Alan Whitehorn is a distinguished genocide scholar, writer, author of books, Emeritus Professor at the Department of Political Science of Royal Military College of Canada.
It took a long way for Alan Whitehorn to re-unite with his ancestral roots in Armenia, but not a long decision to start writing about genocide. Alan Whitehorn is an author of poems and books about the Armenian Genocide and has brought significant contribution to genocide recognition and education not only in Canada, but beyond its boundaries as well.
“My family is half Armenian and half English-Canadian. My grandmother was an orphan of the Armenian Genocide. All her family members were killed. She was discovered wandering in the streets. She didn’t know her name or age. She lived in refugee camps and orphanages from one place to another for over ten years – first in the Ottoman Empire, and eventually in Greece. Finally, she was adopted by an Armenian family in Alexandria, Egypt. My mother was born in Alexandria and met my father during WW II. My mother’s brother and sister and parents went to Soviet Armenia – an area they had never been before. They were to re-populate Armenia after WW II by coming to the homeland. In the case of my grandmother and my grandfather, they had been born in Western Armenia. From the mid-1940s to the 1960s the family was separated by the Cold War. We were in Canada, while my mother’s side of the family was in Soviet Armenia.” Alan Whitehorn adds with pride that his uncle is Armenak Alajajian, who became one of the most famous Soviet athletes from Armenia – the most famous Armenian Olympic basketball athlete. Armenak Alajajian was included in the 50 Greatest Euro League Contributors (2008) of FIBA European Champions Cup and Euro League history.
Going Back to Roots
Alan Whitehorn tried multiple times to go to both Soviet Armenia and the Republic of Armenia – the piece of Armenia that remained after the 1915 Armenian Genocide committed by the Ottoman Empire that wiped out Western Armenia’s indigenous Armenian population. He wanted to see his relatives and ancestral homeland, however, every time something would happen and interrupt his plans.
“Between the early 1960’s and 2004, I tried four times to go to Armenia, and something would happen and I wouldn’t make it. The first time was in 1963, the last time was in 2001 – when the planes stopped flying after September 11. I finally made it in 2005. It was an overwhelming experience. I was coming as a senior academic, but also someone who had lived for more than five decades in the diaspora. You come with a lot of expectations and stereotypes, and you discover how complex, how dynamic and how rich the history of Armenia is. As a professor of political science, you know a lot, but you learn more when you travel to a country for the first time. My trip to Armenia in 2005 was a particularly moving experience. I ended up writing a lot of poems about my visits to different sites, hearing stories, recalling what people were telling me about their family experiences and accounts about the Armenian Genocide. The book ‘Ancestral Voices’, which came out in 2007, is a collection of poems from my travels through Armenia in 2005.”
After his first visit to Armenia in 2005, Alan Whitehorn has been travelling to Armenia for five weeks every year till 2015.
In Search of Roots: the Path that Led to Writing About the Armenian Genocide
As a person who was always interested in self-education, Alan Whitethorn began writing as a political scientist about the Armenian Genocide almost by accident.
“Several decades ago I had heard a lot about the Armenian Genocide. There were not as many books on the Armenian Genocide as there are now. I wanted to learn more. I wanted to know more from primary sources and sources contemporary to the actual events. I went to the archives of the Toronto Globe (now the Globe and Mail) of 1915 and I went through the newspaper microfilm files and I looked at every page of every day for the entire year of 1915. I looked at what was reported, what we knew and what we didn’t know. I was surprised how much was written.
Not always on the first page, but a lot was written. We have seen the equivalent of Americans’ writings of what was in the New York Times and in other newspapers. I took notes, photocopies from the microfilm, which was of terrible visual quality – not like the modern digital technology now. I created a file for my own interest,” says Alan Whitehorn about his efforts to learn more about the Armenian Genocide. He put the files to the side, until about ten years later when a Consul from the Turkish Embassy had written to the Globe and Mail and was denying the Armenian Genocide. “This was too much. I went back to my files of ten years earlier. I went to my notes and photocopies and typed a letter to the Globe, responding to the Turkish Consul. I quoted from the 1915 headlines from the Toronto Globe articles and they published the letter. Who knew that a little letter in reply to someone who was denying the Genocide would become the beginning of a new phase in my life and career, both as an academic and human rights activist?”
