Turks and Armenians

Researching my post for Robert W. Chambers’ The Dark Star, I wanted to know, though it’s not germane to that novel, when the Ottomans decided on the Armenian Genocide.

I asked an academic acquaintance who specializes in genocide studies for some suggested reading, and he pointed me to McCarthy’s work.

Review: Turks and Armeninans: Nationalism and Conflict in the Ottoman Empire, Justin McCarthy, 2015.

So when did the Ottoman Empire decide to commit genocide against its Armenian citizens?

McCarthy’s convincing answer is that it didn’t. There was no genocide:

The actual history is one of repeated Armenian rebellion, culminating in the great rebellion of World War I. As far back as 1887 the Hunchak Party Program had declared, ‘The most appropriate time to realize the revolution will be when Turkey is at war.’ The actual history demonstrates that this is exactly what happened. The history of World War I shows rebellion, reaction to rebellion, forced migration of both Muslims and Armenians, and mutual massacre. It is a history of a war in which the requirements of life were denied to all, a war in which most those who died succumbed to starvation and disease. Neither side was completely innocent, neither side completely guilty. In no way, however, can the mayhem be called one-sided. It was not genocide, it was war.

McCarthy, a demographer, addresses the various historiographic problems of talking about Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. Ottoman census figures weren’t broken down by ethnic groups but by religious affiliations.

Another problem, addressed in a separate appendix, is the very inaccurate impression Europeans and Americans had of Turks. Most of their information about the Armenian minority in the Ottoman Empire came from missionaries. Even when they spoke Turkish, they were, understandably, more interested in their co-religionists among the Kurds and Armenians than Muslims. They got a distinctly one-sided view of life in the Ottoman Empire. Their reports of atrocities committed against the Armenians were sometimes so fantastic as to be demographically impossible or, sometimes, completely unsourced.

Diplomatic reports contradicted many of these claims, but they rarely became public. This was because, particularly in Britain, some powerful politicians were extreme partisans for the Armenians. Armenian Committees in Britain and America, where many of the Armenian diaspora settled before World War One, had their own agendas to pursue. This distorted picture was worsened, of course, by British propaganda during the war.

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