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 PostPosted: Mon Nov 06, 2006 8:53 am    Post subject: New Yorket: ARMENIAN GENOCIDE AND THE POLITICS OF SILENCE Reply with quote Back to top

By Elizabeth Kolbert

The New Yorket
Nov 2 2006

On September 14, 2000, Representatives George Radanovich, Republican
of California, and David Bonior, Democrat of Michigan, introduced a
House resolution-later to be known as H.R. 596-on the slaughter of
the Armenians. The measure urged the President, in dealing with the
matter, to demonstrate "appropriate understanding and sensitivity."

It further instructed him on how to phrase his annual message on
the Armenian Day of Remembrance: the President should refer to the
atrocities as "genocide." The bill was sent to the International
Relations Committee and immediately came under attack. State Department
officials reminded the committee that it was U.S. policy to "respect
the Turkish government's assertions that, although many ethnic
Armenians died during World War I, no genocide took place."

Expanding on this theme, Secretary of Defense William Cohen, in a
letter to Dennis Hastert, the Speaker of the House, wrote that while
he in no way wanted to "downplay the Armenian tragedy . . . passing
judgment on this history through legislation could have a negative
impact on Turkish-Armenian relations and on our security interests in
the region." After committee members voted, on October 3rd, to send
H.R. 596 to the floor, Turkish officials warned that negotiations
with an American defense contractor, Bell Textron, over four and a
half billion dollars' worth of attack helicopters were in jeopardy.

On October 5th, the leaders of all five parties in the Turkish
parliament issued a joint statement threatening to deny the U.S.
access to an airbase in Incirlik, which it was using to patrol
northern Iraq. Finally, on October 19th, just a few hours before H.R.
596 was scheduled to be debated in the House, Hastert pulled it from
the agenda. He had, he said, been informed by President Clinton that
passage of the resolution could "risk the lives of Americans."

The defeat of H.R. 596 is a small but fairly typical episode in a
great campaign of forgetting. Like President Clinton, President Bush
continues to "respect the Turkish government's assertions" and to issue
Armenian Remembrance Day proclamations each year without ever quite
acknowledging what it is that's being remembered. If in Washington
it's politically awkward to refer to the genocide, it is positively
dangerous to do so in Istanbul. Last year, Turkey's leading author,
Orhan Pamuk, was prosecuted merely for having brought up the subject
in a press interview. "A million Armenians were killed and nobody but
me dares to talk about it, " he told the Sunday magazine of the Swiss
newspaper Tages-Anzeiger. Pamuk, now a recipient of the Nobel Prize in
Literature, was accused of having violated Section 301 of the Turkish
penal code, which outlaws "insulting Turkishness." (The charge was
eventually dropped, on a technicality.) A few months later, another
prominent Turkish novelist, Elif Shafak, was charged with the same
offense, for having a character in her most recent novel, "The Bastard
of Istanbul," declare, "I am the grandchild of genocide survivors who
lost all their relatives at the hands of Turkish butchers in 1915,
but I myself have been brainwashed to deny the genocide." The charges
were dropped after Shafak argued that the statement of a fictional
person could not be used to prosecute a real one, then reinstated by
a higher court, and then dropped again.

It is in this context that Taner Akcam's new history, "A Shameful Act:
The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility"
(Metropolitan; $30), must be considered. The book is dryly written
and awkwardly translated, but nevertheless moving.

Akcam grew up in far northeastern Turkey and was educated at Ankara's
Middle East Technical University, where he became the editor of a
leftist journal. In 1976, he was arrested and sentenced to ten years
in prison for spreading propaganda. Using a stove leg to dig a tunnel,
he managed to escape after a year, and fled to Germany. Akcam is one
of the first Turkish historians to treat the Armenian genocide as
genocide-he now lives in exile in Minnesota-and in "A Shameful Act"
he tries to grapple both with the enormity of the crime and with the
logic of its repression.

Any writer who takes on genocide as his topic accepts obligations
that, if not exactly contradictory, are clearly in tension. The
first is to describe the event in a way that is adequate to its
exceptionality. (The original U.N. resolution on the subject, approved
in 1946, describes genocide as an act that "shocks the conscience
of mankind.") The second is to make sense of it, which is to say,
to produce an account of the unspeakable that anyone can understand.

