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History: an argument with an end

By Paul Doolan - posted Monday, 28 April 2008

Dutch historian Pieter Geyl famously wrote that history is “an argument without an end”. In Switzerland today, arguing about history can mean you might end up having to explain your historical views before a judge of law.

In January of this year State Prosecutor of Zürich announced he had opened investigative proceedings against the mainstream conservative weekly Die Weltwoche. The magazine’s potential crime - publishing an article in October 2006 by British historian Norman Stone. The former Oxford Professor of Modern History had argued that he was not convinced that the massacres of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915 constituted genocide; such an historical view is a crime in this neutral country.

This is now the second case on this issue that has led to a legal investigation in Switzerland.


In March 2007 a judge announced that the Armenian genocide was “an established historical fact” and handed down sentence on Turkish Marxist politician Dogu Perincek who, in a speech in 2005, had stated otherwise. Perincek was found guilty of racism and received a suspended sentence in jail and a fine of 3,000 Swiss francs. In December 2007 Perincek lost his appeal when the Swiss Federal Supreme Court upheld the verdict. He promised to take it to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

This, as well as the current investigation into Die Weltwoche, raises the issue of the role of the judiciary in implementing state-sanctioned historical truth. Very few deny, even among the so-called deniers, that hundreds of thousands of Armenians were slaughtered in the Ottoman Empire during World War I. This historical fact was determined, not by a judge or a parliament or public opinion, but by individuals who have analysed the written sources and oral testimonies.

The great majority of informed commentators, including Harvard’s Samantha Fox, regard the terrible actions of the Ottoman authorities to have been genocide. But there are a number of well-known non-Turkish deniers, including Israel’s Shimon Peres and Princeton Professor Bernard Lewis. Surely it is only by means of unfettered research and debate by historians, and not by lawyers and judges, that the argument will be brought to an end if indeed there can be an end.

The practice of history is slowly becoming something of a risky business. Increasingly Holocaust denial has become an illegal offence in European countries and the European Union recently agreed that all member states should pass legislation on this issue.

At the instigation of Poland and the Baltic States the EU has promised to create a committee that will examine the necessity for also outlawing the belittling of, denial of, or justification for, Stalin’s crimes. Meanwhile the Swiss parliament has banned outright any sort of denial of the Armenian Genocide and the French have made moves to do something similar. Turkish authorities have responded to the French manoeuvres with the threat that they will pass a law recognising French policies in Algeria between 1954 and 1962 as constituting genocide, and will consequently imprison anyone who denies this.

Turkey already uses its notorious article 301, which forbids insulting “Turkishness”, to prosecute those of its citizens brave enough to accept the accusations of genocide. These have included Nobel Prize winning novelist Orhan Pamuk, historian Taner Akcam and the late Armenian defender of freedom of speech Hrant Dink, murdered in January 2007 by a 17-year-old assassin.


We could be facing a future when the historian, before embarking upon her lecture tour, will not only have to check for visas and vaccinations, but will also need to go over a thorough checklist of what opinions are allowed and what are disallowed. Perhaps Kazakhstan would like to declare the Irish Famine a form of genocide and ban its denial, while Indonesia could ban the denial of the genocide of Australian Aborigines.

In October 2007 The House Committee on Foreign Affairs in Washington joined the bandwagon and passed a resolution recognising the mass killing of Armenians as an act of genocide. The Bush regime opposed this move, but for the wrong reasons of course. Bush believes that the resolution will damage American relations with Turkey. He remains unconcerned with a far deeper, and potentially more long-term, danger that yet another government has made a pronouncement on state sanctioned historical truth.

Some claim to be supporters of freedom of expression, but that this freedom must be curtailed “in extreme cases”. But it is only in “extreme cases”, and especially when one is faced with an opinion that one finds repugnant, that one faces the challenge to support freedom of expression.

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About the Author

Paul Doolan teaches history at Zürich International School, Switzerland and lectures in Political Systems at the College for International Citizenship in Birmingham, England.

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