A context for democracy. California requires public school study of one of histories harder lessons: Armenian genocide

WHEN Phil Depoian went to public school in California, his teachers never mentioned the Armenian genocide he heard of so often at home - resulting in cruel diaspora that brought his grandparents to the United States. But as a result of California legislation passed this fall, Mr. Depoian's daughter Katherine will hear about it.

The killing of some 800,000 to 1.5 million Armenians by Turkish nationalists between 1890 and 1920 (the first modern genocide) will be included in a comprehensive new human rights guide to be sent to all California social studies teachers this year. The guide views three other 20th-century genocides - the Nazi Holocaust, the Ukrainian famine in Russia, and the Cambodia of Pol Pot - in the light of democratic rights and responsibilities.

``We didn't want to shy away from unpleasantness, and we didn't want to teach democracy in a vacuum,'' says California Superintendent of Education Bill Honig, who handled what had become a curricular and political hot potato. ``We wanted to be tough - to really examine why democracy is important, what's at stake.''

The guide, a response to a 1985 law requiring a model human rights and genocide curriculum in California, was designed by several panels of historians and teachers, and is being commended by educators for its in-depth approach.

Armenian leaders are especially happy. Efforts to include in schools what for them is a central historic tragedy has been thwarted for decades. Theirs has been called ``the forgotten genocide'' (a title the California guide adopted). The brutal deportation, killing, and forced assimilation of an entire people (the first Christian nation) by nationalist-Muslim Turks was soon overshadowed by the millions of bodies piling up in the trenches of World War I, and the need after that war to smooth over tense diplomatic relations.

Indeed, so quickly had the Armenian genocide been forgotten that in 1939, Adolf Hitler, his armies poised on the Polish border, said the deaths of Polish men, women, and children were justified in order ``to gain the living space that we need. Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?''

The systematic annihilation of 6.5 million Jews in Hitler's camps caused the Armenian genocide to fade even further. The Holocaust, combined with a formidable Turkish lobby in the US that denies the severity of the Armenian tragedy, has kept it out of US schools.

But the Armenians have never forgotten. And now, with a new generation of Armenians coming to prominence in the US (California Gov. George Deukmejian is one), the Armenians have, in the past several years, been able to include their story in mandated school materials in New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey. (Mention of the genocide also appears in ``Facing History,'' Holocaust curriculum that is in high schools throughout the US and in Canada.)

``It's taken us several generations to establish ourselves,'' says Kurken Alaynak, who owns a construction company in Marina Del Ray, Calif. The first Armenian-American generation was penniless, having fled its homeland - and it focused on jobs. The next generation focused on education. But now, says Mr. Alaynak, ``We have time to set the record straight.''

Turkish groups campaigned hard against the new teachers' guide. Newspaper ads said the curriculum, which will include a short film, was ``hate provoking'' and unscholarly, and urged fellow Californians not to make the schools a ``place to settle the scores of the Old World.'' Many California legislators were sympathetic to the argument that the human rights angle ironically ignored the possibility of Turkish-American children being ostracized in schools.

But the state did not back down. The issue became one of historical truth: No records were kept of the harassment of Armenian villages before 1915. But when Turkey entered the war, the Armenian intellectual, political, and religious leaders in Istanbul were put to death in one evening and the deportation of all Armenians set in motion - events widely reported at the time, especially by US Ambassador Henry Morgenthau Sr.

Historian Arnold Toynbee, an eyewitness, reported that Armenian villagers being herded toward deportation centers were butchered by local gendarmerie, killed by peasants and Kurdish tribesmen, left to die by roadsides, drowned, or abandoned in the desert.

Wives and daughters were often spared if they agreed to marry Turks and accept Muslim teachings.

The amassed evidence, including internal Turkish documents, is overwhelming, California officals say. Said one, ``A million people don't just vanish.''

Mr. Honig made certain, however, that the human rights guide places blame on the Ottoman Empire, distinct from the current Turkish government. As for Turkish children in California schools, officials say that attention to events such as the Holocaust is not avoided on account of German-American children.

``All countries - including this one - have events that need to be rectified,'' Honig states. The idea is not to wring hands over atrocities, he says, but to learn how to avoid them by understanding how they fit into a democratic context - of laws, values, history.

Honig agrees with Czeslaw Milosz's assessment that a refusal to remember is a primary characteristic of this age - leading to an inadequate reading of the subtle dangers to a democracy.

Seizing power and authority is often achieved by distorting or erasing the past, historians say. Whether it is liquidation of the intelligentsia in Stalin's Russia, or the ``reeducation camps'' of Pol Pot's Cambodia - the will to power is accompanied by a rewriting of history in accord with present ambitions.

The California guide will have students examine how that process takes place.

Historian Paul Gagnon, whose recent study of democracy in high school world history books is receiving serious attention, says the focus on specific human rights and genocide materials, including the Armenian, is warranted, since California schools require three years of world history. Otherwise, he wouldn't recommend it. ``There's too much else to cover in one year.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.