Book Review: The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey, A Disputed Genocide
Fatih Balci and Arif Akgul
There could be some mistakes in the history, but it should be more objective to enlighten those mistaken events with the helping of the historians. Guenter Lewy’s book, The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey, A Disputed Genocide, mainly focuses on the massacres in Ottoman Turkey, and he strongly stands on the way of the truths which he finds from the historical documents. After all, he mentions that trustfully the deaths of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey can not be called “genocide”. There were some deaths but they can not be called as genocide. For calling genocide, it is needed to have a look at the definition of genocide which is mostly accepted to intention to annihilation of one group. To use or say genocide for an event it has to involve an intention of annihilation. In the Armenian case the main aim was not based on the intention of Armenian annihilation. The only thing was deporting· the Armenians from some places only for security purposes, because the Armenians became a big problem for the Turks during World War I with the rebellions and armed guerillas inside the country.
It is seen to the massacres as the only culpability was the Turks, but with Lewy’s book, it is understood clearly that the Armenians had many problems for the Turks at their worse situation during the wartime. At the war time, Turks had in troubles in different reasons, and at that position the Armenians also had problem to Turks. The Armenians wanted to establish their independent state and they wanted to get some more help from the Christian world with using their Christian identity. They gave ways to the Turks to make some plans against the Armenian problem, and the Turks found the best way to deport them, but they did not foresee some problems such as the geographic conditions and some other issues that caused mass killing while making their decisions. These kinds of unintended things caused the deaths of the Armenians. Lewy’s argument about the massacres of the Ottoman Turks against the Armenians can be clarified with one of the Turkish proverbs: “Okay, the burglar has culpability but does not have any culpability of the house holder?”
Guenter Lewy, in his book, approaches Turk-Armenian conflict from the historical perspective. He shows the events that happened in the late 19thcentury and the beginning of the 20th century in the Ottoman Empire between the Turks and the Armenians. He gives information from the sources and explains that it was not genocide, it was only massacres. · Lewy uses deportation, but may be it could be used relocation, because deportation is used for taking out of the frontiers, whereas relocation means mostly changing places into the frontiers. The places of Armenians changed their residential were still in the Ottoman frontier.
The book, The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey, includes four main parts with fourteen chapters. In the first part, with its four chapters, the author mostly looks at the Turk-Armenian problem from its beginning with historical events. His main argument in this part is that the characteristics of the conflict were based on religious background. The Armenians have approximately two thousand years history and they were the first Christian state in the world history, whereas the Turks are one of the major states among the Islamic world. The author argues that the Armenians tried to get attendance of the Christian world with provoking the Turks to attack themselves. Different courtiers with different purposes tried to help Armenians (For example, Russia helped to reach the south which had been its main desire for years, while Great Britain did not want that Russia to reach its desire), and the Armenians wanted to get their independence after political events. On the other hand, all the responsibilities were given by the Armenians to the Ottoman Sultan, Abdul Hamid II, because, for the Armenians, he was preventing the aims of the Armenian committees. Only because of this, the Armenians tried to kill him on Friday, July 21, 1905 with planting dynamite in his carriage, but Abdul Hamid II delayed his departure only a few minutes which saved his life; however, twenty six people died while fifty eight were wounded (p.32). The other events, which caused the Armenian massacres, were seizing the Imperial Ottoman Bank by Armenian revolutionaries on August 26, 1896 (p.24) and a shot assumed by an Armenian outside a mosque in Bitlis on a Friday while the Muslims were in the mosque for their ritual Friday praying (p.23). From the resources the author collected, the range of death of Armenians only of the 1895-1896 events is between twenty thousand and three hundred thousand (p.26).
In the first part of the book, Lewy generally explains the causes of the differences, occurred between these two nations which had been living together for centuries. He focuses on the causes, which started after the Russian war, and the Armenians intended to establish their own states at the region, and they wanted to use their Christian identity to get supported by the Christian world. The best way of doing this was also provoking the Ottoman Turks, which they did well at the end of the nineteenth century. The best way to get support from the Christian world is to provoke and cause the Ottomans to attack the Armenians.
