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Joachim J. Savelsberg, Knowing About Genocide: Armenian Suffering and Epistemic Struggles

Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2021, 264 pages, $34,95 (paperback)
Vahagn Avedian
p. 239-245
Référence(s) :

Joachim J. Savelsberg, Knowing About Genocide: Armenian Suffering and Epistemic Struggles, Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2021, 264 pages, $34,95 Paperback.

Texte intégral

1In Knowing About Genocide, Savelsberg takes aim at explaining how the memories of victim and perpetrator, together with the interaction of third parties, merge together to create knowledge. By mainly using the sociology of knowledge, but also venturing into a multidisciplinary approach to memory management, Savelsberg demonstrates how not only remembrance and recognition but also forgetting and denial play pivotal roles in the creation of knowledge. He explains that it is not the knowledge produced by specialists he is concerned with, but the one generated in the “context of practical action, in everyday life and in the fields of law and politics”, a process he introduces as the “epistemic circle” (p. 5). To this end, he uses the Armenian genocide during World War I in the Ottoman Empire and how its victims and perpetrators, both from an individual and from a state’s perspective, have played an intricate role consisting of actions and reactions in contributing to the production of the knowledge about the events as well as the process of the knowledge generation itself. The latter explains how seemingly contradictory accounts of the same events emerge, are negotiated, to finally solidify, or as the author puts it, are “sedimented” in our knowledge. The sedimentation explains why, for example, ardent denial by the Turkish state of the evidently robust scholarly facts can occur and gain credibility among its members – an approach which can equally be discerned in the contemporary confrontation of substantiated facts by populist leaders and their followers and their insistence on “alternative facts”.

2An interesting small detail concerns Savelsberg’s own belonging to a German generation born in the immediate aftermath of World War II, confronting with the knowledge about the Holocaust. It has equipped him with valuable insights into the inner workings of the memory management of traumatic events of such a magnitude. His insights into how Germans, both perpetrating and the new generation who confronted their predecessors, handled the World War II memories are especially useful for understanding the production of knowledge from the perpetrators’ collective perspective, initially reluctant to admit culpability and instead silencing the crime only to be confronted by the younger generations’ questions about the past.

3Our knowledge about the world is crucial for societies to function properly and for decision-making in the present and about the future. Almost none of this knowledge, Savelsberg notes, comes directly from our own experience or exploration, but through mediators such as older relatives, friends as well as through media such as history books and the Internet. These are then synthesized into a “mediated memory” (p. 17), or the collective memory as is generally known in scholarship. It is in the negotiation between the historiography of the collective memory and the sociology of knowledge which materializes our comprehension, in other words the knowledge itself, of our surroundings. An important aspect of knowledge is based on the presentism of its building blocks (i.e., the memories), making knowledge a highly subjective phenomenon while the perpetual re-interpretation of the memories in the negotiation between different actors also results in an evolving “living knowledge” (p. 56). It is this negotiation which Savelsberg has described through the lens of our knowledge about the Armenian genocide and the actors involved in that process. Although he points out early on that the book is not about the history of the Armenian genocide but its sociology of knowledge and how “different collectivities know and tell this history” (p. 7), the rich references to personal (mainly Turkish officials and intellectuals) and witness (Armenian and third party) accounts about the events during WWI present a sufficient narrative for those not knowledgeable about the events.

4In doing so, Savelsberg pays equal attention to the denial of the genocide as he does to its acknowledgement and how different types of denial (factual, interpretive, implicatory) contribute quite actively to the production of knowledge about the genocide. The denial, by engaging in polemics through, for instance, implicatory denial (people blaming on being ignorant of the atrocities or unable to act even if they wanted to) implicitly acknowledges the presented facts. In addition, the denial, in the face of the presented facts, becomes difficult to defend when its created memories are passed on to new generations who can confront their descendants about their presented version of the “reality”. Savelsberg’s account for the latter focuses mainly on Turkish intellectuals such as fellow sociologist Fatma Müge Göçek, and more importantly, on the presented accounts in her research of the memoirs of nearly 300 Turkish officials and intellectuals in explaining the denial, justification, and rationalization of the Armenian genocide.

5Moving to the memories about the events, Savelsberg incorporates the memoirs and the reports by third party representatives such as humanitarian workers, diplomats, etc. where it is the “inner conversation” between the “‘I’, that responds to the social situation, and the ‘Me,’ that part of our minds that anticipates and takes into account patterned reactions of others to our utterances” (p. 33). These inner dialogues, which are then externalized in the form of diaries and reports, become significant contributors, both on the micro-level in case of individual missionaries and on the macro-level as it is in the case of the British Blue Book, to the knowledge generation. This production is done through the “sense-making” of the observed horrors, both as a “precondition of sanity”, but also their ability to act and even survive in cases where their actions might confront and clash with the policy of the perpetrating actors. Importantly, the contribution of these actors is in proportion to their possessed power and range of influence: state actors can undoubtedly influence the production of knowledge much more efficiently than individuals can when conveying memories and a certain narrative to the public.

