Historian's election opposed for questioning 'Armenian genocide'

February 12, 1999


The appointment of a prominent historian to one of France's most celebrated higher education institutions has provoked claims that he has questioned whether the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Armenians in 1915 were the result of genocide.

Gilles Veinstein was elected last November to the chair of Ottoman and Turkish history at the Coll ge de France, created in 1530.

He was elected by a single vote and has yet to be formally appointed to his chair. A group of French intellectuals has organised a petition calling for his nomination to be withdrawn and written to the newspaper Le Monde to support its campaign.

On Tuesday, however, President Jacques Chirac ignored their protests and Veinstein's appointment was confirmed in the official gazette.

The dispute centres on the deaths of between 300,000 (the figure cited by Turkish historians) and 1.5 million (the number given by descendants of the victims) Armenians in the Ottoman empire in 1915 during their mass deportation from eastern Anatolia to Syria and Mesopotamia.

Mr Veinstein has questioned whether the deaths of the Armenians, through starvation, ill-treatment or attacks by armed Turkish units, can be described as genocide.

While not excluding the possibility of genocidal motives on the part of the Ottoman authorities, he is more sympathetic to the view that the killings were the work of a faction within the Young Turk movement that came to power in 1908.

Veinstein has said that if the term genocide can be properly applied to "a massive amputation undergone by a population" or "the result of an accumulation of causes and behaviours" then he accepts that the Armenians were the victims of genocide. "On the other hand, if one necessarily links the use of the term to a decision taken by a government ... it seems to me that while such a decision cannot be ruled out it has not so far been established with the necessary firmness and accuracy," he wrote in a letter to the Coll ge.

His critics, who point out that the 20th century is not his field of expertise, say that contemporary archives prove the deportations, deaths through privation and massacres were the result of a deliberate plan drawn up by the interior and war ministers of the time and that the killings were the first of the 20th century's three genocides.

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