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12 May 2009

2830) (Book Review) Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey: A Disputed Genocide

The following are excerpts from a review essay by Masaki Kakiszaki, University of Utah, on a newly released book by Guenter Lewy, titled “The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey: A Disputed Genocide” University of Florida Press, 2005. . .

Ethnic Cleansing or Genocide?
by Masaki Kakiszaki, University of Utah,

The full review is published in Critique: Critical Middle Eastern Studies, Spring 2007.

Guenter Lewy’s The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey: A Disputed Genocide has unleashed debate in the United States as well as in different countries such as Canada, France, Germany, and Turkey. In the United States, Lewy’s articles expressing skepticism about historiographies constructed by both Armenian and Turkish historians about the Armenian genocide appeared in Middle East Quarterly and Commentary; in subsequent issues, these journals published several letters to the editors from readers, mostly Armenians, who objected to Lewy’s thesis. (…) It is important to examine Lewy’s argument in order to understand the reasons for Armenian scholastic anger against the book. The attacks on the book demonstrate how an inquiry into the tragic events of the First World War can be removed from historical context and elevated to mythological level, a process that, in turn, prevents any rational exchange between the two sides.

(…) Lewy’s purpose is to evaluate the consistency and validity of the ongoing debate over the evidence for the Armenian massacres in Ottoman Turkey. The literature that pertains to the fate of the Armenian population during the First World War involves two narratives. On the one hand, Armenian scholars present this tragedy as the first genocidal event of the twentieth century. They argue that the Armenian massacre was a product of the Ottoman government’s special intent to deport and exterminate the entire Armenian population in the empire. On the other hand, Turks contend that this event was an outcome of Armenian collaboration with the Russians, inter-communal warfare in eastern Turkey, and the harsh economic and social conditions of war (such as food shortages and the spread of diseases).

(…) This book tackles the question not of the scale of Armenian suffering but of ‘the premeditation thesis.’ Although there are wide discrepancies with regard to the total number of victims, at least both camps acknowledge that hundreds and thousands of Armenians lost their lives during the deportation. Thus, Lewy focuses on the dispute over the cause of Armenian massacres by inspecting the way in which Armenians and Turks have offered contradictory or competing accounts (…) He concludes that an Ottoman intent to organize the annihilation of Armenians cannot be determined with the evidence that so far has become available to scholars. Thus, he rejects the term ‘genocide’ to describe the mass killing of Armenians, while admitting the indirect responsibility of the Ottoman local government officials for the loss of life of a large number of Armenians.

(…) He criticizes the manner in which Armenian authors rely on the consequences of the Armenian deportation to prove that the Young Turk leaders had prior plans for total destruction of the Armenian population. He argues that ‘objective results are not the same as subjective intent’. Furthermore, Lewy claims that the Armenian side ignores the multiplicity of cases in the tragedy by playing down the roles of starvation and disease, which afflicted not only the Armenian deportees but also Muslim Turks. Lewy also finds problems in the Turkish version of the stories

(…) As Lewy points out, ‘Both Turks and Armenians have accused each other of horrible crimes while at the same time denying or minimizing the misdeeds committed by their own forces’. The Turkish side tends to dodge the responsibility of atrocities against Armenians by shifting the blame from the Ottoman government to ‘the civil war cause.’ On the other hand, Armenian authors ignore the Armenian revolutionary movements’ relationship with Russia and the threat this relationship posed to the Ottoman government.

(…) Lewy’s book aims to clarify the gap in our knowledge of the Armenian suffering. Lewy ‘reconstructs’ a history of this tragedy by strictly distinguishing the confirmed facts from the mere assertions of historians who fail to support their claims with substantive evidence. In this process he attempts to determine how the government decided on the deportation plan, how it was implemented in different regions and cities, who were responsible for the massacres, and how many people died. The chapters in this section reveal the diversity in the levels of Armenian suffering and the variation of the degree of implementing the deportation. This picture seems to imply that the deportation of the Armenian population was not carried out in a systematic or well-organized manner, which would be necessary for the purpose of total destruction of the Armenian community.

(…) In terms of the number of victims, different authors have generated different estimations. It is also difficult to determine the precise death toll because we have neither an exact figure for the prewar Armenian population nor an accurate count for the number of survivors. It also is impossible to distinguish the number killed by Turks and Kurds and those who perished due to starvation and disease. After a critical examination of the Armenian and Turkish historiographies, Lewy proposes an alternative explanation. He argues that ‘it was possible for the country to suffer an incredibly high death toll without a premeditated plan of annihilation’ for several reasons. First, the Ottoman government, despite its willingness, failed to arrange an orderly process of relocation of Armenians because of its institutional ineptness. The systematic and organized relocation of tens of thousands of Armenians proved beyond the ability of the Ottoman government. Food shortages and epidemic diseases which the authorities could not prevent or control exacerbated the environment for Armenians during the course of the deportation. Additionally, the government could not provide adequate protective measures for the Armenian deportees from hostile Kurds, Circassians and others. According to Lewy, these severe conditions and the inability of the Ottoman government to provide protection resulted in the high death toll of the Armenians. Thus, while he concedes that the government bears responsibility to a certain extent for the outcome, he emphasizes that it is the government’s ineptness rather than a premeditated plan to exterminate the Armenians that caused the Armenian tragedy.

