Open Wounds: Armenians, Turks, and a Century of Genocide by Vicken Cheterian (review)
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Reviewed by
Cheterian, Vicken – Open Wounds: Armenians, Turks, and a Century of Genocide. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. 393

Open Wounds is an appropriate title for a book whose author set himself the task of describing and analyzing the centennial history of paralyzing denial and dysfunctional Turkish-Armenian relations. His narrative covers the period between the Tanzimat or reform era (1839-1876) and 2014 and includes events in the South Caucasus during the Tsarist, Soviet, and post-Soviet eras.

“I have often wondered why the fate of the Armenians has remained largely confined to and discussed by only the Armenians themselves”, complains Cheterian in the concluding chapter of his book (p. 299f.). One possible answer is that with rare exceptions the memoirs of Armenian survivors were translated into international languages only decades post factum, which excluded nearly all non-Armenian readers. More generally speaking, most genocide survivors are not at all in a situation to gain the attention of outsiders by publicly writing about the unspeakable and the unimaginable. Although the written word is central to the identity of Armenians and Jews, many members of the first two post-genocidal generations felt silenced, even among Armenians and Jews. Silence over sexual violence, compulsory prostitution, or prostitution to escape starvation is largely explained by the shameful character that these experiences have maintained within traditionally patriarchal Armenian society. Before physically destroying their victims, the Ottoman tormentors had frequently devastated their human dignity to a degree that until today ermeni (Armenian) is an epitome for the most contemptible in Turkish society. Against this background of outmost degradation it is usually the generation of grandchildren that finally succeeds to convey genocidal experience in biographical prose, ranging from faction to fiction, for purposes of documentation, protest or merely as a “mean of survival” (“Überlebensmittel”), as the Jewish-German survivor and author Edgar Hilsenrath has dubbed his own post-genocidal literary activity. In the large Armenian Diasporas of North America and France the third generation published since the 1980s an impressive wealth of biographies, basing on the sufferings and the survival of their ancestors. With the genocide’s centenary of 2015 drawing closer, these biographical narratives were complemented by monographic accounts whose Armenian authors tried to summarize their nation’s diversified experience of the twentieth century.

V. Cheterian interprets the memoirs of Armenian survivors as resistance against oblivion and denial, and offers summaries of the academic research of U.S. and French scholars Richard Hovannisian, Ronald Suny, Raymond Kévorkian, and, most of all, Vahakn N. Dadrian, whose “seminal work” Cheterian believes continued to influence students of genocide studies even today (p. 115). This high esteem he holds for such scholarship is reflected in the reference to Dadrian’s highly disputable monograph German Responsibility in the Armenian Genocide (1996), which in Open Wounds serves as the main source for Cheterian’s section of same title (pp. 115-199), despite the fact that Dadrian’s inconsistencies have been abundantly criticized by scholars. [End Page 662]

Cheterian’s account also relies on the Turkish contribution to the rediscovery and research of the Armenian genocide. His biographical portraits of the human rights defender and publisher Ragıp Zarakolu and the sociologist Taner Akςam dwell on their Marxist backgrounds. Arguably, leftist proclivities combined with anti-imperialist and anti-Western convictions prevented many Turkey-born intellectuals – including Armenians like the journalist and civic rights defender Hrant Dink – from taking interest into the crimes over earlier generations. Regrettably, Cheterian does not fully reveal what made Zarakolu and Akςam exceptional challengers of taboos and groundbreakers against all ideological and generational odds. Maybe the reason why is that there is a familial tradition of rescuing victims, as in the case of Zarakolu? Or, perhaps belonging to an ethnic minority that experienced state persecution before, as in the case of Akςam whose background was Meskhetian?

Despite the many events, phenomena, and personalities which are included into Open Wounds, Cheterian’s account leaves his readers uncertain about the ambivalent results of Turkish-Armenian relations during the last centenary. On the one hand, the Turkish state has forever lost its monopoly on the interpretation of modern Turkish history. The...