A Matter For Historians

Whether the massacres of up to 1.5 million Armenians in eastern Anatolia in 1915 constitute “genocide,” as a nonbinding House resolution declares, is a matter for historians. ~The Wall Street Journal

I have said before how tired I am of this sort of dodge. The purpose of these evasions is simply to declare the past irrelevant and history the province of academics. As these people see it, it should neither inform public policy or public discourse nor be treated seriously. In a way this is worse than distorting or misusing the past as the active denialists do: this declares the past off limits for use or understanding in the present. Except, of course, when these very same people want to invoke the “lessons of history” c. 1975 or 1938 to justify their latest foreign boondoggle. In those cases, History must be acknowledged and followed, and we must march in the direction shown by History.

If I were to say, “whether the killing fields in Cambodia constituted genocide is a matter for historians,” I would be rightly excoriated as a moral cretin and an ignoramus. The same treatment ought to be meted out to those who make these equivocal, “who can really say?” kinds of arguments, but this view flourishes. It flourishes partly, as we all know, because there are many people, most of whom couldn’t have cared less about offending allies, including the Turks, five years ago, who now see the Turkish alliance as so important that it cannot be endangered by anything so “trivial” as historical truth. I suspect, but I cannot definitely prove, that another element is a weird, unseemly desire to keep the Nazis in the public imagination as the fons et origo of genocidal killing (which would also have to conveniently ignore the genocide of the Ukrainians) to sustain the mythology surrounding the entire WWII period.

When most historians affirm that an event was genocide, i.e., state-organised and planned attempted extermination of a people or group, the “matter” has been settled on that point at least. We are supposed to believe that the Armenian genocide is somehow more in doubt or the answers are less knowable than they were in Cambodia. This isn’t because most of the almighty historians remain in doubt, but because there are non-historians who are willing to wink at the genocide denial of a relative few scholars and invest these few deniers with an authority they would not grant were the subject a widely recognised and well-known genocide. Once there is a general consensus among historians, does that not remove the “matter” from the realm of controversy? Is it not then incumbent on decent citizens and their representatives to acknowledge the reality that the historians are describing?

Cross-posted at Cliopatria