I was asked to develop a freshman seminar a few years ago. These courses are designed to achieve two main purposes: first, to introduce incoming students to college-level reading and writing expectations, and second, help them hone their critical and analytical abilities. The most appropriate way of meeting these goals (at least the way we at the History Department here see it) is focusing on an important historical topic, narrow enough so that students can learn about it in some detail, and see how scholars can discuss and interpret the same issue in different ways, and also broad enough that comparisons can be drawn and some level of generalization can be made based on other issues, events, or topics the students are already familiar with. The growing scholarly and popular literature on the deportations and mass murder of Ottoman Armenians during WWI, as well as the ongoing political controversy surrounding these events made me think that “The History and Politics of the Armenian Genocide” might make for an ideal freshman seminar topic. Based on my experience, I can say that I was right, and I emphatically recommend that other teachers consider taking on this subject at least as part of any courses they might be teaching not only on WWI in the Middle East, but on more general subjects such as ethnic conflict, ethnic cleansing, comparative genocides and political violence—even if they cannot devote an entire quarter or semester to such a course. It certainly is not an easy subject topic to teach (and try to avoid dark and cold winter days, if at all possible), but the response of students is redeeming.
Obviously, one needs to consider several elements before embarking on a discussion of such a politically charged topic with undergraduates. This is especially relevant if one has “heritage students” in class, many of whom may assume that they already “know” the history and feel upset when confronted with different versions of it than ones they have grown up with. It is important to ensure that the classroom is a friendly and open environment, and communicate to them that they are free to speak their minds as long as they respect each other. This is not to say, of course, that I recommend an “anything goes” kind of laxity or a ridiculous “impartiality” at the expense of reason on the part of the instructor. This is why it is so important to start with texts that clearly lay out the impasses that have plagued the scholarship on the issue so far. I assign a shot reaction paper based on the readings right from the first week, and invariably receive essays filled with the terms “Turkish historians” and “Armenian historians,” and of course, “Turks” and “Armenians” as in reporting a national soccer game. This is a tenacious habit that is difficult to uproot, but most, if not all of them eventually learn to qualify national markers by the end of the quarter.
I conclude the course with the conclusion of WWI just to place a limit on the material to be covered but explain to the students that the “politics” of the Armenian Genocide does not end there—quite the contrary. I encourage them to research topics such as the development of Turkey’s official policy of denial and the use of violent methods to raise international awareness on the issue such as the terrorist tactics of ASALA in the 1970s and 80s.
I have had problems finding reading material in English about the Armenian community of Turkey, which is not quite surprising considering the level of scrutiny and persecution they suffered in the Republican period, not to mention the inconvenience they pose for official narratives of both Armenian and Turkish nationalism. As a remedy, I have used Fethiye Çetin’s memoir, My Grandmother, about her discovery of her family’s Armenian roots, and the 2011 documentary Voyage to Amasia, by Randy Bell and Eric Hachikian, about the journey Hachikian, an Armenian-American musician takes to Turkey in search of his grandmother’s hometown. The author’s and director’s personal stories of self discovery strike a chord with the students, and I think this is in no small measure due to their comprehension how the lives of ordinary people are devastated as issues that we primarily think of and conceptualize as “geopolitical” wreak havoc in their human consequences.
I have organized the following reading list (and visual material) in thematic sections and in the order we followed in class. I hope it will help other who may want to teach a similar course or include a session on the Armenian Genocide.
An Introduction to Key Terms and Historiography
Ronald Grigor Suny, “Truth in Telling: Reconciling Realities in the Genocide of the Ottoman Armenians,” American Historical Review, v. 114, no. 4 (2009), pp. 930-946.
Fatma Müge Göçek, “Reconstructing the Turkish Historiography on the Armenian Massacres and Deaths of 1915,” in Richard G. Hovannisian, ed., Confronting the Armenian Genocide: Looking Backward, Moving Forward, New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers, 2003, pp. 209-230.
Background: Political Reforms and Communal Dynamics in the Nineteenth-Century Ottoman Empire
Masayaki Ueno, “For the Fatherland and the State”: Armenians Negotiate the Tanzimat Reforms,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, v. 45 (2013), pp. 93-109.
Hagop Barsoumian, “The Dual Role of the Armenian Amira Class within the Ottoman Government and the Armenian Millet (1750-1850) in Benjamin Braude and Bernard Lewis, eds., Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire, New York: Holmes and Meier, 1982, pp. 171-184.
