Lessons of the Armenian Genocide and Western Responsibility – Then and Now
February 15, 2008
By Paul Saba
The speed with which President Bush rushed to pressure Congress late last
year to abandon a resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide of 1915 was
hardly a surprise. Maintaining good relations with Turkey – a key ally in
the "war on terror" – means realpolitik will trump historical memory
every time for this administration. What was dismaying (if hardly
surprising) was the almost equal speed with which Congressional Democrats
capitulated to the President’s pressure.
This time, as on so many prior occasions, a focus on Turkey’s
responsibility for the genocide obscured the extent to which the European
powers – Britain, France, Germany, Austria, and Russia – played a
prominent role in what happened to the Armenians during World War I. A
recent book by the British scholar Donald Bloxham sheds new light on
their role in the Armenian tragedy and, in the process, provides valuable
insights into the historical roots of contemporary developments in Iraq and
The Armenian Genocide
In 1915-16, in the middle of the First World War, the Turkish government
determined to rid itself of what it perceived to be a troublesome ethnic and
religious minority – the 3,000 year old Armenian community. The process
began with extensive ethnic cleansing or forced collective displacement
followed by direct physical annihilation. In the end, approximately one
million Armenians – half of the pre-war population – died. As Bloxham
explains, while the Ottoman government bears criminal, legal responsibility
for the genocide, historical and moral responsibility extends to the
European powers as well. Why is this so?
To begin with, the Great Powers repeatedly interfered in Ottoman internal
affairs in a manner that profoundly disrupted the Empire, exacerbated its
economic and political crises and intensified inter-ethnic and religious
rivalries. The progressive decline of the Ottoman Empire over the course of
the 19th Century made it a focus of acute inter-imperialist rivalry as each
European power sought to take advantage of Ottoman difficulties to its own
benefit. At the same time, external and internal structural stresses and the
dissemination of Western ideas led to the growth of nationalism and
independence movements amongst the Empire’s many oppressed ethnic and
religious minority groups, including the Armenians, thereby further
destabilizing the Empire.
When it suited their own geopolitical interests, the European Powers
cynically championed the rights of these oppressed minorities; when it did
not, their sufferings were studiously ignored. This practice created an
increasingly more deadly dynamic – European pressure on the Ottomans for
reforms to the benefit of minority communities raised minority hopes while
fueling Ottoman hostility and suspicion of them and their foreign
"benefactors." Appeals by minority representatives – including the
Armenians – to foreign powers for assistance in their plight convinced
Ottoman authorities that these communities were dangerous and disloyal
threats to the integrity of the Empire.
The "Young Turk" revolt (directed by the Committee of Union and Progress
(CUP)) that deposed the last Ottoman Sultan in 1908 brought to power a new
leadership which favored an Empire reconstructed in accordance with late
19th century Western European norms. That is to say, the CUP was guided by a
nationalism which was authoritarian, statist and ethnocentric. The
Armenians, concentrated on the Empire’s sensitive northern border with
Russia and already viewed with suspicion, were perceived as a vital threat
to this process. The outbreak of World War I provided the perfect
opportunity for the new government to implement an aggressive
"nation-building" agenda predicated upon ethnic homogeneity and national
>From Ethnic Cleansing to Genocide
CUP Armenian policy over the course of the War unfolded through a process of
what Bloxham call "cumulative administrative radicalization." What began
as limited repressive measures at the regional level expanded into a
nationwide program which ultimately culminated in an intentional policy of
general killing and death by attrition.
In May 1915, a decision was made at the highest CUP and government levels to
systematically round up and deport all Armenians from Anatolia and Cilicia.
That there was a genocidal intent behind the deportations can be seen in the
fact that the Armenians were not being sent to places of possible settlement
but to inhospitable desert regions. By mid-June, the CUP leadership resolved
to use the cover of the war to finish for good the Empire’s "internal
enemies" and a policy of mass extermination was implemented.
