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The Mass Murder They Still Deny

The first reports of massacres reached the US embassy in Istanbul in December 1914. Hundreds of Armenians, a Christian people with ancient roots in Anatolia, had been murdered by rioters in the Bitlis region of eastern Turkey and hanged in the streets of Erzurum. Countless others had died from exposure and exhaustion while laboring as human mule-trains for the Turkish army. By the spring of 1915, much of the country’s Armenian population had—so it was claimed by Armenian spokesmen and American missionaries and diplomats—been subjected to mass deportations, wholesale pillage, and rape.

The US ambassador, Henry Morgenthau, initially questioned the veracity of these accounts. Morgenthau was the latest of a series of American Jews appointed to that post on the assumption that Jews formed a natural link between the Muslim Middle East and Christian America. He had come to admire the Armenians as a people much like his own, with a similar ethnic pride and cultural vigor. He knew that their position in the Ottoman Empire had grown increasingly tenuous since the outbreak of war with Russia. He said he was well aware of the Ottoman penchant for savagery. And yet Morgenthau still doubted whether the Turks, for all their cruelty, could have carried out the atrocities ascribed to them. Only when survivors of the horrors began to stagger into his office, haunted and physically maimed, and the nightmarish dispatches mounted on his desktop, did the ambassador finally acknowledge reality. The Turkish government, he informed Washington, had embarked on a policy of “race extermination” of the Armenians by means of “terrible tortures, expulsions and…massacres.”

Much like the American officials who, twenty-five years later, were reluctant to respond to evidence of the Nazi massacres of Jews, Morgenthau was at first blinded by the enormity of the crime. Who could believe that, in the twentieth century, political leaders could launch a meticulously planned and exactingly executed program to annihilate more than a million of their defenseless neighbors? But unlike his successors at the outset of World War II, none of whom had clear evidence of what the Germans planned to do to the Jews, Morgenthau and other diplomats of his generation had recent proof of the mass killing of Armenians by the Turks. Between 1894 and 1896, Turkish troops rampaged through Armenian villages, ransacking an estimated one million houses and killing as many 200,000. “All the Armenians in sight were killed and their houses and stores robbed,” one American diplomat wrote. “Another Armenian Holocaust!” exclaimed a New York Times headline in what may have been the first use of the word to denote genocide.1

Allied leaders in the early stages of World War I also had access to firsthand information on the massacres, a source largely denied to their counterparts in World War II. Missionaries, many of them American, had been active throughout the Ottoman Empire for nearly a century, building Western-style schools and hospitals. An extensive consular service had been established to mediate between these evangelists and the authorities. Prohibited from proselytizing Muslims, the missionaries concentrated on local Christians, and especially the Armenians, who were traditionally members of the Armenian Catholic Church, which was in communion with the Catholic Church in Rome. Significant numbers of them subsequently converted to Protestantism. Much as Morgenthau likened the Armenians to the Jews, the missionaries and their consular protectors saw them as hardworking, Westernized Christians. They were the first to come to the Armenians’ rescue in 1914–1915, and, along with US diplomats, the first to report in detail on their plight.

From the US consulate in Harput, Leslie Davis wrote, “The Mohammedans in their fanaticism seemed determined not only to exterminate the Christian population but to remove all traces of their…civilization.” America’s representative in Aleppo, Syria, Jesse B. Jackson, observed railway cars crammed with starving Armenian deportees, few of whom, if any, he expected to survive. From the Persian frontier, the Presbyterian missionary William Shedd wrote about the execution of eight hundred villagers, mostly old people and young women, and from the Caucasus, Reverend Richard Hill reported seeing “children…dying by the hundreds” whose “frenzied mothers would…fling them…into the fields, so as not to see the[ir] dying agonies.” Other correspondents saw the inhabitants of entire towns driven into rivers to drown or herded into churches that were then set ablaze.

These grisly descriptions reached not only Allied embassies but also the general public, through extensive press coverage of the carnage. In May 1915 the Allied Powers issued a declaration protesting these “crimes against humanity” and vowing to hold Turkey’s leaders “personally responsible.” A similar process occurred in the United States, though it was still maintaining its neutrality in the war. In response, the nation’s leading philanthropists and clergymen, Christians and Jews, joined in creating the Committee on the Armenian Atrocities, which raised a monumental $100 million for Near East relief.

The fate of the Armenians also figured prominently in the debates surrounding America’s entry into the conflict against Germany and Austria-Hungary in April 1917. A large majority of both Houses of Congress demanded a declaration of war against Turkey as well, in order to rescue the Armenians. “The Armenian massacre was the greatest crime of the war,” former president Theodore Roosevelt said, “and failure to act against Turkey is to condone it.”2

The United States did not, in the end, make war on Turkey. The son and grandson of Presbyterian ministers and a close associate of evangelist groups, President Woodrow Wilson feared that American intervention in the Middle East would provoke the Turks into massacring the missionaries. Allied forces eventually defeated the Turks and occupied large segments of Anatolia but never sought justice for those guilty of “crimes against humanity.” As many as 1.5 million Armenians had been murdered, but outside of the surviving Armenian community, their memory swiftly faded.

