Sunday, June 3, 2007

An Interview with Robert Melson

Revolution and Genocide
An Interview with Robert Melson
By Khatchig Mouradian
Aztag Daily
February 10, 2005

“All victims of disasters think their disaster is unique in the world. It's a bit like having someone very close to you die in your family; you really don't want someone rushing to you saying, "I'm sorry this person died, but let me tell you that somebody else also died!" says Robert Melson in this interview.

As a survivor of the Holocaust, Melson has reason to feel that the suffering of his people was unique. However, trained in comparative politics, he also finds it important to draw parallels between the Holocaust and other Genocides. “If you're going to have some understanding, you have to compare,” he notes. In his book “Revolution and Genocide: On the Origins of the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust” (University of Chicago Press, 1992), Robert Melson does exactly that.

For him, “uniqueness does not mean incomparabilty, and comparability does not mean equivalence.”

Robert Melson has received his PhD in Political Science from MIT (1967). His research covers genocide and ethnic conflict in plural societies. Currently, he is the President of the International Association of Genocide Scholars. His book, “Revolution and Genocide” won the PIOOM Award from Leiden University for the best book in the field of Human Rights for 1993 and was also nominated for the Grawemeyer award. His other publications include, “False Papers: Deception and Survival in the Holocaust” and “Nigeria: Modernization and the Politics of Communalism” (with Howard Wolpe).

In this interview, conducted by phone on January 13, 2005, we discuss a number of issues related to genocide.

Aztag-You define genocide as “a policy initiative that uses massacre and other means to eliminate a communal group or social class from a social structure.” This definition is, as you yourself have noted, both wider than the UN definition and narrower. Why did you opt for this specific definition?

Robert Melson- Well, what I was trying to do is to solve the problem of the UN Convention (on Genocide). Many argue that the UN definition is too narrow, because it doesn't include political and socio-economic groups. It is also argued that the definition is too broad because it doesn't make a distinction between genocide in whole and genocide in part. My definition takes into consideration both criticisms. However, I'm not fixated on definitions; What I'm really interested in is the process, the reality of what leads to genocide and what stops genocide. Genocide, to me, is a planned wide-scale destruction of innocent human beings in its largest sense, and what I was doing in the book was trying to be scholarly and more exact as far as definitions are concerned, but it's not the most important thing.

Aztag- In one of your lectures, you say, "My parents began to discover the truth about what had happened to the jewish people, but it was knowledge without understanding." Was it the need to "make sense of the insensible" that shaped your research interests?

Robert Melson- Yes, I think that's a good way of putting it. I'm trained as a political scientist, and as I was doing political research I found that on the one hand I was practicing my profession and on the other hand, what was uppermost on my mind and what was most worrying to me was my past; the Holocaust, the destruction of my family. So the personal solution for me was to bring my research and my thinking in line with my interest and that's what I did; I have to say that it took a number of years to work this out.

Aztag- And why is this “understanding” important for a survivor of genocide?

Robert Melson- That's a very good question. Understanding doesn't bring anybody back to life, I'm not even sure understanding helps to prevent future genocides --although people have stressed that without understanding, prevention is not possible. At its most fundamental psychological basis, without understanding you're at the mercy of the past; you feel that you have no control over it, you feel that you're victimized by it. Although understanding does not start a process of rebuilding the past, or bringing back the people who are victimized, but at least it gives you some control over your own thoughts. Understanding is, in a way, a selfish process, it's a way of dealing with your own crisis. I guess the analogy would be someone who has a serious illness --let's say cancer-- and knows it's a terminal cancer. One of the things he would do is to try to understand cancer; this won’t make the cancer go away, but the understanding helps him to deal with it. Maybe that's as good as an answer as I can give you.

Aztag- What about comparing?

Robert Melson- I'm not a historian, I'm not a sociologist and i'm not a psychologist; I do comparative politics. So I naturally use the methodology and the approaches that I've been trained with, and I happen to think that it's the best way. I think that is the way; if you're going to have some understanding, you have to compare. Comparison is, in a way, the basis of all science. Without it, you can't understand or even measure something! You have too have a reference point; how big is the lamp that is on my desk? The question is, “compared to what?”

