1554) Prof Lewy's Speech Is Based On His Book: Guenter Lewy: Armenian Massacres In Ottoman Turkey

Guenter Lewy's speech at the Malkin Penthouse, fourth floor Littauer Building, Harvard University, at 3 PM, on March 13, 2007. . .

Professor Lewy's Speech Is Based On His Book: Guenter Lewy, The Armenian Massacres In Ottoman Turkey: A disputed Genocide, University of Utah Press, 2005, ISBN: 0874808499.

Armenians call the calamitous events of 1915-1916 in the Ottoman Empire the first genocide of the twentieth century. Most Turks refer to this episode as war time relocation made necessary by the treasonous conduct of Armenian minority. The debate on what actually happened has been going on for almost 100 years and shows no signs of resolution. The highly charged historical dispute burdens relations between Turkey and Armenia and increases tensions in the volatile region. It also pops up frequently in the other parts of the world when members of the Armenian Diaspora push for the recognition of the Armenian genocide by the respective parliaments, and the Turkish government threatens retaliation.

Next month the US House of Representatives is scheduled to vote on a non-binding resolution declaring the treatment of Ottoman Armenians during World War I a case of genocide. If passed, the US will join the considerable number of countries that have declared these events to constitute genocide and a crime against humanity. Below a chamber of the French parliament and Switzerland took the case further and made it illegal to deny the Armenian Genocide.

There are many Armenian people who are for this kind of legislation. They feel that just it is illegitimate to question the historical fact of the Holocaust, Hitler's attempt to destroy the Jews of Europe, it is equally imperative to recognize and to denounce the Armenian genocide.

I have several problems with this position. First I believe that Parliaments should legislate on what is in their competence and jurisdiction and not try to decide contested historical questions, and contested this question certainly is.

The Jewish Holocaust is denied only by pseudo historians such as David Irwin. In the case of Armenians on the other hand some of the most prominent students of Ottoman history such as Bernard Lewis and Andrew Mango doubt the appropriateness of the genocide label for the tragic events of 1915. Second, unlike the case of the Holocaust, most of which is described in the thousands of captured German documents that formed the main evidence in the Nuremberg trials; an analogy of many key occurrences in Ottoman Turkey during World War I is also inadequate and incomplete.

I believe in not to declare the subject as closed, instead we should promote the necessary research that eventually you will make it possible to arrive a more conclusive knowledge at a consensus of informed opinion that will facilitate reconciliation between Armenians and Turks.

No one, it should be stressed, disputes the extent of Armenian suffering at the hands of the Ottoman Turks during the World War I. With little or no notice, the Ottoman government forced Armenian men, women, and children to leave their historic communities; during the subsequent harrowing trek over mountains and through deserts, large numbers of them died of starvation and disease, or were murdered. Although the absence of good statistics on the size of the pre-war Armenian population in Turkey makes it impossible to establish the true extent of the loss of life, reliable estimates put the number of deaths at more than 650,000, or around 40 percent of a total Armenian population of 1.75 million. The historical question at issue is specific intent-that is, whether the Turkish regime intentionally organized the annihilation of its Armenian minority, and thus guilty of genocide. According to the Genocide Convention of 1948, intent to destroy a group is a necessary condition of genocide; most other definitions of this crime of crimes similarly insist upon the centrality of malicious intent. Hence the crucial problem to be addressed is not the huge loss of life in and of itself but rather whether the Young Turk government deliberately sought the deaths that we know to have occurred. Historical background:

The Armenians have lived in the southern Caucasus, between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, since ancient times. In the early 4th century of the CE, they were the first nation to adopt Christianity as a state religion. Much of their long history, however, has been spent under foreign rule. The last independent Armenian state (before the present-day, post-Soviet Republic of Armenia) fell in 1375, and by the early 16th century most Armenians were subjects of the Ottoman Empire. Under the millet system instituted by Sultan Mohammed II (1451-1481), they enjoyed religious, cultural, and social autonomy and they were known as the "loyal community," a status that lasted well into the 19th century. Though large numbers of Armenians settled in Constantinople and in other Ottoman towns, where they prospered as merchants, bankers, and artisans, the majority continued to live as peasants in eastern Anatolia. During the autocratic rule of Abdul Hamid II (1876-1909), the lot of the Armenians deteriorated, and nationalistic sentiment began to emerge. In June 1890, Armenian students in the Russian-controlled area of the Caucasus organized the Armenian Revolutionary Federation. Demanding the political and economic emancipation of Turkish Armenia, the Dashnaks (as they were known) waged guerrilla warfare against Turkish army units, gendarmerie posts, and Kurdish villages involved in attacks on Armenians. They operated from bases in the Caucasus and Persia and took advantage of eastern Anatolia's mountainous terrain.

One of the aims of this warfare was to provoke the Turks to commit excesses which would draw the attention of the Christian world and bring about European intervention. For foreign consumption the revolutionaries portrayed their arms against the Ottoman regime as defensive violence while their own publications celebrated them as national liberation.

When, in 1908, the nationalist, modernizing movement known as the Young Turks seized power in Constantinople in a bloodless coup, the Dashnaks declared an end to their fighting. But the truce did not last. With Turkey's entry into World War I on the side of Germany and against Russia, the Armenians' traditional ally, the Dashnaks resumed their armed resistance. By April 1915, Armenian guerrilla activities had picked up momentum. Roads and communication lines were cut. Henry Morgenthau, the American ambassador in Constantinople, reported to Washington on May 25 that nobody put the Armenian guerrillas "at less than 10,000, and 25,000 is probably closer to the truth."

Meanwhile, the Russian branch of the Dashnaks was organizing volunteers to fight the Turks on the Caucasus front. Most of these volunteers--numbering 15,000, according to one Armenian source--were themselves Russian subjects, exempt from military service, but some of them were Turkish Armenians who had crossed the border to join the volunteer units. Offers of help also poured in from the Armenian diaspora, from as far away as Western Europe and the U.S.

In March 1915, the Dashnak organization in Sofia, Bulgaria, proposed to land 20,000 volunteers on the Turkish coast in the Armenian stronghold of Cilicia. That same month, the Boston-based Armenian National Defense Committee of America informed the British foreign secretary that it was making "preparations for the purpose of sending volunteers to Cilicia, where a large section of the Armenian population will unfurl the banner of insurrection against Turkish rule." The British and French governments, I was hoped, would supply them with ammunition and artillery.

Turkish fears of an internal revolt were confirmed by the uprising that took place in the spring of 1915 in the city of Van. Close to the Russian border and in the heartland of historic Armenia, Van had long been a center of nationalist agitation. On April 24, 1915, the Turkish governor reported that 4,000 Armenian fighters had opened fire on the police stations, burned down Muslim houses, and barricaded themselves in the Armenian quarter. About 15,000 refugees from the countryside eventually joined the now-besieged rebels. Less than a month later, the insurgents were saved by the advancing Russian army, forcing the Turkish garrison to retreat. Armenians will tell you that the uprising was a defensive action aimed at preventing the deportation of Armenian community. Turkish authors argue that the rebellion was designed and timed to facilitate the advance of the Russians.

When not tying down Turkish army units, the Dashnaks were of significant help to the Russian army itself (leaving aside the 150,000 Armenian subjects of the Czar who served in its ranks). Deeply familiar with the rugged mountains of eastern Anatolia, the Armenian volunteers were invaluable scouts and guides. In one famous episode, the legendary Armenian military leader Andranik Ozanian met with General Mishlayevsky, commander of the Czar's forces in the Caucasus, late in the summer of 1914, pointing out the routes through which the Russian army could advance on Turkey.

Thus, as the Turks saw it, the Armenian people the world over had thrown in their lot with the Allied cause and were arrayed against them in a fateful struggle. Having come to consider the Armenians a fifth column, the Ottoman regime decided to take decisive measures to put an end to their treasonable actions. As Morgenthau reported to Washington in July 1915: "Because Armenian volunteers, many of them Russian subjects, have joined the Russian army in the Caucasus and because some have been implicated in armed revolutionary movements and others have been helpful to Russians in their invasion of the Van district, terrible vengeance is being taken."

In the eyes of the Young Turks, however, the issue was not so much revenge but national survival in a situation of extreme danger caused by serious military setbacks. The British had taken Basra in Mesopotamia and were moving toward Baghdad. The Allies had launched their assaults on the Dardanelles. Fearing the fall of the capital, the Turks were making preparations to evacuate the sultan and the treasury from Constantinople. Meanwhile, Russian troops were advancing into eastern Anatolia, and Armenian guerrillas were active in the rear of the Turkish army, threatening the very lifelines of the empire. Even if only a limited number of Armenians had actually taken up arms, the authorities in Constantinople understood themselves to be dealing with a population of traitors.

