Knowing about genocide – Fellows’ seminar by Joachim Savelsberg

“Knowledge, collective memories and representations of genocides can never be taken for granted. Produced through social processes, they are always contested,” said STIAS fellow Joachim Savelsberg of the Department of Sociology at the University of Minnesota. “In my current book project I’m hoping to deepen my focus on genocide and take it from a socio-legal to a broader sociology of knowledge perspective.”

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STIAS fellow Joachim Savelsberg during his seminar presentation on 1 November 2018

Savelsberg introduced the basic concepts of his work by firstly focusing on the subject of his recent book (Representing Mass Violence), namely the violence in the Darfur region of Sudan from 2003, and then introducing his current project, which focuses on the mass violence committed against the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire in 1915-1916.

He pointed out that the twentieth century was characterised by mass violence and genocide with R. J. Rummel, in his book, Death by Government: Genocide and mass murder since 1900, estimating that up to 200 million people were killed by government action, not including the war dead.

“But,” he said, “the century was also the first in which humankind tried to establish laws and institutions in response to mass atrocities, including the establishment of the International Criminal Court. This led to an increase in prosecutions, an unprecedented wave of apologies by heads of state, and subsequent decline in deadly violence by both government and rebel groups.”

“This comes after millennia of celebrating leaders responsible for mass violence and atrocities,” he added. “Such trials have had a deterrent effect but have also been seen as enforcing judicial ritual – celebrating the collective good.”

“However, simultaneously, denial is rampant, at times strategically planned, and supported by a calculated reluctance to intervene,” he continued.

“The judicial process has a powerful effect on collective understanding, but the stories are told through a specific lens and focus on a few individuals,” he added. “There are restricting rules of evidence and it is a binary process – seeking to find guilty or not, not recognising shades of grey. These are the constraints we buy into when we accept history through a judicial lens. Trials combined with other instruments such as truth commissions therefore seem to be more effective.”

“Most events have competing narratives,” he said.

“In my book on Darfur – where 300 000 lives were lost and 3 million people displaced – I tried to look at how things were depicted through different lenses – a human rights perspective, a humanitarian aid perspective, and a diplomatic perspective. I examined over 3000 news reports in eight countries and found that the judicial narrative prevailed in the media, albeit to different degrees in various countries.”

“The response to genocide and mass violence usually encompasses three strategies – silencing, denying and acknowledging. Sociologist and criminologist Stanley Cohen has pointed out that denial falls into three types – literal – ‘it didn’t happen’, interpretive – ‘it happened but it wasn’t genocide’, and implicative – ‘I couldn’t do anything to stop it happening’.”

Savelsberg’s current project explores the struggles between silencing, denial and acknowledgement and how these impact on collective representations and memories. He aims to understand how genocide knowledge is mediated to the public through social organisations, influential individuals and the mass media.

“I explore first the negotiation of knowledge about genocide through social interaction and the resulting sedimentation of knowledge in collectivities,” he said.

“We need to understand what we mean by collective memory. Our notions of events are reinforced and acknowledged by the collective. Collective repertoires of knowledge build up and eventually become the property of carrier groups.”

To understand this in detail he has collected law texts, legislative records, participant interviews, media reports, and documentary films that emphasise the radically distinct repertoires of knowledge that developed around one event – the Armenian Genocide. He provided examples of these.

“Two different knowledge sets – those of Armenians and Turks provide completely different facts about the dimensions of the violence. That of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, is much closer to Armenian depiction, but more cautious.”

“Collectives may develop radically opposing sets of ideas. Groups then operate with elaborate rituals and symbols to reaffirm their belief in their version of history. These are usually constructed, group specific and often in flux and, in some cases, are used to fulfill various agendas which can lead to conflict between the collectives.”

“Towards the in-group, rituals seek to solidify knowledge. Towards the out-group, including the antagonists, open conflict may unfold in the realms of law and politics,” he said.

In discussion, he spoke about how Turkey currently responds to the events of 1915. “Five years ago the President of Turkey expressed regret for the suffering of the Armenians but did not acknowledge the responsibility of the Turkish state. There is a growing Turkish intellectual community which writes critically about the genocide but, at the same time, Turkey is currently embracing rituals linking back to the Ottoman Empire.”

He also addressed the challenges inherent in examining an event that took place over 100 years ago. “There are some advantages,” he said. “Knowledge has time to develop and we can analyse that development.”

“There is rich literature on the effect of generation on memory,” he added. “We always have to question the intention of changing representations of memory – depending on the shape they take, they may secure peace, but sometimes they are used to legitimise future violence, even war, against those seen as responsible for the original violence.”

“What is interesting is what narratives exclude. There is judgement in how knowledge fits with the historical record. As a sociologist I must take knowledge seriously no matter how disturbing.”

Savelsberg indicated that his interest in the area arose from his own childhood. “I grew up in Germany in the 1950s and 60s when there was a complete silencing of the Holocaust. Through my work I feel a need to understand the conditions and consequences of memory when it comes to mass violence.”

He acknowledged that his time in South Africa, which has included interactions with South African colleagues about their experiences of Apartheid and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, will greatly benefit his project.

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Christoff Pauw

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