Aztag- And being a Holocaust survivor and a researcher of the Holocaust, there is the sensitive issue of uniqueness, which can make comparison a harder endeavor, can't it?

Robert Melson- I guess all victims of disasters think their disaster is unique in the world. It's a bit like having someone very close to you die in your family, you really don't want someone rushing to you saying, "I'm sorry this person died, but let me tell you that somebody else also died!" You're not in the mood for that; it’s not appropriate. However, if you're a physician and you're trying to understand a disease, you look for different cases of this disease --again going back to the notion of comparison--to be able to see under what conditions does this disease manifest itself.

Some parts of the Jewish community have been sensitive to the issue of comparison, both because the Holocaust was recent and so many people were affected by it, but there is another reason the uniqueness issue came up for the Jews; very often they were told "Well, yes, it's terrible that there was Holocaust, but many other people have suffered, so don't make such a big fuss about it, be normal like everybody else." And the honest reaction has been "Give us a chance to grieve a little bit! Give us a chance to bury our dead before you tell us to become normal." So there was a kind of an emotional reaction toward the comparison. But by now - we're not in 1955 - by 2005, with the Cambodian and Rwandan Genocide and with increased awareness on the Armenian Genocide, I think most people do recognize that there are more things in the world than one particular people being destroyed.

Aztag- Can you please briefly explain the argument you present in “Revolution and Genocide”?

Robert Melson- The main points are both in the introduction and the conclusion of the book. I was trying to compare the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust, and I was trying to look not only into the ideology of the Young Turks or of the Nazis, but also the circumstances under which both of these Genocides occured. A revolutionary transformation that occured in the Ottoman Empire with the coup against Abdul Hamid, and the circumstances were WWI. And then if you look at the Holocaust, it was the coming to power of Hitler which was also a kind of a revolution - he made it quite clear that he was a revolutionary and that the Nazis were revolutionaries - and the circumstances were WWII. So in both cases you have revolutionaries coming to power and then a genocide occuring during wartime.

And then a question comes up: Why? What is it about revolution and wartime that can, under certain circumstances, lead to genocide? I think the simple idea behind it is that revolutionaries try to transform their societies in profound ways, and one way to transform a society is to eliminate groups that don't fit into the identity that the revolutionaries would like their society to have. And what war does is that it enables these radical measures to take place, because wars close off societies and they call for military solutions to social problems. Now it's not true that every revolution leads to genocide - the American Revolution didn't lead to genocide, the English Revolution didn't lead to genocide - but under some conditions, some revolutions do lead to genocide. Similarly, not all genocides are products of revolutions. The destruction of Native Americans and the destructions of peoples in Africa were products of Imperialism, not revolution.

Aztag- When I was reading your book, I kept thinking about other cases of genocide, the Cambodian Genocide, the Rwandan Genocide…

Robert Melson- Yes, I just wrote and article about this in the book "The Specter of Genocide" edited by Robert Gellately and Ben Kiernan. In that chapter, what I do is extend the analysis from the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust to Rwanda. And again we have the pattern of revolution in the 1950s – the revolution in 1959 - and the Hutu coming to power, displacing the Tutsi, articulating a racialist ideology, the Hamitic ideology claims that the Tutsis were not originally a part of the nation, that they had come from Somalia or Ethiopia and, therefore, they ought not to have any power and they ought to be demoted from any postions that they have; very soon after, massacres occured. When you talk to people in Rwanda, they tell you that the genocide did not start in 1994, noting that the process of the genocide started in 1959. The war was the war between RPF (the Rwanda Patriotic Front) starting in 1990. Therefore, again, in Rwanda you have the conditions of revolution and war leading to genocide.

Aztag- What about Darfur? The events that have lately caused the displacement of more than a million people and the death of thousands of others; many are calling what is happening there genocide, others are falling short of using the word.

