October 17, 2007

By any other name


I don't know many things -- among them is the issue of Armenian genocide. So do not rely too heavily on my opinion. However, I was momentarily impressed by the arguments of Richard Cohen, who, writing in the Washington Post, Richard Cohen strikes many notes that seem to me to be accurate. He deplores Turkey's denial of the truth about what a prior government did to Armenians. He further deplores its current war on truth, putting intellectuals who question the official, saccharine version of the past in jail.

But Cohen also writes,

The congressional resolution repeatedly employs the word "genocide," a term used by many scholars. But Raphael Lemkin, the Polish-Jewish emigre who coined the term in 1943, clearly had in mind what the Nazis were doing to the Jews. If that is the standard -- and it need not be -- then what happened in the collapsing Ottoman Empire was something short of genocide. It was plenty bad -- maybe as many as 1.5 million Armenians perished, many of them outright murdered -- but not all Armenians everywhere in what was then Turkey were as calamitously affected. The substantial Armenian communities in Constantinople, Smyrna and Aleppo were largely spared. No German city could make that statement about its Jews.

This is true as far as it goes, but it still seems to me that intent is key. Apologists for Turkey argue that there were strategic reasons for killing Armenians (including women and children) -- that they were a fifth column, at war with the Turks, killing Turks, and thus were enemy combatants subject to all the horrors of war. Was that the reason, or was there a conscious attempt to eliminate the next generation of anonymous, distant Armenians who lived, not in the heart of the empire where they worked as butchers, bakers and candlestickmakers (the good Armenians), but those savage Armenians living in Armenia and fighting for self-determination? Germans and even some Nazis believed there were "good Jews" worth sparing (a view not shared by the leadership, though the Wannsee Conference notes seem to indicate that the question of what to do with Germans married to Jews was controversial among the leadership).

In any case, though I have long believed that the Holocaust is exceptional, more horrible than the famine in Ukraine engineered by Stalin, the great terror, the great leap forward, and other examples of totalitarian madness. The Holocaust is nothing if not singular. However, it does not seem to me that that precludes an expanding definition of genocide, especially if the practical result is that situations like Darfur could no longer be tolerated...

Posted by Ideofact at October 17, 2007 01:27 AM

I've read a fair amount about the Armenian genocide and I'm amazed how its historical significance seems to have been sidelined. The denialists or minimisers of Turkey's actions usually ignore points such as the following:

(a) The Armenians had already been subject to tremendous slaughter. During the Hamidian massacres of 1894-6, around 200,000 Armenians had perished and 20,000 were killed in the massacres in the city of Adana in 1909. Any revenge attacks by Armenians were pinpricks in comparison.

(b) Ottoman Turkey was hardly the only empire in World War One which had a problem with "disloyal" subject peoples. Austria-Hungary had the Serbs of Bosnia and (I presume) the Romanians of Transylvania. Many Balts and Baltic Jews living under the Russian Empire welcomed the German invasion as a liberation (yes, there's heavy irony here given what happened in WWII, but there's good evidence the Germans did treat the Jews better than the Russians at this time). The British had the Irish and, indeed, the Easter Rising broke out in Dublin right in the middle of the war. Most of the imperial powers reacted to these acts of rebellion heavyhandedly - the Austrians hanged several hundred Serbs, the British executed the Easter insurgents, winning them the sympathy of the Irish public. But they did not respond by deciding that genocide was the way to deal with these troublesome peoples. Only the Turks did that. The Turks also incited the Muslim subjects of the Russian and British empires to revolt via their call to jihad. Neither the Russian or British empires reacted with plans of mass extermination.

(c) Most of the Armenians were deported from regions which were nowhere near the frontline (in other words, they had no chance of helping the invading Russians) and the Turkish war effort was hampered as resources were diverted to deal with the Armenian deportations. Sounds familiar.

(d) There's strong evidence that the "final solution to the Armenian Question" (it was described in such terms at the time) had been discussed before the war. Turkey entered WWI hoping to win. What it aimed to win was a new pan-Turkic empire which would stretch across central Asia, including peoples such as the Azeris, Uzbeks and Kazakhs. It's obvious from looking at a map that Armenia was a non-Turkic obstacle to linking all these countries together. Armenians would have no place in the new order.

Posted by: J.Cassian at October 19, 2007 06:43 AM