An essay about the ashes from Majdanek in Sweden, and the Danish Royal Library’s ‘alternative’ exhibition
Two appalling events took place in Scandinavia last week. It all started when the Armenian Genocide Museum and Institute in Yerevan started putting together a small exhibition on Scandinavia and the Armenian Genocide about two years ago. The exhibit began touring the Scandinavian capitals this year, and came to the Danish capital, Copenhagen, about a month ago, where it 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 announced there would be an “alternative” exhibition arranged by the Turkish Embassy, with the announced title, “The so-called Armenian genocide.” What to do? Protest, of course. Indeed, the Royal Library has since garnered heavy criticism from the media and from historians over its decision. Nielsen, however, has 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 equally outrageous. This time it took place south of Sweden’s city of Lund, which is famous for its prestigious university. A Swedish art gallery there decided to organize a special exhibition, and was soon displaying the works of an artist, Carl Michael von Hausswolff, who used the ashes he had collected at Majdanek, a Nazi extermination camp in Poland, to paint his monochrome work. A painting made from the ashes of Holocaust victims for all to enjoy.
The controversial exhibition was taken down following protests from the Simon Wiesenthal Center—which called the painting a “desecration” and “abomination”—and the Jewish community of Malmoe. The “alternative” exhibition arranged by the Royal Library in Copenhagen, however, is still scheduled, and raises important questions regarding denial and revisionism. Yet, somehow these two incidents attracted little attention from the media, especially the Armenian media.
The target was two crimes, two genocides. And an unending effort to trivialize the crimes.
The aquarelle painter who used the ashes is silent, too. Or, what do I know, maybe he is enjoying the noise he created with his art. One thing is for sure, he cannot have missed the attention it received in the world press. A number of Polish media outlets highlighted the debate, like most Israeli newspapers, the Telegraph, and the French and Spanish press. Immediately there was talk of repercussions. Would von Hausswolff stand trial in Lund? Should the police be confiscate the “watercolor”? Should the police investigate whether this was a violation of “peace of grave”? Was this illegal?
Yet, Sweden kept silent. Not only was the painter silent, but so were the country’s political and religious organizations, and labor unions for artists. Apparently it is not repulsive in Sweden to desecrate victims of genocide.
If the silence in Sweden has upset me, the story from Copenhagen has enraged me. The silence was even greater when it came to the alternative Turkish exhibition in Denmark.
I was only able to find very low-key protests, and an attitude of “It is best to ignore.”
But denial is not new to Scandinavia.
Back in 2005, Uffe Østergaard, the director of a department for Holocaust and genocide studies in Copenhagen, was involved in the planning of a “neutral” institution or “place of dialogue” where the “question” of “the tragic events of 1915″ could be discussed by Armenian and Turkish scholars. The initiative was supported by the Turkish ambassador in Copenhagen, Fügen Ok. Østergaard had for several years publicly and unequivocally espoused his denialist views, regularly insisting that his was a “neutral” position between an Armenian and a Turkish point of view.
The presentation sounded perfectly innocent (the words “neutral” and “dialogue” are indeed attractive); so did the “alternative” story to the Armenian Genocide.
Back then genocide scholars Torben Jørgensen and Matthias Bjørnlund, in a public letter, wrote: “… 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 something fundamentally wrong with the above-mentioned attitudes. What we are witnessing is the total lack of courage and moral fortitude. In the name of objectivity, we are seeing revisionism and denial. But what is objectivity? It is, in simple terms, the attempt to openly account for the basis of a certain choice, a standpoint. But I would add the following: Objectivity is not the same as judgment, free or non-condemnatory.
I will be borrowing some ideas from Martin Wiklund, a researcher from the University of Gotheburg and author of the book History as a Court of Justice, in which he convincingly argues that historians should have the courage to maintain a moral attitude and take a stand. He suggests that the court as model of justice could be the guiding reference for a science that can never be judgment-free.
What is common to both history and a court is that both should inspire to administer justice, argues Wiklund, and maybe he has a point. In a regular court hearing, all parties are heard, all relevant facts are presented and duly taken into account. A judicial review means that an acknowledged authority (judges and jurors) objectively assesses the interests of all parties involved (plaintiff, counter defendant prosecutor, the law). We not only expect that the trial is fair and impartial, but that it leads to a verdict; it cannot just end with the mere understanding of the circumstances. In other words, in a court, objectivity is not a problem and it does not impede justice.
It is true that an historian has no requirement to pronounce a verdict, but s/he should not avoid doing it when needed. There is a widespread perception in academic circles that the present generation should not sit in judgment over previous generations, in part because our modern standards are time-bound. Yet this view is unreasonable. If it were truly the case, then our courts would not be able to achieve justice as laws, too, are expected to change over time.
Historians have no laws in their disposal to judge by, 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 fairness aspect may not be the sole aspect to account for, but it’s always the most relevant.
I am not saying that a historian should always point to the guilty and the innocent, the perpetrators and the victims; however, the historian has a responsibility to always present a fair trial based on the relevant facts of each case.
There is no knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Historians should bring to light the complexity of the history. Yet, they should do it not only to bring to light the truth, but also to improve and develop collective memory and historical awareness.
Maybe Martin Wiklund can show us the way out—in Denmark and Sweden, and most importantly in Turkey.