Robert Melson- Again, I know that president Bush and the US Congress have used the term "genocide", then again, if you go back to the UN definition, it talks about genocide in part and genocide in whole. Genocide in whole means extermination; this is what happened to the Tutsis, the Armenians, and the Jews in Europe. I think in Darfur there is genocide, but it's more like ethnic cleansing, it resembles more what happened in Yugoslavia, where people were being driven out and were being “punished” for political activities; this is not a planned extermination, but it's bad enough! Tens of thousands people have been killed already, and if there's not enough support, more people will be killed, so it is a genocide in part, but it is not the kind of extermination that I wrote about.

Aztag- When talking about the causes of the Armenian Genocide, Dadrian and Suny do give a minimal credit to the “provocation thesis”, according to which the actions of the Armenians caused the perpetrators to react with violence, but you completely dismiss it.

Robert Melson- I think the difference between Dadrian and Suny and me is a matter of emphasis. We all recognize that there were Armenian bands, that Russian troops committed atrocities against Turkish villagers in the Eastern Vilayets and so on. The real question is: Did these provocations cause genocide? Bernard Lewis and Turkish "explainers" argue that the provocations were the basis of genocide. My argument was rather simple, in any provocation, whether it's the Armenian genocide or when you're provoked by a colleague at work, how you react doesn't depend on the provocation, it depends on you-- what you are thinking , what your attitude is towards your colleague. Your action is not an automatic reaction to the provocation. If you're walking down the hall, and a colleague accidentally bumps into you, and you push him hard, your reaction is not automatically a product of his action. It's a product of you being mad that morning or disliking that person or being an aggressive person yourself. Consequently, to understand the actions of any person who is conducting violence you have to understand what motivates that person; it's not enough to look at what the victim has done. The victim might have done something, or the victim might have done nothing. That's it, that's really the basis of the argument. So what I was trying to argue is “let's look at what was happening to the Young Turks, what was going through their minds, rather than what the Armenians were doing.”

Aztag- You say in one of your papers that people sometimes emphesize the nationalism of the Armenians without looking at the nationalism of the Turks.

Robert Melson- Exactly. I mean, sure, there was nationalism - the Dashnaks, the Henchaks- yeah, there were nationalist movements. but what about the Turks?

Bernard Lewis's book "The Emergence of The Modern Turkey" is a wonderful book, a great book, but when it comes to the Armenian Genocide, his treatment is very strange. It's as if somehow the Turks became some kind of an automatic pilot, and had no conceptions of their own, no ideology of their own. Their ideology was nationalism, of course.

Aztag- What are your research interests currently?

Robert Melson- Well, since then, I've thought about the Rwandan Genocide and I wrote that article on that. I've also written a memoir of my family's experiences during the war, it's called "False Papers."

Lately, I've been thinking about prevention. At some point, one has to think, “This analysis should be helpful, it should lead to helpful policies”. Therefore, in terms of the study of genocide, I've become interested in the question of prevention and the question of resistance. These are two questions I've been thinking about, and, probably, will write about comparatively, using the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, and the Rwandan genocide.

I teach a course here on the Holocaust and Genocide, and very often, one of the questions the students ask me is: "Why didn't these people resist being killed?" And my answer is: "Because they were not prepared to resist. They were not an armed population, and they were being attacked by an armed organisation; usually it takes a while to organise resistance, and by the time that while has passed by, it's too late, most of the people are already dead.

Aztag- What cases of resistance do you have in mind?

Robert Melson- Exactly. For example the resistance at Van, or the resistance at the Warsaw Ghetto, the resistance in parts of Rwanda. In some cases there was resistance, in many cases there was none! And very often what the victims do is they blame themselves, or they blame their culture.

