The Armenian Genocide and the Politics of Knowledge

In this centennial year since the Armenian Genocide, countless conferences, meetings, and commemorations are underway across the globe. While they have all been peaceful so far, they come at the end ...

In this centennial year since the Armenian Genocide, countless conferences, meetings, and commemorations are underway across the globe. While they have all been peaceful so far, they come at the end of a century of violence. I refer not just to the events of 1915–17, but also the waves of violence spurred by memory, recognition, and denial ever since. First came the killings, at the hands of individual Armenians, of two of the leading perpetrators of the violence, Talaat and Cemal Pashas in Berlin and Tiflis, respectively, in the 1920s. Then came the nearly 50 people, many of them Turkish diplomats, killed, and the hundreds more injured, across the globe by the Armenian organization ASALA in the 1970s to protest Turkey’s continuing refusal to recognize the genocide. More recently, in 2005, death threats were leveled against the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk (officially accused of having “publicly denigrated Turkish identity”) for merely referring in an interview to the mass violence against Armenians and Kurds, forcing him to leave the country. And there was perhaps the most tragic turn of events in 2007, when Armenian-Turkish intellectual Hrant Dink was assassinated for his role in organizing a conference in Turkey to discuss the genocide.

But the violence around the “Armenian Issue” has long penetrated academia, within and far beyond Turkey, too: many of us remember as recently as the late 1990s finding, in major research libraries in the US, pertinent pages ripped out of library books, books vanishing off the shelves, and historians hired (or not hired) based on their views on the question of genocide, and willingness to use the word. Given the mortal danger inherent in merely discussing the events of 1915 in Turkey, and the professional hazards of doing so even in the US, it stands to reason that scholars would approach the issue of the genocide with great trepidation, if at all. Scholarship on the Ottoman past had evolved such that nearly any kind of research regarding Ottoman involvement in World War I would be off-limits, certainly within Turkey, but also in the field at large, even in North America and Europe. Erik-Jan Zürcher, who blazed the trail of looking into the continuities between the late Ottoman and early Republican Turkish state in his 1984 work, The Unionist Factor, points out in a recent book that the Ottoman state archives for the period between 1914 and 1922 were only opened in the late 1980s, and even then access was given sparingly. But the fear of having the Ottoman state’s role in mass killings of Armenians exposed to scholarly scrutiny extended far beyond the secreting away of sources from that period; indeed, even research into the social, economic, or political role of Armenians in earlier periods of the empire’s history was off-limits, or at least highly suspect. Norman Itzkowitz, a professor at Princeton, used to relate to his students a story from the 1960s about being prohibited access to documents about the day-to-day workings of the 18th-century Ottoman postal system in Anatolia, only to find out it was due to the fact that Armenians had monopolized the postal system at the time.

Recognition of the genocide is not only the central taboo at the heart of the modern Turkish nation-state, it is also a kind of Gordian knot of Ottoman studies, and the two problems have worked to reinforce each other until recently. Ronald Grigor Suny’s recent “They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else”: A History of the Armenian Genocide is a work of synthesis that carries a significance far beyond its contributions to our understanding of the genocide; it also marks a turning point in scholarship and is the fruit of 15 years of collaborative research regarding the events of 1915. The book is a necessary watershed for the fields of Armenian history and genocide studies, but also for the changing relationships between official history, public history, and the academic study of the Ottoman past in Turkey and abroad. The importance of this book will be lost, however, on those who fail to understand not only the long-term setting of discussions of this issue, but especially the events of the last 15 years.

There has been a proliferation in sound, archivally based scholarship regarding the events of 1915–17 in the last decade and a half, in Turkey as well as in Europe and North America. It should be noted that Suny himself has played a major role in fostering this new wealth of scholarship on the genocide, even if from the adjacent fields of Russian/Soviet, Georgian, and Armenian history. In 2000, a collaborative project housed at the University of Michigan, the Workshop on Armenian and Turkish Scholarship, was initiated by Suny, Fatma Müge Göçek, and Gerard Libaridian. Through a series of workshops and conferences and an ongoing listserv discussion, the stated aim of the project was to “investigate the causes, circumstances, and consequences of the Armenian Genocide of 1915, overcoming the politics of recognition and denial.” The seven conferences, held between 2000 and 2011, involved scores of scholars from fields such as Ottoman, Armenian, German, Jewish, Habsburg, and Russian history, and yielded several important monographs and one collected volume, A Question of Genocide: Armenians and Turks at the End of the Ottoman Empire (2011). The result has indeed been a kind of overcoming of the politics of recognition and denial, such that a scholarly consensus has been achieved, recognizing that the mass killings of Armenians by the Ottoman state in 1915 did in fact constitute a genocide (this is not to say that there is no longer a “denialist” camp, but that camp has become marginal to the discussion). This consensus has become a starting point for far more interesting (to scholars, if not lawyers) questions regarding the context, causes, and consequences of the genocide, and the relationships between these events and the larger arc of Ottoman (and Armenian, and Russian, and Greek, and Kurdish) history.