6The significance of the state narrative becomes quite evident when Savelsberg examines how the “sedimentation” of the knowledge functions, thus, making it relatively resistant to change, using Max Weber’s approach to how “carrier groups” such as social classes, ethnic groups, etc., who are associated with “specific ideas or religious beliefs and carry them across time, even across generations” (p. 54). The members not only take these ideas for granted, but they even help reaffirming them, an observation which is highly useful in understanding the Turkish public’s denial of the Armenian genocide. Here enters the notion of epistemic power, which Savelsberg stresses to be a problematic term, describing it as the “chance for actors to affect knowledge repertoires, even (but not necessarily) against resistance, in line with their desired understanding of reality, regardless of the basis of which this probability rests” (p.62). In presenting the epistemic struggle about the Armenian genocide though, Savelsberg has quite a heavy emphasis on the representation of the top-down (state officials, leaders) while the role of the bottom-up (public, NGOs) perspective is not equally weighed in at certain occasions. For example, contrary to Savelsberg’s depiction of the chain of events prior and during April 24, 1965 (50th commemoration date of the genocide), one would contend that it was not the Soviet Armenian leadership who showed the way, but it was quite the contrary. It were the ordinary people who forced an official reaction to mitigate the public outrage against official attempt to gloss over the memory of the genocide: it was an unprecedented and unsanctioned mass demonstration in the Soviet Union’s history, composed of hundreds of thousands of participants chanting overtly nationalistic slogans, later smashing the windows of the Opera House in Yerevan where the leadership was having a closed-session commemoration event, forcing many of them to flee. Only in the aftermath of the analysis of what had happened on April 24, did the leadership adopt actions to mitigate the public demands, among others resulting in the creation of the Genocide Memorial in Yerevan (1967). The same goes for the terrorist actions during the 1970s and 1980s which I’ll return to below.

7Nonetheless, as Savelsberg duly notes, the major epistemic shift in the Armenian narrative regarding the genocide came during the 1960s, morphing the genocide from a suppressed (by Soviet authorities in Soviet Armenia and being a secondary issue among the Diaspora, inferior to the loss of the independence in 1920) into a red line running brightly through every aspect of the national life. This was clearly seen in the prelude to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and continues to be a clear reference for what the Armenian nation has and is subjected to in the time of writing this review. Turning to the unique setup of the Armenian nation, of which almost 70 % lives abroad, Savelsberg examines the role of Armenian organizations in the capacity of knowledge entrepreneurs, not only shaping the identity and consciousness of their respective diasporic community, but also in the dissemination of the knowledge to non-Armenians. Focusing on the two major Armenian diasporas in France and the USA, the reader can clearly follow the process of knowledge production through venues such as scholarly research, genocide exhibitions, etc.

8An often-asked question by outsiders is that given the vast amount of evidence and the consensus in the scholarly community, how come Turkey and Turks can then deny the genocide? Or why is Turkey willing to pay millions of dollars annually for combating wider international recognition of the Armenian genocide? Savelsberg takes on these questions by looking at the development of the knowledge about the WWI events in Turkey, starting with the 1919-1922 trials in Istanbul which, while revealing a degree of knowledge about the massacres and other crimes committed against the Armenian population, did not have any noticeable impact on the Turkish nation. Instead, the trials strengthened the image of Armenian betrayal and aggression while portraying the perpetrators as the defenders of the Turkish fatherland against the enemy within. This flipping of victim and perpetrator happened due to a pivotal event in Turkey’s history, namely the genesis of the Kemalist movement (named after Mustafa Kemal, the future president of the Turkish Republic) which would abolish the Sultanate and convert the Empire into a Republic. The Kemalists officially tried to decouple themselves from the ruling Young Turk (officially the Committee of Union and Progress, CUP) government and the crimes they were accused of, although in reality the new republic’s government entirely consisted of former CUP leaders, heavily depending on their resources and contacts. Thus, a revisionist narrative was created in which the contributions of Armenians and other minorities of the Ottoman Empire were erased together with any wrongdoings against them. The success behind the sedimentation of this knowledge was partly thanks to the strict control of Turkey’s Department of Education over “textbook production, teacher training, course content, and examination questions”, ensuring the state-orchestrated narrative to be taught for all coming generations (p. 98).

  • 1 See Vahagn Avedian, Knowledge and Acknowledgement: The Politics of Memory of the Armenian Genocide (...)

