The history of the Armenian genocide

April 16, 2015

When people think of genocide, what often comes to mind is the Holocaust, Rwanda and the killing fields of Cambodia. Few might be aware of what happened to the Armenians during World War I in the country now known as Turkey.

Part of the problem is that Turkey continues to deny the state-sanctioned murder, rape and mass deportation of Armenians. At least 1 million people died.

But the Turkish authorities will likely come under new pressure to change their position when the centenary of the genocide is marked on April 24.

Ronald G. Suny, a professor of social and political history at the University of Michigan, has spent much of his career researching the genocide. He has also played a key role in getting Turkish and Armenian scholars to begin discussing the genocide among themselves.

Suny met with Global Michigan to discuss the genocide and his new book, “They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else: A History of the Armenian Genocide.” Here are edited excerpts from the discussion:

Q: Who were the Armenians and how did they end up living together with the Turks?

Suny: The area where the genocide largely took place was eastern Anatolia or eastern Turkey today. Armenians think of it as historic Armenia—a mountain plateau, which was occupied by Armenians from the 5th century B.C. They were an ancient people who in the early 4th century A.D. converted to Christianity. It was one of the oldest Christian civilizations. But that area of Armenia was also a crossroads of many empires: the Persians, Byzantines, Romans, Russians and the Ottomans.

Q: What were the general sources of tension between the Armenians and Turks?

Suny: In the 11th century, Turks began to come from Central Asia. First the Seljuk Turks, under the leader Seljuk, and later the Ottoman Turks, under their leader Osman and others that followed. Eventually, the Ottomans created an empire the stretched from the walls of Vienna, down through the Middle East, through what had been historical Armenia, all the way through Palestine and North Africa, taking Egypt as well. It was a huge empire, which lasted until World War I. So the period we’re talking about is the crisis of that empire. During WWI, a group called “The Young Turks” who were ruling the Ottoman Empire decided that the Christian Armenians in their midst were treacherous and that they were allied with Armenians who lived across the border in the Russian Empire and that they preferred the Russians to the Ottoman Turks, so they had to be eliminated. So that’s the general source of what became this massive killing that we call the Armenian genocide.

Q: What kind of social status did the Armenians have during the Ottoman Empire?

Suny: The Ottoman Empire was an empire and that means some groups rule over others. It’s certainly an unequal relationship. Muslims in the empire were more privileged, generally, than non-Muslims, so the Armenians being non-Muslims had an inferior status. Yet Armenians did well in the Ottoman Empire, becoming the middle class in the city of Istanbul. But most Armenians were peasants, workers or artisans in eastern Anatolia. This relationship was uneven. Everyone knew that Muslims stood above the gavur—the unbelievers or infidels.

In time, the Armenians were known as the ‘loyal millet’ because other non-Muslims—such as Bulgarians, Serbs, Greeks—had revolted against the Ottoman Empire and eventually formed their own states in the Balkans. The Armenians did not do that. They were generally loyal to the Ottoman Empire and believed they would stay within the empire if the empire reformed and gave them a degree of autonomy or self rule. And they would often petition European powers and the Russians to try to help them in reaching their goal of a degree of autonomy in the Ottoman Empire. The Turks saw this as a treacherous move, dealing with foreigners, and accused the Armenians of being separatists.

Q: The Turks have accused the Armenians of forming their own armies and threatening the empire. Was this a real threat?

Suny: The bulk of Armenians were peasants in eastern Anatolia who daily met with vicious attacks from Kurds and other nomadic people who would rob cattle, sometimes steal their women and land. And the Turkish state did relatively little about this. So Armenians formed their own self-defense groups, which tried to defend Armenians against these predations. That only led to further accusations of resistance, insurrection, betrayal, treason and separatism.

Eventually, the Ottoman government decided during WWI that the Armenians were an existential threat to the empire and that they needed to be removed from the area. Hundreds of thousands were massacred. Some women and children, perhaps several hundred thousand, were assimilated or Islamized into Kurdish, Turkish and Arab families. So the genocide, which is the elimination of the Armenian population in what had historically been their homeland, was accomplished by three methods: dispersion, physical massacre and assimilation or Islamization by force.

Q: Can you tell us about your new book about the genocide?

The book is called “They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else.” That’s a quote from Talaat Pasha, one of the architects of the genocide. The subtitle is “A History of the Armenian Genocide.”

When I thought about writing this book and went back to the sources and other books written about the genocide, I realized no one has ever told the story as a historical narrative: What happened and when, then what happened, and how one thing led to another and how a certain mentality was created. I wanted to tell the story internally as a product of Ottoman history and the ambitions of the Ottoman government, including the Armenians who were also involved in trying to improve their lives and gain a degree of self rule. I also wanted to describe the international context. What was Britain, France, Germany and Russia doing? They all had ambitions in this area. No one told that story in all its detail as an analytical narrative—a story that explains and interprets why this terrible tragedy happened. The book is a work of social science but it is told as a historical narrative.

Q: What are the chances Turkey will ever acknowledge the genocide anytime soon?

Suny: We now know better than we did 15 years ago what actually happened. We have a number of explanations. Many of the scholars we’ve worked with—Turks and Kurds—have accepted that this is certainly a genocide. At least that’s a foundation.

The Turkish government still officially denies the genocide. It doesn’t want to face up to the fact that its ancestors could commit such colossal crimes—crimes on which the current Republic of Turkey is founded.

There is some movement in this centennial year—the 100th anniversary of the genocide. The Turkish government is slightly shifting its position. Last year, on April 23, the day before the Armenians commemorate the anniversary, Recep Tayyip Erdogan—who was prime minister and is now president—offered condolences to the Armenians. Now, if the Armenians had in fact been traitors, insurrectionists, separatists, a threat to the empire, you wouldn’t offer them condolences. But if they had in fact been unfairly treated, innocent victims of repression at the hands of the Turks, then you might think about offering condolences. So you can see already a kind of shift in the Turkish dialogue. And there have been many other moves by the government. They won’t use the G word, they won’t say genocide, but there is a little bit of an opening.

Q: The official policy of the U.S. is not to acknowledge the genocide. Why?

Suny: The U.S. is a close ally of Turkey. It’s a NATO partner. We have bases in Turkey. We need them in the Middle East. We’re partnering with them in the war in Syria. Through the whole Cold War, the whole anti-Communist crusade, now in the crusade against terrorism and radical Islam, America needs the Turks who are strategically located in that part of the world. Therefore, they’re afraid of offending them.

So President Obama, Bill Clinton and Bush—while they were campaigning, they talked about the Armenian genocide. But as soon as they got into office, they refused to use the word “genocide.” Obama has gone the furthest. He uses the Armenian word “Mets Yeghern,” which means the “Great Catastrophe.” Obama even said when he was in Turkey: “I don’t change my mind. I know what it is. We’re just going to use this word instead of genocide.” So that might be a way of easing up to the Turks, but as a social scientist, I use the word genocide.


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