During the 2000s, as the conferences were being held, massive changes were happening in Turkey that directly affected the politics of remembering the Armenian Genocide; changes in which Turkish academics played a crucial role. In the course of Turkey’s accession talks with the EU, specific indices of democratization and transparency were set as goals, and among those were the open discussion of history, specifically regarding the mass killings of Armenians in 1915, known in Turkish at the time and since as “tehcir ve taktil” (massacres and deportations). The Justice and Development Party, or AKP, was elected for the first time in the fall of 2002, setting a tone (for the first two terms of Erdoğan’s administration, if not the third) of opening the historical archives, finding the “truth” regarding 1915, and, of course, exposing the past crimes of the secularists (going back to the Young Turks) that the AKP saw as their opponents. Several Turkish intellectuals and scholars, some employed at North American and European universities and many working in Turkish universities, took it upon themselves to organize a conference for Turkish citizens only, in Istanbul, in September 2005, entitled, “Ottoman Armenians in the Era of the Empire’s Collapse: Scholarly Responsibility and Questions of Democracy.” The conference volume was published, in Turkish, in 2011, the same year as A Question of Genocide from the WATS group.

Suny’s book is not just an accessible work of historical synthesis but a bold political move, an important and necessary turning point in the production of knowledge and memory of the genocide.

While the starting point of the discussion in Turkey was not that the events of 1915 constituted a “genocide” per se (partly because some of the scholars involved did not share that view for various reasons, and partly because the organizers did not feel it productive to make that the central issue of the meeting), the word genocide (soykırım) was used by several scholars in their papers, and the question of genocide recognition was tied explicitly to questions of democratization in contemporary Turkey, as is clear from the title of the conference. The conference was prevented at the last minute from happening at its initial venue—the premier state university of Turkey, Boğaziçi University—only to be reconvened and held at a private university in Istanbul. At roughly the same time, Orhan Pamuk was forced to flee Turkey after giving an interview to a Swiss newspaper in which he spoke about the mass slaughter of Armenians in 1915 (and, more recently, of Kurds in Anatolia). Then Hrant Dink, the Armenian-Turkish intellectual and newspaper editor who was one of the organizers of the 2005 Istanbul conference (and the only Armenian on the organizing board), was gunned down outside of his office in Istanbul in January 2007, an event which galvanized many in Turkey to take a more critical stance toward their government’s official line denying the genocide and to inquire into their own history in new ways. While the official Turkish government line may not (yet) have changed to acknowledge the genocide, popular understandings of the past have become far more critical and nuanced, and the use of the word genocide has now become all but commonplace (or is, at least, no longer grounds for jail or exile). This is an achievement of scholars and intellectuals in Turkey and abroad, who have chipped away with great courage at the politics of denial with research and open discussion of a very complex recent past.

Were it not for the politics and context, Suny’s book would merely be a solid historical narrative, accessible to the nonacademic public, but not earth-shattering in its approach, methodology, or conclusions. That is to say, if it were a history of the Holocaust, it would be added without fanfare to the long list of works that narrate the event and place it in a larger historical context. But it is not a history of the Holocaust. Precisely because of the politics of remembering and denying, the lack of consensus between states, publics, and the academic community, and because of the historical context of the book, it is not just an accessible work of historical synthesis but a bold political move, an important and necessary turning point in the production of knowledge and memory of the genocide, and, perhaps, of the Ottoman past more broadly.

This book marks a turning point among so many other scholarly works on the topic because it is the first to put together an authoritative narrative which takes as given that the events of 1915 did constitute a genocide, and that this genocide has a history of its own. This is an important distinction. The book is not written as a polemical, emotional case expressly to prove that it was a genocide, although it does implicitly demonstrate that the criteria for genocide were met. Nor is it simply about using the intricate context in which the genocide happened to explain away the deep questions of culpability and responsibility (the tactic historically employed by denialists), although his treatment is highly sensitive to the political, social, and even psycho-emotional motivations of the Young Turk perpetrators.