Indeed, after the war had ended and at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 the Armenians talked with pride about the important contribution they had made to the Allied victory. In a letter written on in late October 29, 1918 to the French foreign minister Stephen Pichon, Boghos Nubar, the head of the Armenian delegation, asserted that the Armenians had in fact been belligerents, since they have fought fighting alongside the Allies against the Turks on all fronts. Between 600 and 800 Armenian volunteers, he said, served on the western front with the French Foreign Legion, and only 40 were still alive; three battalions had taken the field in the Middle East and had been cited by General Allenby for their courage; in particular, he wrote, 150,000 Armenians had fought in the Russian army and had held the front in the Caucasus after the Russians dropped out of the war in 1917. As Boghos Nubar told the peace conference on March 8, 1919, the Turks had devastated the Armenians "in retaliation for our unflagging devotion to the cause of the Allies."

This rhetoric undoubtedly was desiged to win the support of the peace conference for an independent Armenia. Still, the essential facts put forward by the Armenian delegation were correct for the Armenians had supported the Allies in a variety of ways. None of this can serve to justify what the Ottomans did to the Armenians, but it provides the indispensable historical context for the tragedy that ensued. Given this context the Armenians can hardly claim that they suffered for no reason at all. Ignoring warnings from many quarters, large numbers of them had fought the Turks, and not urprisingly with their back against the wall, the Ottomans had reacted resolutely not to say viciously.

Let us not deny the human catastrophe that resulted. The harsher methods employed by the Young Turks included the killing of Armenian notables in Constantinople and the eastern provinces. As for Armenian civilians, perhaps as many as 1 million were turned out of their homes. On a journey through the most inhospitable terrain, they usualy not only lacked shelter and food but were often subjected to the murderous violence of their government escorts and the Kurdish tribesmen who occupied the route southward to Ottoman-controlled Syria. Massive numbers died along the way.

Can we account for this tragedy without the hypothesis of a genocidal plan on the part of the Young Turks? Most authors supporting the Armenian cause do not think so. They cite foreign diplomats on the scene who, in the face of the large number of deaths, concluded that the terrible loss of life was an intended outcome of the deportation decision. And yet one infers that many foreign officials were, about the events unfolding before their eyes, their insight into the mindset and the intentions of the Young Turk leadership was necessarily limited. Indeed to this day the inner workings of the Young Turk regime and especially the role of the triumvirate of Enver, Talaat and Djemal are understood only inadequately. Moreover there is a wide backdrop against which this horrific episode must be seen.

Thus, if one of the main causes of the Armenian disaster was starvation, the Armenians were hardly alone in experiencing such deprivation. In the spring of 1915, Ambassador Morgenthau told Washington that the empire's whole domestic situation was "deplorable," with "thousands of the populace daily dying of starvation." In the late spring and summer of 1915, the Ottoman provinces of Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria were devastated by a plague of locust, creating famine conditions. To exacerbate matters, Allied warships had blockaded the coast of Syria and Lebanon, thus preventing the import of food from Egypt.

The resulting scarcities afflicted even the Turkish army, whose troops, as one German officer reported, received a maximum of one third of their allotted rations. In circumstances where soldiers in the Turkish army were dying of undernourishment, it is not so surprising that little if any food was made available to the deported Armenians.

Indeed, the mistreatment of common Turkish soldiers, the subject of many comments by contemporaries, makes an instructive comparison with the wretched lot of the Armenians. Although "provisions and clothing had been confiscated to supply the army," wrote an American missionary in Van, "the soldiers profited very little by this. They were poorly fed and poorly clothed when fed or clothed at all."

The treatment of Turkish soldiers who were wounded or sick was especially appalling. Those who managed to reach hospital--many never did--perished in large numbers because of unsanitary conditions and a lack of basic supplies. Patients shared beds or simply lay next to each other on the floor in facilities that often lacked running water and electricity. Typhus, cholera, dysentery, and other infectious diseases spread rapidly. As the Danish missionary Maria Jacobsen noted on May 24, 1916, a cholera outbreak in the city of Malatia was killing 100 soldiers a day. "The army there," she wrote, "will soon be wiped out without a war."

The Turks experienced some 244,000 combat deaths during World War I. As against this, some 68,000 soldiers died of their wounds and almost a half-million of disease--a ratio of non-combat to combat deaths almost certainly unmatched by any of the other warring nations. This terrible toll obviously does not excuse the treatment of the Armenians, but neither can it be simply ignored in any assessment of the general conditions against which they met their fate. Many of the Turkish deaths could have been prevented by better sanitary conditions and medical care. A government so callous about the suffering of its own population as was the Young Turk regime, was hardly about to show concern for the terrible human misery that would result from deporting its minority population rightly or wrongly suspected of treason.

