Anti-Revisionist Professor Fined for Revisionism

'Genocide' of Armenians Disputed
Published: 1995-11-01

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Dr. Bernard Lewis, a leading specialist of Middle Eastern studies, is no stranger to academic controversy. But the pugnacious Jewish scholar never imagined that one day he'd find himself obliged to defend his view of history in a Paris court, much less that he'd be publicly compared to French "Holocaust denier" Robert Faurisson.

On June 21, 1995, a Paris court found Lewis guilty of violating French law because he had ignored evidence of the Turkish persecution of Armenians during the First World War. It is estimated that 1.5 million Armenians were killed by the Turkish Ottoman regime in a 1915-16 suppression that is often described as genocidal.

The court ordered Lewis – professor emeritus of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University, and author of numerous books on Arab and Turkish history – to pay one franc in symbolic damages to the Forum of French Armenian Associations and the International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism (LICRA), plaintiffs in the civil suit. He was also ordered to pay all court costs, and to publish the ruling in the French daily Le Monde. Finally, the historian was warned that he risked further judicial action if he repeated his revisionist views on French soil.

Lewis' troubles began during a visit to Paris in November 1993, when he spoke with a Le Monde reporter about his work. When asked why the Turks refuse to recognize the Armenian genocide, Lewis answered, "You mean the Armenian version of that event?" He went on to explain:

There is no doubt that terrible things happened, that many Armenians as well as Turks perished. But one will never know the precise circumstances and the total number of victims ... During their deportation to Syria, hundreds of thousands of Armenians died of hunger, of cold ... but if one speaks of genocide, that implies that there had been a deliberate policy, a decision to systematically annihilate the Armenian nation. That is extremely doubtful ... Turkish documents demonstrate a wish to deport them, not to exterminate them.

These remarks set off a furor in France, triggering four lawsuits and a highly charged public debate over this chapter of history. Lewis defended himself in a lengthy letter published in Le Monde. He rejected comparisons with the Second World War treatment of European Jews by denying that in the earlier case there was "a campaign of hatred" directed toward the Armenians. "There exists no serious proof of an Ottoman government decision and plan to exterminate the Armenian nation," he concluded.

To describe the 1915-16 massacre as "genocide," say Lewis' defenders, is historically inaccurate and serves to displace the unique place in history of the 1940s Jewish "Holocaust."

Critics of Lewis contend that refusing to label the massacre as genocide is akin to the terrible sin of "Holocaust denial." These critics repeatedly cite a quotation supposedly uttered by Hitler on the eve of the 1939 German attack against Poland: "Who today remembers the Armenians?" (This often-cited quote, which is posted at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, is apocryphal. A forthcoming Journal article will explain why.)

A 'Disgraceful' Ruling

The initial criminal suit against Lewis was dismissed in November 1994 when the 17th Criminal Court found that the Gayssot-Fabius law, which makes "Holocaust denial" a crime, was not applicable because it is restricted to Second World War treatment of Jews.

In its June 21 judgment, the French court said it had no authority to rule on polemics triggered by historical events, or on whether the Turkish persecution of the Armenians actually constitutes genocide. Nevertheless, the judges found that Lewis appeared to have betrayed his responsibility as a historian by ignoring significant historical evidence – evidence that the United Nations and the European parliament had found persuasive.

Commenting on the French court ruling, the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine complained of the "disgraceful character of the verdict," even though courts in Germany routinely make pronouncements echoing the official government view of Second World War history.

Opposes Butz' Lecture

There is another ironic twist to the Lewis affair. A year before his French court appearance, he publicly opposed a student-organized presentation on Holocaust revisionism at Northwestern University. The lecture by Associate Professor Arthur Butz, author of The Hoax of the Twentieth Century, was cancelled just two hours before it was scheduled to begin. (See "University Officials Block Talk by Prof. Butz," July-August 1994 Journal, pp. 42-43.) Lewis spoke against Butz and his scheduled lecture during a May 1994 visit to the Illinois university sponsored by the Center for the Humanities and the Program in Jewish Studies.

A Holocaust?

Was the Turkish treatment of Armenians genocide? "Until 1980, or thereabouts, this was generally accepted," said Lewis in a recent interview. "During the last 15 years, new documents have become available and old documents have been re-examined and the position is now much more disputed among scholars than it was." In his 1961 book, The Emergence of Modern Turkey, Lewis had referred to this chapter of history as "a struggle between two nations for the possession of a single homeland, that ended with the terrible holocaust of 1915, when a million and a half Armenians perished."

In another book History: Remembered, Recovered, Invented (1975), Lewis warned against the temptation to present history in a distorted way. "What happened, what we recall, what we recover, what we relate, are often sadly different," he wrote, "and the answers to our questions may be both difficult to seek and painful to find. The temptation is often overwhelmingly strong to tell it, not as it really was, but as we would wish it to have been."


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Author(s): Mark Weber
Title: Anti-Revisionist Professor Fined for Revisionism, 'Genocide' of Armenians Disputed
Sources: The Journal of Historical Review, vol. 15, no. 6 (November/December 1995), pp. 35f.
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Published: 1995-11-01
First posted on CODOH: Dec. 25, 2012, 6 p.m.
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