An Incomprehensible Silence Trivializing The Crime Of Genocide

Suzanne Khardalian


Ashes from Majdanek in Sweden, and The Danish Royal Library’s alternative exposition.

Two very strange yet appalling events took place in Scandinavia last week.

The first took place in the Danish capital, Copenhagen. It all started when the Armenian Genocide Museum & Institute in Yerevan began putting together a small exhibition on Scandinavia and the Armenian genocide about two years ago. Then the exhibition began touring the Scandinavian capitals this year. It came to Copenhagen about a month ago and was set up in a room belonging to the Royal Library, yet located at the University of Copenhagen. The surprise came when the director of the Royal Library, Erland Kolding Nielsen in his opening speech at the exhibition announced that there would be a “complementary” exhibition arranged by the Turkish Embassy, entitled “The so-called Armenian Genocide.” What to do? Of course, protest. And indeed the Royal Library has attracted heavy criticism from the media and historians. But Erland Kolding Nielsen, the director of the Royal Library, denied that the institution buckled under pressure from Turkey.

“We have simply given them the opportunity to show their alternative exhibition,” he said.

So for now, it is business as usual. The exhibition is still scheduled.

The second story is even stranger, and this time it took place in the city of Lund in southern Sweden famous for its prestigious university. A Swedish art gallery decided to organize a special exhibition displaying the works of an artist, Carl Michael von Hausswolff. The artist had used ashes that he collected at Majdanek, a Nazi extermination camp in Poland, to paint his monochrome work. There you have a painting made from the ashes Holocaust victims for you to enjoy…

The controversial exhibition of the ashes of concentration camp prisoners soon was taken down after protests from the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Jewish community of Malmoe. The Simon Wiesenthal Center called the painting a “desecration” and “abomination.”
But the alternative exhibition, arranged by the Royal Library in Copenhagen, not only is still scheduled, but also has given rise to important questions pertaining to denial and revisionism.

Yet somehow these two incidents have received very little attention in the media—especially the Armenian media.

But why the silence in Lund, in Copenhagen, in Yerevan and in the world?

What is happening?


Here the target is two crimes—two Genocides. And, an unending effort to trivialize these crimes.

The watercolor painter who used ashes from the concentration camp at Majdanek is also keeping silent. Probably Mr. von Hausswolff ran away with his tail between his legs. Or, what do I know? Maybe he is enjoying the noise he created with his art. But one thing is certain: he can not have missed the burning attention it received in the world press.

A number of Polish media have highlighted the debate, like most Israeli newspapers, the Telegraph, as well as the French and Spanish press. Immediately there was talk about repercussion and a course of action. Others were bringing up important questions. Will von Hausswolff stand trial in Lund?

Should the police be confiscating the “watercolor”? Should the police investigate whether this was a desecration of “a grave”? Was this illegal?

Yet official Sweden kept silent. Not only the painter was silent, but also all the political, religious organizations and artists’ unions. Apparently it is not repulsive in Sweden to desecrate victims of Genocide.

If the silence in Sweden has upset me, the story from Copenhagen out aged me. The silence was even more deafening when it comes to the alternative exhibition in Denmark.

What I found were low-key protests and an attitude of “it is best to ignore it.”

But denial is not new to Scandinavia.

Back in 2005, a similar situation had come about when Mr. Uffe Østergaard, the director of the Department for Holocaust and Genocide Studies in Copenhagen, for several years kept his denialist views publicly and unequivocally known. Mr. Østergaard regularly insisted that he held a “neutral” position about the “Armenian” and the “Turkish” points of view vis-à-vis the “Armenian question.

Back then he too was involved in the planning of creating a “neutral” institution or “place of dialogue,” where the “question” of what Mr. Østergaard sometimes referred to not as genocide, but as “the tragic events of 1915″ could be discussed by Armenian and Turkish scholars. This initiative was also being supported by the Turkish Ambassador in Copenhagen, Mrs. Fügen Ok.

The package as it was presented sounded perfectly innocent for those willing to turn a deaf ear. The words “neutral” and “dialogue” indeed seemed very attractive. So too was the “alternative “story to the Armenian genocide. But as it was back then, now too there are major problems associated with that.

Back then genocide scholars Torben Jørgensen and Matthias Bjørnlund had written in an open letter that “… Any assumption that there is a ‘neutral ground’ between an ‘Armenian’ and a ‘Turkish’ side of the ‘question’ of the Armenian genocide is plain wrong. When it comes to the historical reality of the Armenian genocide, there is no ‘Armenian’ or ‘Turkish’ side of the ‘question,’ no more than there is a ‘Jewish’ or a ‘German’ side of the historical reality of the Holocaust: There is a scientific side, and an unscientific side—acknowledgment or denial.”

