in her blog: “What if the person had been a historian who ….questioned whether it should be termed a genocide….Would that person be sentenced as well? What kind of chill does this put on academic discourse? This is a dangerous Pandora’s Box”.

Some claim to be supporters of freedom of expression, but that this freedom must be curtailed “in extreme cases”. But surely freedom of expression only has to be defended in extreme cases. When everyone is comfortably in the middle, and there are no extremes, there is nothing to be defended. It is only in the “extreme cases”, and especially when one is faced with an opinion that one finds repugnant, that one faces the challenge to support freedom of expression. John Stuart Mill summarised this nearly a century and a half ago: “If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”

Pieter Geyl closed his book on an optimistic note: “The argument goes on”. But we are living in an age when mutual assumptions of infallibility are being used to silence discussion, in mutually futile attempts to bring argument to an end.


  1. It is a vexed question, isn't it?

    I lecture in history and art history, and would never have anyone challenge my teaching material about the Nazi Holocaust. But what happens in areas where I am on shakier grounds eg Napoleon's forays across Europe or King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden's marches through Germany etc. Are the Great and the Good going to check the teaching material during lectures?

    That said, my belief in academic freedom does not include the likes of British historian David Irving, so I am as hypocritical as your Judge Winzap.

  2. Thanks for the honesty of your final remark. I do realise what a thorny issue it is but personally I would allow David Irving academic freedom, partly because this is the only way to expose the falsity of his arguments in a genuine, open way but also it prevents the creation of an absurd situation whereby he and his ilk can be portrayed as victims. I do think that having law courts decide on the punishment for publishing incorrect historical interpretations is dangerous. Thanks a million for your comment.