The resulting death of one million Armenians was not some "regrettable
byproduct" of wartime social dislocation as has been repeatedly argued by
the Turkish government and its academic apologists around the world. Rather
it was deliberate, premeditated policy, one with far-reaching consequences.
It was, says Bloxham, "the emblematic and central violence of Ottoman
Turkey’s transition into a modernizing nation state."
If, by their prior meddling in Ottoman affairs, the European Powers had
fostered the social conditions out of which the genocide developed, their
response (or rather should we say non-response) to the crime itself
demonstrated that geopolitical concerns not humanitarian considerations
would continue to dictate Western policy. While the massacres were
occurring, Turkey’s allies, particularly Germany, either looked the other
way or sought to justify them as "military necessity." The German officer
in charge of the Ottoman navy, Admiral Wilhelm Souchon for example, wrote
"it will be salvation for Turkey when it has done away with the last
Armenian; it will be rid then of subversive blood-suckers."
Turkey’s adversaries – primarily Britain and France – adopted a policy
that, as Bloxham remarks, anticipated the one that would be followed in
World War II during the Nazi extermination of the Jews. The fate of the
Armenians was tied to an Allied victory and everything should be
subordinated to achieving that end. Nothing would be done to aid the
Armenians in their immediate crisis.
>From Non-Intervention to Non-Recognition
Unfortunately for Turkey, it had chosen the wrong side in the War. The
aftermath of Turkish defeat was the collapse of the CUP government, the
ascendancy of Mustafa Kemal ("Attaturk") and the birth of the Turkish
Republic in 1923. The new regime consolidated itself under auspicious
circumstances. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 had dramatically transformed
international relations; the West was intent on containing the infant Soviet
Republic and Turkey’s strategic location on Russia’s southern flank
offered the promise of a bulwark against the spread of the "communist
bacillus" into Asia and the Middle East.
As a result, the European powers and the United States resolved to come to
terms with Kemel and his Republic. Its sovereignty and territorial integrity
was recognized and its remaining minority communities, including the
Armenians – now clamoring for self-determination – were expected to sideline
their ethnic and nationalist aspirations. As a result, even though there was
substantial continuity between the old CUP regime that had authorized the
genocide and Kemal’s government, there would be no war crime trials for the
guilty parties. To justify these alliances, the unfortunate history of
wartime atrocities had to be swept under the rug. All the European powers
went along with this decision. In this regard, the role of the US government
is singularly instructive.
US policy toward Turkey was dictated by a combination of concerns:
anti-Bolshevism, the need for regional and national stability and a desire
to promote American economic interests in the Middle East. Turkey’s
rebellious minority groups were seen by the US government as a threat to
these long-term geopolitical objectives. In the end, non-recognition of the
genocide and acquiescence to forced assimilation of Turkey’s remaining
Armenian and Kurdish populations became US policy. As the US High
Commissioner to Turkey from 1919 to 1927, Admiral Mark L. Bristol put it, he
"could see greater calamities to the world than for the Turks to come in
here and clean out of Constantinople all of these Levantines of different
nationalities, the Greeks and Armenians, and start to build up again without
Current US policies toward Turkey, including the on-going refusal to
acknowledge the Armenian genocide may be formulated in more elegant
language, but in their indifference to the continuing plight of Turkey’s
Kurdish and Armenian populations, they are no less reprehensible.
The Great Powers "Legitimate" Ethnic Cleansing
Many accounts of the Armenian genocide view it primarily as a precedent for
the Nazi extermination campaign waged against European Jewry. While there
are significant similarities as well as clear differences between the two
crimes, the more enduring legacy of what happened to the Ottoman Armenians
in 1915-16 is rather the mass physical displacement they suffered before and
after World War I and the way this ethnic cleansing was legitimated in the
postwar peace settlements.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Armenians were subject to
numerous attempts by Turkish authorities to displace them from their
traditional homelands. In this they were not alone – far from it. Ethnic
cleansing had been going on in the disintegrating Ottoman Empire for
decades. In the aftermath of the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, for example, some
400,000 Muslims were made refugees, expelled from the newly "liberated"
lands and sent to Anatolia. But these events, like the rounding up and
deportation of the Armenians during World War I, lacked all sanction in
international law. At the peace conferences organized by the victorious
allies at the War’s end, however, ethnic cleansing would become legitimate.
