Monday, November 05, 2007

Armenians, Turks, Israelis, and Jews I

Maybe I should have blogged this earlier ... and added the Kurds as a fifth to the list. Suddenly, it's blown up in our faces.

The recent uproar over the ADL's flip-flop on the Armenian genocide was a hot topic in the Israeli newspapers when I was in Israel at the end of the summer. All of them - left, right, religious, secular - found the flip-flop bizarre. What happened to the Ottoman Armenians during World War One is common knowledge, and genocide-denial is not a business Israelis or Jews should want to get into. But that was just the beginning.

More recently, the US Congress considered a non-binding resolution endorsing the facts of what happened and labeling it genocide. The resolution has triggered an internal political and external diplomatic crisis for Turkey. Congress had passed earlier resolutions about this, going back to the 1980s, but they were not as emphatic and didn't use the word "genocide."

But it's not just a change in Congressional resolutions. A lot has changed since then in Turkey, and the resolution could not have come at a worse time for Turkish politics or US-Turkish relations. That's why the resolution was opposed by President Bush, former Presidents Clinton and Bush Sr., and by all currently living Secretaries of State.

Since the end of the Cold War, Turkey has drifted farther and farther away from its secular-republican ideology of Kemalism, formulated by the founder of the modern Turkish republic, Mustafa Kemal. Also known as Ataturk ("Father of the Turks"), he organized both critical Great War victories for Turkey: the defeat of the 1915 Anglo-French landings at Gallipoli and of the Anglo-Greek offensive of 1920-22.* While the Ottoman empire's fragments became the pieces later assembled into the modern Middle East, Ataturk retrenched in Anatolia and regenerated Turkey as a national republic, free of its old imperial superstructure. When the Greek-Turkish war ended in 1922, over a million Greeks were expelled from Anatolia, where they had lived since the days of Homer; almost a million Turks were counterexpelled from mainland Greece into Turkey. Alas, no one ever said nation-building would be pretty - but it's not half as ugly as empire collapse.

Ever since, Turkey has been a secular-nationalist republic protected its military. Everyone's heard of the Islamist Refah (or Welfare) Party that arose in the early 1990s and how it was prevented from taking power by the Turkey military. While radical and pan-Islamic thought has gained a foothold in Turkey in the last generation, and Turkey's ruling secular elites have been in a state of corruption and decline for decades, many Turks (not just the army) are devoted to Ataturk's ideal and now view it as their passport to EU membership and becoming a truly Western country.

The Refah party re-established itself as the Justice and Development Party, without an overt Islamic component, and went on to win successive later victories in Turkish elections. They currently run Turkey's elected civilian government. But something else has happened that is less known in the West, something directly related to the present crisis.

The attitude of Kemal and his followers toward the Armenians and the events of 1915-17 was ambiguous. The Turks consistently distanced themselves from Ottoman persecution of Christian minorities (which went on repeatedly all through the empire's final century: Serbs, Greeks, Romanians, Bulgarians, as well as Armenians), while simultaneously denying that the massacre of Armenians in 1915-17 was a deliberate attempt at extermination. Ataturk's military government even prosecuted a few of the final Ottoman government's high offficials for war crimes in 1919-20. The general attitude was that what the Ottoman government did in its final death throes had nothing to do with the modern Turkish republic that arose from the ruins.

Why did the massacre happen? Did it happen? For the bare facts of the case, consult Samantha Power's classic history of 20th century genocide, "A Problem From Hell:" America in the Age of Genocide. The first chapter of her book covers this, the first of the 20th century's great "race-murders," as US ambassador to Turkey Henry Morgenthau, Sr., labeled it while it was happening: about 800,000 to a million Armenians dead. The word "genocide" was coined in the 1940s, by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-Jewish lawyer struggling to capture the intent and the act in a single word that could be written into laws and treaties that would ban it. Power accepts Lemkin's narrow but unconditional definition: a deliberate attempt, successful or not, to exterminate a national, ethnic, or religious group. It doesn't include fuzzier notions of "imperialism," "cultural genocide," and so on: it's nothing but plain physical extermination. Lemkin struggled with this concept before Hitler's planned and largely completed genocide of European and Middle Eastern Jews; Lemkin was thinking of the Armenians when he did so, not the future fate of his own people.**

To understand why the massacre happened, it's better to turn to David Fromkin's comprehensive The Peace to End All Peace, the most useful modern book covering the end of the Ottoman empire and the rise of the modern Middle East. Fromkin treats the "greater Middle East," which includes Turkey and Central Asia. This larger perspective is essential to understanding the Ottoman empire, why it collapsed, and what happened when it collapsed.

