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‘They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else’: A History of the Armenian Genocide, by Ronald Grigor Suny, Princeton University Press, RRP£24.95 / RRP$35, 520 pages
Great Catastrophe: Armenians and Turks in the Shadow of Genocide, by Thomas de Waal, Oxford University Press, RRP£20 / RRP$29.95, 312 pages
Goodbye, Antoura: A Memoir of the Armenian Genocide, by Karnig Panian, Stanford University Press, RRP$25, 216 pages
Pope Francis caused a diplomatic uproar in Turkey this week when he called the massacre of the Ottoman Armenians of Anatolia a century ago genocide. Even if the term had not been invented when most of the mass killings took place in 1915-16, and was to be legally defined only in the 1948 UN convention on genocide, he was stating a fact. Thoroughly an array of documented accounts over the past two decades, by Turks, Armenians and western historians, have placed the nature of those atrocities beyond the questioning of the modern Turkish republican narrative.
Essentially, that denialist story holds that massacres did, indeed, take place, but in the context of total war — the first world war — that also killed many hundreds of thousands of Muslims when the Ottoman Empire, allied with Germany and assailed by the main Entente powers of Britain, France and Russia, was fighting for its life. It lost that fight, and the republic of Mustafa Kemal, or Atatürk, was built from its residual Turkic core, in an Anatolia almost entirely emptied of Armenians, as well as Assyrian Christians and Ottoman Greeks.
Up to 1.5m Ottoman Armenians perished. They were then largely erased from official history and Kemalist Turkey’s school textbooks, an enforced amnesia strengthened by a wall of silence from reputed Ottomanist scholars. The infamous remark attributed to Adolf Hitler on the eve of the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939 — “Who, after all, still talks nowadays about the extermination of the Armenians?” — should remind us of the colossal cost of amnesia about genocide.
Only in recent years, especially following the rise to power of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his neo-Islamist Justice and Development party (AKP), has there been a fuller debate inside Turkey about what happened. Yet the way Mevlüt Cavusoğlu, Turkish foreign minister, attacked the Pope’s “unfounded allegations” shows how far Turkey is from a full reckoning with what befell the Armenians 100 years ago.
Last April, on the eve of the anniversary of the government deportations in 1915 that began the systemic massacres, then prime minister and now president Erdoğan, in a hedged but nonetheless unprecedented statement, offered his condolences for the mass murder, speaking of the “shared pain” of “millions of people of all religions and ethnicities [who] lost their lives in the first world war”. Yet the messaging is mixed. This year Turkey has chosen to mark the centenary of the allied landings in Gallipoli — a battle Mustafa Kemal was instrumental in winning — on the same date, April 24, as the remembrance of the Armenian genocide.
One can now find books in Turkey analysing these terrible events as a genocide but no official recognition that this was what it was. Erdoğan’s offer to open Ottoman archives to a panel of international scholars to determine the truth of what happened is superfluous in light of scholarship there for all to see.
The three newly published, and very different, books discussed here — and many previous works besides — can leave no one with a scintilla of doubt that what was done to the Ottoman Armenians (and the Assyrian Christians of eastern Anatolia) was genocide. They were annihilated, and the merciless drive against the Armenians was centrally directed by the Ottoman government under the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) or Young Turks. One man in particular, Talat Pasha, minister of the interior, later grand vizier, and one of the CUP triumvirate along with Enver Pasha and Cemal Pasha that ruled the empire at the time, oversaw the process in chilling detail, demanding by telegraph almost daily tallies from his provincial enforcers.
So rapidly did most of them obey that, by August 1915, Talat felt able to tell Henry Morgenthau, the US ambassador who forged a close relationship with both Talat and Enver and is a key witness in all serious histories of the killings, that “it is no use for you to argue . . . we have already disposed of three-quarters of the Armenians; there are none at all left in Bitlis, Van, and Erzeroum. The hatred between the Turks and the Armenians is now so intense that we have got to finish with them. If we don’t, they will plan their revenge.”
These lines, in the history by Ronald Grigor Suny, an Armenian-American professor at the University of Michigan and great-grandson of genocide victims, have been often quoted. But what distinguishes Suny’s scholarship is a scrupulous attention to context and the genuine imperial anxiety of the Young Turks. They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else (a title taken from another Talat diktat) is a fair-minded account. Unsparing in depicting the viciousness of the killing, forced conversions and kidnapping of children and young women, it is rigorous in its choice of language and nuance, generous in its empathy but implacable in its conclusions.
