For most of us, the centenary of the Great War means recalling the misery and sacrifices of the Western Front: Ypres, the Marne, Arras, Verdun, Passchendaele, the Somme. Few of us give as much thought to the Eastern Front and, apart from regular studies of the ever-popular, self-mythologising Lawrence of Arabia, fewer still dwell on the first world war in the Middle East. This was the theatre that hosted the Arab Revolt, famously dismissed by Lawrence as ‘a sideshow of a sideshow’.
The Great War centenary brings renewed attention to another neglected tragedy of the conflict. Starting in 1915, the Turks embarked on a process that culminated in the systematic extermination of the Armenian people. By the end of the war between 600,000 and one million had been killed, according to the more conservative estimates (the historian Bernard Lewis reckoned the true figure was 1.5 million). That equated to the annihilation of 90 per cent of Ottoman Armenians. In recent years it has come to be known by most of the world as the Armenian genocide, a term hotly contested by the Turkish authorities.
They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else tells the fiercely disputed story of what happened to the Armenians in the aftermath of the Battle of Sarikamish in early 1915, when Ottoman defeat by the Russians triggered a punitive response from the Young Turks against what was seen as Armenian treachery. The killing fields stretched 1,000 miles east from Istanbul. Armenian soldiers were disarmed, demobilised and killed. Armenian intellectuals and politicians in Istanbul followed them to their graves. Of the survivors, hundreds of thousands of Christian women and children suffered forced conversion to Islam and joined the families of Arabs, Turks and Kurds.
A typical eyewitness account, from an American missionary, recorded how
they gathered all the men into one place and carried them out in companies of about 25 each to be shot down in cold blood. Others were tied with their heads sticking through the rungs of a ladder and decapitated, others hacked to pieces or mutilated before death.
Needless to say, the mass extermination of a people had its accomplices, by turn willing and unwilling, carefully orchestrated and out of control far from the centre of authority. Yet the administration set the tone. Talat Pasha, the Young Turk leader who branded Armenians ‘enemies of the state’, and Enver Pasha, his minister of war, were arguably the architects of the massacres. Cemal Pasha, the last of the ‘three pashas’ triumvirate who ruled the Ottoman empire during the Great War, who was no shrinking violet when it came to hanging Arab nationalists, was decidedly less keen on erasing the Armenians from history.
Ronald Grigor Suny, an Armenian-American whose great-grandparents fell victim to the genocide, has written a tremendously powerful, scrupulously balanced, rigorous and humane account of a tragedy that still casts a shadow over the modern state of Turkey. It is likely to become the definitive reference book on the subject for years to come. The context of war and invasion, he argues, created ‘a mental and emotional universe’ that included ‘perceived threats, the Manichean construction of internal enemies, and a pervasive fear that triggered a deadly, pathological response to real and imagined immediate and future dangers’. The view grew among the Young Turks, in power from 1908, that all Armenians were a dangerous fifth column allied to the Russians.
There have long been two defining narratives surrounding the events of 1915, lined up like opposing armies, bombarding each other with accusations and denials. The traditional Turkish case argues that the measures taken against the Armenians during a time of crisis were a rational and reasonable government response to the rebellious behaviour of a traitorous minority. The Armenian counterpart to this line has often held the Turks to be inherently bloodthirsty and bent on extermination, the Armenians as entirely blameless amid the maelstrom of a collapsing Ottoman empire.
Suny has little truck with the cultural demonisation of the Turks, be it Armenian or western European. Exhibit A for the latter is Gladstone’s notorious description of the Turks as ‘the one great anti-human specimen of humanity’ who left ‘a broad line of blood’ wherever they went.
Within the crumbling empire, the Armenians were by no means alone in revolutionary intent. From the 1890s, there was fierce, sometimes militant, opposition to Sultan Abdülhamid II from both Macedonians and Young Turks, not to mention Arabs, Albanians, Circassians and Kurds. It is important to remember that for centuries before 1915, Armenians, alongside other minorities, were integrated into a multinational Ottoman empire, albeit as second-class citizens. One thinks of the Abbasid caliphate headquartered in Baghdad for half a millennium from the late eighth century, a cosmopolitan affair of Muslims, Jews and Christians thriving together.
Terminology is critical. Today many of us find it bewildering that British government ministers, the BBC and other media routinely describe the terrorists of Daesh as ‘Islamic State’, unintentionally conferring religious and national legitimacy on a self-declared caliphate whose absurdity would be amusing if it were not so disgustingly blood-soaked. Suny is right to conclude that although controversies still rage over the Armenian genocide, and will continue to do so, the weight of scholarly opinion has shifted dramatically in the 21st century toward the view that ‘the Ottoman government conceived, initiated and implemented deliberate acts of ethnic cleansing and mass murder, targeted at specific ethno-religious communities’. In a word, genocide.
At one level, official Turkish denial in the face of all this evidence makes little sense. Yet at another it is eminently understandable. The destruction of the Armenians, together with the ethnic cleansing and population exchanges of the Anatolian Greeks, was the ‘foundational crime’ that facilitated the formation of ‘an ethno-national Turkish republic’. One followed the other.
Commemorating the centenary of the genocide in a no less moving account, Thomas de Waal’s Great Catastrophe brings to bear a very personal focus, through history informed by reportage and travelogue. De Waal, a journalist and scholar based at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is as interested in the ‘history of the history’ as in the genocide itself: how it has been remembered and denied over the decades.
Both Suny and de Waal write of the Turkish thaw in coming to terms with the events of 1915, a process that is not without its dangers. Take the story of Hrant Dink, a Turkish Armenian activist who had devoted himself to improving understanding between Armenians and Turks through Agos, the newspaper he founded and edited from the late 1990s. Less interested
in the question of denial or acknowledgment — he opposed foreign governments’ genocide resolutions — he argued that the real problem was a lack of comprehension on the part of Turkey. Only democracy would allow that. In 2007, Dink was shot dead by a 17-year-old Turkish nationalist.
Armenian activism unquestionably has helped force the issue of historical scrutiny and political accountability. As the Armenian-American writer Leon Surmelian proclaimed in his essay ‘Mourning is not Enough’, published in 1965 on the 50th anniversary of the atrocities, there was a responsibility to stand up and be counted. ‘For too long now we have been the forgotten people of the western world. And we deserve to be forgotten forever if we take no action now.’
It has been a long, fraught process. Starting in 2000, the Workshop for Armenian/Turkish Scholarship, brainchild of Suny and another colleague, brought Turkish and Armenian scholarship together in joint endeavour for the first time. In 2011 its contributors published A Question of Genocide, helping establish an academic consensus on the slaughter. There is an instructive comparison to be made here with Germany after the Holocaust, a war crime that triggered a level of soul-searching as yet unmatched in Turkey.
Both books offer painful reading, compelling for the general reader, cathartic for Armenian and Turk alike. For a century since the massacres, one people has been haunted by silence, the other by denial. The walls of both have now started to come tumbling down. As an Armenian from the eastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir, an epicentre of the atrocities that was once more than half Christian, puts it: ‘For the Turks 100 years is too soon, for us it is too late.’