The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey: A Disputed Genocide / The Armenian Rebellion at Van

At last, nearly a century after the ghastly events following the deportation of the Armenian population of Eastern Anatolia in 1915-16, a carefully balanced and scrupulously fair study, presenting an analysis of the accounts of both sides, has finally appeared. Guenter Lewy deserves the highest praise for his sober and reasoned approach to this saga of horrors, which began on April 24, 1915, during the early stages of World War I. It resulted in the mass dispersal of both Christian and Muslim populations in the region and the death of 642,000 Armenians — according to the author's own reckoning, nearly 40 percent of the prewar Armenian population of the Empire (p. 240). Of those surviving by the time of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, all but a handful living in Constantinople had fled to Russia, Syria, Lebanon, Greece or further abroad. Nor does this take into account those Armenians, especially women and children, who were forced to convert to Islam to save their lives. Total numbers are not known, he says, but "it is said to have been high" (p. 177). In his preface, Lewy states, "I have no special ax to grind" (p. x), and as one reads through the book, it becomes clear he does not.

The main point of dispute, as the subtitle indicates, is not that hundreds of thousands of Armenians perished in horrific circumstances, but whether their demise was the result of a calculated plan by the CUP (Committee of Union and Progress, i.e., the Young Turk government that seized power in 1908) to eradicate the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire (where the vast majority of the Armenian people had been living for millennia). In other words, was it a genocide or simply a desperate response to the invading Russian Czarist Army, which threatened the survival of the Ottoman state? Lewy's evidence tends to support the latter, but it also points out that the Turkish authorities were unable to ensure the safe relocation of the more than one million Armenians in the vilayets concerned, at a time when their writ barely extended beyond Constantinople and other main urban centers. They must have known that huge numbers would suffer and die as a result. The very fact that they chose Deir el-Zor in what is today eastern Syria as a final destintation — a completely Muslim Arab region barely able to support its own population in the best of times and totally unprepared to deal with masses of wretched, starving Christians — confirms this. Of the number of Armenians who managed to reach Deir el-Zor (180,000 between June 1915 and May 1916, according to Lewy), a mere 15,000 were left alive by August 1916 (p. 217). Anyone who has visited the shrine dedicated to the Armenian martyrs in Deir el-Zor, which I have, cannot but be convinced that the Ottomans were guilty of a terrible crime. Perhaps it was not genocide by design, but it was definitely genocide by default.

There is no doubt that, in spring 1915, many Armenians were supporting the invading Russian troops and sabotaging Ottoman efforts to send necessary supplies to their army on the Eastern front. There is also no doubt that the majority of the Armenian community were not actively involved but desperately trying to survive the depredations of war, the raids of Kurdish tribal bandits, and the struggle to find food for their families.

The Turkish position has always been that the Armenians who died were the victims of a civil war of their own making and that as many or more Turkish and Kurdish Muslims also perished or were displaced by the conflict. Even some Turks are beginning to question this hard-line defense. The Turkish historian Selim Deringil is quoted by Lewy as saying that "no historian with a conscience can possibly accept the 'civil war' line, which is a travesty of history" Lewy agrees (p. 122). That the Armenians desired independence is not in question, but the Russians were not inclined to give it to them. Had the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution not forced the withdrawal of troops from Anatolia, it is probable that the Armenians would have been swallowed up by the czarist empire, as they were in the end by the Soviets. The Russians may have used the Armenian revolutionaries to their own ends, but neither they nor the Ottomans had any interest in an independent Armenia.

Ottoman sources for the deportation and massacres are few and disputed. But there are the copious accounts of European and American consulate and embassy officials in the region, and, of course, the diaries of American missionary eyewitnesses, who were well-established in the area by virtue of the many schools they had established in the late nineteenth century, not to mention the recollections of the Armenian survivors themselves. Many, though certainly not all, of the diplomatic accounts supported the Armenian position, as did the missionaries and the survivors themselves. Lewy believes that most of the survivor accounts are credible. Some may have been exaggerated or even fabricated, but, just as outright fraudulent survivor acccounts of the Holocaust exist, "Deplorable as they are, [they] do not destroy the utility of survivor testimony" (p. 148).

What emerges from Lewy's study is the dire state of the empire and its population in 1915 and its inability to protect and feed its own Muslim citizenry, let alone the Armenians. As Lewy points out, "At a time when even soldiers in the Turkish army were dying of starvation, it is hardly surprising that little if any food was made available to the deported Armenians, who were seen as in league with Turkey's enemies" (pp. 56-57). Justin McCarthy and other Ottoman apologists make much of the fact that perhaps as many Turks and Kurds died as Armenians. But for Lewy, this is a red herring. I would agree. Lewy concludes that "Muslim refugees also suffered greatly, but their movement westward was for the most part at their own pace rather than under the lash of gendarmes. The agonizing deaths of Armenian women and children during the long marches through the desert find no parallel among the adversities experienced by the Turkish population" (p. 241).

For the Turkish government to deny Ottoman resposibility for the Armenian suffering makes no sense. It was not the state founded by Kemal Atatürk that ordered the deportations, and its present authorities have nothing to lose by admitting that their predecessors made mistakes. This is Lewy's final conclusion as well. He makes clear that not all Armenians were targets of massacre. The three largest urban Armenian concentrations — Constantinople, Smyrna and Aleppo — were exempt from the deportation order, as were the smaller communities of Armenian Catholics and Protestants elsewhere. "If the Armenians could be persuaded to forgo resort to the legal concept of genocide as a systematic and premeditated program of the destruction of a people," Lewy argues, "and be satisfied with a Turkish acknowledgment of sincere regret for the terrible suffering of the Armenian people during the First World War, a path might open toward reconciliation" (p. 271). At some point in the future, this is what must happen.

Guenter Lewy / Justin McCarthy, Esat Arslan, Cemalettin Taskiran, Ömer Turan

Reviewed by Robert Brenton Betts, Professor, University of Balamand, Al-Kurah, Lebanon.