Cultural Genocide and its Limits: An Armenian Illustration

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We attribute distinct moral and legal judgments when individuals die due to homicide rather than from “natural causes,” and when genocide rather than natural catastrophes extinguishes a people. The same applies when cultures die, material culture such as buildings or works of art, or immaterial culture, such as languages or other symbol systems that provide humans with orientation, that signify who they are, assure them of their identity.  Cultures may disappear peacefully, for example when smaller language groups become absorbed by larger ones due to intermarriage. At times however, perpetrators seek to destroy cultures through brute force, cases to which the term cultural genocide may apply. In this essay, I argue that cultural genocide—despite its destructiveness—always faces limits. The Armenian case illustrates how it inspires new cultural creativity, here called reactive and adaptive culture, which—together with residual culture—will come to haunt the perpetrators.

Raphael Lemkin, who famously laid the groundwork for the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, hinted—in a 1933 treatise—at the notion of cultural genocide. He distinguished between “acts of barbarity, … extermination directed against the ethnic, religious or social collectivities…,” and “acts of vandalism,” that is, “systematic and organized destruction of the art and cultural heritage in which the unique genius and achievement of a collectivity are revealed in fields of science, arts and literature.” He demanded that international law penalize such “vandalism.”

“Acts of vandalism” or cultural genocide can take different forms. Dominant groups may penalize the upholding of cultural practices (e.g., the Inquisition’s repression against Jews from the 12th to the 15th centuries); expose minorities to hard “re-education” programs (e.g., Uyghurs in the PRC today; American Indians or First Nations in Boarding Schools); or eliminate culture by destroying minorities physically, through mass killings (e.g., the Holocaust), the destruction of their ecological bases (e.g., deforestation of the Amazon), or removal of populations from environments in which they learned to survive (e.g., displacement of the Cherokee Nation in the Trail of Tears). Physical destruction of a people may not suffice though. Not only would the material culture it leaves behind be a constant reminder of the atrocities committed, but cultural remnants may also challenge fake stories of a nation’s ethnic purity toward which perpetrators strive. Perpetrator groups thus seek the elimination of all that reminds posterity of the minority’s existence.

I here focus on the elimination of culture linked to the physical destruction of a collectivity, specifically the genocide against the Armenians, an ethno-religious minority in the Ottoman Empire. Hundreds of thousands were killed, and invaluable cultural treasures destroyed. Yet I argue that attempts at the extinction of a people’s culture can only partly succeed. Perpetrators must contend with residual culture, reactive culture, and adaptive culture of the group they sought to destroy (see for details: Knowing about Genocide). I explain and illustrate these phenomena and stress that they will haunt those who sought to eliminate another people.


Cultural Genocide and the Armenians

The genocide: A long history of minority repression, intensifying with the decline of the Ottoman Empire during the 19th century, culminated in mass killings of more than two hundred thousand Armenians in 1894–96 under Sultan Abdülhamid II, the horrendous 1909 massacre of thousands in the city of Adana, and eventually—in the context of World War I—in the genocide against the Armenians. First deportations of Armenians began in March 1915. On April 24, 1915, the Young Turk regime rounded up and killed hundreds of Armenian intellectuals, silencing their voices in anticipation of an outcry that would have accompanied the subsequent events: the killing of Armenian men and the deportation of mostly women and children to concentration camps in the deserts of Syria and Mesopotamia. Thousands perished along the torturous way. By March 1916, half a million subsisted in camps, where many died from starvation. Most fell victim to mass liquidations. Estimates of lives lost vary between 800,000 and 1.5 million.

Yet the genocidaires were not satisfied with the destruction of a people. They sought to eliminate its culture and wipe out the memory of its existence. They practiced Denial of Violence, to quote the title of a powerful book by sociologist Fatma Müge Göçek. Steps they undertook included:

  • The early killing of hundreds of intellectuals, which not only prevented an audible outcry against deportations and mass killings, but also robbed the Armenian people of many of its cultural leaders. No one will ever know how much poetry, literature, music, ideas, and scholarship as markers of Armenian culture would have been produced was it not for this brutal act.
  • The treatment of buildings to which Armenian life and identity was tied was a second strategy. Hundreds of churches and monasteries were destroyed or left to the elements after the Armenians had been forced to abandon them. To Armenians, churches were not just places of worship but also centers of civic life. Where remains of Armenian culture were already in ruins due to earlier violence, like the ancient city of Ani, the “city of 1,001 churches,” they were left to further decay (see Image 1), at times used by Turkish military for target shooting. Some churches were turned into mosques, gyms, or restaurants. The confiscation of property supplemented the destruction of buildings.
  • The desecration of cultural symbols further serves to undermine a people’s cultural foundation. Such desecration was commonplace during the genocide, when the perpetrators used crucifixes as instruments of torture and execution.
  • The threat of physical force and the adoption of Armenian children resulted in conversions of thousands of Armenians, undermining the religious community of which they were a part.
  • Other strategies targeted whatever remained of the memory of the Armenian minority in Turkey or at the distortion of such memory. They include the renaming of places, especially parks and squares, where Armenian names would remind today’s users of Ottoman Armenian subjects and their precious contributions to Ottoman society.
  • Finally, where memory cannot be fully extinguished, distortion of history becomes a strategy. It is on display in school textbooks—tightly controlled by the Turkish state—where historical truth is turned upside-down, making Armenians appear as the perpetrator people rather than the victims of mass violence.