Alan Whitehorn did not have any intent or plans to become a genocide scholar, but unexpectedly the Turkish Consul’s denial of the fact of the Armenian Genocide put him on that path. Following the publication of the response letter, Alan Whitehorn was invited to give a paper to a conference on ethnic and religious minorities in the Ottoman Empire. In his overall academic work Alan Whitehorn cooperated with Lorne and George Shirinian, both brothers and sons of orphans of the Armenian Genocide who had been “Georgetown Boys and Girls”. Over the years, Lorne Shirinian, as a writer and publisher, and George Shirinian, as Executive Director of Zoryan Institute, collaborated with Alan Whitehorn in writing about what happened to Greeks, Assyrians and Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. In 2001, Lorne Shirinian and Whitehorn “produced a little booklet that was intended to help the members of the Canadian Parliament and others to learn about the Genocide. It is called ‘The Armenian Genocide: Resisting the Inertia of Indifference’. We ended up going to Parliament Hill and giving copies to senators, members of the House of Commons and their staff and did lobbying. At that time, a number of key figures of the Armenian diaspora were lobbying very long and hard. To my pleasant surprise, we eventually succeeded first in the Senate, then the House of Commons and finally with the Prime Minister recognizing the Armenian Genocide. During the debates, some of my poems were read both in the Senate and the House of Commons during parliamentary discussions and debates,” said Alan Whitehorn and went on adding that it didn’t come easily, as there was pressure and intimidation attempts by a foreign government.
Working for Recognition and Education
An important phase that happened in efforts at education about genocide was when the Toronto District School Board started thinking of offering a course on genocide and human rights. Toronto is the largest district school board in Canada, and what Toronto does often is copied by other smaller boards. The discussion was what content and which case studies to include in the education curriculum. A number of scholars and the Armenian community lobbied to include the Armenian Genocide as one of the most important cases of the 20th century. The Turkish community, including its Embassy, lobbied against.
“As someone who is now increasingly writing on the Armenian Genocide and learning more and more, I wrote a letter making a case for why the Armenian case study should be included in such a course. The school board publicly circulated all written submissions and made it available to anyone who was interested. One of the interested parties was the Turkish government. It was interested to see who was writing to recommend that course. Not surprisingly, I experienced backlash. I was doing a lot of writing and lobbying for the recognition of the Genocide, and now I was writing a letter! I was also teaching a course on Genocide and Human Rights at the Royal Military College of Canada.” Professor Whitehorn added that a foreign government began to take greater interest and show significant unhappiness with the work he was doing on the Armenian Genocide and even tried to silence him. There were attempts to lobby and even to threaten the Canadian government to stop him from teaching not only on the Armenian Genocide and human rights, but in other areas as well.
One can frighten or try to silence an academic from publishing scholarly articles or poems, but that wasn’t for Alan Whitehorn. “As a result of that increased attention and threats from overseas to a Canadian academic, I wrote the book ‘Just Poems: Reflections on the Armenian Genocide’. To me, that’s one of the most important books that I have written, as it was clear there were threats not only to me, but the Canadian Government as well. There was a significant risk personally. The book is a collection of poems on the Armenian Genocide. Most of them were written in the troubling 2008-2009 period.” Many of the poems are available in the Armenian language as well. Aram Arsenyan, who is considered one of the best translators in Armenia, transcribed the poems to make them available in Armenia. “We also worked together on a collection of poems for the volume – ‘Return to Armenia’, which came out in 2012. It includes poems from older volumes, including ‘Ancestral Voices’, and new poems as well. It is in a bilingual format – the same poem is both in English on one page and in Armenian on the facing side.”
The First Encyclopedia in English on the Armenian Genocide
Several years before 2015, the 100th memorial of the Armenian Genocide, Alan Whitehorn was asked by ABC-CLIO, a major educational publishing house in the U.S., to contribute a number of entries on the Armenian Genocide, which would become part of a four-volume encyclopedia entitled ‘Modern Genocide’. “I was asked to do thirteen entries for this encyclopedia, and most importantly, the seven overview essays (introduction, causes, the perpetrators, victims, bystanders, consequences and international reaction) that would begin the large section on the Armenian Genocide.”