Here state boundaries in the Middle East would be drawn and redrawn with
scant regard for the rights or desires of indigenous communities and what
were euphemistically called "population transfers" would gain
Perhaps the best known of the post-World War I peace conferences is the one
held at Versailles in 1919, where a draconian settlement was imposed on a
defeated Germany. But for historians of the Middle East, the key conferences
were San Remo and Lausanne. At San Remo in 1920, Britain received a mandate
over Palestine as well as the Ottoman provinces of Basra, Baghdad and Mosul
from which was cobbled together the new state of Iraq. In similar fashion,
France was granted control of Syria and present-day Lebanon. Both
arrangements were later confirmed by the League of Nations. At Lausanne in
1922-23, the Great Powers decided the appropriate boundaries of Greece,
Bulgaria, and Turkey and, acceding to Turkish pressure, denied the claims of
Armenians and Kurds for independence and their own states.
But even more infamously, Lausanne legitimated the Turkish goal of an
ethnically homogenous nation-state by authorizing a large scale "population
exchange" between Turkey and Greece. According to the terms of the
settlement, each country would forcibly expel a troublesome ethnic/religious
minority. Thus, under appalling conditions and with a significant death toll
on both sides, close to two million people – over 1.25 million Greeks and a
half a million Turks – were forcibly made refugees. Ethnic cleansing was now
sanctioned by international treaty; a dangerous precedent had been set.
Iraq and its Kurdish Population
The lessons of the Armenian tragedy are of far more than mere historical
interest. They have immediate relevance for understanding the roots of a
number of current conflicts in the Middle East. Both the dispute between
Israel and the Palestinians and war and internal disunity in Iraq reflect
the continuing legacy of foreign intervention and state-building by
imperialist dictat that has plagued this region for so long. Both are in
large part the product of the same international system of Great Power
interference that initially contributed to and later sought to deny the
destruction of the Ottoman Armenians.
As noted earlier, Iraq was the artificial creation of the post-World War I
settlement conferences which carved up portions of the former Ottoman Empire
to the benefit of Britain and France. By imposing a Sunni minority upon a
majority Shia population and strengthening traditional clientist forms of
allegiance, Britain’s efforts at state-making in Iraq under the League of
Nations’ mandate undermined prospects for democracy and contributed to the
chronic instability of the new nation.
Because Britain wanted control over the valuable oil reserves of Mosul, it
insisted on the province’s incorporation into an Arab Iraq, notwithstanding
its large Kurdish population. Having previously encouraged Kurdish demands
for an independent state as a bargaining weapon against Turkey, Britain and
the other great powers now sought to discourage Kurdish aspirations
throughout the region. This was easier said than done and the "Kurdish
question" has bedeviled Iraqi governments ever since.
The presence of a large Kurdish minority in Iraq has proven problematic for
three reasons. First, the Kurds have consistently demanded a degree of
autonomy if not outright independence in their traditional homelands.
Second, the brutal efforts of successive Iraqi regimes to suppress and
forcibly assimilate the Kurdish population have been a failure. Finally, the
Great Powers have repeatedly used the "Kurdish problem" and Arab-Kurdish
disputes to meddle in Iraqi internal affairs (in the same fashion that they
had exploited Armenian suffering at Turkish hands to interfere in Ottoman
The United States in particular has repeatedly attempted to use the Iraqi
Kurds to further its own policies in Iraq and in the Middle East in general.
In the early 1970s, when the US was supporting the Shah of Iran in his
conflict with Iraq, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger secretly channeled
$16 million of military aid to the Iraqi Kurds to encourage an uprising.
