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August 30, 2004
Bernard Lewis, Holocaust Denier
This post has been corrected and expanded, based mostly on Chapter 10, "Freedom and Responsibility of the Historian: The Lewis Affair," in Remembrance and Denial: The Case of the Armenian Genocide. Thanks also to Fazal Majid for his cogent comments.
I was planning on bringing up Bernard Lewis next, but Anna in comments here beat me to it. Lewis, of course, is well known as the author of Islam: What Went Wrong? and the coiner of the phrase "Clash of Civilizations." Paul Wolfowitz is a prominent admirer.
It's an involved story, but briefly what happened is this:
1. Lewis mentioned the Armenian Genocide in his 1961 book The Emergence of Modern Turkey, referring to it as a "terrible holocaust."
2. In 1985 Congress tried to pass a resolution referring to the "genocide perpetrated in Turkey between 1915 and 1923." Sixty-nine historians sent a letter to Congress disputing this, writing:
As for the charge of "genocide," no signatory of this statement wishes to minimize the scope of Armenian suffering. We are likewise cognizant that it cannot be viewed as separate from the suffering experienced by the Muslim inhabitants of the region. The weight of evidence so far uncovered points in the direct of serious inter communal warfare (perpetrated by Muslim and Christian irregular forces), complicated by disease, famine, suffering and massacres in Anatolia and adjoining areas during the First World War.
One of the sixty-nine historians was Bernard Lewis.
The letter also complained it was unfair for the resolution to refer to Turkey as though it were synonymous with the Ottoman Empire. Amusingly, in The Emergence of Modern Turkey, Lewis uses "Turkey" to refer to the Ottoman state eleven times in just one chapter.
The historian Gerard Chaliand wrote to Lewis to express his dismay that Lewis had signed the letter. Lewis' main concern came through clearly in his reply. And guess what? It wasn't historical accuracy. "The only sure result of the resolution," Lewis wrote to Chaliand, "would be the disruption of US-Turkish relations."
3. In 1993 Lewis gave an interview to Le Monde in France in which he declared that what happened should not be considered genocide -- and that calling it genocide was just "the Armenian version of this story." In a second interview a few months later, he referred to "an Armenian betrayal" in the "context of a struggle, no doubt unequal, but for material stakes... There is no serious proof of a plan of the Ottoman government aimed at the extermination of the Armenian nation."
4. France's civil code has a section stating "Whoever is guilty of causing harm must make reparations for it." On this basis Lewis was sued by an Armenian organization and the "International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism" on the grounds that Lewis' statements caused harm to Armenian survivors. The judge found that Lewis had indeed committed a "fault" by "hiding elements which go against his thesis... that there was no 'serious proof' of the Armenian Genocide." Lewis was symbolically fined a franc.
France also has a bizarre criminal law, dating from 1990, under which it is illegal to "call into question" crimes against humanity as defined by the Nuremberg trials. Lewis was also charged under this. He was found innocent because the law, strictly construed, only applies to crimes of the German government from 1939 to 1945. However, according to Remembrance and Denial, the court "did recognize the historical validity of the Armenian Genocide."
I can't find the actual Lewis interviews online, but this article from the Armenian Weekly seems to quote additional excerpts. As the article points out, what Lewis says is deeply creepy in the way it precisely mimics denials of the Nazi Genocide. The Armenians, you see, were rebelling against Turkish rule. And the Ottoman government only wanted to expel them, not kill them. And where's the signed document by the Ottoman triumvirate ordering the annihilation of Armenians? And besides, lots of OTHER Turks died in World War I! Lots of people died in general! Why all this fuss about the Armenians specifically? Isn't this really all about the desire of the greedy Armenians to play on world sympathy so they can tear off a piece of the former Ottoman Empire as a homeland for themselves? Why doesn't anyone ever ask about their motives?
As I say, creepy.
5. In an interview with Ha'aretz after the case (generously hosted online by the Assembly of Turkish American Associations), Lewis disingenuously stated, "The deniers of Holocaust have a purpose: to prolong Nazism and to return to Nazi legislation. Nobody wants the 'Young Turks' back, and nobody want to have back the Ottoman Law." In other words, Lewis is saying that if the Armenian Genocide actually happened, no one would have any motive to deny it.
This is nonsense, and of course Lewis knows it's nonsense. The Turkish government has every reason to deny the Armenian Genocide occurred -- not least because it brings up awkward questions about what exactly they're doing to Turkish Kurds in the present day. So the head of the Turkish government archives wrote in a 1995 book that "The Turks have always been fair and just and tender against the people and minorities under their patronage," although the Armenians responded with "ingratitude and betrayal." I guess this must be true. After all, since nobody wants the Young Turks back, why would this guy lie?
So Lewis is clearly a repellent character. But I guess we already knew that.
6. The nice part of this story is that Israel Charny showed his worth as he did with Shimon Peres (see below). Lewis stated in a submission to the court in the suit against him that as a historian he had an obligation to change his mind when presented with new evidence. Charny wrote Lewis a letter mentioning this and asked:
I am making the above request to you that you send me, as soon as possible, a compilation of researches on which you base your statement to the court that the evidence about the massacres of the Armenians has changed over the years in the direction of disproving any organized plan and operational program of extermination.
Lewis never responded.
ADDENDUM: I think the French laws allowing people to be prosecuted for falsifying history are completely insane, and that "convicting" Lewis for what he said is preposterous. It was under these laws that Robert Faurisson, a denier of the Nazi Genocide, was prosecuted in the eighties. This led to a gigantic, stupid controversy when Noam Chomsky (along with hundreds of others) signed a petition calling for the French government to respect Faurisson's "freedom of speech and expression." Gigantic, stupid arguments about this can still be found clogging the internet today.
Interesting that all the people who attacked Chomsky don't seem to mind what Bernard Lewis did. Interesting that Lewis' actions have never caused a huge controversy. Interesting that someone who's equivalent to Robert Faurisson can be a respected political commentator in America.
Yes... interesting.Posted at August 30, 2004 08:19 AM | TrackBack