There are ten genocides covered in the volumes and the Armenian Genocide, as a major case study, is one of them. As there was increasing demand for a separate volume on the Armenian Genocide, Alan Whitehorn published in 2015 the first encyclopedia in English on the Armenian Genocide – ‘The Armenian Genocide: The Essential Reference Guide’. Any encyclopedia is a collaborative effort and Whitehorn received much-valued assistance from several people, particularly George Shirinian and Vartan Matossian.
There is a challenge when publishing something about the Armenian Genocide as the denial by the Turkish government is so determined, ongoing and malevolent. “When anything is written in such an encyclopedia it needs to be ‘bullet-proof’, which means that it needs to be not only accurate, but also that it can stand up to possible deliberate misinterpretation by those with malevolent intent. You have to be extra careful and need to do additional editing. You need to make sure it cannot be misconstrued. The book, consisting of 425 pages, has about 150 entries, a timeline, primary documents and an extensive biography. The goal of the encyclopedia was to answer questions regarding the Armenian Genocide for the general audience and scholars around the world,” said Alan Whitehorn. Shortly after the encyclopedia was published, he had major health issues and was unable to lecture and promote the encyclopedia and the publication of his next book was greatly delayed. “My sickness was so severe that I couldn’t even look at the computer screen for fifteen or twenty seconds because of pain. Now almost three years later, I am able to do work, albeit at a slower pace. In the new book that is going to be published next year, there is a chapter looking at an analysis of phases and stages of genocide. I am happy to say that the pioneering genocide scholar Gregory Stanton has modified and expanded his eight stages of genocide to ten stages now, and he included two stages similar to that which I had suggested in some of my earlier writings.”
Humanity Does Not Learn Sufficient Lessons From History
Genocide is not accidental – it goes through stages leading to genocide. What we see now happening in the Middle East has gone through many phases that describe the steps leading to genocide. Even now, one century after the Armenian Genocide, such genocidal acts are happening in the Middle East. Could the fact of past genocides not being recognized by the world be one reason why such atrocities are still happening? Could the international community’s failure to recognize genocides in the past unleash the hands of perpetrators and powers with malevolent intent to commit new genocides?
“Yes, we can make comparison with today. I think the more genocides you study and the more you look at the academic literature, the more you can see similarities in terms of not only causes but phases, stages, elements, or dimensions. A number of them are striking. The first is you have some kind of ethnic, linguistic or religious polarization and intolerance. You have separate and unequal divisions, but also non-acceptance. You add to that history of inequality, crises, or war. A war unleashes, first of all, more executive malevolent power and lessens democratic pluralistic constraints. The other thing is that amidst war and crisis there is a sense of urgency and willingness to do more desperate, violent and dramatic deeds. You combine that with individuals who are ambitious, who think authoritarian means are the swifter way. Then combine that with unacceptance of the ‘other’, that being different is unacceptable, intolerable, and link it with the tendency to portray the ‘other’, somehow in cooperation with an outside enemy – another government, another force. If you look at Syria today, as was the case in the Ottoman Empire of WW I, you see many of the same preconditions and, and ultimately a similar outcome.”
What is the role of public opinion of the great powers? What is the role of bystanders? Most of the world is composed of bystanders. Do they help to stop the destruction, conflict, the persecution? Or do they focus on other things? Perhaps they say it’s too far away and not their concern?
“As a political science professor, one of the things I tried to teach my students is that it is sadly easier to hate than to love, it is easier to be fearful than feel secure. It is partly because the outside environment seems to be more threatening. We do not feel in control of things, and this is even more so when war occurs. Thus, the challenge in Armenia in WW I, Rwanda in the 1990s and Syria and Sudan today is ‘How do you get the global community engaged in a sustained way?’. One of the striking things about Syria and the Middle East is many of the roots of the problems go back to the post–WW I settlements and agreements that didn’t really recognize the demographic, ethnic and linguistic composition in the Middle East. It was a peace treaty process that paid more attention to the interests of Britain, France and the bigger corporations. I think we are paying the price today because when the boundaries were drawn, they were not paying attention to the ethnic and linguistic composition and they were thinking in terms of economic and military influence of the French and British and others.”
