Vicken Cheterian

When Two Israeli Historians Discover (the other) Genocide

The end result is not very different from other books written on the topic, since the days of Vahakn Dadrian, Richard Hovannisian, Taner Akçam, Stefan Ihrig, and of course the monumental work of Raymond Kévorkian, and many others.

When I first saw the title of the book authored by two Israeli historians, Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi: The Thirty-Year Genocide, Turkey’s Destruction of its Christian Minorities 1894-1924, I was very enthusiastic. First, because I was looking for a work that integrates the Armenian Genocide of 1915 with earlier mass violence, such as the Hamidian massacres of 1894-96 and the massacre of Adana of 1909. In those “thirty years” something had changed to make the “friendly nation” or millet-i sadiqa into something to be targeted, thrown to the desert, and destroyed. By looking at the history of those three events as different episodes of one historic chapter, we could contrast it with the pre-Hamidian period of Ottoman history, when Armenians were partners not only in economic and financial leadership of the empire, but also key players in political reforms (the Tanzimat). Something changed in between, and only a long view of history could attempt to answer those larger questions, and the title of the book made that promise. The second reasons is that we know that the Armenians were the major target of destruction during two regimes (that of Abdul Hamid II and the Unionists) yet not the only one. Ottoman Greeks and Assyrians, and to a lesser degrees Chaldeans and Yazidis, were also targets of deportations, massacres, and forced conversion to Islam. The end result was Turkey without non-Muslim communities, achieved, ironically, under the “secular” regime of the Turkish Republic. This unified history has not been written yet, and the title of the book made this second bold promise as well.

Yet, I would like to share why I am deeply disappointed by this book.

First, there is this first, disturbing sentence: “We embarked on this project in quest of the truth about what happened to the Ottoman Armenians during World War I.” Dear historians, if during 104 years you did not notice that genocide was genocide, and after all those years you are still searching for “the truth”, then be assured that no one needs neither history, nor historians. Stop wasting your time and mine! 

That Israeli historians, who are supposed to be sensitive towards the topic of genocide, had not noticed that there was Genocide two decades before the Holocaust is in itself surprising. Yet, the two authors do not problematize the reasons of their lack of knowledge, but take it as a starting point of their investigation.

Let me assure you: the verdict of the historians is that it was indeed Genocide. Eureka! We are saved! Otherwise I was going to change the title of my last book, and throw away half of my library. 

The two authors, by posing this question as the start of their investigation, give the impression as if no historian had noticed before them about the exterminations of Ottoman Christians, as if no one had written this history before them. So, they decide to write a book about it.

The end result is not very different from other books written on the topic, since the days of Vahakn Dadrian, Richard Hovannisian, Taner Akçam, Stefan Ihrig, and of course the monumental work of Raymond Kévorkian, and many others. The two author use methods and sources already used by previous historians, so there is no surprise here. At the end, the bulk of the book is about the Armenian Genocide, with a massive 9th chapter dedicated to “Turks and Greeks, 1919-1924” that talks about the destruction of the Ottoman Greeks as well as the conflict between Greece and Ottoman Turkey. Basically, the idea of looking at overlaps between the three Christian millets – Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians – whether this can be seen as one historic process, and why differences in timing, and types and degrees of mass violence, is still waiting for a historian to write it. 

Nor can we find an analysis on how to conceptualize the link – if any – between the three waves of mass violence in those three decades. While it is positive that the Hamidian massacres take important prominence, on the other hand the Adana massacres of 1909 are hardly covered mentioned on one page. Yet, this is the event linking with the Hamidian period with the Unionist period. Hardly a year after the 1908 Constitutional Revolution, the massacre of “more than 20’000 Armenians and 1’270 Assyrians” (page 144), challenges a number of narratives on Ottoman mass violence, and opens questions about the participation of provincial elites, and the population as such, independently from state planning, in mass violence towards their Christian neighbours. Popular participation, the role of the Ottoman Army and the key role of religion are issues that are hinted at, but their full potential is not used to shed a new light over those mass atrocities. 

There are some interesting details here and there. For example, we learn that Bahettin Sakir, the head of the Special Organization (tashkilat-i makhsusa, the brigands who carried out much of the genocidal killings), was also the representative of the Ottoman Red Crescent (page 176). I was wondering, whether those organizations that emerged from the Ottoman Red Crescent - did they ever clean their conscience of the blood of the victims, or do they still continue the same heritage, culture, and traditions as that of Dr. Sakir? If one is following the current events in the Middle East, one might have some doubts. 

The original questions posed in the book title are not answered. Instead, the two authors fell in the trap of professional irrelevance: they join the debate - was the genocide planned early on, or was it the result of radicalization of the Unionists under the war conditions? And they come to the important conclusion: that the plans for genocide were made by March 1915, instead of the May 1915 suggested by Donald Bloxham. 104 years after the events, whether the Unionists decided the exterminations in March or May is not all that important, after all!

The most surprising, even shocking part is in the conclusion. Instead of working to link the various elements together, give us a reflection of continuities and breaks between the history of the three nations that suffered from genocide, or possible links between the three periods of mass violence (Hamidian massacres, Adana massacre, 1915 Genocide) the authors suddenly turn to compare the Armenian Genocide with the Holocaust. The book did not prepare any ground for such comparison. Moreover, what they say is more than strange: “The anti-Jewish campaign [by Nazi Germany] was not based on personal sadism (…) The Turk’s mass murder and deportation of the Christians (…) involved countless acts of individual sadism (…) the Turks massacre of the Christians was far more sadistic than Nazi murder of the Jews” (page 501). And the: “During the Holocaust German civilians were almost never involved in the killing” (page 502) … What is the sense of white washing Nazi murderers from their sadistic crimes, and denying popular participation in the destruction of European Jews, well documented elsewhere?  

This book was published earlier this year, in 2019, by the prestigious Harvard University Press.