9Jumping ahead to the 1970s, Savelsberg deals with the genocide knowledge in the later era of the Turkish Republic, which could no longer rely on silent denial, especially outwards. The main reason for this spelled the terrorist deeds aimed at Turkish diplomats around the world between 1973 and 1987, claiming 42 Turkish diplomat lives. The main aim of these terrorist actions was to gain international genocide recognition. Although the terrorist actions broke the Turkish silence about the Armenian genocide, Savelsberg concludes that the terrorists failed in yielding acknowledgement. One would disagree with this interpretation, asserting that the terrorist actions, constituting a sort of (bottom-up) dialogue with the (top-down) decisionmakers, did achieve their goal, albeit implicitly. This can be seen in the fact that the terrorist attacks were mentioned in almost every debate and sometimes their final reports, among others the UN (Ruhashyankiko) Genocide Report in 1979, the report by the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal of 1984, the UN (Whitaker) Genocide Report in 1985, the European Parliament’s recognition of the Armenian genocide 1987 (and not in 2015 as stated in the book, p. 133) referring to the terrorist acts and the importance of the recognition of the Armenian genocide, not as an act of condoning or giving in to their demands, but as means to disarming their arguments. As deplorable as they were, the fact is that the terrorist acts can be viewed as a decisive catalyst for bringing the “forgotten genocide” into the limelight of international gaze.1 Naturally, the opposing voices used the terrorist acts (e.g., President Ronald Reagan’s refusal in 1985 to recognize the genocide, stating that it would “reward terrorism”), fitting quite well into the same epistemic struggle Savelsberg describes. Nonetheless, these terrorist acts also meant that the Turkish denial morphed, changing from omission of the events to become the revisionist narrative we know today, offering an alternative reason behind the Armenian deaths and their disappearance from the lands they had lived on for almost three millennia. An important factor in this process, which Savelsberg returns to frequently in the book, is that the denial, its memories, and narrative, are not limited to the perpetrating generation, but are passed down to the future generations, something which is equally true about the victims, albeit with a delayed response. Memories which are traumatic and diffuse can in due time become organized and focused, making it possible for the members of the group to communicate their experienced trauma to others who were not directly involved, thereby disseminating the knowledge.

10Leaving the domain of sociology and applying a multidisciplinary approach to the subject, Savelsberg concludes the book by looking at the epistemic struggles which have taken place within the political and legal fields on international level, events which have contributed quite heavily to the global knowledge production about the Armenian genocide. As duly pointed out, the courtroom can indeed function as a stage for presenting and disseminating of the respective party’s story to the outsiders, for which Soghomon Tehlirian’s assassination of Talaat Pasha in Berlin (1921) and Gurgen Yanikian’s assassination of two Turkish diplomats in California (1973) are vivid examples of. The same is true about the political sphere in which, for instance, the question of forbidding the denial of the Armenian genocide in France, equating it with the same legislation for the Holocaust, generated an intense negotiation between the political, academic, and legal fields, debating the aspect of knowledge management through memory laws. The seeming contradiction between the increased attention to the freedom of speech on the one hand and human rights on the other, a perfect storm was created around the handling of the denial of the Armenian genocide. This was not only indicative for the French case but was also present in the US case of Griswold vs Driscoll and in the case of Perinçek vs Switzerland in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). In addition, Savelsberg emphasizes how the elevation of the debate over the Armenian genocide into the international area and especially in the political and legal fields have also advanced the struggle for other cases of wrongdoings, e.g., introducing information about the Holodomor, the Stalinist-induced famine in Ukraine, in the Massachusetts educational curriculum.

11In Knowing About Genocide, Savelsberg manages to skillfully navigate the readers through the sociology of knowledge about the Armenian genocide while familiarizing the less knowledgeable persons with the essential historiography and the evolution of our knowledge about the events, directly related to the battle between their recognition and denial. The book is equally topical for understanding how the contemporary notions of “fake news” and “alternative facts” emerge and are used in debates where there exists a solid factual and scholarly consensus on the subject. Savelsberg’s conclusions are thereby highly valuable guidelines in how to fact-check presented information on contested issues while understanding how the cynicism of populist movements can withstand presented evidence, impeding more efficient cooperation on burning issues which we are faced with today, both domestically and globally.

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1 See Vahagn Avedian, Knowledge and Acknowledgement: The Politics of Memory of the Armenian Genocide (London: Routledge, 2018).

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Vahagn Avedian, « Joachim J. Savelsberg, Knowing About Genocide: Armenian Suffering and Epistemic Struggles »Études arméniennes contemporaines, 15 | 2023, 239-245.

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Vahagn Avedian, « Joachim J. Savelsberg, Knowing About Genocide: Armenian Suffering and Epistemic Struggles »Études arméniennes contemporaines [En ligne], 15 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 avril 2024, consulté le 24 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Vahagn Avedian

PhD, Uppsala

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