As has been widely noted in the media, April 24, 2015 was the one-hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the Armenian genocide. Following a decision by the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) to eradicate the “enemy within”, on that date in 1915 about 250 Armenian leaders were arrested in Istanbul and deported to Ankara, where most of them were executed. The CUP was the de facto government of the Ottoman state, installed in a military coup by the so-called Young Turks in 1908. Three members of this junta directly responsible for the genocide were the so-called Three Pashas: Enver Pasha, minister of war; Talaat Pasha, minister of the interior; and Djemal Pasha, military commander in Syria, a central location of the anti-Armenian campaign. All three men escaped Turkey in 1918 when Allied forces occupied Istanbul and forced the rump Ottoman government to hold courts-martial against war criminals, notably the Three Pashas. Enver is the only one of the three who died in bed (in Turkestan, Central Asia); Talaat was assassinated in Germany by an Armenian group aptly called “Revenge”; Djemal was assassinated in Georgia by another member of the same group. Kemal Pasha (later called Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic in 1923) was accused by some Armenians to have also had a hand in the genocide, but this charge has not been accepted by outside historians (Kemal severed his ties with the CUP before the Great War and during it was busy defeating the Allies in Gallipoli).The 2015 anniversary was eerily timely, since it coincided with another genocidal project against Christians initiated by ISIS in Iraq and Syria, imitated by its ally Boko Haram in northern Nigeria. Once again, Christians—men, women and children—were singled out for mass murder, enslavement or expulsion in areas under the control of radical Islamists. It should be noted that the Ottoman genocide cannot be ascribed to radical Islam: On the contrary, the Young Turks were emphatically secularist (as was the regime established by Ataturk). A carefully objective account of what happened after 1915 can be found in the recent book, by an Oxford historian, Eugene Rogan, The Fall of the Ottomans (2015), in the chapter titled “The Annihilation of the Armenians” (the word “genocide” is not used in this title, but occurs in the text). There was a systematic campaign of mass murder exterminating most Armenians in eastern Anatolia. Other Christians, notably Greeks and so-called Assyrians, were also affected though Armenians were the main target (Assyrians are derived from the Nestorian Great Church of the East, which at one point stretched from the Middle East to the border of China). Over and beyond the human horror of this incipient genocide, it is threatening to eradicate some of the most ancient Christian communities in the world.What happened after the mass liquidation of Armenian leaders is well documented. Orders went out from the capital Istanbul to governors and military commanders all over eastern Anatolia to clear out the entire Armenian population from one area after another. The men were separated from the women and children, and either massacred on the spot or put into forced labor detachments serving the army. The women and children were sent into death marches in the direction of the Syrian desert. The first clear-outs were performed by local police, often watched by supportive crowds of local Turkish or other Muslim inhabitants, who freely looted the homes abandoned by deported Armenians. The death marches were accompanied by gendarmes (rural police) or thugs specially recruited for this purpose. It is particularly depressing to note that Kurds were prominent among the irregulars assisting the genocide (today Kurds, despite being Sunni Muslims, are also being massacred by ISIS, and Christian refugees frequently seek refuge and find it in the Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Iraq).The deportees were beaten, robbed and raped as the accompanying guards wished. Stragglers were killed on the spot. Few marchers reached the camps set up to receive them in the desert, where the atrocities continued. Very few deportees survived; those who were not killed outright perished from hunger and disease. It is difficult to estimate the total number of victims. The most generally accepted number is 1.5 million. Even sources close to the Turkish government (which continues to deny that what happened can rightly be called genocide) admit that between 600,000 and 800,000 Armenians were killed in the eastern regions of the Ottoman empire. What the official Turkish narrative insists upon is that these deaths were not deliberately planned but were the unfortunate byproducts of the military situation caused by the Russian invasion of Anatolia.As an excuse this is a spurious argument, but it is correct that at the time the Ottoman state was under enormous military pressures from four directions: in addition to the Russian invasion, British forces from India had landed in southern Iraq and taken the port city of Basra. Other British forces, aided by the Arab rebellion fostered by the famous Lawrence of Arabia, were pushing toward Palestine. And a powerful Allied (also mostly British) force had landed in the Dardanelles and posed a serious threat to Istanbul until it was defeated at the battle of Gallipoli. It is plausible that in the perspective of the CUP government all of this added up to an existential threat to the very existence of the Ottoman state. It is also correct that many Armenians and other Christians sympathized with the Allies, some quite openly so. There was a movement that hoped for the establishment of an independent Armenian state, most of it necessarily carved out of Ottoman territory. All these factors helped to make plausible the continuing agitation of Dr. Bahaeddin Sakir, another CUP member, to eliminate the “enemy within” (especially the Armenians).Was it genocide? The general scholarly consensus (including the aforementioned Eugene Rogan) is that the term genocide fully applies. The Armenian narrative of course takes the same position: the intention of the anti-Armenian campaign was unambiguously genocidal, and its execution was ordered and controlled from Istanbul. We cannot know whether the campaign would have gone beyond eastern Anatolia if the Ottoman state had won rather than lost the war; presumably this would have depended on whether the Armenians were still perceived as a dangerous “enemy within”. (Also, if one wants to speculate with counterfactual scenarios, one can imagine that victorious Central Powers would have pressured the Ottomans to stop. German and Austrian officials on the ground were appalled by what they witnessed, and some urged their governments to intervene, but Berlin and Vienna were unwilling to do anything that might upset the wartime alliance with Istanbul.)A few Western scholars expressed doubts about the ascription of genocide (inviting Armenian accusations of being in the pay of the Turkish government). But he major denier of the Armenian