17 September 2012

3370) Book Review : Crime of Numbers: Role of Statistics in the Armenian Question (1878-1918), Fuat Dündar

Reviewed by Yücel Güçlü, independent scholar

Transactions Publishers, 2010. xiv + 238 pages, with tables, figures, appendices, bibliography, index. $49.95, hardcover.

Crime of Numbers is a continuation of Fuat Dündar's postgraduate research. It is a controversial and provocative venture whose overarching thesis is that "during the First World War, in order to find land for homeless refugees from the Balkans, the Ottoman government evacuated certain areas where Armenians lived" (p. 2). His tone being polemical, Dündar is at pains to stress that this policy led to "the process that culminated in the decision to deport nearly the entire population" (p. 2).
. . .

Based mainly on Ottoman and British government documents and an array of secondary sources, Dündar covers in 172 pages both diplomacy and statistics: the emergence of the Armenian question (1878-1918); war, massacre and statistics (1914-18) and the number of Armenian dead. After a brief introduction enumerating the issues for discussion, the book is structured into an uncomfortable union of four parts, all of them contentious. There is, oddly, no conclusion. The prose is often dry and overly abstract, perhaps understandably so, given the subject.

This survey of the Armenian question is incomplete. Most glaringly, the Russian archives, which are now available for the period under review, are not cited. As Dündar himself admits, "One of the largest gaps in the archival material used in this work is the archives of the Russian Empire, which played a definite role in both the 1914 agreement on Armenian reforms and World War I" (p. 4). It is now nearly two decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union made it possible for both Russian and non-Russian scholars to examine its files. The opportunity to do insightful work on the history of Ottoman-Russian relations is now greater than ever. Important original documents are available to foreign specialists in the Archive of Foreign Policy of the Russian Empire, the State Archive of the Russian Federation, the Russian State Military-Historical Archive and the Russian State Military Archive in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The author should have looked at these records. If he had examined them, perhaps some of his analysis could have been more accurate. Indeed, most historians who have seen the Russian archives have found their earlier hypotheses remarkably altered by new evidence. These central repositories provide historians unprecedented access to fresh material that deepens our comprehension of the Armenian past.

Inaccuracies and misinterpretations mar Crime of Numbers. The author's statement that the Ottomans did not provide credible demographic data about the Armenians (p. 2) is unacceptable. Though they are by no means perfect, figures derived from official Ottoman sources are the most trustworthy guides to the country's nineteenth- and early twentieth-century population trends. The Sublime Porte developed a reasonably efficient system for counting the empire's population shortly after such procedures had been introduced in the United States, Britain and France. This system was no less reliable than the contemporary efforts of other countries in Europe. Keeping statistics on the Armenian population was part of the government's regular registration system and a means of tracking the military exemption tax paid by non-Muslims. The statistics of 1914 were of special importance, as they showed the situation before various national groups such as the Armenians began to use distorted figures to back political claims that arose after World War I.

It is also not possible to agree with Dündar's assertion that "the Unionist policy of Turkification was initiated with the putsch against the Sublime Porte in 1913" (p. 44). It is misleading to identify population removals from strategically sensitive areas as ethnic homogenization. The displacement of some Greeks from certain Aegean coastal areas was clearly a war imperative. The Aegean relocations were pragmatic actions by a state facing the challenge of insurgency, intending to tighten security in vulnerable zones. The Ottoman government was aware of the links between the local and mainland Greeks and had overwhelming evidence to doubt the loyalty of many among its Greek population.

Referring to the Armenian events of 1915, Dündar says, "Although most of these [Armenians serving in the czarist army] were Russian citizens, there were also a few Ottoman citizens among them" (p. 70). Not so. Thousands of Anatolian Armenians crossed the porous eastern border and joined Caucasian Armenians fighting in the Russian army or in the volunteer units formed alongside it for the specific purpose of "liberating" the "Armenian provinces" of the Ottoman empire in the name of Christianity. Garegin Pasdermadjian, who represented Erzurum in the Ottoman Chamber of Deputies during 1908-14, went over to the Russian side with almost all the Armenian soldiers in the Ottoman Third Army in eastern Anatolia at the outbreak of the war and returned at their head — burning villages and killing the Muslims who fell into his hands.

