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 eclectic venue that has fundamentally changed the way the Genocide is understood.
WATS participants came to view the Young Turks not simply as a thuggish regime, but as the educated and Europeanized leaders of a modernist movement—albeit one increasingly crude in its efforts to create a new, “cleansed,” Turkic state. In short, the Genocide was neither inevitable, nor a case of abrupt aggression against the Armenian minority, but a gradual progression of attitudes, emotions, and, in the end, actions.
While academic essays on the Genocide serve the specialist, it is books that reach the general public, and the 2000s saw the publication of many important works. Donald Bloxham’s The Great Game of Genocide: Imperialism, Nationalism, and the Destruction of the Ottoman Armenians widened the shutter and explored how, in the 1915 period, different nations and great powers exploited the Armenian issue for their own interests, not always altruistic.
And then a Turkish scholar of the Genocide appeared: sociologist Taner Akçam. Early in his career, Akçam published a radical journal; after a year in a Turkish prison, he fled to Germany and currently teaches at Clark University, in Worcester, Massachusetts. In his fascinating 2004 volume From Empire to Republic: Turkish Nationalism and the Armenian Genocide (2004 Zed Books, London and New York), Akçam probes the psychology of genocide victims and perpetrators, and the seductive ease with which each side criticizes the other, thereby erecting a "moral wall" of self-justification. Far more difficult, says Akçam, is trying on the opponent's point of view—which he then proceeds to do, approaching the Armenian Genocide from dual perspectives (a heretical thing to do, at that time, for a Turk).
Akçam is an unusual scholar in that he can read pre-1928 Ottoman Turkish, written in a Persian-Arabic script. In 2006, Akçam published A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility (Metropolitan Books, New York), an iconoclastic book based upon archival material scattered throughout the Middle East, including trial records, letters, diaries, newspaper accounts, and papers from the Ottoman Interior Ministry. A Shameful Act squarely accuses Turkey of obfuscation. Akçam’s subsequent volume, The Young Turks’ Crime Against Humanity: The Armenian Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing in the Ottoman Empire (2012 Princeton University Press), includes citations from “600 secret Ottoman documents.”
If on the one hand there is Akçam, on the other is Ronald Suny, an Armenian-American who has also rocked the academic boat. In his authoritative histories of Georgia and Armenia, Suny revealed an inconvenient truth: that territorial integrity is a sometime thing in the Caucasus, and that one can observe, over the centuries in that tumultuous region, what might be described as ethnic or geopolitical “musical chairs.” The fact is that the majority of Armenians lived in Ottoman Turkey or abroad, not in today’s Armenia; while Yerevan (Armenia’s capital) was for centuries largely Turkic. Meanwhile, Baku (the capital of today’s Azerbaijan) was preponderantly Armenian; as was Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, well into the 20th century—Georgians before then tending to live in the countryside.
What has transpired in the region off and on over the past century is, in the words of Caucasus analyst Paul Goble, a “great sorting out of peoples,” of which the Armenian expulsion from Anatolia could be considered an extreme episode. Ronald Suny and his fellow WATS participants (and co-editors Fatma Mügem Göçek and Norman Naimark) reexamine this period in A Question of Genocide: Armenians and Turks at the End of the Ottoman Empire (2011 Oxford University Press), a good portion of which documents the changing ways historians, military leaders, and politicians described the Ottomans. Their book shows how dramatically the telling of history evolved.
Suny and colleagues also address such sensitive subjects as the early-20th century Armenian revolutionaries: What was their true nature, and to what degree were they actually (as opposed to rhetorically) revolutionary? What was Russia and Germany’s influence on the Armenian population? In the antagonism between Ottoman rulers and Armenian subjects, who fired first? What counter-atrocities occurred at the hands of Armenians? Which Turkish officials (and indeed there were some) actually refused to carry out punitive orders from Constantinople?
Suny’s most recent book, “They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else” – A History of the Armenian Genocide (2015 Princeton University Press), contains a concise and thought-provoking statements: “Mass murder in and of itself does not a genocide make,” and “ethnic cleansing and genocide bleed into one another, points on a tragic real-world spectrum, but they are usefully kept distinct for analytical purposes.” The Armenian Genocide, Suny argues, was not inevitable: it arose in the context of international pressures upon the Ottoman State and its peoples.
Another useful recent volume was written by Caucasus expert Thomas de Waal, titled Great Catastrophe: Armenians and Turks in the Shadow of Genocide (2015 Oxford University Press). It examines the ways in which Turks and Armenians today are attempting to reach accommodation.
Along with historiography, there are now excellent recent personal and journalistic accounts of the Armenian Genocide—and written by Turks. Lawyer and human rights activist Fetiye Çetin’s My Grandmother: A Memoir (2008 Verso) broke a taboo in Turkey and set off a wave of popular interest in rediscovering Turkey’s “lost Armenians” (who include among their number one of Kemal Atatürk’s adopted daughters, Sabiha Gökçen, the world’s first female fighter pilot).
Ece Temelkuran has been called “Turkey’s most-read political columnist.” A fearless and controversial interviewer (reminiscent of the late Oriana Falacci), in 2010 Temelkuran traveled to Armenia and Diaspora communities in Europe and the United States in order to ask a basic question: What do you Armenians want? In Deep Mountain: Across the Turkish-Armenian Divide (Verso) Temelkuran documents her interlocutors’ answers—some bitter, others philosophical, all of them thoughtful. Temelkuran argued and probed, but mostly she listened, and found the experience transformative in that it stirred up memories and curiosity about her own friends, relatives, and community. She returned home wondering: Who are we Turks really? And now, given all that has happened, how should we relate to Armenians?
Armenian Genocide books inevitably make for harrowing reading, and those who delve into the subject encounter a semantic minefield and often find themselves hard-pressed to pinpoint “the Truth” or to maintain complete and utter objectivity. The authors described above successfully navigate these hazards, and in their own ways address the question of “whose story do you believe—and why?” One senses that the point of their scholarship is not just to set the record straight, but to create a new here and now—one that honors the suffering of the past, understands it more clearly, and, paradoxically, perhaps even helps bring an end to it.
Alex van Oss chaired Caucasus Area Studies at the Foreign Service Institute, in Arlington, Virginia, from 2002-2014, after a career in journalism and public radio broadcasting.