Books: Tangled roots of genocide

Books: Tangled roots of genocide

The Independent – United Kingdom
Mar 26, 2004
Mark Mazower

In the summer of 1915, Leslie Davis was American consul in Harput, a
remote town in the central Anatolian highlands, three weeks’ ride on
horseback from Constantinople. About a third of the population in the
region were Armenians – villagers, farmers, merchants and teachers –
who had always got along with their Turkish neighbours. But, a few
months into the Great War, the government ordered Armenian schools to
close, and arrested leading men. In July, town criers publicised their
imminent deportation, street by street; and homes and properties were
pillaged. A couple of months later, after the deportations, Davis rode
out into the surrounding countryside, leaving early so as not to be

By the side of the road shallow graves betrayed human remains, and
villages once inhabited by Armenians lay in ruins. As he reached the
side of a local lake, he peered down from the path above and saw
hundreds of bodies in its waters. Neighbouring ravines contained
thousands more. On a remote part of the lake shore, he came across
hundreds of corpses piled in rows. It was, he wrote, as if “the world
were coming to an end”.

Although successive Turkish governments have tried to deny what was
done to the Armenians, the killing was a messy business and there were
no top- secret extermination sites such as were built by the Nazis in
Poland. The genocide was a relatively public affair, and US
missionaries, German businessmen, railway engineers and even foreign
soldiers in Ottoman service all sent graphic despatches home. The
atrocities were outlined in newspaper headlines, and the old
Gladstonian, Lord Bryce, compiled a still-useful report for the
British government. We will never know for sure, but probably between
800,000 and one million people were killed or starved to death.

The horror of it all emanates vividly from the pages of Peter
Balakian’s new history. The sheer scale of the massacres has an
overwhelming impact and his access to the accounts of survivors and
diplomats, and his understanding of Armenian culture and society, help
bring to life the world that was lost with the victims. It quickly
becomes clear that the Holocaust was not the first such onslaught on
an entire community; indeed, the parallels with that event are
frequently underlined.

Like other commentators, Balakian believes genocide can offer
lessons. He stresses the ethical challenge state-sponsored violence on
such a scale poses to bystanders and foreign powers, and underlines
the heroic response of those who tried to end the killing – activists,
relief workers and idealists who mobilised local funds of sympathy and
did what they could.

A sub-theme of the book – a parable for the present? – is how these
events resonated in the US. Calls for the country to live up to its
“duty to civilisation” by intervening led to the usual tussle between
realpolitik and the politics of compassion. President Woodrow Wilson
never declared war on the Ottoman Empire but did support the idea of
an American mandate for an independent Armenia; it failed to get
through Congress.

Balakian does not bother to hide where his sympathies lie – with those
who cared, against the isolationists and hard-nosed men who believed
national interest trumped moral imperatives. But his sympathies run
deeper than that, for the way he tells it this was a story of good and
evil, of Armenians against Turks, Christians attacked by Muslims,
blameless victims against malevolent perpetrators led by psychopaths
such as Sultan Abdul Hamid.

He describes a tradition of state-sponsored violence in Turkey that
starts with the massacres of the mid-1890s (which themselves killed
more than 100,000 people) and 1909 (about 15,000), and continues, in a
sense, to this day through the denial itself.

Only it was a bit more complicated that that. Reading Balakian, one
would not know that in 1912 the Sultan’s foreign minister had been an
Armenian, nor that the Young Turks, who instigated the genocide,
co-operated with Armenian parties up to the start of the First World
War. There was a centuries- old policy of co-operation between the
Porte and the Armenian community which only the rise of nationalism –
Armenian and Turkish – eroded.

In Constantinople, the Armenian Patriarch preached loyalty to the
sultan. But Armenian revolutionaries sought autonomy for the Armenian
provinces of Anatolia by forcing Great Power intervention, and were
even willing to provoke Ottoman repression to get there. Call it the
Kosovo strategy: it had worked for Christian nationalists in the
Balkans, and it looked to some it might work for the Armenians, too.

Balakian cannot bring himself to criticise these activists. The most
he will say is that they were naive. Russian diplomats did indeed
force the empire to accept foreign oversight of the Armenian provinces
in early 1914. Bitterly opposed in Constantinople as the first step to
secession, the agreement, abandoned when war broke out, encouraged the
Ottomans to see the Armenians as a Russian fifth-column.

Nor had Christians always been the victims, Muslims the
perpetrators. Bal- akian’s heroic American Protestant missionaries
were not neutral observers but agents of radical social and cultural
change trying to transform the Ottoman empire. Meanwhile, largely
unnoticed by the Western humanitarian conscience, a tidal wave of
Muslim refugees, well over one million, fled into Anatolia from Russia
and the Balkans after 1860: a reminder of the human consequences of
Ottoman decline.

After 1908, Bosnia, Crete, Albania and Macedonia were all lost,
too. By spring 1915, Russian troops threatened Anatolia from the east,
and the British seemed about to seize Constantinople: the empire faced
dismemberment. None of this in any way justifies what happened to the
Armenians, but it underlines the existential crisis that faced the
empire’s young and arrogant leadership, humiliated on the battlefield,
their grand strategy in ruins.

In 1919, under Allied pressure, a postwar Ottoman government set up
tribunals to investigate the Armenian murders. But in the East the war
was not really over: Armenian fighters were trying to set up an
independent state – from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, ran the
dream – while Mustafa Kemal formed an association to stop them. The
Armenians gambled on foreign support they did not have, while
Kemalists built an army against them. Having neutered the Russian
threat by alliance with the Bolsheviks, Kemal’s men routed the
Armenians, expelled the Greeks from Asia Minor, and got rid of the
ruling family, too.

The tribunals were abandoned, a Turkish republic arose from the ashes
of empire, and ever after, Ataturk’s heirs insisted that the Armenians
had brought their misfortunes on themselves. The Burning Tigris
remains, understandably enough, a work of denunciation. Even so, more
than denunciation will be needed to help us make sense of what

Mark Mazower, professor of history at Birkbeck College London, will
publish `Salonica, City of Ghosts’ (HarperCollins) this summer
From: Baghdasarian