The Armenians lived in what Suny calls “relatively benign symbiosis” with their imperial masters for more than four centuries after the Ottomans conquered Constantinople in 1453. Clearly subordinate, they enjoyed a measure of cultural and religious autonomy in six eastern provinces of Anatolia where they were most numerous, while Armenian businessmen and professionals thrived in Istanbul and west coast cities. Armenian nationalism was confined mostly to the diaspora, in Venice, Vienna or Madras.
The Young Turks, with the conspiratorial CUP at their core and a strong base in the army, were originally Europeanist modernisers who at times allied with like-minded Armenians. Centred on Salonika in what is now Greece, they took power cumulatively from 1908 in an attempt to save the crumbling Ottoman Empire. In the Balkan wars of 1912-13 they lost the European heartland of their empire. They threw in their lot with Germany, a gamble to safeguard their territory from the predatory European empires, especially an expansionist Russia. They suffered the humiliation in 1914 of the future Entente imposing reforms that would have established European stewards of Armenian rights in eastern Anatolia. In the CUP mind, Suny shows, this confirmed a treacherous nexus between the imperial powers and Ottoman Christian minorities. When war came, Enver Pasha’s Third Army was routed by the Russians at Sarikamiş in the Caucasus in 1915, and soon after the Gallipoli landings threatened an Istanbul in panic.
This grim outlook, plus the need to find space for Muslim refugees pushed into Anatolia as the empire lost its European territory, is part of the rationale for its Armenian policy, but, as both Suny and Thomas de Waal show — the latter in his measured and meticulous Great Catastrophe — it is hardly the only part. After serial Ottoman failures, Young Turk ideology, inchoate but influenced by European nationalism, evolved away from multicultural Ottomanism into national imperialism, which upgraded the value of ethnic homogeneity and Muslim solidarity.
Talat’s and Enver’s arguments that the Armenians allied with the Russians to stab the empire in its eastern back does not bear real examination — despite the hopes of some Armenians, and the reckless incitement of the European powers. Most Armenians, wary of Russification as well as Turkification, remained loyal, to the point they could not imagine what they faced, despite pogroms against them in 1894-96 and 1909. The fifth-column paranoia or “provocation thesis”, as Suny calls it, was largely fabricated. As Suny shows, the most celebrated acts of Armenian resistance, notably at Van, which was portrayed as a generalised insurrection, occurred after massacres had begun.
“The Young Turk leaders did face threats to their security, but out of the options they had at their disposal, they came to choose mass murder,” argues De Waal. A scholar of Russia and the Caucasus, he focuses on the relations between Turks and Armenians in the century after the Medz Yeghern or Great Catastrophe, the traditional term Armenians used for 1915. He wonders whether denialists have an interest in confining the controversy over the atrocities to the semantics of the word “genocide”, and whether a convention on “crimes against humanity” — words used in an Entente démarche in that fateful spring of 1915 — might not bring more mass murderers to justice.
The late Karnig Panian’s memoir begins in what he calls “our little corner of the universe”, where his grandfather owned bountiful cherry orchards — a Garden of Eden in which he recalls an uncle warning of the spectre of Cain and Abel, well before the deportations began. As a five-year-old boy, Panian endured a forced march from his native east-central Anatolia to the Syrian Desert that wiped out his family. He was then placed in an orphanage at Antoura in Lebanon, which systemically brutalised its Armenian charges to turn those who survived into Turks.
Panian’s recollection of the heat and hunger, the thirst and the constant menace of predatory bands licensed by the government to massacre those Armenians who didn’t die on the road, is unbearably vivid. But nor does it omit the compassion and kindness of some ordinary Turks, Kurds and Arabs, typically in the form of food and water.
At Antoura, the boys were given Turkic Muslim names — and a number. A few older boys became whip-wielding trusties, grotesquely bearing the names of the CUP triumvirs who had exterminated their people. “We were all humiliated, reminded that being Armenian was a punishable crime,” Panian writes. Despite it all, most of them clung desperately on to their identities.
The most uplifting section of this harrowing but luminous story of witness is when more audacious boys organise to steal fruit from neighbouring farms. Panian’s group flees the orphanage to live in caves in the Lebanese hills. “It was a beautiful place to call home, even if we were living like animals,” he writes. “We were like birds, satisfying ourselves with the bounty of nature and asking for nothing more.” The hero of the tale is Yusuf, a resourceful lad who turned the raiding parties into a self-sufficient little army. “We had created our own little family of boys, without mothers or fathers. The wilderness was our school, and Yusuf our guide.”
This searing account of a little boy wrenched from family and innocence manages to retrieve irrepressible flashes of great humanity amid the horror and chaos. It is a literary gem.
David Gardner is international affairs editor at the FT
Photograph: AFP / Getty