On Ottomans, Turks, And Armenians by EurasiaNet.org

Historiographical Essay

For more than a decade, I taught an area studies course at the Foreign Service Institute that focused on Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. My students were US diplomats, military staff, and government workers headed to assignments in the Caucasus. Several classes focused on the decline of the Ottoman Empire, the First World War, and Armenia.

One of the major episodes in this period was the 1915 Armenian Genocide, a topic that remains highly contested. On April 24, 1915, Ottoman authorities rounded up hundreds of Armenian intellectuals and public figures in Constantinople and sent most to an early death. They then repeated the process with virtually the entire Armenian population of Eastern Anatolia: force-marching thousands into ambushes and starvation, and leaving survivors in the Syrian desert.

This, in its ugly essence, is the Armenian Genocide narrative, repeated by the media every April 24. Nevertheless, it is not the whole story, as now Armenians and Turks are discovering, or perhaps one should say, rediscovering. While the tragedy continues to provoke recriminations and denial, there have been positive developments as well: in just the last decade Armenian, Turkish, and other scholars have been reinvestigating the 1915-1923 period and publishing works of fascinating depth and subtlety. Most importantly, they are doing so in a new spirit of cooperation and without the rancor of years past.

The term “genocide” is a neologism, a word invented only in 1944 and with a precise legal definition, though by no means a simple one. Virtually every clause in the word’s official definition, contained in the United Nations 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, has been argued and counter-argued with regard to the Armenian Genocide. For example, did Ottomans “intend” to eradicate Armenians as a people, “in whole or in part”? Or were the bloody events of 1915 merely a wartime mix of intended and unintended consequences? The answers remain the subject of bitter dispute.

The field of Armenian Genocide studies was built up over the last 45 years largely through the research of UCLA historian Richard Hovanissian, sociologist Vahakn Dadrian, and others, who painstakingly filled in the early history of the Armenian Republic and documented the particulars of the Armenian expulsions and massacres, along with the investigations and 1919 courts-martial of the Young Turks. These added to eyewitness accounts, including United States Ambassador Henry Morgenthau’s gripping memoir of his years in Constantinople, when he tried to halt the decimation of the Armenians. Frustrated by the State Department’s desultory response to his telegrams, Morgenthau eventually resigned his ambassadorship.

Soon after the end of the First World War, the Young Turk leaders—Talaat, Enver, and Jamal Pashas—were tried in absentia and condemned to death; they eventually perished in battle or at the hands of Armenian assassins. For a time, the Armenians’ plight, along with female suffrage, topped the headlines in America; but official interest eventually faded as the United States recalibrated its foreign policy as soon as Turkey rallied.

When it became apparent that Anatolia would not be sundered, and administered by the British, French, Russian, and Greek powers, the world soon accommodated to the new Turkish state, with its attractive resources and strategic location. Meanwhile, the new Armenian Republic quickly disappeared, to regain independence only in 1991.

Over subsequent decades, Armenian survivors of the Genocide rebuilt their lives in new countries; some spoke about the past but were not always heeded, others did not. The false calm ended in the 1970s when a radical group of young Armenians suddenly demanded that Turkey acknowledge its role in the Genocide, and that restitution be made of all that their ancestors had lost.

These grandchildren of Genocide victims, who had grown up outside of Anatolia, proceeded to assassinate 34 Turkish diplomats and officials—terrorist acts which horrified the world and prompted an anti-Armenian backlash. These incidents stopped when the Armenian radicals realized how little the public knew about 1915. It was no wonder that the average American or European was ignorant, for both the Turkish government and the Armenian community had been largely silent: the former in official denial of Ottoman atrocities, the latter still working through its traumas.

Beginning in the 1970s, heartfelt Armenian accounts emerged, such as New Yorker writer Michael Arlen’s autobiographical Exiles and Passage to Ararat. The family narrative tradition continued with poet Peter Balakian’s impassioned Black Dog of Fate and The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response. Balakian also oversaw and edited the publication in English of a memoir by his great-uncle, Grigoris Balakian, an Armenian priest (and later the bishop of Marseilles) who escaped the Genocide, disguised in a German military uniform.

The Turkish government rejected such memoirs as merely anecdotal, and dismissed other exposés as being poorly researched or based on forged documents. Ankara endowed chairs and departments of Turkish studies at various US universities. Over time, these centers for Turkish and Ottoman research have proven valuable for scholars.

In the simplest narrative of 1915, oppressor Ottomans perpetrated genocide against victim Armenians—case closed. But Turkish officials and scholars have long rejected this scenario. Historians, surveying the late 19th-early 20th century, with its complex cycles of Armenian rebellions and Ottoman reprisals—not to mention punitive actions by Kurds—have struggled to affix blame on one side or another.

For years, it proved impossible even to bring Turkish and Armenian scholars together in one venue to discuss the matter: Armenians would often boycott the conference, saying there was nothing to discuss—the Genocide happened, period. Meanwhile, the Turks refused to tolerate the use of the “g-word.”

And so it went—until roughly a decade ago.

In 2002, a Canadian director of Egyptian-Armenian heritage, Atom Egoyan, came out with a film, Ararat, which focuses on the events of 1915. For years, Egoyan had avoided the topic, preferring to depict Armenian Diaspora life whimsically, or obliquely. Ararat is a sophisticated drama with many subplots and multiple interpretations. According to Egoyan, the main question Ararat poses is: Whose story do you believe—and why?

Of course, there have been any number of regular, straightforward reports and documentaries made about the Armenian Genocide, but these faced severe constraints. Such a complex topic is difficult, if not impossible to cover adequately in 60 or 90 minutes. A rare exception is Voyage to Amasia (2011, Randy Bell, Eric V. Hachikian, dirs.), a low-budget film that follows a young American-Armenian composer, Eric Hachikian, as he returns to the Anatolian birthplace of his grandmother. Hachikian tries to find his ancestral home in Amasia, to no avail. Along the way, he meets local Turks and Armenians who, to his surprise, seem to be living together in relative harmony. Despite initial fears and misgivings, Hachikian grows fond of Amasia and its inhabitants, and, after traveling on to Armenia proper, returns home both chastened and encouraged.

Beginning in the 1990s, Genocide Studies and Prevention, the official journal of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, has served to outline new areas of research, with articles on the destruction of the Armenian Church, case studies of genocide “triggering factors,” accounts by diplomats in 1915 Constantinople—along with studies about other minorities in Anatolia, such as the “native Christian” Assyrians.

Then in 2000, a remarkable gathering took place at the University of Chicago: the first Workshop for Armenian and Turkish Scholarship (WATS), organized by Gerard Libaridian, Ronald Suny, and Fatma Müge Göçek. At first, some Armenian colleagues stayed away and only a handful of Turkish researchers attended. But over the next six years, WATS became recognized as an

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