When the Shah was overthrown and an Islamic republic under Ayatollah
Khomeini established, however, the US shifted its support to Iraq and now
opposed the Kurdish insurgency it had previously fostered. In 1980, when
Iraq invaded Iran, the U.S. and other Western Powers extensively supplied
Saddam Hussein’s regime with weapons, including chemical weapons. In 1988,
these weapons were used in gas attacks on rebellious Kurdish villages which
were accused of aiding Iran.
But after its invasion of Kuwait in 1990 US policy toward Iraq and Saddam
Hussein again abruptly changed. Suddenly, the plight of the Iraqi Kurds was
"rediscovered." Toward the end of the first Persian Gulf War, George Bush
Sr. encouraged a revolt of the Kurds in northern Iraq. Once the rebellion
broke out, however, the U.S. abandoned the insurrectionists, fearing that
their success would result in a break-up of the Iraqi state, a result which
could strengthen the hand of Iran in the region.
The situation of the Iraqi Kurds today, now under American occupation,
remains uncertain. Viewed as the community most favorable to the US
presence, the Kurds initially enjoyed a privileged position. They were
permitted to dictate critical terms in the new Iraqi constitution, afforded
significant regional autonomy and, perhaps most importantly, promised rights
to oil development there. However, as the occupation’s need for a strong
and effective central government in Iraq has become increasingly urgent, US
policy again appears to be shifting against the Kurds. This change is being
facilitated by strong pressure from Turkey which fears a strong Kurdish
community in Iraq will inspire and energize its own Kurdish minority.
Once again, Kurdish rights will have to take a back seat to the needs of
Western imperialism, this time in the interests of the "war on terror."
The Tragedy of Palestine
The Palestinian tragedy is a product of the same international system which
repeatedly redrew the map of the Middle East for the benefit of imperialism.
Twice Palestine was betrayed – first, in the peace conferences following
World War I when it was wrested from the Ottomans only to be turned over to
the British Empire, and then, after World War II, when it was partitioned
over the protests of the local Arab population. Through partition and at the
expense of the Arabs, Europe sought both to atone for a crime committed by
Europeans against Europeans (European Jewry) and to further rid itself of
the remnants of an ethnic and religious minority that it had never been able
to successful assimilate.
In the Palestinian case too, if artificial state-making over the objections
of the local inhabitants was one face of imperialism, ethnic cleansing was
the other. The forced expulsion of Palestinians from their land which
accompanied Israel’s successful military actions in the war of 1948 drew
inspiration and a sense of covert legitimacy from the involuntary
"population exchanges" authorized by the victors at Lausanne. And the
continuing acquiescence of the West – including and most prominently the
United States – to the denial of Palestinian self-determination and genuine
nationhood is a logical continuation of policies that subordinate the
interests of minority communities in the region to Great Power politics.
Such is the logic of imperialism.
Today the Israeli government, which constantly invokes the Holocaust to
justify its own war against the Palestinians is compelled, by its close
economic, political and military alliance with Turkey, to support the
latter’s continuing denial of the Armenian genocide. Contemporary political
realities, so the rationale goes, must take precedence over historical
memory. In this manner, both the Jewish and the Armenian dead are dishonored
in the service of two regimes, each seeking to hide its crimes, past and
present, from the light of day.
For many Americans, the on-going conflicts in the Middle East, with the
exception of our own "war on terror" in Iraq and Afghanistan, are little
more than, in Bloxham’s words, "murky interplay between barbarous
orientals." The United States’ own contribution, as one of the leading
imperialist powers, to these conflicts and the resulting death and suffering
it has caused is all too often unknown or denied.
The debate in the United States over recognition of the Armenian genocide is
likewise all too often exclusively focused on Turkey’s need to acknowledge
its past. Missing is any demand that the international context in which
Turkish crimes was initially facilitated, then overlooked and finally
repeatedly denied by the world’s leading powers, including the United
States, also be recognized. For international human rights activists, this
latter demand is ultimately the more important one.
 Donald Bloxham, The Great Game of Genocide. Imperialism, Nationalism and
the Destruction of the Ottoman Armenians (Oxford University Press, 2005).
 Ibid, p. 116.
 Ibid, p. 196.
 Ibid., p. 25.
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