There exists no authentic documentary evidence to prove the culpability of the central government of Turkey for the massacres of Armenians of 1915-16. In the face of this lack, Armenians have relied upon materials of questionable genuinness such as Aram Andonian's "The Memoirs of Naim Bey," a book first published in 1920, offers in evidence 30 alleged telegrams by Talaat Pasha, Turkey's minister of the interior, some of which order the killing of all Armenians irrespective of sex or age. However, the book is considered a forgery not only by Turkish historians but by practically every Western student of Ottoman history.

Talaat Pasha is a malaise also in Ambassador Morgenthau story in memory published in 1918. Morgenthau acknowledged that this book was published for the purpose of convincing the American people to carry the war to a victorious conclusion. The book puts words into the mouth of Talaat Pasha and the minister of war Enver portraying them as ruthless villains. However with few exceptions these words do not appear in the sources utilized by Morgenthau in the writing of memoir such as his diary, preserved at the Library of Congress. In his diary Morgenthau repeatedly praises the two ministers for their kindness. He frequently invited Enver and Talaat for meals at his home and went riding with them in the countryside.

The appeal to convicting Talaat and Enver of the destructive designs against Armenian population by the use of this literary device was politically inspired, probably the brain child of the journalist Burton J. Hendrick who ghost-wrote the book and received a share the royalties.

A highly capable praise of Talaat is preserved also from the pen of William Peet, the American head of the Armenian International Relief effort in Constantinople who recalls that Talaat Pasha always "gave prompt attention to my requests, frequently greeting me as I called upon him in his office with the introductory remark: "we are partners, what can I do for you today?"

A similarly unreliable source are the verdicts of Turkish military tribunals that in 1919-20, which held the top leadership of the Young Turk regime, and a special-forces outfit called Teskilat-i Mahsusa, or special organization, responsible for the massacre of the Armenians. These trials suffered from serious deficiencies of due process; more importantly, all of the original documentation of the trial is lost and we have nothing but copies of some documents in the gazette of the government and the press. It is doubtful that the Nuremberg trials would ever have achieved their tremendous significance in documenting the crimes of the Nazi regime if we had to rely on a few copies of the documents instead of thousands of originals preserved in our archives.

It is true that no written record of Hitler's order for the Final Solution of the "Jewish question" has been found, either. But the major elements of the decision-making process leading up to the annihilation of the Jews of Europe can be reconstructed from events, court testimony, and a rich store of authentic documents. Barring the unlikely discovery of sensational new documents in the Turkish archives, it is safe to say that no such evidence exists for the tragic events of 1915-16.

At the same time, a number of facts about the deportations argue against the thesis that they constituted a premeditated program for exterminating the Armenians of Turkey. For one thing, the large Armenian communities of Constantinople, Smyrna, and Aleppo were spared deportation and, apart from tribulations that also afflicted the Muslim populations of these cities, survived the war largely intact. This would be analogous to Hitler's failing to include the Jews of Berlin, Cologne, and Munich in the Final Solution. Moreover, the trek on foot that took so many lives was imposed only on the Armenians of eastern and central Anatolia, a part of the country that had no railroads. Elsewhere, and in despite the fact that the one-spur Baghdad line was overburdened with the transport of troops and supplies, Armenian deportees were allowed to purchase rail tickets and were thus spared at least some of the trials of the deportation process. If, as is often alleged, the intent was to subject the exiles to a forced march until they died of exhaustion, why was this punishment not imposed on all Armenians? Similar variation can be found in the fortunes of other parts of the Armenian population. While many of the exiles were left to fend for themselves and often died of starvation, others were given food here and there. Some gendarmes accompanying the convoys sold their charges to Kurds who pillaged and murdered them, but other gendarmes were protective. In some places all Armenians, irrespective of creed, were sent away, while in others Protestant and Catholic (as opposed to Gregorian) Armenians were exempted. Many of the deportees succumbed to the harsh conditions in their places of resettlement, but others were able to survive by making themselves useful as artisans or traders. In some locations, not even conversion to Islam could purchase exemption from deportation; in others, large numbers of Armenians were allowed, or forced, to convert and were saved.

All these differences in the treatment and outcome are athletical reconcile with a premeditated program of total annihilation. How, then, to explain the events of 1915-16? What accounts for the enormous loss of life?

The documentary evidence available suggests that the Ottoman government wanted to arrange an orderly process of deportation--even a relatively humane one, to gauge by the many decrees commanding protection and compassionate treatment of the deportees. But, leaving aside the justice of the expulsion order itself, the deportation and resettlement of the Armenians took place at a time of great insecurity and dislocation throughout the country and in conditions of widespread suffering and deprivation among Turkish civilians and military personnel. The job of relocating several hundred thousand people in a short span of time and over a highly primitive system of transportation was simply beyond the ability of the Turkish bureaucracy.