The modern Middle East is often traced, not back to 1918, but to 1798, when Napoleon invaded Egypt, which at that time was loosely attached to the Ottoman empire. His intent was to make Egypt modern, by force, in the same way that the French revolutionary armies were marching all over Europe under the banner of Liberty, Fraternity, and Equality. Napoleon was defeated by the British, and Egypt passed into the control of reforming local rulers such as Muhammad Ali. The Ottomans themselves later adopted such reformist approaches, much like the "enlightened despots" of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia in the same period. To some extent, they were forced to do so by the system of capitulations that European powers had forced on the Turks, by which European powers became protectors of Ottoman minorities and which was widely resented in the empire. The Ottoman realm included Turkish Muslims, but also non-Turkish Arabs, as well as a confusing array of Christian minorities and Jews. These latter were the dhimmis, the subordinated and second-class groups that were tolerated under Islamic law with large legal and political disabilities. The Ottoman empire did not have citizens in any case, but subjects - an important distinction.

The Ottoman reformers attempted to remake their empire into a modern, secular, and liberal polity, but collided with basic realities that eventually defeated them. The largely illiterate rural population, along with urban religious leaders, was firmly attached the institution of dhimma, with women, slaves, and infidels viewed as subordinate groups, while all Muslim males were theoretically equal. Furthermore, the secular-national concept itself was explosive in the Ottoman context, because, setting religious status aside, the empire contained numerous conquered non-Turkish peoples whose interpretation of Enlightenment ideas naturally led toward national independence and self-rule. It did not naturally lead toward equal citizenship under Ottoman rule, which turned out to be an oxymoron anyway: subjects and dhimmis in the end could not become citizens. Thus, starting with the Serbs and the Greeks, later extending to the Bulgarians, the Romanians, the Armenians, and finally the Jews (who came late to the nationalism party), the Ottoman ethno-religious minorities demanded and in most cases, with the backing of various European powers and later the United States, got their independence - but not without a price.†

That price was strong suspicion and eventual persecution by Ottoman authorities. While the Serbs and Greeks, with British backing, won their independence during the Napoleonic era, groups attempting to assert their rights later were savagely massacred by the last generation of Ottoman governments, when they lurched from reform toward violent reaction. The final ruling faction in Istanbul, the "Young Turks" of the 1908 revolution (Committee for Union and Progress), failed in their last reform attempts. Turkish elites were then led to a new solution to their minorities problem - extermination. Under the sway of a super-national, racial idea (pan-Turkism), the government that led Turkey into alliance with Germany in 1914 looked forward to a new, wholly Turkish empire that would encompass the Turkic peoples of central Asia (the "stans" familiar to us today). What would happen to the non-Turkish minorities was up for debate. Some thought they should be killed; others, that they should be kicked out; still others, that Turks should relinquish rule over them. The similarity to the super-national racial idea of pan-Germanism is not accidental: that idea was the seed of the Nazi movement, which, contrary to myth, was not a nationalist movement, but a pan-European racial movement dedicated to the destruction of the European nation-state system and its replacement by a purified racial empire. In this Aryan-surpemacist empire, "inferior races" would be expelled, enslaved, or eliminated. What's critical to understand is that, before Nazism, this "pan" racial idea had an earlier instance in the final days of the Ottoman empire.

While the entire apparatus of Ottoman rule was not redirected toward exterminating the Armenians, it was the policy of part of the wartime Ottoman government, as Ottoman leaders admitted to their German allies once the massacres were underway. The Ottoman Armenians had cousins across the border in Russia, Turkey's historic enemy. (There was no independent Armenia then; Russian Armenia was ruled by the Czar.) Those Armenians were fervently pro-Russian, and the Ottoman government had reason to suspect the loyalty of its Armenians. The Russians and the Russian Armenians tried to set up an independent Armenian government when they conquered part of Turkey. But the Ottoman Armenians remained resolutely non-political and did not rise to the bait. Contemporary accounts - from then-neutral Americans and from Austrian and German observers stationed in Turkey to help their ally - show rare unanimity on the situation in Ottoman Armenia in 1915: it was quiet.

