Friday, December 07, 2007

Armenians, Turks, Israelis, and Jews: A final word

Someone left a lengthy comment on my first posting on Ottoman Turkey and the Armenian genocide, and I responded in the comments section. The larger issues raised by this history are worth returning to, briefly. I've reposed my response below, slightly edited. Apparently, this reader didn't read my second posting, which would have clarified some things he missed.

My response explains the wrongness of the such views and alludes to the reasons why people hold them. Denial of the bare facts is rare today; instead, there's a lot of dancing around the facts and refusal to label them honestly. Rationalizations based on the Ottoman-Russian war are equally flimsy and irrelevant; they fall into the same scapegoating that the Young Turks themselves engaged in at the time. Their "Armenian problem" preceded the outbreak of war in 1914 by decades. But my response also gets deeper into historical detail than most readers will want; and even greater detail is available in the works of Fromkin, Power, and Florence, among other places. Up here, let me just cut to the chase and answer the question of why this sad history is important today.

There are some broad issues of critical importance that the Armenian genocide and the collapse of the Ottoman empire touch on and illuminate: the incompatibility of empire and modernity; the crisis that every modernizing empire has faced with the rise of chauvinistic and racist movements (like pan-Turkism), often confused with nationalism. Countries with strong Christian-liberal-enlightenment traditions were able to keep these forces at bay or marginalize them - plus they had the alternative of liberal and democratic nationalism, a powerful basis for rejecting racist and class-warfare ideologies. Eurasia's great empires could not; while they all went through liberalizing and reformist phases in the 18th and 19th centuries, these forces were shallow and short-lived, expressed as brief episodes of "enlightened despotism." Both czarist Russia and Ottoman Turkey entered their final, post-liberal phases in the late 19th century, while Germany and Austria-Hungary didn't feel the full impact of such trends until after 1918. The whole subject - empire, nations, modernity, self-rule versus autocracy, aristocracy, monarchy, and theocracy - deserves and will get a posting of its own. I'll just say again: Ataturk, the founder of the modern republic of Turkey, understood these points very well, better than rationalizers of the Young Turks and Ottomans do today. All of the Ottoman minorities - even those, like the Jews, who did well for much of the empire's history - came around to this view by 1918. The Armenian genocide of 1915-17 played a large role in their change of view.

For us today, there is a weirder irony. Contrary to what Libby says, few Armenians (at least none that I know) "wallow" in this history. (There's no business here like Shoah business :) This is a far more crucial issue precisely for modern Turkey itself, a basic question that touches on just how modern it is, and how ready it is to join Europe. It's an unavoidable bridge the Turks will have to cross if they are to join. Imagine if Germany were still having fundamental difficulties facing the Nazi period. Obviously, Jews would be outraged. But forget about that for the moment: What would Germany's neighbors think? Would NATO or the EU have ever have been possible, or the Cold War come to an end, with such a fundamental and ominous question mark hanging in the air? This issue is not about Armenians, Jews, or Israel: it's about Turkey.

This is my response to the commenter at the first posting.


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 to Turkey or neutral. 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 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 [terrible bungling]. 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. [The Jews of Palestine also suffered greatly under wartime Young Turk rule.]

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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