Many observers on the scene, indeed, saw the tragedy in this light, constantly citing the incompetence and inefficiency of the Ottoman bureaucracy. "The lack of proper transportation facilities," wrote the American consul in Mersina in September 1915, "is the most important factor in causing the misery." The German consul in Aleppo told his ambassador around the same time that the majority of Armenian exiles were starving to death because the Turks were "incapable of solving the organizational task of mass feeding." A lengthy memorandum on the Armenian question drawn up in 1916 by Alexander von Hoesch, an official in the German embassy, pointed to a basic lack of accountability: some local officials had sought to alleviate the hardships of the exiles, but others were extremely hostile to the Armenians and, in defiance of Constantinople, had abandoned them to the violence of Kurds or Circassians.

Today, the stakes in this historical controversy remain high, and both sides continue to use heavy-handed tactics to advance their views. The Turkish government regularly threatens retaliation against anyone calling into question its own version of events. The over zealeous Turkish prosecuters have brought dozens of cases against novelists, publishers, scholars and journalists. Many of these cases have been dismissed and never reached the trial stage. But the effect of these prosecutions nevertheless is undoubtedly to discourage and put a chill on an open and unbiased discussion of Armenian question in Turkey today.

For their part, the Armenians have also played hardball. When Bernard Lewis, in a 1994 letter toLe monde, questioned on scholarly grounds the existence of a plan of extermination on the part of the Ottoman government, a French-Armenian organization brought suit and charged Lewis for causing "grievous prejudice to truthful memory." On June 21 1995 a French court in Paris convicted Lewis and imposed a token fine. There are also more hopeful signs, at least on the academic front. In the last several years, a number of conferences have brought together Turkish and Armenian scholars willing to discuss the events of 1915-16 without a political agenda. Turkish historical scholarship has shown signs of a post-nationalist phase, while some scholars on the Armenian side, too, now engage in research free of propagandistic rhetoric. Needless to say, such efforts have brought down accusations of betrayal, even treason, upon the heads of the offending historians; it would be foolish to expect genuine reconciliation any time soon.

All of which raises deeply troubling questions, not least about the role played by the notion of genocide itself in perpetuating the almost century-old impasse between Turks and Armenians.. As the Turkish historian Selim Deringil has written, both sides need to "step back from the was-it-genocide-or-not dialogue of the deaf" and instead seek a "common project of knowledge." For once this charge is on the table, any sort of mutually acceptable resolution becomes extremely difficult if not impossible.

But if we set aside the idea of genocide in this case how then should we best judge the Armenian tragedy? For the human disaster endured by its Armenian population, the Ottoman regime certainly bears its due measure of responsibility. The Turkish wartime government may deserve to be severly rebuked for its corruption, bungling misrule, as well as its indifference to the suffering of its own population during World War I But I submit it is important to bear in mind the enormous difference between inaptness, even inaptnenss that had tragic consequences, and premeditated muder of people.

The final intent of the deportation order was to deny support to the Armenian guerrilla bands and to remove the Armenians from war zones and other strategic locations. For the Ottomans, painful experience with other Christians in the Balkan had created extreme sensitivity to rebellion and territorial loss.

Enver Pasha, the Turkish minister of war explained Ambassador Morgenthau in several occasions that it had taken only twenty to make a revolution (presumably a reference to the Young Turk seizure of power in 1908) and that the government therefore had to act forcefully against the Armenian community, intent upon independence.

Given the benefit of hindsight, it is possible to question whether the severity of the threat posed by Armenian revolutionaries justified the drastic remedy of deportation. Turkish allegations of wholesale disloyalty, treason and revolt by the Ottoman Armenians, the Canadian researcher Gwynne Dyer has once concluded appropriately "wholly true as far as Armenian sentiment went, only partly true in terms of overt acts, and totally insufficient as a justification for what was done to the Armenians." If both Armenians and Turks could accept this appraisal, and acknowledge the inflicted damage done to each other an important milestone on the settlement of this long standing bitter conflict could be reached.

PS. During discussion Professor Lewy said that the Armenian archives at Yerevan were not open for public research. He also said that about three battalions of Armenian volunteers served in the French army in Cilica. In this case most of the volunteers came from Egypt.

(About one or two percent of the above may not match the exact words spoken by Professor Lewy.)
Turgay Erturk



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