Some (including many in Turkey) try to use the Russian attempts to get the Ottoman Armenians to rebel as a rationale for the massacre. And if the Turks had merely interred or expelled the Armenians, it would be easier to rationalize. But to see that motive as the basis for the forced deportation and starvation that ensued in 1915-17 is to miss the point. The Ottoman government wasn't just trying to prevent an Armenian "fifth column." It was left by 19th century Ottoman reformers with an impossible dilemma and found a dazzling modern solution - genocide. The war just accelerated the genocidal tendency of Ottoman minorities policy already latent in the preceding generation; the genocide was not a strategy for Turkey to defeat Russia, anymore than the Holocaust was a strategy for Germany to defeat its enemies 30 years later. In both cases, genocide was a goal in its own right.

It also marked a large break in the nature of governmental persecution of minorities - one that shifted from the millennial focus on religion to the apparently "scientific" basis of race. The technological and organizational powers available to the modern state had opened up new vistas of mass murder unavailable and unimaginable to previous eras. The lesson was not lost, especially on Hitler.
* This is a reminder that, while World War One ended on November 11, 1918 in the West, in the East, with regards to Russia and Turkey, it didn't really end until 1922, after the Russian Civil War, and after Ataturk drove the Greeks out of Anatolia and established the Turkish Republic. Along the way, he abolished the Ottoman caliphate and renounced Ottoman claims over the defunct empire. The 1922 settlement was formalized by the Treaty of Lausanne, which replaced the Treaty of Sèvres, signed in 1919, that had been far more favorable to both the Christian minorities and the European victors.

Among other things, the earlier, harsher Treaty of Sèvres required the Ataturk government to try the Young Turks responsible for the Armenian atrocity - which it did. Several were even executed. The Armenian massacre left a strong impression among the Allied governments that Turkey could not be trusted with rule of non-Muslim minorities or even non-Turkish Muslim Arabs.

** Power's own book is, in part, a contemporary continuation the original human rights movement in the 19th century. Its main early manifestation was abolitionism, and Americans tend not to be familiar with its later development - under the influence of Christian missionaries in the Middle East and Africa - into the immediate ancestor of the "human rights lobby." It is the fruit of a characteristic liberal-Protestant and Anglo-American ethos of the 19th and early 20th centuries, exemplified by such figures as Lincoln, Gladstone, Lloyd-George, and Wilson. More recent examples - such as Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush - mark the later decay of this tradition.

† The entire relevant chapter from Churchill's memoir, The Aftermath, is worth reading (chapter 18, "The Greek Tragedy"), as Churchill was a contemporary observer, helped to instigate the failed Dardanelles campaign of 1915-16, and tried to correct the pro-Ottoman apologetics already then spreading in the 1920s that attempted to rationalize the Armenian massacre. Enemies in the Great War, Britain and Ottoman Turkey had been allies in the nineteenth century, and, in 1914, a significant residue of support for Turkey remained in Britain, especially in the Conservative Party. OTOH, the Liberals, led earlier by Gladstone, had been a thorn in the side of the Ottomans as they launched a final wave of massacres against their Christian subjects in the 1890s.

The first major English-language apologist for the Ottomans was British historian Arnold Toynbee, who was also an antisemite. Toynbee claimed that the Armenian massacre was merely wartime Allied propaganda. While it is true that the Allies made effective use of the Armenian massacre in their propaganda, the distrust and horror of Ottoman minorities policy was real and deeply-rooted, and for good reasons. The most damning evidence on the massacre is precisely the records of the German and Austrian missions in Istanbul, not publicly available until after 1918. The ambassadors were convinced by mid-1915 that the Young Turk government meant to exterminate the Ottoman-ruled Armenians. Without guidance from Berlin or Vienna on the issue, they protested verbally but made only feeble attempts to stop it and publicly rationalize for their ally. Individual Germans and Austrians did undertake some attempts to save the surviving Armenians.