There is fundamentally something wrong with the aforementioned forced symmetry. What we are witnessing is total lack of courage and moral attitude. In the name of objectivity we are seeing revisionism and denial.

But first the question: What is objectivity? The Simple answer is: to openly account for the basis for a certain choice, a standpoint. But I would add the following for more clarification: Objectivity is not the same as not judging or not condemning.

Among historians there is widespread skepticism about politicized and ideological interpretations. For many of us history is there “to describe, to explain and understand the past.” I guess many of us share the above outlook.

I will be borrowing some ideas form Martin Wiklund, a researcher from the University of Gotheburg, and the author of the book “History as a court of Justice.” In his book Wiklund convincingly argues that historians should have the moral courage to take a stand, suggesting that the Court as model of justice could be a guiding reference for science that can never be judgment-free.

Both history and a court share characteristics that should inspire the administering of justice, says Wiklund. Perhaps he has a point.

In a regular court hearing all parties are heard, all relevant facts are presented and then duly taken into account concerning the circumstances of an offense. A judicial review means that an acknowledged authority (judges and jurors) balance the interests of all involved parties. (the plaintiff/counter defendant prosecutor/law). We expect not only that the trial is fair and impartial, but also that it leads to a verdict and not just end with the mere understanding of circumstances.

In other words, in a court objectivity is not a problem and does not an impede justice.

At the same time, a historian has no requirement to pronounce verdict, but he or she should not avoid doing it when it is needed. There is a widespread perception in academic circles that the present generation should not sit in judgment over previous generations, in part for the reason that our modern standards are bound by time. Yet this view is unreasonable. If that were the case, then our courts would not be able to do justice as laws too are expected to change over time.

Historians have no laws in their disposal by which to judge, but with justice as a guiding principle, we can incorporate both past conditions and present knowledge in our evaluations.

Now, when we speak of justice we must talk about guilt and responsibility as well. Questions about guilt are closely related to living memory. Whether it is the Russian occupation of Finland in 1809 or the Israeli occupation of the West Bank or the Armenian Genocide, all belong in the same moral universe.

The fair aspect, perhaps, is not the only aspect to take into consideration, but it’s always the most relevant.

I am not saying that a historian should always identify the guilty and the innocent, the perpetrators and the victims. However, the historian has a responsibility to always make a fair trial based on the relevant facts of each case.

To understand historical matters only as an issue of the past, as if it were merely a question of interpretation of conflicts, is an obstacle to our cultural self-understanding and thus our historical course. There is no knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Historians should bring to light the complexity of the history, but they should do it not only to bring to light the truth but also to improve and develop the collective memory and historical awareness.

Martin Wiklund’s approach should become the guiding force in finding a way out, both in Denmark, Sweden and, most importantly, in Turkey.

Suzanne Khardalian
is a documentary filmmaker based in Stockholm, Sweden. Her films include “Back to Ararat,” “I Hate Dogs,” and “Grandma’s Tattoos.” She contributes regularly to Asbarez.


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    • john said:

      exactly. stoop to the lowest common denominator. this is the so called western “civilization” has become.

  1. Alex Postallian said:

    I always felt sweden was a independent,free speaking society,of decent people,too bad they have joined the jerkey turkeys stooge alliance,of the low cast mongolian mentality.

  2. hayhayhayha said:

    the world treats us armenian so badly, we must treat the world badly in return. a new armenian elite will be upbrought as the leaders of hayastan, christianity will be destroyed. nobody will be allowed to worship the gods of israel. alla armenians must change their names. sweden is a cowardly country full of feminist sissies. are we begging COWARDS for help? ARMENIAN NATION YOU CAN ONLY SAVE YOURSELF. NUCLEAR WEAPONS is a must

  3. PhilLC said:

    Reply from Library when I commented to them:
    Dear Sir/Madam,

    My answer to e.g. the address mentioned below has been published in the leading Danish newspaper Berlingske today. Futhermore, please read parts of an interview, I gave to a Turkish journalist the day before yesterday, which is supposed to be published in a Turkish newspaper shortly.

    I agree to almost everything in the open letter of the 37 Turkish intellectuals, apart from a possible accusation that the Royal Library should oppose the democratic development within Turkey, which was the headline interpretation of the open letter in Berlingske on December 18.