There are, of course, drawbacks to framing a history as an authoritative account (even if its title only claims it to be “a” history and not “the” history) of the Armenian Genocide. On one level, to do so is to assume that the genocide can be separated as a historical event from World War I and the larger collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Of course, we also separate the nearly contemporaneous Russian Revolution from World War I and the larger crisis of the czarist empire, even though these threads are probably inseparable, and we routinely cordon off the Holocaust from the horrific larger goings-on at the Eastern Front of World War II, even though this is probably just as artificial a division.

The fact that this is still an uncomfortable separation, between the Armenian Genocide and the rest of late Ottoman history (whereas cordoning off the Russian Revolution and the Holocaust is not), is testament to the state of the field of Ottoman studies. The collaborative WATS project to unpack the causes, course, and consequences of the genocide has become a subfield of its own, for better and worse, and one that is not necessarily engaged by historians of the late Ottoman Empire who are not already convinced of the genocide. As a field of knowledge, then, it overlaps in significant ways with, but is not yet integrated fully into the mainstream of, scholarship on the late Ottoman Empire. In order for this integration to happen, students of Ottoman history “proper” need to think about the deeper causes and contingencies that brought about the impulses and the policies of the leaders of the Committee of Union and Progress that led to the annihilation of the Armenian population living within Ottoman borders. Not only that, but they have to address directly the question of sovereignty in the final decade of the Empire’s existence: which individuals, representing which institutions and communities, were responsible for the murder of so many Armenians? Was it the so-called triumvirate of Young Turk Committee for Union and Progress (CUP) Pashas, or the CUP as an organization-turned-party, which hijacked many institutions of government and state between 1909 and 1914? Was it the Ottoman government as a whole, even if it had been taken over by the CUP? Or was it the “Turkish nation,” the concept of which had not yet formally gelled into a basis for sovereignty for the Ottoman sultanate or the CUP? These, of course, are central questions that permeate, if implicitly, the way the genocide is remembered and its memory suppressed in Turkey today. And it is the difficulty in answering these questions—for historians, let alone lawyers and politicians—that makes the politics of memory of the genocide so dangerous today.

The Hunt for Sources

A major problem with framing the Armenian Genocide as an Event with its own history—and a major stumbling block for the movement for official recognition—is that we still lack the evidence to trace each step of the actual deportations and killings themselves—the core, that is, of what constituted the genocide. Debates between the “Armenian” and “Turkish” sides of the “genocide question” in past decades have focused compulsively on the veracity of the sources cited by Armenians, who, prohibited access to the Ottoman archives, gravitated to memoirs such as that of American Ambassador Henry Morgenthau, eyewitness accounts of Armenian survivors as well as of European and American missionaries and other civilians who happened to have been in the area, and even of German missionaries and officials, who despite their interest in defending the Ottoman state as a German ally in the war nevertheless reported and often protested the atrocities going on around them. The Turkish side in the debate over sources would, of course, accept the authority only of Ottoman state documents, and thus had an easy time claiming that there was no “smoking gun” showing the top-down, intentional character of the killings, since the Turkish state authorities would control access to those documents and ensure that no smoking gun would be found.

After decades of back-and-forth, and now a decade and a half of more systematic research based also on Ottoman state documents, the specific chain of command, the operations of paramilitaries and other informal mechanisms like the quasi-official “responsible secretaries” sent to the provinces to check up on orders issued from the center, and other specifics of the big picture are all clearer than ever, but still ungraspable in their entirety. And this is not by chance, as Taner Akçam points out in The Young Turks’ Crime Against Humanity: Armenian Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing in the Ottoman Empire, his 2012 work on which Suny draws in large part for his narrative. Akçam, using, for the first time, hundreds of Ottoman state documents, explains that there were two tracks of violence: one was the “legal” track, involving agreements with other states to exchange populations and official decrees to deport Armenian populations; the other was the “unofficial” track, including “forced evacuations, killing orders, and massacres.” Akçam claims that “maximum effort was expended to create the impression that none of these actions by agents of the CUP were ever connected to the state.” “Triumvir” Talaat Pasha, the interior minister at the time and the figure known as the mastermind of the genocide, furthermore, was said to have “directed the deportations from outside official channels by sending personal orders to the regional offices from a private telegraph in his home.” It is clear that the Ottoman state with the CUP Triumvirate at the helm was savvy enough about modern record-keeping and the legalities of culpability to distinguish between orders to be written, orders to be given verbally, and orders to be written, sent, and then destroyed.