Akcam begins his history in the nineteenth century, when roughly
two million Armenians were living in the Ottoman Empire, some in
major cities like Istanbul and Izmir, and the rest in the provinces
of central and eastern Anatolia. Already, the Armenians were in
a peculiarly vulnerable position: Christians living in the heart
of a Muslim empire, they were subject by law to special taxes and
restrictions, and by tradition to extortion and harassment. As the
century wore on, the so-called Sick Man of Europe kept shedding
territory: first Greece, in the Greek War of Independence; and then,
following the Russo-Turkish War, Serbia, Montenegro, Romania, and
Bosnia and Herzegovina. These humiliating defeats eroded the Ottomans'
confidence, which, in turn, Akcam argues, "resulted in the loss of
their tolerance." Muslim assaults on Christians increased throughout
the empire, and the ancient prejudices against the Armenians hardened
into something uglier.

In 1876, Sultan Abdulhamid II came to power. Abdulhamid, who ruled
the empire for thirty-three of its last forty-six years, was a deeply
anxious man, perhaps paranoid. He maintained a vast network of spies;
turned Yildiz Palace, overlooking the Bosporus, into a ramshackle fort;
and demanded that each dish be tasted by his chief chamberlain before
being served. Abdulhamid soon took anti-Armenianism to new heights. (It
was rumored that the Sultan's own mother, a former dancing girl, was
Armenian, but he always denied this.) He shut down Armenian schools,
threw Armenian teachers in jail, prohibited the use of the word
"Armenia" in newspapers and textbooks, and formed special Kurdish
regiments, known as the Hamidiye, whose raison d'etre appears to
have been to harass Armenian farmers. Encouraged by American and
European missionaries, the Armenians turned to the outside world for
help. The English, the French, and the Russians repeatedly demanded
that Istanbul institute "reforms" on the Armenians' behalf.

Officially, the Sultan acceded to these demands, only to turn around
and repress the Armenians that much more vigorously. "By taking away
Greece and Romania, Europe has cut off the feet of the Turkish state,"
Abdulhamid complained. "Now, by means of this Armenian agitation, they
want to get at our most vital places and tear out our very guts. This
would be the beginning of totally annihilating us, and we must fight
against it with all the strength we possess."

In the mid-eighteen-nineties, tens of thousands of Armenians were
murdered. The slaughter began in Sasun, in eastern Anatolia, where
Armenians had refused to pay taxes on the ground that the government
had failed to protect them from Kurdish extortion. The killings in
Sasun provoked an international outcry, which was answered with the
Sultan's usual promises of reform, and then with a string of even
bloodier massacres in the provinces of Erzurum, Ankara, Sivas, Trabzon,
and Harput. In the wake of the killings, William Gladstone, the former
British Prime Minister, labelled Abdulhamid "the great assassin."

Finally, in 1909, Abdulhamid was pushed aside. The coup was engineered
by a group composed, for the most part, of discontented Army
officers-the original Young Turks. The Young Turks spoke loftily of
progress and brotherhood-on the eve of the revolt, one of their leaders
is said to have declared, "Under the blue sky we are all equal"-and
the empire's remaining Christians celebrated their ascendancy. But
the logic of slaughtering the Armenians had by this point been too
well established.

When the First World War broke out, the Young Turks rushed to join the
conflict. "That day of revenge, which has been awaited for centuries
by the nation's young and old, by its martyrs and by its living,
has finally arrived," the Ottoman Chamber of Deputies asserted in
a letter to the armed forces. By 1914, the empire was being led
by a troika-nicknamed the Three Pashas-composed of the Minister of
the Interior, the Minister of the Navy, and the Minister of War. In
December, the War Minister, Ismail Enver, decided to lead the Third
Army in an attack against the Russians on the Caucasian front. Enver
planned to press all the way east to Baku, in present-day Azerbaijan,
where he hoped to incite the local Muslims to join the Ottomans' cause,
and, as a first step, he ordered his forces to divide up and follow
different routes to Sarikamish, a Russian military outpost. The idea
was for all the troops to arrive at the same time and surprise the
enemy with their strength; instead, they straggled in over a period
of several days, with devastating results.

The Ottomans lost about seventy-five thousand men at Sarikamish, out
of a total force of ninety thousand. A German officer attached to the
Third Army described the defeat as "a disaster which for rapidity and
completeness is without parallel in military history." The Russians
had encouraged the Armenians to form volunteer regiments to fight
against the Ottomans, and some (though not many) had heeded this
call. The Armenians' role in the disaster became one of the pretexts
for the genocide.

On April 24, 1915, some two hundred and fifty prominent
Armenians-poets, doctors, bankers, and even a member of the Ottoman
parliament-were arrested in Istanbul. They were split up into groups,
loaded onto trains, shipped off to remote prisons, and eventually
killed. (The Armenian Day of Remembrance is marked each year on the
anniversary of these arrests.) Around the same time, orders were
issued to begin rounding up Armenians wholesale and deporting them.

