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Book Review


Harry Harootunian, The Unspoken as Heritage: The Armenian Genocide and Its Unaccounted Lives. Durham: Duke University Press, 2019. Pp. ix + 178. Notes, Bibliography, and Index. $24.95 (paper).


     "I have never been convinced," writes Harry Harootunian near the beginning of The Unspoken as Heritage, "that the question of the Armenian genocide or any comparable instance of mass murder is reducible to mobilizing more historical evidence to support one or another interpretation" (4). Even those historical debates that are conducted in good faith, that is, those excluding denialists and so-called genocide "revisionists," can sometimes focus so much upon carefully counting the corpses that they miss the lives of the humans subjected to such persecution. These include not only the immediate victims whose deaths are tabulated to ensure that said event meets the criteria for some specific definition of genocide, but also the survivors, and indeed all of those whose everyday, anonymous lives only became the subject of history through the intrusion of atrocity. And this extends into the future, beyond the confines of the event itself, for survivors quite often do not or cannot speak about what they have endured, or even who they were, leaving for their descendants an inheritance defined by silences, a determination "to never speak of the calamity and loss that befell them and from which they barely and often accidentally escaped" (6).

     This was the experience of Harry Harootunian, whose parents both survived the Armenian Genocide but who is perhaps best known as an expert in Japanese history. Growing up, he heard very little from them about their lives before their eventual migration to the United States, and as the son of immigrants desperate to acclimate himself to mainstream American life, he made little inquiry about their pasts while they yet lived. Now, at a time in his life when he simply cannot obtain answers to the questions he wished he had asked, he offers in The Unspoken as Heritage a meditation upon their probable lives and his own upbringing as the son of survivors. His is not a history of the genocide but, instead, an acknowledgement of the limits of scholarship in fully representing the meaning of such an event: "Broken lives hinted at by partial memories cannot be made whole by resituating them in the context of a coherent history" (27).

     Harootunian opens by reflecting upon the position of ethnic groups in the United States of his youth, observing that "the size of the community and its capacity to generate wealth mattered and constituted assistance to successful assimilation," as well as to represent "important constituencies especially in urban areas, where their appeals could be heard" (17). Armenians, as one of the smallest ethnic groups, thus had little voice in local or national affairs, which only reinforced the silences that permeated their individual lives, as they could not advocate for recognition of their collective experience. In addition, at the level of the family, the "loss or absence of affection among survivors of genocide must," according to Harootunian, "be calculated as one of its greatest consequences, resembling an emotional emptying out and, perhaps, the principal condition of surviving its inhuman excess that demands unyielding silence" (56). The author also testifies to an emphasis upon the pre-genocide past in the diaspora community, one that elides attempts to inhabit the present and thus build a future, at the same time that the historical heterogeneity of Armenian life becomes homogenized through the collective experience of the genocide.

     But the genocide did not merely dispossess Armenians of their pasts and their identities, and to focus upon the psychological or cultural is to miss the material motivations behind atrocity. As Harootunian argues, "the quest for accumulating precapitalist wealth to underwrite the formation of capitalism is invariably accompanied by what can only be described as a formula combining genocidal murder and massive theft, sanctioned accumulation and directed by some form of political authority, whether an emergent state or failing empire" (87). In other words, the actions of the emerging Turkish state that perpetrated the genocide resemble what Karl Marx called primitive (or original) accumulation, or the violent (and repeated) appropriation of wealth from targeted groups to facilitate the transition to a new economic and political order. This perspective thus resituates the massacres of Armenians not as "an effect of a pointless conflict between nation states or as a form of collateral damage" that was an outgrowth of World War I but, instead, as one of the central events underlying the rise of modern Turkey (97).

     Harootunian's work is part of a growing effort to acknowledge these unaccounted lives in global history, calling to mind recent books such as Kitty Millet's The Victims of Slavery, Colonization and the Holocaust: A Comparative History of Persecution. Millet's work aims to center the experience of victim groups over the intentions of perpetrators. This allows for a comparative study of the victims of various forms of persecution through a focus upon the reality of "social death," or the awareness that genocide, slavery, and colonization not only produce certain body counts but also strip individuals of the cultural context in which their lives make sense. Harootunian speaks of this reality when he writes of his parents: "I have often wondered if they saw their coming together as a contingent effect of the genocide and whether they continued to see the bonding of their relationship in this light, and how they thought about a relationship thrown together out of the random chaos of genocidal destruction that literally wiped out their collective cultures of reference and histories that cemented their everyday lives" (31). This emphasis upon the experience of social death defies "the domination of quantitative measure" that makes of history "the exclusive pantheon of the immortalized victims of genocide who had the proper credentials for entry" (33). It demands that historians do more than simply count the corpses; rather, they must, in the presence of the unspoken, use their informed imaginations to recreate what such an experience might have been like, subjectively.

     But Harootunian's interpretation of the Armenian Genocide as an instance of primitive accumulation also demands that historians and teachers avoid the clichés of ethnic or religious differences when seeking explanations for historical atrocities. The psychologizing of hatred, which became popular following the Holocaust, has not well served the efforts of peacemaking but, instead, has deluded even well-meaning world leaders into believing that the cessation of conflict must depend upon the segregation of ostensibly conflictual ethnic groups, as exemplified by the Dayton Accords or the creation of new nations to serve as supposed havens for designated ethnic groups, with South Sudan and the Republic of Kosovo recently joining the likes of Armenia and Israel. However, by endorsing the notion that ethnic groups must have their own separate nation-state, the creation of such nations only mirrors the rhetoric of genocide and reifies the invisibility of the material motivations underlying it.

     The Unspoken as Heritage is a thought-provoking book that brings decades of scholarly rigor to bear upon an individual narrative that speaks to how events more than a century old continue to echo down to the present day in ways both personal and political. This makes it an invaluable book for the world history classroom, for the after-effects of the Armenian Genocide which Harootunian details illustrate both a clear connection between the past and present and the fact that no local or regional event ever really exists outside a larger, world context. After all, the genocide was motivated in part by emerging models of the nation then sweeping the earth, and, in turn, the genocide inspired the likes of Adolf Hitler to pursue a policy of the extermination of the Jews. Too, the global Armenian Diaspora, of which Harootunian's parents were a part, means that personal connections to this history exist in all corners of the globe, and demands for the recognition of the genocide continue to shape international politics. By offering his own story, and that of his family, up for reflection and analysis, Harootunian has also advanced an important argument for how the scholars and students of history might best try to confront and understand cases of atrocity.

Guy Lancaster holds a Ph.D. in Heritage Studies from Arkansas State University and serves as the editor of the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas, a project of the Central Arkansas Library System, as well as an adjunct graduate professor at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service and a freelance writer for the Arkansas Times magazine. He is the author and editor of multiple award-winning books on racial violence, including Racial Cleansing in Arkansas, 1883–1924: Politics, Land, Labor, and Criminality; Bullets and Fire: Lynching and Authority in Arkansas, 1840–1950; and The Elaine Massacre and Arkansas: A Century of Atrocity and Resistance, 1819–1919. You may reach him at


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