Note that such strategies are common wherever tyrannical governments seek to destroy, eliminate, and distort the culture and memory of ethnic or religious minorities. I invite readers to check the above list for whichever case they are primarily concerned with.


Interior of the Church of Saint Gregory of Tigran Honents in Ani, Photo by Rebecca Savelsberg, with permission.


Dialectic of Cultural Genocide

Residual culture:

Despite massive destruction, literary and religious cultural products preceding the genocide survive today. Prominent repositories such as the Nubar Library of the Armenian General Benevolent Union in Paris gather this wealth. Additionally, much of that literature is distributed over millions of Armenian libraries and homes around the globe.

Some elements of material culture also survive the destructive rage. Many are kept in museums, others in private homes, where they connect today’s Armenians with the history of their ancestors. Consider, as one local example, Saint Sahag Armenian Church in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Church leaders invited congregants to bring together cultural relicsof their ancestors, and many heeded this call. Photographs of the objects they brought—such as wedding rings, pieces of jewelry or photos of ancestors—were placed in a temporary exhibit. Importantly, these artifacts survive, more than 100 years after the genocide, and they symbolically connect today’s Armenians to their ancestors.

Even ruins remain as significant parts of material culture, serving the preservation of memory and as sites of pilgrimage. In 2015, for example, following an art competition on the occasion of the centennial of the genocide, a group of Armenian artists undertook a journey into “Western Armenia.” They walked through the ruins of the ancient city of Ani and visited iconic buildings in Van, Kars, and other sites. Interviews with deeply moved participants, captured in a documentary film, tell viewers that the artists felt as though they were visiting home.


Reactive culture:

Theodor Adorno famously wrote that writing poetry after the Holocaust would be barbaric, and these words seemed utterly convincing in 1949. Yet he was wrong. Not only was there poetry after the Holocaust, but coping with the Holocaust often took the form of poetry, literature, and art. A powerful collection entitled Art from the Ashes provides prominent examples. What is true for the Shoah, also applies to the Armenian genocide. Surviving Armenians built memorials and museums to remember and to cope. The genocide itself became a source of memorialization, artistic production, literature, and poetry.

Most significant may be the central memorial of the genocide in the Republic of Armenia. On a hill, overlooking the capital city of Yerevan, the memorial complex is “dedicated to the memory of 1.5 million Armenians” who perished in the genocide. Consisting of a Memorial Wall, a Sanctuary of Eternity, housing an eternal flame, and a Memorial Column “The Reborn Armenia,” it signifies the memory of the violence the Armenian people endured and the survival and revival of the Armenian people and Armenian culture. It is joined by sister memorials around the globe, from Paris to Sydney.

Memorials are supplemented by many exhibitions, some in prominent sites such as the US Holocaust Memorial Museum or the Shoah Memorial in Paris, the latter curated by prominent French-Armenian scholars on the centennial of the genocide. Consider further testimony by Armenian genocide survivors and witnesses, made available by the Visual History Archive of the USC Shoah Foundation, in the form of interviews conducted by J. Michael Hagopian, himself a survivor and creator of the Armenian Film Foundation, which produced the recordings.

Memorials and exhibits are but one type of reactive culture. More widespread and omnipresent is a vast body of literature, poetry, and film. The early classic by an Austrian Jew, Franz Werfel, Forty Days of Musa Dagh is followed by Armenian “art form the ashes.” I must limit myself to film. Consider the remarkable work by French-Armenian director Serge Avédikian. In “Nous avons bu la même eau” (we drank the same water), Avédikian travels to the town his grandparents were forced to flee. He seeks relics of Armenian culture and to learn about the memories of the town’s past among today’s Turkish residents (for an update: “Retourner à Sölöz”). Or consider “My Son Shall Be Armenian,” a 2004 documentary, directed by Hagop Goudsouzian. This film follows six people traveling through Armenia to gather stories and connect to their Armenian heritage. Such films add to curricular guidelines, memorials, official recognitions, and media reports, reaffirming the history of the Armenian genocide and constituting themselves reactive Armenian culture.


New societies and adaptive culture:

Not all cultural production of survivor generations is reactive in nature. Often dispersed around the globe, living in the diaspora, ethnic Armenians created new culture inspired by the encounter of their traditions and memories with the receiving societies. Very few examples must suffice. In the United States, William Saroyan’s beautiful prose sheds light on Armenian life in the American diaspora as does, more recently, Peter Balakian’s Pulitzer Prize winning work. In the world of film, Serge Avédikian may again serve as an example, from his Palm d’Or winning “Chienne d’Histoire” on the destruction of the dogs of Istanbul via his painful depiction of the 1988 Armenian earthquake in “Lux Aeterna” to his humorous “Lost in Armenia.”


Conclusions: On Haunting

In short, cultural genocide can brings massive and cruel destruction. It seeks to eliminate the treasures and the identity of entire peoples. Yet it is hard to wipe out a culture. Some will remain to haunt the perpetrators. Attempts like cultural genocide will even inspire new cultural creativity. This insight constitutes hope for the victimized peoples. It may also serve as a warning to the perpetrators of the world: you will not succeed, especially not in an age of (partial) human rights hegemony. That which you sought to destroy will come to haunt you.

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