<i>Interior Minister Talaat Pasha, who ordered the arrests</i>. Library of Congress

Interior Minister Talaat Pasha, who ordered the arrests. Library of Congress

As far as official documentation that may exist but is not accessible to researchers, papers from the Cipher Office of the Interior Ministry are among the most significant. These include short cables sent from the imperial capital to its branches in the provinces, but not any responses from the provinces. Some responses were scattered in the First, Second, and Third Departments of the General Security Directorate, but most are missing. “It should be mentioned that among these provincial responses, direct information on the Armenian deportations is as good as nonexistent.” In the course of the deportation, “special notebooks and registries, which reported how many Armenians had been deported, how many still remained, and so on, were sent to the capital. The fate of the documents that contained such information remains one of the great outstanding questions on this subject.”

The other major official Ottoman source base for these questions was generated after the fact: the transcripts from the postwar court martial trials, between 1919 and 1921. These we can see as a kind of transitional justice, imposed by British occupying authorities, which was never completed, in part because this, along with the larger occupation of Ottoman lands, was itself a major catalyst for the Turkish national movement itself. The actual archive of the Istanbul Court-Martial and Commission to Investigate (Wartime) Crimes “ha[s] disappeared without a trace, and there is no solid knowledge as to their possible fate.” Akçam supposes that when the Turkish nationalists took Istanbul in November 1922 these files would have been transferred to the Turkish General Staff (Genelkurmay Başkanlığı); the archives of the General Staff’s Directorate for Military History and Strategic Studies (Genelkurmay Askeri Tarih ve Stratejik Etüt ve Denetleme Başkanlığı, or ATASE) are as good as closed to civilian or foreign researchers. According to Akçam, these archives contain over 3.5 million documents on World War I, and at least 40,000 on the Teşkilat-ı Mahsusa (Special Organization), the elite security force that played a special role in the genocide, alone.

Twelve of the 63 of these court-martial cases were transcribed in the official Ottoman newspaper, Takvim-i Vekayi, and have been published in book form, in Turkish in 2007, and more recently in English, edited by Akçam and Vahakn N. Dadrian, as Judgment at Istanbul: The Armenian Genocide Trials (2011), but the evidence in them surely pales in comparison to what is or was contained in the archive of the Court itself. Another important after-the-fact set of sources that we do have are the records of the “Emval-i Metruke,” the euphemistically named “Abandoned Properties” Registry. The registry recorded the properties left behind by deported and murdered Armenians, to be cataloged and disbursed to deserving Ottoman/Turkish Muslims, often those who had been recently expelled from the Balkans. These records were the materials for Uğur Ümit Üngör and Mehmet Polatel’s valuable 2011 book, Confiscation and Destruction: The Young Turk Seizure of Armenian Property, as well as Akçam and Ümit Kurt’s Kanunların Ruhu, or Spirit of the Laws, from 2012, just released in English.

At what point, and In which cases, does Ottoman History have to also be Armenian History, and at what point were the Armenian subject populations doomed to this mass suffering?

Many other invaluable sources seem to be lost forever, however, permanently compromising any effort at complete documentation of the genocide. Papers of the CUP Central Committee, likely a goldmine of information about the goings-on in 1915, were smuggled out by notorious Central Committee member Dr. Nazim. Talaat Pasha, for his part, is said to have incinerated the Interior Ministry documents he deemed incriminating in the basement of a friend’s seaside villa in the Bosphorus neighborhood of Arnavutköy before fleeing Istanbul for Berlin in 1918. Further complicating the question of direct sources is that orders in 1915 “regarding the killing of the deportees were sent via courier to the various provincial governors, and that after being read, the original message was to be given back to the courier.” The upshot of this discussion and unearthing of sources, even for Akçam, who is seen as the historian that has come the closest to finding a “smoking gun,” is that the strongest claim he can make in his book is “to show that the information in the Prime Ministerial Ottoman Archive clearly points in the direction of a deliberate Ottoman government policy to annihilate its Armenian population.”

This problem of sources, and therefore comprehensive evidence, becomes very clear in the core section of Suny’s treatment, in the chapter entitled “Genocide,” which remains surprisingly vague given that the book is framed as a history of this event, and points only to a few localized examples for which we have archival evidence. He depends on the recent work of Üngör for his most vivid local case study, of the city of Diyarbakir; and on the not undisputed scholarship of Taner Akçam, referred to above, for much of his other direct evidence. Supplemental sources are culled from German, Russian, and American memoirs and official correspondence, and from the memoirs of stray mercenaries such as the Venezuelan Rafaël de Nogales. This dearth of sources, of course, is the crux of the matter, lying at the heart of the dispute between those who claim it was an incidental and unfortunate series of events and those who frame it as a deliberate genocidal act. We have mainly circumstantial evidence, and even the direct evidence that has been unearthed by scholars such as Akçam and Üngör hardly provides us with a full, detailed picture of how, where, and by whom these acts were carried out. We know that it was horrific—who could possibly look at photograph after photograph of mangled bodies and starving, orphaned children, death marches and destroyed villages and neighborhoods, and doubt that? We have enough evidence to be convinced that there was a definite pattern to the “deportations and killings,” and that they add up to a conscious policy on the part of Talaat Pasha and several others in the leadership, at a minimum. This is not to say that the evidence is unconvincing. The level of vehemence with which many Turks have denied past wrongdoing could even be read as an expression of anxiety about what the past might hold. WATS co-organizer Fatma Müge Göçek’s recent book, the product of years of painstaking research into hundreds of memoirs of CUP members and others, Denial of Violence (2014), even pinpoints many instances of former CUP members bragging about past efforts to eliminate the Armenian population of the empire.