In part two, the author mostly focuses on the Armenians’ genocide plans and the Turks positions against them. Ziya Gokalp, a Turkish sociologist and educator, is shown to be the responsible person of the massacres because of his argument of Turkification, which is based on blood and race for some scholars. From an Armenian perspective, the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) premeditated the massacres of Armenians, and they played their role in this plan. “The Ten Commandments” (p.48) was the Armenians’ main argument to express the CUP’s main aim on the Armenians. For Armenians those Ten Commandments show the CUP’s plan clearly. Another source to make stronger this thesis about Armenians is Armenian author Aram Andonian’s book named The Memoirs of Naim Bey. This book is about one of the Ottoman chief’s secretaries telling during the deportation of the Armenians. However, there could not be found any documents about Naim Bey to be hired in the Ottoman army. The other important point also the real document that Andonian argues about the book (Naim Bey’s telling) does not exist in any archives. Andonian says that he sent all the original documents to the Armenian patriarch and later he never learned anything about what happened to them. (p.67) He also says that in a different time about his book that he wrote that book for doing Armenian propaganda (p.70). The sources of Armenian sides have not any real genuineness as the author explains in this part of the book.
From the Turkish perspective, even the Turkish sources are biased; their main argument is that the relocation of the Armenians from many main places was necessary, because Armenians were getting armed with the help of Russia. During the wartime, the Armenians were a big problem to the Turkish military and the Muslim people in the region. According to the information supplied by the Ministry of Interior, thirty thousand armed Armenians were at the east region of the country (p.92). Fifteen thousand of them joined the Russian army, while the other fifteen thousand were helping the Russian army behind the Turkish army. The enemies were inside according to the Turks and it was needed to find any solutions. The revolts also were major problems for the Turkish army during the wartime.
On the other hand, the Turks also had real economic, military, and social problems at that period. The refugees from the other provinces where the places conquered by the winner countries at the war were coming to the country, and they needed places to live. There was a civil war within a global war for the Turks. Under these conditions, the Turks decided to relocate the Armenians to different provinces for both to make safe its back yard and to open new provinces to the Muslim refugees.
Another important issue to make a decision of relocation was the Armenians’ brutality against the Muslim people of some cities and towns in the region. The Armenians were attacking the Turkish people with Russian support, because they knew that Russia was at their side. It also was known that they got their weapons from Russia. For example, the Russians took Diyarbakir, led by advance guards of Armenian volunteers in January 1916. The Muslims who were not able to escape were put the death. When the Turkish forces entered the city of Erzincan in February 1918, they found a destroyed city, fell upon the Turkish homes and committed extraordinary acts (p.118-119).
In some places in the Ottoman Empire, Armenians rebelled against to the Turks while the war was ongoing and especially near the end of the war. For example, the Armenian volunteers joined the fighting against the Turks in Palestine and Syria (p.108). Because of all these reasons, from the Turkish perspective, the deportation was needed to secure the east part of the Empire. Turks had to make a secure place in the east cost of the country and the best way to do this is to relocate the Armenians to different places. The main purpose did not punish the Armenians. Relocation was the prevention of Armenian activities against the government which had some troubles at this time also. The decision was not intended to destroy innocent people.
The third part of the book is mostly focuses on the sources to light the history, because the author’s main argument is to bring up the events is mostly the duty of the historians. Historical memories can enlighten history better according to Lewy. From this perspective, Lewy explains the events with the sources from every side, which begins with the Turkish archives and goes on the way of who did a small part from the puzzle of this unclear event in the history. The missionary reports, the foreign countries official and unofficial reports and even eyewitnesses’ statements are seen in Lewy’s book. He shows the ways which and what conditions happened from these sources and he writes some of his critiques with historical explanations. He gives a major importance to the Turkish archives but he has some problems about the opening of the archives; only 9%, but now all the Turkish archives are open to the research. He compares his findings and he shows so many different explanations of the same events. For example, Lewy mentions that one of the German missionaries, Johannes Lepsius’s, book involves a collection of 444 documents, but Wolfgang Gust argues that only a few of these 444 documents corresponded fully to the originals (p.134). One of the British sources, a parliamentary Blue Book shows the massacre story, but it also involves a lot of narratives by eyewitnesses, which are mostly based on hearsay (p.138).
Lewy expresses an important result from the sources that he follows to understand that historical event between the Turks and the Armenians that “when Armenians used guns it was always strictly for self-defense, while Turkish troops using force were usually described as engaged in murderous activities” (p.144). He also does not give more reliability to the survivors’ testimony. His main argument on this issue is that the survivor’s testimony is mostly under the pressure of the historical events and their personality, perceptions and experiences.
Lewy’s main concern about the historical document is there are not many Turkish scholars who are specialists of the Armenian events. He gives more spaces to the Turkish archives than the scholarly resources. On the other hand, he does not give more reliability to the Armenian scholars who have scholarly sources about the issue, because he sees that most of them are not truly explaining the events. To answer the question of why there are not any Turkish scholars, while there are many more Armenian scholars in this issue, it could be said that Diaspora Armenians are mostly studied on this issue, so it is easy to find some sources from different languages. He can reach more Armenian sources than Turkish because Diaspora Armenians have more interest on this issue and they wrote books in different languages, whereas the Turks have not this chance.
