Friday, August 28, 2015

The twentieth century's "first genocide"

The current centennial of World War I is also the centennial of the all-too-successful campaign by Ottoman Turkish rulers to exterminate their Armenian minority. I was raised with a vague awareness that there had been an Armenian genocide: whenever my mother, who had been a small child during World War I, wanted to cajole me into eating something I thought looked yucky, she'd tell me how she had been told when she was young to "remember the starving Armenians." It was only as an adult when I made the acquaintance of Armenian-Americans that I began to learn more about this terrible episode.

Oxford historian Eugene Rogan's The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East is largely a somewhat dry account of the political and military unraveling of the long-enduring (1299-1923!) Ottoman empire and the rise of a Turkish nation state. But his chapter on what happened to the Armenians is very accessible to this contemporary reader.

In Rogan's telling (and modern Turks still dispute much of this, not very plausibly), ethnic animosity between the many peoples of the Ottoman empire had been rising for a century or more as the Muslim state was gradually pushed out of the Balkans. In the late nineteenth century and extending up until the First World War, there were horribly painful, but relatively peaceful, transfers of Muslims out of Greece and the Balkans to what is modern day Turkey and, in turn, Greek Orthodox Christians sent west across the Aegean Sea out of what Europeans call Asia Minor.

But Christian Armenians seemed to nationalist Turks to present a special danger.
... a distinct ethnic group with its own language and Christian liturgy, and centuries of communal organization under the Ottomans as a distinct millet, or faith community, the Armenians had all the prerequisites for a nineteenth century nationalist movement bar one: they were not concentrated in one geographic area.
Spread out between the capital at Istanbul, Mediterranean coastal regions just north of what is now the Syrian border, and in far eastern Anatolia, Armenians seemed a foreign virus in their midst -- a foreign population that might appeal to their co-religionists among the time's Great Powers to extract concessions from the declining Ottoman state. There were large, but localized, massacres of Armenians in 1896. And Armenians did look to imperial Russia to perhaps carve out a Christian enclave for them in eastern Anatolia.

A military junta, called the Young Turks, took control of the Ottoman State in the first decade of the 20th century, fought inconclusive wars in the Balkans and against Russia, and sought military assistance from the Kaiser's Germany. With the outbreak of the 1914 Europe-wide war, the Ottomans join in on the side of the Central Powers, Germany and Austro-Hungary. Armenians seemed a threat to national unity in that war and some gave open support to the Allies (Britain, France and Russia.)
With the onset of the Allied attack on the Dardanelles, the Armenians [of nearby Istanbul] made no effort to hide their celebration of immanent delivery from Turkish rule.
The Turkish rulers struck against Armenians in the capital on April 24, 1915, a date since designated as Armenian Genocide Memorial Day. Meanwhile Armenians in the Anatolian town of Van, a place relatively evenly divided between about 16,000 Muslims and 13,500 Armenians, had risen up against the Ottomans, seeking to draw in a Russian army that was slowly advancing toward the town.
By facilitating the Russian occupation of Van in return for the right to govern the Van region, the Armenians had confirmed the Young Turks suspicion that they ... posed a threat to the territorial integrity of the Ottoman Empire.
And so, the Turkish rulers made unwritten, but clearly conveyed, plans for the mass murder of all Armenians. And they proceeded to achieve something very close to extermination of every Armenian man, woman and child they could lay hands on. This was not an industrial tour de force like the Nazi genocide in the next European war. Males over 12 were rounded up and shot or bayoneted by Turkish troops where they were taken, while the women, children and old people were sent to march across the Anatolian desert without food or shelter. Stragglers were picked off as they fell. Muslim villagers and gangs along the way were encouraged to fall upon the long columns, robbing, raping and murdering. An Armenian Orthodox priest, Grigoris Balakian, recorded what he heard on the death march.
... [he] engaged the officers accompanying his caravan in conversation. The Ottoman gendarmes were willing to answer any questions, as they did not believe the Armenians they were "guarding" had long to live. One of the most forthcoming was Captain Shukri, who by his own admission had overseen the killing of 42,000 Armenians.

"Bey, where have all these human bones along this road come from?" Balakian asked the captain disingenuously.

"These are the bones of the Armenians who were killed in August and September. The order came from Constantinople. Even though the minister of the interior ... had huge ditches dug for the corpses, the winter floods washed the dirt away, and now the bones are everywhere, as you see," Captain Shukri replied.
Historians estimate that no more than 5 percent of Armenians sent on these death marches survived; somewhere between 600,000 and 1.5 million Armenians perished as a result of "wartime measures."

After the war, the victorious Allies forced the Turks to hold trials of military leaders responsible for the killings. The Turks let most of the defendants escape, but the proceedings established a record.
Witness testimony revealed how the mass murder was organized: the official printed orders calling for deportation were followed by oral instructions to massacre deportees. Evidence was presented of convicted murderers released from prison and mobilized in gangs to serve as "butchers of men."
Most of the officers convicted by this tribunal evaded punishment in the moment -- but nearly all were hunted down in Europe by Armenian nationalists and executed in the following decade.

All this killing did nothing to save the Ottoman empire. Defeated by the Allies, the French and British empires divided up most of the Ottoman territories, drawing borders of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine that have persisted until quite recently. Modern Turkey was consolidated after the war as an authoritarian and (temporarily?) secular quasi-democratic state and seems to still be struggling with the vestiges of its multi-ethnic, multi-religious character. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenians who had been part of that other rotting empire have carved out a small state of their own between Georgia, Turkey, Iran and Azerbaijan.
***
Weirdly, the Armenian genocide is a perennial issue in U.S. presidential politics. In general, candidates for the office, Republicans or Democrats, affirm that they'll use the G-word once elected. But, since naming the massacres "genocide" amounts to a challenge to the official Turkish narrative that Armenian deaths were just accidents of war, they back off once elected. George W. Bush followed this pattern as has Barack Obama. Hillary Clinton loudly proclaimed her awareness of the Armenian genocide in the 2008 campaign, but since then she has been Secretary of State and apparently internalized the rule that "serious" U.S. officials don't say such things about the past behavior of an ally that lends bases for our military adventures.
This commemorative plaque sits below the Mt. Davidson cross in San Francisco. Click to read.

1 comment:

Hattie said...

What a mournful tale, and only one of the so many over the last 100 years. Some Armenians found shelter in America, among them the ones who settled in Fresno. I read Saroyan in my youth, upbeat tales as I remember. And there was a writer whose last name was Hagopian, who had dinner at our house in Berkeley once. But I can't remember his first name. An Armenian American named Richard Hagopian is an Oud master who plays traditonal Armenian music. Oh, and my daughter's pediatrian in New Jersey was Armenian. I don't recall being at all aware of the genocide until it came up as a topic relatively recently.

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