“Genocide recognition is always important because I think we learn by knowing what happened, and sometimes we need to learn and to re-interpret. I am a strong believer in the importance of military hard power to stop genocide during urgent times, but it is not enough. You need the more time-consuming soft power of education. In the long-run, education is a firmer foundation. In the Ottoman Empire, genocides against the Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians and the others were stopped by foreign armies. The German Nazi genocide of the Jews, the Slavs and the Romani were stopped by the allied armies in WW II. The Cambodian Genocide was stopped by the Vietnamese army. We realize that military hard power as a last resort is needed to stop genocide, but in the long-run to fully put an end to and prevent genocides and stop them from reoccurrence, education is key.”
Armenia Today: A Need for Paradigm Change
When speaking of Armenia, Alan Whitehorn is not optimistic about the future of the South Caucasus. “One of the interesting things is that had the next book come out earlier, my warnings about the future of the South Caucasus and Armenia would have been a cautionary tale ahead of the 2016 conflict, but would not have been as stark as it would be today. I am much more pessimistic today than I was two or three years ago – and I was quite pessimistic then. The closing chapter of the next book suggests that there needs to be a paradigm change. Armenia cannot continue the path it has been on. It is not sustainable in terms of demographics and armed conflict.”
Alan Whitehorn’s new book will discuss ways and mechanisms of re-building peace in the South Caucasus. “Much of the book will be focused on the Armenian Genocide of course – the history leading up to the genocide, analytical writing of genocide leading to the Armenian case study, but also looking at Armenia’s future in a very frank way. One of the areas that increasingly people are agonizing over is the depopulation of Armenia. At some point, there is a critical mass and a time when you reach that critical mass. Coming from Canada, I suggested that we have a history in North America in which we experience waves of immigration as a way of re-generating ourselves. Maybe Armenia needs to reflect more deeply on its emigration crisis, how it occurs and from where it occurs. Maybe Armenia should do like Canada and accept immigrants more widely.”
In private conversations during his visits to Armenia Alan Whitehorn has tried to explain the benefits of immigration and the negative side of depopulation in Armenia, however he found resistance among local Armenians toward different immigration policies. “Unless they come to Toronto and Vancouver to see these incredibly diverse cities, I think it is very hard in Yerevan to conceptualize immigration waves and diversity and explain to people how they work. For example, this is one of my provocative examples – there are apparently about a thousand medical students in Yerevan from India. Many of them are able to pick up Armenian successfully for whatever linguistic reasons. Given that India is overpopulated, Armenia is underpopulated, maybe some of those medical students could be immigrants to Armenia. Many hard-working, bright Armenians had to go to Russia, Canada and other countries to find a better life. Migration is a key part of global history. What was striking for me after so many visits to Armenia was to see so many young people whose fathers, or sometimes both fathers and mothers, were out in other countries to work for so many years. It really hit me – the number of young twenty-year-olds that were living with grandparents.”
Alan Whitehorn is not optimistic about economic development prospects in Armenia and in the South Caucasus. “The economic conditions are less than promising in Armenia. Unless you have a greater sense of altruism in the government stratum and less entrenching of power and enriching private wealth, the country’s opportunities are not as good as they should be. Ultimately, closed borders and ongoing threats of war are going to stop Armenia from having a bright dynamic future.”
As war and other conditions prevent Armenia’s economy from growing, Alan Whitehorn believes that the status-quo in Artsakh is not a viable long-term option. “Weaponry on both sides of the conflict are getting more and more dangerous. The status-quo is not a viable option. As a political scientist, I say that. As a diaspora Armenian, I am always hopeful. If we could survive the Armenian Genocide, we can survive anything. The lectures I give on the South Caucasus and international relations are somehow more pessimistic than my lectures on genocide because for the Genocide the worst has passed, but for the South Caucasus the worst is likely ahead, unless there is a paradigm change.”
By Kamo Mailyan