The very same generation that suffered the Holocaust has been accused of being too aggressive, too armed, and too expansive. On the one hand, it's too passive, on the other hand it's too aggressive. so I don't think that cultural explanation is very good, I think a better explanation is the situational/structural explanation; people who don't expect to be killed are not prepared to resist, and therefore, they won't resist! And it's a kind of a waste of time to look at the culture and try to explain, in that context, why they don't resist. So that's my thesis.

There have been heavy-duty studies of Jewish cultures, of how, for centuries, the Jews looked the other way while violence was meted out to them, because they had no chance to resist, just like the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.

The fact of the matter is that, if people can get organised, and if they can get weapons, they resist.

Aztag- This can also make the provocation thesis less and less sustainable, doesn't it?

Robert Melson- That's a good way of putting it. If people are so provocative, why didn't they resist? And that's right! I mean, that's a very good point that you're making, at the same time people are accused of provoking the genocide, and they're also accused of being passive and not resisting. The other thing is this whole issue of denial. They provoked the genocide, they were too passive, but of course, there was no genocide! It's a wonderful package of demonizing and humiliating the victims all over again. First they're killed, then they're told they were killed because they provoked the killing, then they're told they should have resisted, then they're told they weren't killed! It's a great package!

Aztag- Historians and political scientists often speak about comparative genocide as a way of understanding and then being able to prevent genocide. But the fact of the matter is that we say “Never Again” and then we have it again and again and again, so how helpful is it? Isn't everything in the end about real politics? One might think: "No matter how much you compare and analyze, you won’t change much, because everything boils down to real politics and the interests of superpowers.”

Robert Melson- Well I think there's a grain of truth in what you're saying. In Samantha Power’s book "A problem from Hell: America and the age of Genocide", the basic argument is that it’s not an accident that the United State does not prevent genocide; it doens't want to prevent genocide, unless its interests, as you put it, are immediately hurt. It doens't want to risk its people, it doens't want to risk its wealth. We have beautiful words, we have beautiful sentiments but nothing much happens, and the best example of that is Rwanda, because the Holocaust occured under conditions of World War, and so did the Armenian Genocide and it was very hard to intervene. However, in Rwanda, a few battalions of US Marines could have prevented the whole business. The Real Politic played an important role.

I guess scholars and researchers contribute a little bit, but they cannot substitute their decision making for the decision making of people in power. I think what they can show is that there are signs, that a genocidal situation is developing, and that prevention in an early stage is not that expensive. It's not necessarilly the sending in of troops and of having a loss of life on the part of those people who are saving others. For example in the Rwandan Genocide, there was call for genocide on the radio and the US and the UN didn't want to jam that radio for example. There were public statements made by people in power threatening genocide, no one reacted to it, no one said "look, we're going to impose severe sanctions on you, we're going to freeze your external balances, bank accounts".

There are many things that can be done if people pay attention to signs, to warning signs, and I think that this is where scholars can be useful. What are the some warning signs that a genocide is about to occur? I do think that if you have a deeply divided society that’s undergoing a revolution, heading into war, I think those are warning signs; people can pay attention to it or not pay attention to it, but at least as a scholar, you can say "look, why don't you pay attention to that early and not before it's too late?" That's where you can be helpful, but of course, our influence is limited. I'm a professor, I type! I don't command armies!

Aztag- And you might also help create greater awareness…

Robert Melson- Sure, sure. The world is complicated, it's not only real politique. Out there, there is a worldwide human rights sensitivity, people do react to, for example, the Tsunami. You have the tsunami in Indonesia and Sri Lanka, the world got mobilized around this right away, millions of dollars were spent to help people and so on...Why wasn't this mobilization there for when Rwanda occured? So there is a human rights movement, it's almost like an anti-slavery movement in the 19th century, in the 20th and the 21st century there are lot of people around the world who are concerned about these things and they can be mobilized for action and they should be mobilized for an action, but there's also Real Politique; people who are in power define things narrowly, and they pay attention to public opinion, they pay attention to the costs of actions, and if the actions are expensive in terms of money and lives they won't do it. If the actions are not so expensive, and there was public pressure to do something, they might do something, I'm stressing the obvious here, I think.

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