New Approaches to Armenian Genocide Studies

Symposium participants: Umit Ungor, Elizabeth Grigorian, Dr. Richard Hovannisian, Matthias Bjornlund, Wolf Gruner


WESTWOOD, Los Angeles–Dr. Richard G. Hovannisian, AEF Chair in Modern Armenian History at UCLA, hosted two on-campus events in commemoration of the 95th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. The first event was a public lecture on April 13 by Matthias Bjornlund titled “Smyrna/Izmir, 1914-1916: ‘A Special Case’ during the Armenian Genocide.” The second event on April 15 was a public lecture by Dr. Ügur Üngör titled “Confiscation and Colonization: The Young Turk Seizure of Armenian Property.” In addition to these two events, Dr. Hovannisian also organized a symposium at the Glendale Public Library on April 18 titled “Looking Backward, Moving Forward.” The symposium was cosponsored by the Library’s Armenian Outreach, headed by Ms. Elizabeth Grigorian, and was supported by the AEF Chair’s Souren and Verkin Papazian Fund and UCLA Centers for Near Eastern Studies and for European-Eurasian Studies.

The Bjornlund Lecture

An archival historian from Copenhagen, Denmark, Matthias Bjornlund has explored Scandinavian sources relating to the Armenian Genocide. These archives contain many detailed reports about the genocidal process and its aftermath. Bjornlund continues to research and develop an in-depth analysis of specific regions during the genocide, such as Smyrna (Izmir). A significant point he raised in his lecture was that one of the goals of the Young Turk Party, also known as the CUP (Committee of Union and Progress), was to rid the region of Smyrna of Christian Greeks and Armenians and to replace them with Muslims. This act, otherwise known as “ethnic-cleansing,” was not very “clean,” said Bjornlund. Still, there was in 1915-16 sufficient resistance from the Turkish governor of Smyrna and the local German commander, General Liman von Sanders, to make the city a “special case” and to exempt most of its Armenian population from the deportations and massacres that engulfed the rest of Asia Minor and the historic Armenian provinces of the Ottoman Empire. But Smyrna’s turn would come in 1922, when the city was occupied by the armies of Mustafa Kemal, and the population was literally dumped into the sea as the city burned.

One of Bjornlund’s studies titled “A Fate Worse than Dying: Sexual Violence during the Armenian Genocide,” is included in the book Brutality and Desire: War and Sexuality in Europe’s Twentieth Century. In his chapter Bjornlund argues: “There is ample evidence that the destruction of the Ottoman Armenians was characterized by distinct gendered aspects, especially the particular timing and the methods of killing women and children, that females were subjected to massive, systematic sexual abuse, and that a number of women and children were allowed to survive as Muslim Turks.”

The Üngör Lecture

Dr. Uğur Ümit Üngör, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre for War Studies, University College Dublin and an associate of the Center of Holocaust and Genocide Studies in Amsterdam, defended his Ph.D. dissertation in 2009 at the University of Amsterdam. It is titled “Young Turk Social Engineering: Mass Violence and the Nation State in Eastern Turkey 1913-1950.”  Üngör specializes in the historical sociology of mass violence and has published on the Armenian and Rwandan genocides. His presentation at UCLA on April 15 focused on several aspects of his forthcoming book, Confiscation and Colonisation: The Young Turk Seizure of Armenian Property. One of his initial points was the Young Turk objective to create a “National Economy,” Milli Iktisat, that would be based on a new Muslim class of entrepreneurs.  Üngör stated:  “National Economy was impossible without the disappearance of the Armenians.” He went on to explain how Young Turk legislation in 1915 used “the justice system for injustice” in order to confiscate the goods and properties of the Armenians and distribute them to new Muslim proprietors or to escheat them to the state.

Dr. Üngör followed with an in-depth analysis of Diyarbekir, the historic Armenian Dikranagerd region, and its specific misfortune under zealous Young Turk officials who also enriched themselves at the expense of the Armenians by organizing and conducting the genocidal operations. He emphasized that, aside from the businesses in the city, the plunder revolved around three major economic fields: vineyards, copper mines, and silk and textile works.  His research is unique in the sense that it examines and analyzes a specific region and specific henchmen of the Turkish regime, such as the governor, Dr. Mehmed Reshid, and the Pirinjizade clan.  

Glendale Public Library Symposium

As for the “Looking Backward, Moving Forward” symposium, a capacity audience gathered in the Glendale Public Library auditorium on Sunday afternoon, April 18, for a very stimulating discussion commemorating the 95th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. Dr. Richard G. Hovannisian initiated the program by giving a brief introduction of the history of Armenians and the modern day issue of genocide recognition and remembrance.  He declared: “The history of the Armenian people is not just one of tragedy but also and even more one of survival and optimistic rebuilding.” He outlined the progress made in the study and understanding of the Armenian Genocide and pointed to critical aspects that still require explanations and answers.

After Hovannisian’s brief introduction of the guest speakers, Mr. Bjornlund, Dr. Wolf Gruner, and Dr. Üngör, each had the floor to discuss a specific topic followed by a brief question and answer session which truly engaged the audience. Bjornlund spoke on “Scandinavia and the Armenian Genocide: Prelude, Eyewitnesses, Aftermath.” He stated that recent archival studies in the Scandinavian countries have documented a great degree of contemporary knowledge of the “Armenian Question” in general and the Armenian Genocide in particular. Some among missionaries, relief workers, diplomats, politicians, organizations, and “ordinary citizens” from neutral Denmark, Sweden, and Norway personally witnessed the massacres and death marches. Many others were involved in the aftermath of destruction, not least in funding, organizing, and participating in relief efforts among surviving Armenians in exile. On the state level, some tried to prevent the genocide and its aftermath from becoming a potentially embarrassing political issue. His presentation contextualized this largely unknown or ignored history.

Professor Gruner, Shapell-Guerin Chair in Jewish Studies and Professor of History at the University of Southern California, addressed the question “What Could Germans in the Third Reich Know about the Armenian Genocide?” He showed that, based on the literature and publications of the time, the German public was well aware of the victimization of the Armenian people only one or two decades earlier. With a Ph.D. degree from the Technical University in Berlin, Gruner has written extensively about the Holocaust, including forced labor under the Nazis. His research interests focus on the comparative study of mass violence, genocide, and state discrimination against indigenous populations.

Following a brisk discussion from a fully engaged audience, Dr. Hovannisian thanked the participants and audience and Glendale Library Armenian Outreach director Elizabeth Grigorian. He concluded: “We now are witnessing a new generation of scholars who are exploring the genocide from the bottom up, from micro to macro point of view. We look forward to new and valuable studies of this type from a new generation of well prepared, conscientious scholars.”


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