Churchill's First World War memoirs are not read much here in the US. They're far more relevant to what we're seeing now - in Turkey, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan - than his better-known Second World War memoirs.

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At 9:00 PM, Blogger libby said...

Dear Kavanna,

You know very little of the Armenian genocide issue. And frankly the Turks could care less if Armenia opened up relations or not. It not not a crisis for Turkey like you make it out to be. Turkey, my dear, is doing very well and a player in the new global economy. Even it's tourism industry is booming. As one of the hot tourist destinations right now, Europeans,Russians(allies of Armenia) are buying up villas along the coasts of the Mediterranean. Armenians still wallow in their past that they created. No one told them to cozy up with the Russians while an Ottoman citizen.

Other than Arnold Toynbee many historians of distinction have disputed the Armenian genocide claims. A most recent article was just in the Chicago Tribune ON October 16, 2007 by British historian Norman Stone.Why don't you read it. Also, you may have heard of Bernard Lewis. You need to see this from a Turkish point of view just once:

Imagine your shores are invaded by the the French,Greeks and British on the West and North. Then the Russians from the East. The only reason Ottoman's sided with the Axis powers back then, because they were opposing the Russians.
And who cozied up to the Russians? You need to read the Ottoman archives. But of course the Dashnak archives in Boston are not open.

In short the archives of the Ottomans are proving this genocide cry is false. the Morgenthau letters of former dip[l.omat well guess what, had an Armenian secretary. also, the British letters containing lies about killing of Armenians where forged. Turkey in July 2007, met with Armenian leadership and said that it is willing to set up a joint commission to study the Archives and academic papers on this issue. Armenia refused. They are so afraid to be caught in their lie.

The Armenians were armed and had militias terrorizing and killing habitants of muslim villages. They formed secret alliances with the Russians for supplies. Sounds like treason and warring factions to me. The term genocide as define by the Geneva convention states, that it does not fit the definition of genocide when you have warring factions. Even the united nations won't touch it.

You go on and describe the Ottoman
political structure. Gee, thanks I didn't know it was a Theocracy. For the times, they were the most democratic. During a hundred years of the Spanish reformation I didn't see the Jews of Europe and Christians, mind you, fleeing to Russia for safety. Why do you (step out just once out of your Euro-centric mind-set) They ran for their lives, to the Ottoman lands.

The Jews, Greeks, and Armenians thrived under the Ottomans. They were the merchants and educated class. Regarding opportunities, the Armenians and Christian missionaries set up a college back around 1876, which is now named Robert college. Look it up you might learn something. Even today, the best and the brightest graduate from there even today and head out to America's ivy leagues. Even Armenians students graduate from there today.

Enough of the history lesson. So Turkey has a thriving economy, five star hotels galore, a beautiful Aegean and Mediterranean coast. And the Armenians in Armenia can't get over the past. They've been in a seven year war that devastated their economy. Let me add, they don't even get along with another neighbor, the Georgians with whom they share a religion. Oh, they trade with Iran, and receive arms for Russia's Putin. As if Turkey was going to attack Putin. Pathetic.

One last thing, I studied the Holocaust, and there are absolutely no parallels to the genocide by the Nazis. While the Greeks, Italians, the French, and Bulgarians, were shuttling trains filled with Jewish families to the concentration camps by the hundreds of thousands. Not one Turkish Jew was handed over to the Nazis on Turkish soil. They didn't wimp out like the French. Again the only reason, the Turks sided with the Nazis was because the Russians were on the opposite side. The Turks did not trust the Germans one iota. They stayed as neutral as possible.

Kid, you need to see the big picture. And stop acting l;ike Europe has done the jews such a great service. I detest the Islamic extremists as much as you do, but don't pick on Turkey. They saved your ancestors skin and mine. Learn about the Ottomans not from Samantha Powers either whose world view is about about as big as a pea.


At 12:02 PM, Blogger Binah said...


Umm, no.

What you're doing is what a lot of Ottoman-Young Turk apologists do, which is to essentially admit the Armenian massacre of World War One, then rationalize by playing with words, teasing readers with a seductive historical amnesia, or tell Jews in particular that they did well under the Ottomans or that modern Turkey is a good ally of Israel. I didn't compare the Armenian genocide directly to the Holocaust. In certain respects - its Teutonic thoroughness, the irrational paranoia of antisemitism - the Holocaust was unique. But by that standard, the Holocaust would be the only genocide in the book, and that's certainly not right either. I also don't want to stoop to genocide card-trading: you know, I'll swap your Holocaust for two genocides and 20 pogroms, hold the mustard.