"Some regional variations notwithstanding," Akcam reports, the
deportations "proceeded in the same manner everywhere." Armenians
would be given a few days or, in some cases, just a few hours to
leave their homes. The men were separated from the women and children,
led beyond the town, and either tortured or murdered outright. Their
families were then herded to concentration camps in the Syrian desert,
often bound by ropes or chains. Along the way, they were frequently
set upon by Kurdish tribesmen, who had been given license to loot
and rape, or by the very gendarmes who were supposed to be guarding
them. A Greek witness wrote of watching a column of deportees being
led through the Kemakh Gorge, on the upper Euphrates. The guards
"withdrew to the mountainside" and "began a hail of rifle fire,"
he wrote. "A few days later there was a mopping-up operation: since
many little children were still alive and wandering about beside
their dead parents." In areas where ammunition was in short supply,
the killing squads relied on whatever weapons were at hand-axes,
cleavers, even shovels. Adults were hacked to pieces, and infants
dashed against the rocks. In the Black Sea region, Armenians were
loaded onto boats and thrown overboard. In the area around Lake Hazar,
they were tossed over cliffs.

At the time of the deportations, the U.S. had not yet entered the
war. It maintained an extensive network of diplomats in the region,
and many of these provided detailed chronicles of what they had seen,
which Henry Morgenthau, the United States Ambassador in Istanbul,
urgently forwarded to Washington. (Other eyewitness accounts came from
German Army officers, Danish missionaries, and Armenian survivors.) In
a dispatch sent to the State Department on November 1, 1915, the
U.S. consul in Aleppo wrote:

It is extremely rare to find a family intact that has come any
considerable distance, invariably all having lost members from disease
and fatigue, young girls and boys carried off by hostile tribesmen,
and about all the men having been separated from the families and
suffered fates that had best be left unmentioned, many being done
away with in atrocious manners before the eyes of their relatives
and friends. So severe has been the treatment that careful estimates
place the number of survivors at only 15 percent of those originally
deported. On this basis the number surviving even this far being less
than 150,000 . . . there seems to have been about 1,000,000 persons
lost up to this date.

An American businessman who made a tour of the lower Euphrates the
next year reported having encountered "all along the road from Meskene
to Der-i-Zor graves containing the remains of unfortunate Armenians
abandoned and dead in atrocious suffering. It is by the hundreds
that these mounds are numbered where sleep anonymously in their last
sleep these outcasts of existence, these victims of barbary without
qualification." Morgenthau repeatedly confronted the Ottoman Interior
Minister, Mehmed Talât, with the contents of these dispatches, telling
him that the Americans would "never forget these massacres." But the
warnings made no impression. During one session, Morgenthau later
recalled in a memoir, Talât turned to him and asked if he could
obtain a list of Armenians who had purchased life-insurance policies
with American firms. "They are practically all dead now, and have no
heirs left to collect the money," the Interior Minister reasoned, and
therefore the unclaimed benefits rightfully belonged to the government.

The official explanation for the Armenian deportations was that
they were necessary for security reasons, and this is still the
account provided by state-sanctioned histories today. "Facts on
the Relocation of Armenians (1914-1918)," a volume produced by the
Turkish Historical Society, was published in English in 2002. It
begins with an epigram from John F. Kennedy ("For the great enemy
of the truth is very often not the lie-deliberate, contrived, and
dishonest-but the myth, persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic")
and the reassurance that it is "not a propaganda document." The book
argues that Russia and its allies had "sown the seeds of intrigue and
mischief among the Armenians, who in turn had been doing everything in
their power to make life difficult for Ottoman armies." Deciding that
"fundamental precautions" were needed, the Ottoman authorities took
steps to "relocate" the Armenians away from the front. They worked to
insure that the transfer would be effected "as humanely as possible";
if this goal was not always realized, it was because of disease-so
difficult to control during wartime-or rogue bands of "tribal people"
who sometimes attacked Armenian convoys. "Whenever the government
realized that some untoward incidents had taken place . . . the
government acted very promptly and warned the local authorities." In
support of this "Arbeit Macht Frei" version of events, "Facts on the
Relocation of Armenians" cites the very Ottoman officials who oversaw
the slaughter. Turkish officials, in turn, now cite works like "Facts"
to support their claim that the period's history remains contested. In
March, 2005, just before the commemoration of the ninetieth anniversary
of the Day of Remembrance, the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip
Erdogan, called for an "impartial study" to look into what had really
happened to the Armenians. The International Association of Genocide
Scholars responded that such a call could only be regarded as still
more propaganda. "The Armenian Genocide is abundantly documented
by thousands of official records . . . by eyewitness accounts of
missionaries and diplomats, by the testimony of survivors, and by
decades of historical scholarship," the association's directors wrote
in a letter explaining their refusal to participate. An academic
conference on the massacres planned for later that spring in Istanbul
was banned by a court order. (After much maneuvering, it was held at
a private university amid raucous protests.)

