How to Put an Elephant into a Black Box: Construction of the Armenian Genocide as a Classificatory Prototype of Genocide

Onur Ozgode, Harvard Kennedy School

The Holocaust was once the singular and incomparable genocide. And yet since the 1970s a myriad of cases of state violence came to be classified as "genocide." This paper argues that the proliferation of the concept as a classificatory category became possible only once a second prototype of genocide was built by a network of Armenian-American experts and activists between the mid-1960s and the early 1980s. Assembling a hybrid network of expertise that span legal, academic, journalism, and political fields, these experts constructed “the Armenian genocide” as a historico-legal fact. Because they did not have access to the Ottoman state archives that were under the monopoly of the Turkish state, they welded together a chain of circumstantial evidence, ranging from testimonies from oral history interviews with survivors to historical eyewitness accounts provided by missionaries and diplomats, with social scientific theories on crime in general and genocide in particular. After analyzing the formation of this network of expertise, the paper first shows how Armenian expert-activists overcame the monopoly of the Holocaust scholars in Israel and the United States over the classificatory space of genocide. The strategy of the Armenians centered around enrolling Holocaust experts by convincing that “Armenian genocide” provided a second prototype of genocide that would allow the Holocaust to remain unique while making it comparable. The final part of the paper analyzes how the Turkish state’s reaction to the Armenian’s classificatory work, first in the form of falsification of evidence and then absolute denial, ironically resulted in the purification of “Armenian genocide” as a historical fact and hence as the second prototype of genocide, one that is both comparable and common. The result of this process was the creation of classificatory spectrum that ranged from the Holocaust (the exception) to the Armenian genocide (the norm).

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 170. Expertise II: Classifications and Definitions