As I wrote, the most damning evidence on the genocide was precisely the reaction of the German, Austrian, and American ambassadors, allied or neutral to Turkey. All three diplomatic missions quickly concluded in 1915 that the Young Turks (Enver and Talaat) were trying to exterminate the Armenians within the Ottoman Empire. Enver and Djemal admitted as much to the Germans. That's genocide, period.

Nor was there any clear military reason for extermination. While apologists try to claim the Ottoman Armenians were rebelling, there's no evidence of such rebellion. The real reason was that Turkey's offensive against Russia in the winter of 1915 was a disastrous failure, and the Young Turks needed someone to blame. The Armenians had already been such targets in the past, and they were near the Russo-Turkish border. So they were convenient scapegoats for a set of absurd bunglers. Outside the universe of rationalizers and apologists (like Toynbee), historians and observers at the time understood that the Young Turks' program in 1915-17 was continuous with past Ottoman behavior toward their Christian minority subjects - it was NOT about winning the war with Russia. If wiping out the Armenians was so critical to the Turkish war effort, why did the German and Austrian ambassadors protest it? After all, they had a large stake in Turkish success against Russia.

Nor is it true that the Christian minorities "flourished" under the Ottomans, at least not in the Empire's last century. Much of it was in steep long-term decline in any case. But the Ottomans' contradictory efforts to liberalize and modernize their empire, while still keeping the dhimmis in some kind of subordinate status, created an impossible situation, one that could only be resolved in one of three ways: convert all Ottoman subjects into equal citizens (which ran against Islamic law and Turkish dominance), relinquish Turkish rule over the dhimmis (which is what ended up happening), or genocide. This problem was not unique to the Ottomans. Next door, the Russian empire went through a similar cycle, during the same period, and for similar reasons: liberalization and reform earlier in the 19th century, followed by violent reaction (pogroms etc.) aimed at preserving the older imperial-feudal-theocratic structure before it disintegrated. These governments in part created this dilemma by their earlier efforts at reform. The Ottoman Christian subjects suffered in the last couple generations before the war because either granting them full rights or accepting their growing demands for independence would mean the end of the Ottoman empire as traditionally constituted. Once the Ottoman authorities accepted this, they began (in the 1890s, a decade after the pogroms started in Russia) a series of anti-Christian massacres. Something similar happened in German-speaking lands, but not until after 1918. Until then, Germany and Austro-Hungary retained many liberal features.

The reason Jews did so well for so long under the Ottomans was that, being small in number and having no state or political power, they were not a threat. While Enver and Talaat were anti-Christian, they were not anti-Jewish. But the Jews just came late to nationalism, and the Ottomans didn't get the chance before 1918 to persecute them on a large scale. BTW, Djemal did understand this; while not anti-Christian, he did start persecution of Jews during the war. By 1918, almost all the Jews in the empire wanted an Allied victory - among other things, they had seen what happened to the Armenians.

Finally, I don't want to sound as if I'm being mindlessly anti-Turkish. I've been to Turkey and find a lot to admire about it. Ataturk was a great man, for his military brilliance and his political acumen. Everyone chatters about his master stroke of making Turkey a secular republic, abolishing the caliphate/sultanate. (The Sultan was already a prisoner of his own government in any case, before the war.) What people should admire at least as much is that Kemal also understood that Turkey could not become a modern republic unless it abandoned its rule over non-Turkish and non-Muslim subjects. Unlike the Young Turk triumvirate, Ataturk was a great military commander, one with real victories under his belt - and no need to commit genocide to achieve them.

It's more clear in my second posting, but I'll spell it out: why does the modern Turkish republic feel the need to rationalize for what the collapsing Ottoman Empire did? After all, modern Germany is constituted by a very different political regime from the Nazis or even the Kaisers (not that I want to equate the two). This is what baffles a lot of foreign observers otherwise sympathetic toward, and admiring of, modern Turkey.


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