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Bernard-Henri Lévy

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On the Armenian Genocide: The Response of a Handful of Historians

Posted: 01/03/12 04:00 PM ET

Are these people really incapable of comprehending? Or are they just pretending not to understand?

The law whose purpose is to penalize negationist revisionism, voted before Christmas by the French parliament, does not propose to write history in the place of historians. And this for the simple reason that this history has been told and written, well written, for a long time. This we have always known: that, beginning in 1915, the Armenians were the victims of a methodic attempt at annihilation. A wealth of literature has been devoted to the subject, based in particular upon the confessions offered by the Turkish criminals themselves, starting with Hoca Ilyas Sami, almost immediately after the fact. From Yehuda Bauer to Raul Hilberg, from researchers at Yad Vashem to Yves Ternon and others, no serious historian casts doubt upon this reality or denies it. In other words, this law has nothing to do with the will to establish a truth of state. No representative of the French National Assembly who voted for it saw himself as a substitute for historians or their work. Together, they only intended to recall this simple right, that of each of us not to be publicly attacked -- and its corollary, the right to demand reparations for this particularly outrageous offense which is the insult to the memory of the dead. It is a question of law, not one of history.

Presenting this law as one that denies liberty, one likely to hamper the work of historians is another strange argument that makes one wonder. It is the negationist revisionists who, up until now, have hampered the work of historians. It is their mad ideas, their hare-brained concepts, their twisting of facts, their terrifying and breathtaking lies that shake the earth upon which, in principle, a science should be built. And in punishing them, making their task more complicated, alerting the public that it is dealing not with scholars but with those who would enflame minds, that the law protects and shelters history. Is there one historian who has been prevented from working on the Shoah by the Gayssot law punishing denial of the Holocaust? Is there one author who, in good conscience, can claim that it has limited his freedom to do research and to raise questions? And isn't it clear that the only ones this law has seriously hindered are the Faurissons, the Irvings, and the other Le Pens? Well, the same applies to the genocide of the Armenians. This law, when the Senate will have ratified it, will be a stroke of fortune for historians, who can finally work in peace. Unless... Yes, unless those who oppose the law express this other, cloudier reservation: that it would be a bit premature to come to a conclusion, precisely and for nearly a century, of "genocide".

Some still say, isn't there some other way than the law to intimidate the "assassins on paper"? And hasn't the truth in itself, in its starkness and its rigour, the means to defend itself and to triumph over those who would deny it? It is a vast debate, one which has been discussed, in parenthesis, since the origins of philosophy. And to which one adds, in the case at hand, a specific parameter stating that, when in doubt, it is prudent to make sure one is backed up by the law. This parameter is the negationist revisionism of the Turkish State. And this specificity is that the negationists there are not just a vague bunch of cranks, but people who are supported by resources, diplomacy, the capacity for blackmail and retaliation of a powerful State. Imagine the situation of the survivors of the Shoah had the German State been a negationist State after the war. Imagine the immensity of their additional distress and anger had they been confronted, not with a sect of loonies, but with an unrepentant Germany that brought pressure upon their partners by threatening them with angry retaliation should they call the extermination of the Jews at Auschwitz genocide. It is, mutatis mutandis, the situation of the Armenians. And that is also why they have the right to a law.

And finally, I would add that it's time to stop mixing everything up and drowning the Armenian tragedy in the ritualized blahblahblah assailing the "memorial laws". For this law is not a memorial law. It is not one of those dangerous power plays capable of laying the path for dozens if not hundreds of absurd or blackguardly rules, codifying what one has the right to say about the Saint Bartholomew's Day massacre, the meaning of colonization, slavery, the Civil War, the misdemeanor of blasphemy and heaven knows what else. It is a law concerning a genocide -- which is not the same. It is a law sanctioning those who, in denying it, intensify and perpetuate the genocidal act -- which is something else entirely. There are not, thank God, hundreds of genocides, or even dozens. There are three. Four, if we add the Cambodians to the Armenians, the Jews, and the Rwandans. And to place these three or four genocides on the same level as all the rest, to make their penalization the antechamber of a political correctness that authorizes a stream of useless or perverse laws on the disputed aspects of our national memory, to say, "Watch it! You're opening a Pandora's box from which everything and anything can pop out !" is another imbecility, exacerbated by another infamy and sealed with a dishonesty that is, really, grotesque.

Let us confront this specious line of argument with the wisdom of national representation. And may the senators complete the process by refusing to be intimidated by this little band of historians.