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TALK | ‘Historian of the present’ Thomas de Waal, on Armenian Genocide

Book signing

March 3, 2015

By Sarah McPhee

What do we owe the past?

Thomas de Waal, journalist, author, and expert on the unresolved conflicts in the South Caucasus, posed this question to a room full of students, professors, and community members in Kane Hall at the annual Herbert J. Ellison Memorial Lecture. De Waal’s talk, “Great Catastrophe: The Politics of the Armenian Genocide,” addressed a variety of issues, from human rights, to the complexity of human agency, and the complications of international politics. De Waal insisted that as a journalist — “an historian of the present”– it was his goal to make some sense of the suffering of the Armenians while understanding the current political issues which make acknowledgement of that suffering a challenge for many people.


De Waal shares a family photo which includes a Turkish grandmother who was actually an Armenian orphan, unbeknownst to her. Second from the right.

He noted that space for debate had opened in Turkey that would not have been possible 10-15 years ago, which made it possible for him to write his most recent book on the topic, Great Catastrophe: Armenians and Turks in the Shadow of Genocide. He admitted that there has been a “freeze” on the openness recently, but for several years it seemed as though there would be a real breakthrough in this century-long struggle. De Waal related the story of the Armenian genocide, which began in 1908 when the Young Turks took power in the Ottoman Empire. By 1914, these new leaders took their Empire to war against their traditional enemy, Imperial Russia. Sensing a potential fifth column in the Christian Armenians, the leadership deported the entire Armenian population. The men were massacred, while many women and children were marched to death on the way to Syria. Almost unknown, many children were adopted into Turkish or Kurdish homes and raised in a different culture. De Waal shared the story of one Turkish grandmother who learned the truth of her ancestry in her twilight years, and described the emotional turmoil of such a revelation for her and for her family.

Henry Morgenthau, a diplomat and early humanitarian, wrote the first history in English of the Armenians. Theodore Roosevelt considered the Armenian Genocide the single greatest crime of the Great War, and de Waal reminded the audience that the world’s first great humanitarian project was the  Armenian orphans. American parents used to admonish their children to eat their food and “remember the starving Armenian orphans.”


De Waal describes the first mass in the restored St. Giragos, a 13th century Armenian church destroyed in World War I.

The 1920s and 1930s were times of massive forgetting for Armenians and Turks. He insisted that there were two states founded on principle: the Soviet Union in 1917 and Turkey in 1923. Ottoman script was replaced by Latin, everything was changed in the “year of immaculate conception.” Yet some people could not forget, including an Armenian diaspora. Interestingly, the memory of former ethnic rivals, the Kurds, has helped to heal some wounds of the past and forge an alliance within Turkey. De Waal explained that Kurdish leaders have helped to restore an Armenian church that had long been in ruins. Where grass had grown for decades, Armenians may now worship and find peace. He admitted that the Kurdish agenda included strengthening a new alliance with the Armenian minority to support the narrative that Turkey is not an ethnically nationalist country, but the recognition of suffering and concrete support was still well-received.


Thomas De Waal was available for book signings following the Ellison Lecture.

De Waal also addressed why it is so difficult for world leaders to recognize the Armenian Genocide as the Kurds have done, and that is because Turkey is a valuable ally in a troubled region. The potential threat of the Turkish ambassador being recalled if the genocide is acknowledged, and all support in the region being withdrawn, is enough to encourage world leaders to take a measured approach which is frustrating for Armenians. Even President Obama backed down from his promise to recognize the massacre as genocide, a word which De Waal calls “toxic” to the resolution of the conflict. Instead, the President opted for “Great Catastrophe.”

The audience had a strong Armenian presence, as 2015 is the centennial of the massacre, and some questions became emotional. One man asked, “Why ‘catastrophe’ for the title [of your book]? To me, a catastrophe is like a natural disaster, a flood or a hurricane. Not like the destruction of a people.” De Waal politely disagreed, replying that in his mind, catastrophe was a wider and deeper destructive term, implying a sense of calamity and consequences far more reaching than a natural disaster. De Waal explained that in his estimation, the Turks and Armenians both suffer from medical conditions: “Armenians suffer from trauma, and Turks suffer from paranoia.”