'Truth spoken without moderation reverses itself'
This blog is a source for intellectual exploration. It includes a list of alternative resources and a source of free books. The placement of an article does not imply that I agree with it, merely that I found it thought-provoking. There are also poems and book reviews. Texts written by me are labelled. Readers are free to re-post anything they like.
Thursday, April 23, 2015
The Armenian genocide – the Guardian briefing // Book review: The Fall of the Ottomans – an absorbing history of the impact of the first world war on the Middle East
Hrant Dink, the Turkish-Armenian editor, journalist and peace campaigner wasmurdered in 2007 for writing about the genocide.
What happened to the Ottoman Armenians in 1915 was a major thing that was hidden from the Turkish nation; it was a taboo. But we have to be able to talk about the past Orhan Pamuk
What’s the story?
On 24 April, Armenians in Yerevan and around the world will
mark the centenary of the genocide of 1915. That is the date when Ottoman
authorities began arresting the leaders of the 2 million-strong minority
Christian community. It is widely accepted that 1 million to 1.5 million
Armenians died in the ensuing years until 1922, though there are no
The Turkish government has never accepted the term genocide.
It recognises killings that occurred in wartime but denies Armenians were
systematically targeted and emphasises their links with enemy Russia as well as
Armenian attacks on Muslims. Modern historical research has demolished the
Turkish case, establishing intent, organisation and responsibility.
Turkey’s position has softened in recent times. In 2014
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, now president, described the killings as “inhumane” and
sent condolences to the descendants of the victims. But tempers flared when Turkey announced it
would mark the centenary of the Allied landings at Gallipoli on 24 April.
Critics say the intention was to deflect attention from and limit attendance by
foreign VIPs at the memorial ceremony in Yerevan. Armenians and others argue that impunity for the Turks,
despite international outrage at the time, was one of the factors that allowed
Hitler to exterminate the Jews of Europe a quarter
of a century later.
How did this happen?
Armenians, an ancient people who converted to Christianity
in the 3rd century AD, were persecuted in Ottoman Turkey in the late 19th and
early 20th centuries. There was anger about the way Europe and Russia had
intervened on the Armenians’ behalf as the empire lost territory. Anti-Armenian
violence occurred in the 1890s and in 1909.
The wartime mass deportations and killings were orchestrated
by the Teşkilât-ı Mahsusa (meaning “special organisation”), which sent coded
orders to local governors. Armenians (in eastern, Russian-controlled Armenia)
did fight with the tsarist forces and some Armenian nationalists helped precipitate
the brutal Ottoman response. But most victims were civilians.
Much of the killing was carried out by Kurdish tribesmen.
Many Armenians died from starvation and thirst on death marches in the Syrian
desert. Rape, torture and other atrocities were common. Children, especially
girls, were abducted and forcibly converted to Islam. Property was expropriated
and churches destroyed.
The US was neutral at the time and its diplomats, as well as
American and other Christian missionaries, witnessed and documented the
killings. Washington condemned “crimes against humanity” – the first time that
now common expression was used. The Armenian republic that emerged at the end of the first
world war represented only a small part of historic Armenia. It was briefly
independent before becoming part of the Soviet Union until 1991, when it
regained its independence.
Turkish (western) Armenia disappeared
from the maps. Awareness of the genocide grew because of the focus on the
Nazi Holocaust in the US and Israel in the 1960s and 1970s. Access to Ottoman
archives has allowed scholars, Turkish and other, to deepen understanding of what
happened. Experts argue that, if there is hope for change, it will come from
shifting attitudes inside Turkey, not from Armenian or international pressure
What are the issues?
Recognition and denial
Armenians demand Turkish recognition of the genocide, though
the UN genocide convention of 1948 is not applicable retroactively. Of the 22
countries that have formally recognised it, the most important are Russia and
France. The US employed the term under President Ronald Reagan but has retreated
since in the face of anger from Turkey, a Nato ally. Barack Obama uses the term Meds
Yeghern– Armenian for “great calamity” – akin to the Hebrew word shoah for
holocaust. But he will not use the G-word.
Britain adopts a similar position, condemning the massacres
but arguing that the Armenian case has not been legally tested. Still, along
with statements by the pope and the UN, national legislation criminalising
genocide denial, and recognition by nearly all US states and many parliaments –
including the European parliament – a quarter of the world in effect recognises
the genocide. Outright denial is rare except in Turkey and Azerbaijan.
The genocide issue hangs heavily over bilateral relations.
Armenians say recognition is about their security, not only history and
justice. Turkey closed the border with Armenia in 1993 because of
unresolved conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, a region of Azerbaijan with an ethnic
Armenian majority, in which Ankara and Yerevan are on opposing sides.
Armenia has tried pragmatically to improve relations and
achieve reconciliation without setting preconditions, even on genocide. A draft
Swiss-brokered agreement in 2009 was never ratified because of Turkish demands
for movement on Nagorno-Karabkh. Thus two difficult issues have become
intertwined. The result is deadlock.
Change in Turkey
Attitudes to the Armenian question have changed in Turkey in
recent years, with liberal intellectuals questioning official narratives and
recognising the genocide. Many books have appeared on the subject, which is
researched and taught in universities. Reconciliation ceremonies have been held
in formerly Armenian areas with Kurds whose ancestors slaughtered their
Christian neighbours. Some Armenian churches have been restored.
There is also growing recognition of the existence of many
thousands of “Islamised” Armenians, descendants of the survivors. Prosecutions
for “denigrating Turkishness” have diminished. Despite conciliatory messages
such as Erdoğan’s last year, Ankara refuses to apologise or, crucially, to
budge on the genocide question. Still, the Turkish thaw, argues expert Thomas
De Waal “is the only good news in this bleak historical tale”.
Up to 10 million Armenians live outside Armenia,
concentrated in Russia, the US and France. Many are direct descendants of genocide victims. Diaspora
organisations tend to be more militant than the republic itself on this
question and are suspicious of moves towards normalisation with Turkey. The two
main organisations in the US have made recognition their raison d’etre. This
helps them preserve a collective identity and resist assimilation.
A recent pan-Armenian declaration focusing on the genocide
was criticised by Levon Ter-Petrossian, the country’s former president,
reflecting the view that Armenia needs to focus on its current problems and not
be obsessed by a painful past.
Eugene Rogan’s study of the great war from the Ottoman
perspective reveals the root cause of many of today’s conflicts
The Fall of the Ottomans by Eugene Rogan
The last thing the people of the Ottoman empire needed in
autumn 1914 was another war. In the six years leading up to that calamitous
year they had seen a sultan deposed and their immense and immensely inefficient
army battered. In several bruising wars, they had ceded Libya to Italy and all
their European territories – including what is now Bulgaria, large chunks of
Greece, Bosnia, Serbia and Albania – to independence. Now their Young Turk
leaders were siding with Germany, because the Kaiser looked most likely to help
them regain some of that lost territory, or at least avoid the dismantlement of
the empire. The consequences of that decision – the great war that shaped the
Middle East, the conflict that made the war global – form the grand tale that
Eugene Rogan tells in his latest book.
Readers of his previous work, The
Arabs, will know how comfortably he handles multiple themes, ambitious
narratives and a crowd of characters. Writing about the collapse of an empire
that, in 1914, still included all of what is now Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon,
Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt demands those skills, and more. Finding
something new to say about a conflict that one of its most famous participants
described as “a sideshow of a sideshow” would seem to be a challenge,
especially with other books recently published on the subject. Some of these
have looked at individual theatres, most obviously the Arab revolt, while
others (such as Kristian Coates Ulrichsen’s The First World War in the
Middle East)cover the entire war.
So what does Rogan bring to the subject? For one thing, he
has extensive background knowledge, as one would expect from the director of
East Centre at Oxford University. To this he has added extensive research.
Most histories of the Middle East in this period have been written from a
western point of view, because British, French and German archives have been
open longer and are, for the most part, more accessible. Rogan has drawn on
little-used Ottoman and Arab material.
He has also brought a clarity of vision and of description
to the war, whether sketching out the intentions of military commanders and the
effects of their plans on the ground, or when choosing a chapter title.
“Annihilation of the Armenians”, for instance, will win him no friends among
those Turks still in denial about the genocide, for it describes with
depressing clarity the plan of Talaat Pasha, the Turkish leader, and his
advisers Dr Mehmed Nazim and Dr Behaeddin Shakir: that there should be nothing
less than “the annihilation of the vast majority of Ottoman Armenians” in order
to ensure there would not be enough of them left to fight for an independent
homeland. Turkish authors, including the Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk,
have recently faced jail on treason charges for alluding to the genocide.
As Rogan tells it, participants in the Middle East had
different reasons for entering the conflict: the British fought to secure the
Suez canal and the Gulf oilfields; the Turks feared Russian encroachment and
hoped to regain territory lost before the great war; the Germans sought to
destabilise the British empire, the Russians coveted Istanbul and Anatolia…
Rogan examines these larger geopolitical motives while also
giving a human face to the military engagements that they created, using a wide
range of voices – from a low-ranking Ottoman medic, to an Australian poet, an
Arab from Jerusalem and an emir from the Hejaz. The story needs these voices to
make poignant the consistent bungling by commanders, and equally consistent
bravery of soldiers (and the hardship) on all sides – as, for instance, when
the poorly equipped Turkish Third Army fought the Russians in the Caucasus, in
the snow, with neither heavy coats nor boots; or when British planners
underestimated the strength of Ottoman defences along the Dardanelles and
Gallipoli, with enormous loss of life.
Some of this is already familiar: the account of the Arab
revolt adds little to what has been told before. But even the familiar has
resonance, such as General Maude’s insistence to the battered people of Baghdad
that his soldiers were “liberators”. Or foreign secretary Arthur Balfour’s
declaration that the British government would favour the creation of a Jewish
homeland so long as it did not infringe on “the civil and religious rights of
existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”. Or the cynical German
manipulation of an Ottoman call for jihad against Britain, in an attempt to
rouse Indians against the crown.
That resonance adds relevance to this thorough and absorbing
book, because it reminds us that the postwar Middle East settlements were as
flawed as the conditions imposed on Germany, and that in turn explains why the
land they fought over then is still being contested today.