    “* How did this project come out? Whose idea was it and who would be the collaborators? Answer: It arose during a meeting with the Turkish ambassador to Denmark on his request in late October, who asked whether the Armenian view of the genocide question was identical with official Royal Library or Danish Government policy, which I, of course, had to deny, although I expressedly told him that the Turkish view of the issue, including the denial of the enormous number of victims, was not shared by e.g. Danish historians, including myself. But, from a critical-methodical point of view it seemed to me, as a historian, an interesting issue, how on earth Turkey at a qualified level in a Danish debate climate would argue and try to prove and support their cause. Therefore, I offered him to present a “parallel” poster exhibition, if it was documented at the same level as the Armenian one, which I informed him about. I, too, informed him, of a very critical and well documented Danish book that was published in 2010 about the genocide, based on contemporary Danish sources, of which he got my own copy. So, from this point of view I think that the ambassador and Turkey will be in troubles with respect to present another “view” or narrative.

    * Is it related solely to a previous exhibition in Copenhagen University Library “Armenian Genocide and Scandinavian Response” or is it already on the Royal Library’s schedule to have such an exhibition? Answer: Cf. above. Therefore no, it is not on the planned agenda for exhibitions.

    * Did you have a chance to see materials of exhibition? Answer: Of course, I shall have to approved it.

    * Is it planned to have it on 2015? Answer: No.

    * What do you think about the open letter to you from Turkish intellectuals on Berlingske Newspaper and the other discussions on Danish media? Answer: I quite agree to the content, apart from the view that The Royal Library by showing such an “alternative” exhibition can be interpreted as a support of the official view of the state of Turkey and thereby works against democracy in Turkey. On the contrary, I see it as a pressure upon Turkey to come to terms with its denial of the historical reality with respect to the slaughters of Armenians before (e.g. 1894-96) under and after the First World War.

    I was quite aware, when I offered the Turkish ambassador to put his neck into the rope that this would create an enormous debate and give the Armenians and Turks, who oppose the position of Turkey, a unique opportunity to create public awareness about the issue, and – not least – create awareness among the ca. 100.000 Danish citizens of Turkish origin about this matter and the unbearable position of the Turkish Government. I’m sure that most of them do not know the facts.

    And, with my best will, it is a riddle to me that people can’t see that this is a support to both the Armenian fight for recognition of the facts of history and the historians’ work to document it. In Denmark we have a democratic tradition for not suppressing even unacceptable positions and viewpoint, but to expose and often ridicule (such as denials of the Holocaust) them. That is – and was in the situation that arose at the meeting with the Turkish ambassador – my real motive behind the offer.”

    Yours sincerely,

  4. peter said:

    The Turks have an agenda to Turkify Europe and these dumb Danes are going to allow that to happen. Just imagine that 100.000 Turks live in Denmark. They will pay a painful price for their stupidity. Don’t forget that it is written in the Hadith that Muslims must invade Europe.

  5. Satenik said:

    Thank you for addressing this very important and interesting event, but sadly Sweden has been going down the drain in the last 20 years or so and it is not going to get any better. Sweden has changed beyond recognition!

  6. colette said:

    How very ironic, and frankly disgusting, considering that Karen Yeppe, a relief worker during the Genocide, was DANISH. My grandfather, and countless others, survived the slaughter thanks to Ms Yeppe’s extraordinary courage. A courage that apparently no longer exists in certain circles in Denmark.

  7. proudtobehay said:

    why would armenians “care” about the fate of sweden and denmark and europe. do they “care” about us? no. they DESERVE being invaded by islam. =)

  8. massimiliano said:

    the scandinavian goverments are the most hipocrits in europe and they hide behind their best school system and a fascist social democrat regime ,

    • armenianpatriot! said:

      scandinavians and germans are the sworn enemies of armenian people.

  9. aram said:

    Sweden and Denmark as countries never cared about Armenians
    They just care pay and get it.
    They have no more than 15 years left to be dominated by muslims thanks to Turkeys
    aggresive politcs in EU.

    • haypashpan said:

      Your first lines I agree with. But Sweden and Denmark will not be dominated by Muslims thanks to Turkey but thanks to themselves, and in my opinion, they deserve it 100%.

      The West is a fat capitalist criminal, and hostile to the Armenian nation.

  10. Arziv said:

    And yet our government entreats and allowe to be entreated by them. What is the rumpus Van Rompuy, or the unsympathetic Barroso coming to Armenia for ? Do they want to buy and sell us out ? It is not a good idea to even dream of joining the EU. The EU policies are quite antinational and against nation states; that means they would be anti armenians. EU policy is that of open borders, and mass movement of people from the 4 corners of the world into a gigantic melting pot. If the EU is being turkified by a massive invasion of islamists ? , it is a very bad idea to endeavor to join an islamist club, in which the major player will be Turks and with a policy of open borders Armenia would be de jure swamped and invaded by masses of people around the globe, it will mean our farewell as a nation. What is happening to the EU, will also happen to us if we join them.