The Ottomans formally surrendered to the Allies on October 30, 1918.

The Paris Peace Conference opened the following year, and it took
another year for the Allies to agree on how to dispose of the empire.

The pact that finally emerged-the Treaty of Sèvres-awarded Palestine,
Transjordan, and Mesopotamia to the English, Syria and Lebanon to
the French, Rhodes and a chunk of southern Anatolia to the Italians,
and Izmir and western Anatolia to the Greeks. Eastern Anatolia, with
a prize stretch of Black Sea coast, was to go to the Armenians. The
Bosporus and the Dardanelles were to be demilitarized and placed under
international control. From an imperial power the Turks were thus
transformed into something very close to a subject people. This was
the final disgrace and, as it turned out, also the start of a revival.

As the rulers of the Ottoman Empire, the Turks had been fighting
against history; they had spent more than a century trying-often
unsuccessfully-to fend off nationalist movements in the regions
they controlled. Now, in defeat, they adopted the cause as their
own. In the spring of 1920, the Turkish Nationalists, led by Mustafa
Kemal-later to be known as Ataturk-established a new government in
Ankara. (The government's founding is celebrated every April 23rd,
one day before the Armenian Day of Remembrance.) During the next
three years, the Nationalists fought a series of brutal battles,
which eventually forced the Allies to abandon Sèvres. A new treaty
was drawn up, the Treaty of Lausanne, and the Republic of Turkey
was created. The big losers in this process were, once again, the
Armenians: Lausanne returned all of Anatolia to Turkish control.

In Akcam's view, what happened between 1920 and 1923 is the key to
understanding the Turks' refusal to discuss what happened in 1915.

The Armenian genocide was what today would be called a campaign of
ethnic cleansing, and as such it was highly effective. It changed
the demographics of eastern Anatolia; then, on the basis of these
changed demographics, the Turks used the logic of self-determination
to deprive of a home the very people they had decimated. Although
the genocide was not committed by the Nationalists, without it the
nationalist project wouldn't have made much sense. Meanwhile, the
Nationalists made sure that the perpetrators were never punished.

Immediately after the end of the war, the Three Pashas fled the
country. (The Interior Minister, Talât, was assassinated in Berlin
by an Armenian who had been left for dead in a pile of corpses.) In
an attempt to mollify the Allies, the Ottomans arrested scores of
lower-ranking officials and put some of them on trial, but, when the
Nationalists came to power, they suspended these proceedings and freed
the suspects. A separate prosecution effort by the British, who were
keeping dozens of Ottoman officers locked up in Malta, similarly came
to nothing, and eventually the officers were sent home as part of
a prisoner-of-war exchange. Several went on to become high-ranking
members of Mustafa Kemal's government. For the Turks to acknowledge
the genocide would thus mean admitting that their country was founded
by war criminals and that its existence depended on their crimes.

This, in Akcam's words, "would call into question the state's very
identity." And so the Turks prefer to insist, as "Facts on the
Relocation of Armenians" puts it, that the genocide is a "legend."

It is, of course, possible to question Akcam's highly psychologized
account. Turkey has long sought to join the European Union, and,
while a history of genocide is clearly no barrier to membership,
denying it may be; several European governments have indicated that
they will oppose the country's bid unless it acknowledges the crimes
committed against the Armenians. Are the Turks really willing to risk
their country's economic future merely in order to hide-or pretend
to hide-an ugly fact about its origins? To believe this seems to
require a view of Turkish ethnic pride that gets dangerously close to
a national stereotype. In fact, many Turkish nationalists oppose E.U.

membership; from their perspective, denying the Armenian genocide
serves an eminently practical political purpose.

That being said, Akcam clearly has a point, and one that Americans, in
particular, ought to be able to appreciate. Before the arrival of the
first Europeans, there were, it is estimated, at least forty million
indigenous people living in the Americas; by 1650, fewer than ten
million were left. The decline was the result of casual cruelty on the
one hand-diseases unwittingly spread-and systematic slaughter on the
other. Every November, when American schoolchildren are taught about
Thanksgiving, they are insistently told the story of how the Pilgrims,
in their gratitude, entertained the kindly Wampanoag. We now know
that the comity of that original Thanksgiving was entirely atypical,
and that, by 1621, the Wampanoag were already a dying nation. While it
was cowardly of Congress to pull H.R. 596, passing it would, in its own
way, also have been problematic. We may side with the Armenians, but,
historically speaking, we probably have more in common with the Turks.

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