After giving the historical perspective which shows the positions of the Empire especially during the war time, he expresses the specific events during the cities and towns in which deportation happened. He shows the readers that the main purpose was not based on the intention of annihilation of the Armenians. But he gives some responsibility to the governmental authority not to predict what should have-happened during the deportation. For him, the government had to make some prevention activities for the possibilities, however, one of the important points also needed to be on our eyes is that the government had little authority at that time period, even to help its soldiers, because so many soldiers died at that period without any war. From this perspective, more things were not wanted from the government, but it also does not throw its responsibilities from its shoulders.
Lewy separates the causes of the massacres of the Armenians during the deportation of 1915-1916, and he gives the most important clue to the geographic situations. Later he focuses on the Kurds, Circassians, brigands (cetes), irregulars, and the gendarmes as the causes of the mass killing. The Turks tried to protect the deportees from these unexpected causes, but most times and most places they could not achieve success. Lewy asks this question: Who killed the Armenians? He could not find the exact answer, because several culpabilities shared the massacres.
Nobody can say anything about the number of the victims during that period, because each side mentions the amount from their perspectives. The main problem is that the exact populations of the Armenians are not known. The estimated amounts also do not give any clue about the amount of the killed people, because some Armenians lost their lives as the result of the guerilla wars, some lost at the rebellions and some joined the Russian army. Lewy gives the amounts from the sources he investigated, and he gives a number as an average of the Armenians in the Empire in 1914 as 1,750,000. For the amount of the survivors after the events, he again gives an estimated number which is 1,108,000. So, for Lewy, 642,000 were killed, which is about 37% during the World War period.
In the last part of his book, Lewy explains the controversy of the massacres of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. While he gives the examples of the Armenian side, who mostly argue that it is premeditation, the Armenians try to take a picture of Turkish responsibility with the Turkish national character, which is called barbaric for by them. On the other hand, the Turkish view focuses on the necessity of the deportation and actually both sides had many deaths which should be accepted; the events were not genocide, it was a war between the Turks and the Armenians (p.248).
Lewy’s strongest argument is that the central government of Turkey has not more culpability because there no authentic documentary evidence exists (p.250). He says that the deaths were an intended outcome of the deportations. Lewy’s main concern is based on shaping this world on the events that happened in the first quarter of the last century. He says that the massacres began to play a role on the politics, which was seen at some countries’ parliaments. But Lewy advises that which is the most important issue to lighten the historical events, is not the job of the politicians, but the historians. The politicians should give up these kinds of historical events to the historians to get more reliable results.
The main argument about the Armenian problem in the Ottoman Empire was that they wanted to establish their own independent state and so they became more nationalist as they saw from some other nations into the Empire. On the other hand, they mostly sought to get support from the Christian world as being the first Christian state. They wanted to get a reputation for themselves. If they rebel against the governmental authority, it can be thought that they could have thought what could have happened to them if they could not achieve success.
Geunter Lewy denies genocide and claims that the Armenian deaths in the Ottoman Turkey at the end of the nineteenth century and the first quarter of the twentieth century were massacres. He wrote his book to enlighten one of the biggest problems for the last one hundred years. His approach is mostly based on the memory of the historical events. He investigates the literatures from each side and he concludes his research with saying that the historical events should be given to the historians to enlighten them. If those events go to the politicians, the problems could not be solved easily.
While the Turks and the Armenians were living together on the same lands for centuries, after the Ottoman Empires were getting weaker and losing the war against Russia, the Armenians got more wishes to establish their own independent states at the east provinces of the Ottoman Empire. They better knew that they needed to get some foreign help to achieve their ambitions. They used their Christian identity versus Muslim Identity to get more support from the Christian world. But they needed something to pull the Turks towards them, so they used some important activities in both Istanbul and Anatolia like the bombing events and rebellions. They achieved their aims of getting the Turks against them, and they did not see these specific events enough, so they got armed during the wartime. The Turkish government had to do something immediately, and decided to relocate the Armenians from their provinces to be less threatened by the government.
The deaths of most Armenians happened during these relocations, but the conditions, both geographic and other causes like Kurdish groups or the Circassians or the chettes, were not predicted by the Turkish government. Most of the Armenians died because of several reasons like starvation, illness and also with some other groups mentioned above. So, Lewy argues that it is not genocide that happened by the Turks, because there were not any intentions to annihilate the Armenians. The Turks’ main concern was to make the country safer. The sources also show this truth according to Lewy, even though there were many sources in which people complained about the Turks, but Lewy does not find these reliable.
Fatih BALCI, University of Utah
Arif AKGUL, Washington State University