"They can live in the desert and nowhere else"
These were the haunting words of an Ottoman official as he outlined the fate of the Ottoman Empire's Armenian population, but you may also know them as the title of the equally harrowing book of the same name by Dr Ronald Grigor Suny. A book which gives an account of the Armenian Genocide from its roots to its horrific culmination from 1915, when several Armenian intellectuals were expelled from the country, and the mass deportation of millions of Armenian men, women and children followed. As an audiobook, I simply couldn't finish it, even while I appreciated that it was a very well researched piece of work - the content was just too bleak and harrowing for me to make it through to the end.
The Armenian Genocide was one of the worst atrocities committed in the 20th century, within a century full of one atrocity after another. What is often forgotten about the events of 1915 onwards, an another reason why I really appreciated Suny's book, is that it didn't happen out of nowhere - Armenians had been suffering discrimination, intermittent slaughter and regular persecution for many decades even before the events of 1915-17 took root.
The decision to kill the Armenians en masse is historically debated today. Often a great deal of attention is paid to those in power in the war torn Ottoman Empire at the time; men who may well have included Mustafa Kamal Attaturk, hence why the issue is such a contentious and controversial one between Turkey and Armenia to this day. As recently as 2015, international news organisation Al Jazeera claimed that Turkish denial of the Armenian Genocide remains part of Turkey's national identity. Turkey's very identity, Al Jazeera wrote, is based on 'a carefully crafted and tightly controlled version of history', with grave implications for when Turkey's neighbours don't follow the official line. When Pope Francis called the events Genocide, the Papacy was conspiring against the Turkish regime; when Austria recognised it as genocide, Turkey recalled its ambassador to Vienna, and claimed that the act 'permanently damaged' the relations between the two countries.
As historians, amateur or otherwise, it is because of horrific events like the Armenian genocide that we continue to do what we do. To search and investigate the truths behind events since shaded by controversy or confusion. Yet for all that, there can be no confusion about what happened to as many as 1,800,000 Armenians needlessly and horrendously murdered by the Ottoman administration. Those that have argued the difference between systematically shooting Armenian citizens, or merely shepherding them into the desert to die, miss the point.
The 'desert' did not kill the Armenian people; gross negligence, deliberate acts of wanton cruelty and savagery, and the corrupted belief system rife within the highest levels of Ottoman command from the early 20th century - that is what killed the Armenians. It was a terrible, traumatic event of the 20th century. Yet as we well know, it was accompanied in the pantheon of genocide by far too many equally disturbing and dark periods in human history. Even as Pope Francis was want to call this the first genocide of the 20th century, by doing so he completely ignored the horrific treatment of the Herrero and Nama peoples by Germans in their South West Africa colony between 1905-08. This event has since been recognised as genocide, and vast reparations have been payed by the current German administration, with its foreign minister issuing a public apology as recently as 2010.
Thus, it is very difficult today for modern states to forget what may otherwise be an uncomfortable historical past. Denial of such catastrophes merely adds fuel to the fire of hatred and resentment, and ensures that ethnicities as much as their responsible governments will never truly move on. Denial of Armenian Genocide uncomfortably mirrors that more infamous form of denial; much like Holocaust Denial, to deny the Armenian Genocide happened is actually illegal in Greece, Switzerland, Cyprus and Slovakia. Controversially, Israel treads a hazy line, with the rationale being an unwillingness to offend Turkish sensibilities, while Turkey and Azerbaijan remain the only two states who officially refuse to recognise the acts as genocide.
Incredibly, another prolific actor that has yet to recognise the acts as genocide includes the United States. Reportedly, the Turkish lobby in America spends most of its budget on maintaining the illusion that the events of 1915-17 were not in fact genocide. Where history is denied, it is generally so because of pre-existing commitments by incumbant governments. For example, the Obama administration enjoyed warm relations and important strategic agreements with Ankara throughout its tenure; for the sake of the war ongoing in the Middle East, it was vital that Turkey and the US remained on good terms. These good terms came under an annual barrage of pressure however, as American Armenians commemorated the event each year and exerted moral pressure upon the US government to properly grant the event its significance. In response to this, Turkish deputations periodically visited America, with one of its members saying "Our message is very straightforward: This resolution that is coming up to the committee will hamper Turkish-American relations and is not helpful for relations between Turkey and Armenia."
Is this Turkish minister correct? Will recognition really damage Turkey's relations with Armenia, or are such relations already damaged because of Ankara's refusal to accept its troubled history? Considering the weight of scholarly and international opinion against the Turks in this case, the majority would certainly be in the camp of recognition. It is thus striking to denote the hundreds of thousands spent by lobby groups even within the US Congress, as pressure is exerted by both sides. When we consider that people died in vast numbers - the evidence is absolutely there - it seems borderline delusional to pretend as though these events did not happen. Yet, it should be noted that denial of the Armenian Genocide does not always mean a denial that no atrocities or murders took place - instead what is often done is the actions themselves are downplayed, or the provocations of the Armenians emphasised, or the wartime conditions and difficult choices made by the Ottoman regime justified. The event is generally whitewashed then, rather than totally denied, except in a few extreme cases.
Of course, such actions do not go far enough. The historical memory and struggle of the Armenian people even before the 1915 massacres began was so difficult to listen to in Suny's book mostly because they were so frequent. I literally lost track of the amount of times the Armenians were targeted and killed, for no other reason than they were an easy target and clearly identifiable in Ottoman society. Uncomfortably paralleling the Holocaust in many respects, Armenians were vibrantly successful in Ottoman economic theatres, running successful businesses and maintaining what often translated into a prolific presence far at odds with their comparatively small population size. Much like the Jews were believed to be everywhere and with the best jobs and stations, so too were Armenians targeted and purged because of the perceived unfairness of the Christian Armenian success stories. When this was combined with the apparent willingness of the Armenian to side with any willing enemy of the Ottoman administration, it was all too easy to combine resentment and jealousy into a policy of reprisal and persecution which was justified for the sake of national security. Of course, rather than target Armenians merely in positions of relative power, all Armenians came under the Ottoman government's attack.
The estimated number of ethnic Armenians murdered by the Ottoman administration is accepted at roughly 1.5 million, with deniers placing the number sometimes as low as 500,000, and some recognition groups advocating a 1.8 million number. What is startling is just how meaningless the debate on numbers actually is - even if 250,000 were said to have been murdered in a deliberate policy of extermination which was never quite completed, this still would be justified as grounds for genocide according to the definition of that term. What we as historians and interested persons must conclude then is that there is real need for clarity and honesty in the case of the Armenian Genocide. The deniers and recognisers can engage for the next century in debate as lobby groups spend or outspend the other in an effort to gain political credit, but we cannot escape the fact that from 1915, the Ottoman Empire engaged in one of the most horrific acts of state-sponsored persecution ever seen on such a wide scale. Semantics aside, the obvious implications for deliberately targeting the Armenian minority and bringing them to places like the Syrian desert where they would certainly die, or marching them on endless death marches, are undeniable.
For the aforementioned articles see: