BY SUZANNE KHARDALIAN
Ashes from Majdanek in Sweden, and The Danish Royal Library’s alternative exposition.
Two very strange yet appalling events took place in Scandinavia last week.
The first took place in the Danish capital, Copenhagen. It all started when the Armenian Genocide Museum & Institute in Yerevan began putting together a small exhibition on Scandinavia and the Armenian genocide about two years ago. Then the exhibition began touring the Scandinavian capitals this year. It came to Copenhagen about a month ago and was set up in a room belonging to the Royal Library, yet located at the University of Copenhagen. The surprise came when the director of the Royal Library, Erland Kolding Nielsen in his opening speech at the exhibition announced that there would be a “complementary” exhibition arranged by the Turkish Embassy, entitled “The so-called Armenian Genocide.” What to do? Of course, protest. And indeed the Royal Library has attracted heavy criticism from the media and historians. But Erland Kolding Nielsen, the director of the Royal Library, denied that the institution buckled under pressure from Turkey.
“We have simply given them the opportunity to show their alternative exhibition,” he said.
So for now, it is business as usual. The exhibition is still scheduled.
The second story is even stranger, and this time it took place in the city of Lund in southern Sweden famous for its prestigious university. A Swedish art gallery decided to organize a special exhibition displaying the works of an artist, Carl Michael von Hausswolff. The artist had used ashes that he collected at Majdanek, a Nazi extermination camp in Poland, to paint his monochrome work. There you have a painting made from the ashes Holocaust victims for you to enjoy…
The controversial exhibition of the ashes of concentration camp prisoners soon was taken down after protests from the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Jewish community of Malmoe. The Simon Wiesenthal Center called the painting a “desecration” and “abomination.”
But the alternative exhibition, arranged by the Royal Library in Copenhagen, not only is still scheduled, but also has given rise to important questions pertaining to denial and revisionism.
Yet somehow these two incidents have received very little attention in the media—especially the Armenian media.
But why the silence in Lund, in Copenhagen, in Yerevan and in the world?
What is happening?
Here the target is two crimes—two Genocides. And, an unending effort to trivialize these crimes.
The watercolor painter who used ashes from the concentration camp at Majdanek is also keeping silent. Probably Mr. von Hausswolff ran away with his tail between his legs. Or, what do I know? Maybe he is enjoying the noise he created with his art. But one thing is certain: he can not have missed the burning attention it received in the world press.
A number of Polish media have highlighted the debate, like most Israeli newspapers, the Telegraph, as well as the French and Spanish press. Immediately there was talk about repercussion and a course of action. Others were bringing up important questions. Will von Hausswolff stand trial in Lund?
Should the police be confiscating the “watercolor”? Should the police investigate whether this was a desecration of “a grave”? Was this illegal?
Yet official Sweden kept silent. Not only the painter was silent, but also all the political, religious organizations and artists’ unions. Apparently it is not repulsive in Sweden to desecrate victims of Genocide.
If the silence in Sweden has upset me, the story from Copenhagen out aged me. The silence was even more deafening when it comes to the alternative exhibition in Denmark.
What I found were low-key protests and an attitude of “it is best to ignore it.”
But denial is not new to Scandinavia.
Back in 2005, a similar situation had come about when Mr. Uffe Østergaard, the director of the Department for Holocaust and Genocide Studies in Copenhagen, for several years kept his denialist views publicly and unequivocally known. Mr. Østergaard regularly insisted that he held a “neutral” position about the “Armenian” and the “Turkish” points of view vis-à-vis the “Armenian question.
Back then he too was involved in the planning of creating a “neutral” institution or “place of dialogue,” where the “question” of what Mr. Østergaard sometimes referred to not as genocide, but as “the tragic events of 1915” could be discussed by Armenian and Turkish scholars. This initiative was also being supported by the Turkish Ambassador in Copenhagen, Mrs. Fügen Ok.
The package as it was presented sounded perfectly innocent for those willing to turn a deaf ear. The words “neutral” and “dialogue” indeed seemed very attractive. So too was the “alternative “story to the Armenian genocide. But as it was back then, now too there are major problems associated with that.
Back then genocide scholars Torben Jørgensen and Matthias Bjørnlund had written in an open letter that “… Any assumption that there is a ‘neutral ground’ between an ‘Armenian’ and a ‘Turkish’ side of the ‘question’ of the Armenian genocide is plain wrong. When it comes to the historical reality of the Armenian genocide, there is no ‘Armenian’ or ‘Turkish’ side of the ‘question,’ no more than there is a ‘Jewish’ or a ‘German’ side of the historical reality of the Holocaust: There is a scientific side, and an unscientific side—acknowledgment or denial.”
There is fundamentally something wrong with the aforementioned forced symmetry. What we are witnessing is total lack of courage and moral attitude. In the name of objectivity we are seeing revisionism and denial.
But first the question: What is objectivity? The Simple answer is: to openly account for the basis for a certain choice, a standpoint. But I would add the following for more clarification: Objectivity is not the same as not judging or not condemning.
Among historians there is widespread skepticism about politicized and ideological interpretations. For many of us history is there “to describe, to explain and understand the past.” I guess many of us share the above outlook.
I will be borrowing some ideas form Martin Wiklund, a researcher from the University of Gotheburg, and the author of the book “History as a court of Justice.” In his book Wiklund convincingly argues that historians should have the moral courage to take a stand, suggesting that the Court as model of justice could be a guiding reference for science that can never be judgment-free.
Both history and a court share characteristics that should inspire the administering of justice, says Wiklund. Perhaps he has a point.
In a regular court hearing all parties are heard, all relevant facts are presented and then duly taken into account concerning the circumstances of an offense. A judicial review means that an acknowledged authority (judges and jurors) balance the interests of all involved parties. (the plaintiff/counter defendant prosecutor/law). We expect not only that the trial is fair and impartial, but also that it leads to a verdict and not just end with the mere understanding of circumstances.
In other words, in a court objectivity is not a problem and does not an impede justice.
At the same time, a historian has no requirement to pronounce verdict, but he or she should not avoid doing it when it is needed. There is a widespread perception in academic circles that the present generation should not sit in judgment over previous generations, in part for the reason that our modern standards are bound by time. Yet this view is unreasonable. If that were the case, then our courts would not be able to do justice as laws too are expected to change over time.
Historians have no laws in their disposal by which to judge, but with justice as a guiding principle, we can incorporate both past conditions and present knowledge in our evaluations.
Now, when we speak of justice we must talk about guilt and responsibility as well. Questions about guilt are closely related to living memory. Whether it is the Russian occupation of Finland in 1809 or the Israeli occupation of the West Bank or the Armenian Genocide, all belong in the same moral universe.
The fair aspect, perhaps, is not the only aspect to take into consideration, but it’s always the most relevant.
I am not saying that a historian should always identify the guilty and the innocent, the perpetrators and the victims. However, the historian has a responsibility to always make a fair trial based on the relevant facts of each case.
To understand historical matters only as an issue of the past, as if it were merely a question of interpretation of conflicts, is an obstacle to our cultural self-understanding and thus our historical course. There is no knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Historians should bring to light the complexity of the history, but they should do it not only to bring to light the truth but also to improve and develop the collective memory and historical awareness.
Martin Wiklund’s approach should become the guiding force in finding a way out, both in Denmark, Sweden and, most importantly, in Turkey.
Suzanne Khardalian is a documentary filmmaker based in Stockholm, Sweden. Her films include “Back to Ararat,” “I Hate Dogs,” and “Grandma’s Tattoos.” She contributes regularly to Asbarez.