Suny makes a nuanced attempt, availing himself of the latest scholarship, to account for the causes—political and psychological—that led to the genocide: longstanding structural inequalities between Muslims and non-Muslims in Ottoman society; medium-term paranoia that Armenian civilians would constitute a fifth column for Russian interests in Eastern Anatolia, to put the final nail in the coffin of Ottoman imperial control of the region and perhaps of the empire itself; and short-term responses to terrorist attacks by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation in 1896, the violent expulsion of Muslims from the Balkans in the first Balkan War of 1912, and the Ottoman military loss in the Battle of Sarıkamış that furthered the cycle of scapegoating and collective punishment. By Suny’s (and most other serious historians’) account, the genocide was not predestined from centuries before, and yet that is when his narrative history of the Armenian Genocide begins, implying that it was not an event of pure momentary contingency either. He rightly tries to differentiate between the localized massacres of Armenians in the 1890s and Adana in 1909, and the full-scale project to wipe out Armenians as a political entity (if not down to the last man, woman, and child) in 1915. And yet, he constructs the narrative such that there is an “Ottoman” history and an “Armenian” national, or proto-national history, and a “Great Power” history, divided into different chapters. It all comes crashing together in the chapters “War,” “Removal,” and “Genocide.” Students of Ottoman history reading this are prompted also to ask at what point, and in which cases, does Ottoman history have to also be Armenian History, and at what point were the Armenian subject populations doomed to this mass suffering? Was there, in fact, a kind of Ottoman/Turkish Sonderweg, and if so, how far back do we and should we trace it?

Ottoman History Beyond Genocide

Suny has put together the most solid, readable, plausible narrative history of the Armenian Genocide to date. He took the trouble to learn modern Turkish, and to read up, as an outsider to the field of Ottoman history, on the wealth of scholarship being produced on a wide range of topics within and beyond this field in order to construct his narrative. He deserves praise for transcending the emotional while still giving place to the emotions of suffering and trauma (of both Turks, driven from the Balkans, and Armenians) at the time and since. The book is as much a mark of collective accomplishment for the scholars of the past decade and a half as it is a signal that there is still much work to be done to flesh out the gory details of the genocide, and of the Ottoman experience in World War I more broadly, which, despite research that is now in progress, is still a terra incognita.

Until very recently Ottoman historians have been complicit, often inadvertently and out of well-founded fear, in accepting the divisions of Ottoman history that excise Armenians from Ottoman state and society, explain away or just avoid the genocide and World War I more generally, and steer clear of questions regarding the politics of transition and continuity between the Ottoman and Republican Turkish states, at the core of which lie questions of culpability for the Armenian Genocide. As the centennial conferences and commemorations unfold this year, it is interesting to see how remembrance of the genocide, like the recent scholarship on it, has become its own affair, amounting to a circuit of discussions for those who are already convinced of what happened and who is or was to blame. One can only hope that those who are not convinced will not close themselves off further from exploration into that dark past, if the aim of the commemorations is ultimately a consensus about what happened in 1915–17. Turkish leaders, for their part, seem to be pursuing a number of policies, none of which involves formal recognition of the genocide. These range from punitive, albeit symbolic, measures against states that have acknowledged the genocide, to an effort to deflect attention from commemoration of the genocide’s centenary by celebrating instead the centennial of the Ottoman victory at Gallipoli in 1915. A Turkish NGO even staged dance performances, such as the one in Times Square a few days before the centennial, aimed at promoting peace between Turkey and Armenia. Many Ottoman historians will now be busier than ever trying to square the centennial of the genocide with that of the Ottoman victory at Gallipoli, in order to understand more not just about the genocide as a separate Event, but also its relationship to the vast and complex whole of Ottoman history. icon

Featured image: Armenians are marched to a prison in Mezireh by armed Turkish soldiers. Kharpert, Armenia, Ottoman Empire, April 1915