One of the contributions of Lewy’s work is that he clarifies what we have learned as confirmed facts from both the Armenian and Turkish historians. Without leaning to either side, he accepts evidence and arguments that are substantiated by other sources. His neutrality becomes obvious in Part IV, which discusses the politicization of the controversy over the Armenian massacres. He argues that the Armenian side’s argument of the premeditation thesis lacks authentic documentary evidence and suffers from a logical fallacy. But he also criticizes the Turkish side for distorting the historical fact by translating the Armenian massacres into mere ‘excesses’ or ‘intercommunal warfare’.

(…) The personal memories of individual Turks and Armenians are not separable from the collective social memory of their communities because people can be confident about the accuracy of their remembrances only when their own memory is confirmed by others’ remembrances. The politicization of the Armenian massacres, then, facilitates the transmission of collective memories from generation to generation; Armenian campaigns for the recognition of the genocide and the airing of the Turkish government’s argument have functioned as mechanisms by which both Armenians and Turks are reminded of the past and their distinctive identities. The current rigid adherence of both sides to their historiographies thus is likely to lead to the deepening of the gap between them, not pave a way to closing this gap. For this reason, Lewy suggests that historians ought to keep the door of research open for further exploration of the Armenian massacres. Political confirmation of the Armenian massacres as historically established genocide, he argues, will deprive future historians of opportunities to start collaborative research for the advancement of common understanding grounded in historical facts rather than propaganda.

(…) Lewy knows that an attempt to put all the aspects of the Armenian massacres into a single picture as a whole ignores the variation of stories. In this tragedy, there is a diversity of experiences lived by each group of people. Therefore, Lewy adopts a method with which he constructs his own historiography by aggregating different local incidents and experiences. The Armenian and Turkish historians take the opposite approach. They look into the events from the pictures that they want to see. In this process, evidence and incidents that may disconfirm their theses are likely to be ignored in their analytic frameworks.

There is one point that I find unsatisfactory in Lewy’s book: he refrains from making his definition of genocide explicit while claiming that ‘the attempt to decide whether the Armenian massacres in Ottoman Turkey fit . . . definitions [of genocide] strikes me as of limited utility’ (…) However, this debate still is of substantive importance because parliaments in several countries have proclaimed this tragedy to be an instance of genocide. For example, in the fall of 2006 the French parliament adopted a bill that criminalizes the denial of the Armenian genocide. What is relevant to Lewy’s argument is that the politicians who vote on these resolutions are influenced exclusively by their ethnic Armenian constituents, and they rely only on an Armenian version of the history of 1915. The politicians are not without their own prejudices, and their determinations never can substitute for actual history. In the French parliament, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin argued that it is ‘not a good thing to legislate on issues of history and of memory,’ but his caution was ignored. These resolutions spotlight politics, not the truth, and are therefore debatable.

(…) The attack against Lewy’s book and the controversy created by Peter Balakian and others who share his views indicate the problem of academic freedom of speech with respect to events associated with the Turkish-Armenian conflicts. There are coordinated efforts by Armenian NGOs and scholars to silence and suppress different interpretations about the events of 1915. Simultaneously, free speech about the Armenian massacres also is denied in Turkey.

(…) In the final analysis, Lewy’s book indeed has become like dynamite to both sides by pointing out the shortcomings of both Turkish and Armenian scholarship and revealing the difficulty of objective debate on the Armenian tragedy. It is very unproductive for diaspora Armenians to turn the Armenian genocide thesis into a source of identity. The shift prevents contextualization of the events and turns them into mythological facts outside of any rational inquiry. Lewy tried to de-sacralize the Armenian thesis by subjecting it to rational inquiry. Lastly, it is also important to mention that Lewy’s book has been relatively favored in Turkey despite his criticism of Turkish historiography on the Armenian massacres and the failure of Turkish historians to challenge the official view endorsed by the state. Since its publication, the Turkish media has presented Lewy’s book as a new scholarly work that supports the Turkish explanation of the Armenian killings, but the media also has ignored Lewy’s disapproval of the Turkish historiography. It seems that the Turkish side is satisfied with Lewy’s conclusion that the Armenian killing cannot be confirmed as a genocide ‘as of now,’ even though he criticizes Turkish historiography. In other words, Lewy’ book once again has illuminated that both sides simply are concerned whether the Armenian massacre in 1915 was or was not a genocide, an issue which Lewy has problematized in his work .

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