genocide has been the Turkish government. That was the case during the Kemalist regime. When the (supposedly moderate Islamist) Justice and Development Party/AKP was democratically elected, there were some gestures toward ethnic and religious minorities. The current head of the AKP, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, also started out with such gestures (notably toward the Kurds), but he has become increasingly hardline. His government repeatedly turned down the demand that Turkey should apologize for the Armenian genocide (supposedly nothing to apologize for/there was no genocide). This should not be surprising, given Erdogan’s often expressed admiration for the Ottomans. (When a popular public park was to be demolished, a decision that provoked widespread demonstrations, the park was to be replaced by a careful reconstruction of Ottoman military barracks. The lavish palace that Erdogan built for himself reflects truly Ottoman splendor. When Erdogan became president, someone quipped: “We were worried that he wanted to be the Ayatollah Khomeini; now we worry that he wants to be Suleiman the Magnificent”). The arguments against the appellation genocide are few, and they are implausible: The Ottomans really faced an existential crisis, and many Armenians identified with the putatively Christian powers: Britain, France, Russia. (There is no evidence of active Armenian actions in support of the Allies.) The anti-Armenian campaign was limited to eastern Anatolia, Armenians survived well in other parts of the empire. (Survived maybe, but hardly well. The anti-Armenian campaign began in Istanbul and continued beyond its major Anatolian location, especially in Syria.) There can be no partial genocide. (The definition of genocide in current international law includes the intent to exterminate an entire group, but not its total success. Hitler succeeded in destroying entire Jewish populations in the parts of Europe he controlled, but not in other areas. Does that mean that the Holocaust should not be called genocide?)The term “genocide” was coined by the Polish-Jewish jurist Raphael Lemkin, who came to America in 1941. In 1943 he published a book on Nazi policies in occupied European countries. The book first used the term, not just limited to physical annihilation as in the treatment of Jews, but to attempts to destroy a culture as with regard to the Poles. Lemkin was a passionate advocate for the crime of genocide to be condemned in international law. He was instrumental in crafting the UN Genocide Convention in 1948, which had a more precise definition of the crime than the one first used by Lemkin.The concept of genocide has played an important role in two innovations in international relations: what can be called the culture of apology, and the moral and legal notions of humanitarian intervention. The Armenian demand for a Turkish apology is one in a long list of such apologies demanded or offered. For a detailed analysis of three cases see Thomas Berger, War, Guilt, and World Politics after World War II (2012). The three cases are West Germany, Austria and Japan, respectively in chapters entitled “The Model Penitent”, “The Prodigal Penitent” and “The Model Impenitent”. More recently the Japanese are going through this moral drama again, with China asking the Japanese to apologize (once again) for such wartime atrocities as the “rape of Nanking” and South Korea asking for penitence for the “comfort women (sex slaves for Japanese soldiers). The impenitents have become more aggressive in the hope that the conservative Abe government would be more sympathetic to their cause. The arguments for stopping the apologizing stampede range from “the rape of Nanking never happened, just some drunk soldiers celebrating” to “the comfort women were eager to serve the warriors of the rising sun”. The idea of humanitarian intervention was passionately argued in the book by Samantha Power, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide (2002), in which she chided the U.S. for standing by while genocide was going on (as in the case of Rwanda) or taking a long time before finally and reluctantly intervening (as in Bosnia and Kosovo). Supposedly she influenced the Obama Administration to intervene (“leading from behind”) in Libya, to prevent a possible genocide in Benghazi. Presently Power is American ambassador to the UN Security Council. (I wonder how she now feels about representing an administration whose guiding principle in the face of the horrors inflicted by ISIS seems to be “not putting American boots on the ground.”)Finally, are there lessons to be learned from the Armenian genocide? There is certainly here the general lesson about the fragile veneer of civilization, and how easily it can be breeched. I have read about the civil relations (including frequent intermarriage between Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosniaks), before Serbian hate propaganda, in a disturbingly short time, succeeded in setting the three groups on each other’s throats. The principal symbol of genocidal evil continues to be the Jewish Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis, and rightly so. But the Armenian genocide, sometimes called the first genocide of the twentieth century, has become a sort of secondary symbol, often compared to the Holocaust. Jewish spokespeople have strongly resisted putting the Holocaust in a long list of similar cases. They are right in their basic rejection of looking on the Holocaust as a “for instance”: Morally it demeans the victims, and analytically it obfuscates the unique features of the event.Hitler himself referred to the Armenians even before his genocidal war against the Jews had gone into full gear. In 1939, in one of his endless “table-talks” during which (as far as the extant text has it) he did not refer to the Jews, but threatened to mercilessly unleash the SS against any people that stood in the way of the legitimate right of the German people to Lebensraum in the east. When someone asked whether this might not harm the reputation of Germany, Hitler asked: “who today remembers the Armenians?” In 1933 the Austrian-Jewish writer Franz Werfel published his novel The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. It is based on a true event, when a group of Armenians disobeyed the order to report for deportation and certain death, armed themselves, and settled on a mountain top in northern Syria. They held out for over a month against the troops sent out to destroy them, until they were rescued by a French naval flotilla. In 1933 the Wannsee conference, where the Nazi leadership planned “the final solution of the Jewish question”, was still a decade in the future. Perhaps Werfel sensed its coming. In any case, the novel continues to be read. It has become an icon for resistance against genocidal terror.
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Published on: May 27, 2015
100 YearsThe Armenian Genocide and Its Deniers
The 100th year anniversary of one of the great crimes of the 20th century provides a moment to reflect.