Selim Deringil, Conversion and Apostasy in the Late Ottoman Empire, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012, pp. 197-239. (“Conversion as Survival: Mass Conversions of Armenians in Anatolia, 1895-1897”)
Reform and Resistance: Armenian Political Organizations
Gerard J. Libaridian, Modern Armenia: People, Nation, State, New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers, 2004, pp. 51-84.
Edward J. Erickson, Ottomans and Armenians, a Study in Counterinsurgency, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, pp. 7-28.
_______. “What was Revolutionary about Armenian Revolutionary Parties in the Ottoman Empire?” in A Question of Genocide, pp. 82-112.
“Eastern Questions” and the Internationalization of the “Armenian Question”
Donald Bloxham, The Great Game of Genocide: Imperialism, Nationalism, and the Destruction of the Ottoman Armenians, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005, pp. 1-57.
Richard Hovannisian, “The Armenian Question in the Ottoman Empire, 1876-1914,” in R. Hovannisian, ed. The Armenian People from Ancient to Modern Times, v. II, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997, pp. 175-238.
The Road to 1915: What are the Context-Specific Dynamics that Led up to the CUP’s Decision to Deport Ottoman Armenians?
Mustafa Aksakal, The Ottoman Road to War in 1914, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 1-18.
Michael Reynolds, Shattering Empires: The Clash and Collapse of the Ottoman and Russian Empire, 1908-1918, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, pp. 140-165.
Donald Bloxham, “The First World War and the Development of the Armenian Genocide, in Ronald Grigor Suny, Fatma Müge Göçek and Norman Naimark, eds.,A Question of Genocide: Armenians and Turks at the End of the Ottoman Empire, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, pp. 260-275.
Fuat Dündar, “Pouring a People into the Desert: The ‘Definitive Solution of the Unionists to the Armenian Question,” in A Question of Genocide, pp. 276-284.
History and Historiography of the Armenian Genocide, What Happened and Why?
Taner Akçam, The Young Turks’ Crime Against Humanity, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2012, pp. 125-202.
Ronald Grigor Suny, “Writing Genocide: the Fate of the Ottoman Armenians,” in A Question of Genocide, pp. 15-41.
Michael Mann, The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004, pp. 1-32; 111-139; 140-179.
Lerna Ekmekcioğlu, “A Climate for Abduction, a Climate for Redemption: The Politics of Inclusion during and after the Armenian Genocide,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, v. 55, no.3 (2013), pp. 522-553.
Keith David Watenpaugh, “The League of Nations’ Rescue of Armenian Genocide Survivors and the Making of Modern Humanitarianism, 1920-1927,” American Historical Review, v. 115 (2010); 1315-1339
History and Memory:
Memoir: Fethiye Çetin, My Grandmother, trans, Ureen Freely, Verso, 2008.
Film: Voyage to Amasia, directed by Randy Bell & Eric Hachikian, 2011 (Canada).
Presentation of oral history project by Leyla Neyzi, “Speaking to One Another: Personal Memories of the Past in Armenia and Turkey” at I’IFEA (French Research Center in Istanbul) April 11, 2011
Additional Visual Material for Discussion:
Documentary: The Armenian Genocide, Two Cats Productions, 2005 (featuring some familiar footage as well as interviews with leading scholars such as Ron Suny, Fatma Müge Göçek, Taner Akçam, and authors of popular history works such as Samantha Power and Peter Balakian. I prefer showing this documentary towards the end of the quarter when students are less likely to view it as a “history lesson” and are able to discuss the production based on what they have learned up to that point)
60 Minutes Segment by Bob Simon “Battle over History” (Airdate: 2/28/2010). This is worth showing mostly for the interview with the Turkish Ambassador to the US at the time, and his framing of the Turkish Foreign Service’s position on the “controversy,” which has been shifting over the years. This is also a good point to introduce the (successful) efforts of the Turkish government in the late 1930s to prevent the production and release of a film based on Franz Werfel’s novel, Forty Days of Musa Dagh, establishing a policy precedent for successive Turkish governments.
Would a genocide by any other name evoke strong reactions?
Steven L. Jacobs, “Raphael Lemkin and the Armenian Genocide,” in Looking Backward, Moving Forward: Confronting the Armenian Genocide, pp. 125-136.
Samantha Power, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, London: Harper Collins, 2002, pp. 1-29.
Mark Mazower, “The G-Word,” London Review of Books, v. 23, no. 3 (February 8, 2001), pp. 19-21.
Paul Boghossian, “The Concept of Genocide,” Journal of Genocide Research, v. 12, no. 1-2 (2010), pp. 69-80.