Contrary to the author's claim, Djemal Pasha's chief motive in removing the Armenians from the Cilician coast was not an excuse for changing the local ethnic composition but emanated from a real military necessity (p. 72). Armenian spying activities in this region no doubt served to heighten tension and Ottoman suspicion. Bombs were found in Armenian households. The outbreaks occurring in quick succession, as if by plan, rapidly led the Ottoman public and officials to realize that they were faced with a tightly organized and widespread rebellion. The fear was well founded, as that was exactly the plan of the Entente.

When discussing the Armenian arrests in Istanbul on April 24, 1915, Dündar's account is unsound. He alleges that "during the night of April 24..., 240 Armenian notables were arrested in Istanbul. Two days later, this number rose to 2,345" (p. 74). Indeed these arrests involved the expulsion of only 235 known activists and their accomplices to Ayas, and Çank?r? in central Anatolia. In light of actual events, Ottoman anxieties about the movements of Armenian revolutionary committees — always present before the war amid earlier uprisings — were especially justified now that the war was fully underway and Armenian collaboration with the Russian enemy was in plain sight.

By any standard, Dündar has failed to examine extensively the Armenian exemption from relocations. He argues casually that "some "privileged" Armenian families living in particular areas were exempted from deportations" (p. 92). In fact, many were exempted: Armenian Protestants and Catholics, together with families of those employed by the Ottoman Railways, the General Debt and Tobacco Administrations, major foreign banks, soldiers still serving in the Ottoman army, medical doctors, and other important professional and managerial groups. All Armenian members of the Ottoman Parliament, with the exception of those who had gone to Russia and joined the Russian army, and Armenian men who were in the employ or under the protection of foreign diplomats and soldiers, were also exempted. There were artisans and master craftsmen retained by the Ottoman military authorities, such as tailors, shoemakers, blacksmiths, coach makers, carpenters, woodcutters, cabinet and furniture makers, ironsmiths, weavers, saddlers, harness makers, tinsmiths, draftsmen and workers who produced goods for public use.

The estimate of those killed during the relocations gets short shrift despite its central importance in the book (p. 151). Dündar's number, 664,000, is inflated. According to the last census taken by the Ottoman Directorate for the Administration of Population Records of the Ministry of the Interior before the outbreak of World War I, namely on March 14, 1914, there were 1,295,000 Armenians living in the country.1 Documents of the Directorate for Public Security and the Directorate for the Settlement of Tribes and Immigrants of the same ministry indicate that 702,900 of these were subject to the relocations of 1915-16, and very large numbers of the displaced persons survived. George Montgomery, director of the Armenia-America Society and a Protestant missionary who is highly critical of Armenian displacements, demonstrated in a report he drafted in 1919 that 1,104,000 Ottoman Armenians remained after the war.2 At the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, the Commission on the Responsibility of the Authors of War and on Enforcement of Penalties unanimously concluded that more than 200,000 Armenians in the Ottoman empire lost their lives during World War I.3 Professor Stanford Shaw, who examined the demographic evidence, shows that about 300,000 Armenians must have died from all causes in that period.4

Crime of Numbers contains a number of factual errors. For instance, the surname of the Ottoman Jewish deputy in 1908-18 was Karaso, not Karasu (p. 7, fn 7); military service for non-Muslims in the Ottoman Empire was introduced in 1909, not in 1910 (p. 72); Ismet Inönü was not a pasha on May 2, 1915, but a lieutenant colonel (p. 79); and Cevdet Bey was not the commander of the Third Army, but the governor of the province of Van in 1915 (p. 81).

While this book contains a great deal of valuable research, its overall argument is not wholly convincing. Nevertheless, in highlighting the need for further research, it is most welcome.

1 Tableaux Indiquant le Nombre de Divers Eléments de la Population dans l'Empire Ottoman au 1er Mars 1330 (Istanbul: Imprimerie Osmanié, 1919).

2 George Montgomery Papers, Library of Congress Manuscript Division, Box 21, Armenia-America Society January-February 1920, report titled "The Non-Arab Portion of the Ottoman Empire" (1919).

3 James Brown Scott Papers, Georgetown University Library Special Collections Division, Box 28, Report Presented to the Preliminary Peace Conference by the Commission on the Responsibility of the Authors of the War and on Enforcement of Penalties, March 29, 1919, 19.

4 Stanford Shaw and Ezel Kural Shaw, History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey, Vol. 2: Reform, Revolution, and Republic: The Rise of Modern Turkey, 1801-1975 (Cambridge University Press, 1977), 316.


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