While the attempt to obliterate European Jewry and slaughter Gypsies, homosexuals, and other “enemies of the [Nazi] state” was almost universally acknowledged and memorialized by innumerable museums, monuments, and the field of Holocaust studies, the earlier genocide of Armenians was generally overlooked. The reasons for this omission were many: the relatively long time that had elapsed since 1915, for example, and the fact that the massacres were carried out not in the heart of Europe but in the obscure Middle East and Central Asia. But the most basic cause for forgetfulness was the absence of a confession to the crime. “You’re lucky it was the Germans who killed you,” an Armenian monk in Jerusalem told writer Yossi Klein Halevi, whose father survived the Holocaust. “They are a civilized people. They know how to apologize.”3

In contrast to Germany, which has publicly and often obsessively accepted culpability for the Holocaust, paid restitution to its victims, and released documents attesting to its guilt, the Republic of Turkey has never admitted its part in the mass murder of Armenians, much less compensated the survivors. Rather than encourage research on its past butchery, the Turkish government has promoted publications that exonerate it from any wrongdoing and portray the Armenians as traitors to the state who allied themselves with Russia and executed thousands of Turks. In 2003, Turkey’s National Assembly passed a law requiring schools to deny that mass murder had taken place and it also provided in Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code that an “insult to Turkishness” was punishable by up to three years in prison. The law requiring schools to teach genocide denial is indeed different from Penal Code 301. The latter was used to prosecute Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk for telling the Swiss press that “thirty thousand Kurds and a million Armenians were killed…and nobody dares to talk about it.” The charges were dropped ten months before he won the Nobel Prize, but the threat of such prosecution continues, and a number of intellectuals have been convicted under Article 301.

Increasing numbers of people have been willing to write about the genocide, though, in Britain and the United States. Beginning with the reprint, in 1989, of Leslie Davis’s harrowing reports from the killing fields of Harput, a succession of English-language books documenting the genocide have appeared. Among them were collections of contemporary press articles and missionary correspondence as well as the testimonies of survivors. There followed several surveys of America’s reaction—or failure to react—to the atrocities, including distinguished works by Samantha Power, Jay Winter, Merrill Peterson, and Peter Balakian. Vahakn N. Dadrian provided an Armenian perspective on the massacres and Donald Bloxham wrote about the diplomacy of the major European powers concerning the killing of the Ottoman Armenians.4 All of these studies, however, were mainly about the Armenians’ suffering and the way the world responded to it. Missing was an examination of Turkey’s role in the atrocities, one that drew on Turkish sources to reveal the killers’ motives and methods of operation. The Turkish historian Taner Akçam has now made such an examination in his book A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility.

Akçam is hardly new to the Armenian issue or to resistance to the Turkish state. Born in 1953 in Ardahan, a province in northeastern Turkey whose once-sizable Armenian population was decimated during World War I, Akçam studied economics at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara. His interest in the Armenian question, and in Turkish history generally, originated not in the classroom but as a leader of the leftist—the Turkish government would say terrorist—Revolutionary Path party. Akçam’s extreme anti-Western, anti-NATO activities led to his arrest in 1976 and to a ten-year jail sentence, but he managed to escape to Germany. At Hamburg’s Institute for Social Research and at the University of Hannover, he began his investigation into Turkey’s treatment of the Armenians. In 2004 he published a groundbreaking study, From Empire to Republic: Turkish Nationalism and the Armenian Genocide. His new book, written under the auspices of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, provides the most comprehensive and penetrating answers to date about why and how the Turks murdered huge numbers of their countrymen.

Those answers proved to be immensely complex and Akçam is meticulous and fair in presenting them. Much of his study is devoted to recreating the particular historical setting in which the Armenian genocide took place. He emphasizes that the decision to embark on a policy of “race extermination” was made neither impulsively nor idiosyncratically. Rather, it reflected successive centuries of Ottoman disappointment, humiliation, and vengefulness.

Lords of one of the vastest empires in human history, stretching from the Saharan Atlas Mountains to the Persian frontier and from the Black Sea to the banks of the Danube, the Turkish-speaking Ottomans were a formidable people, adept at both war and administration. Late medieval and Renaissance Europeans trembled at the mention of the “terrible Turk” who, as late as 1683, could still lay siege to Vienna; but from then on the Ottoman Empire suffered a continual political and military decline, with two voracious empires—the Hapsburg and the Russian—gnawing at its borders.

  1. 1

    Henry Morgenthau’s correspondence on the Armenian massacres is available on microfilm at the Library of Congress. See, for example, Reel 7, Morgenthau to the Secretary of State, July 16, 1915. See also his memoirs, Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story (Doubleday, 1918) and The Murder of a Nation (Armenian General Benevolent Union of America, 1974). On the first usage of the word “Holocaust,” see Peter Balakian, The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response (HarperCollins, 2003), p. 11.

  2. 2

    Roosevelt to Cleveland Hoadley Dodge, May 11, 1918, in The Letters of Theodore Roosevelt, Vol. 8, edited by Elting E. Morison (Harvard University Press, 1954), pp. 1316–1318. On The New York Times‘s coverage of the Nazi genocide, see Laurel Leff, Buried by the Times: The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper (Cambridge University Press, 2005).

  3. 3

    Yossi Klein Halevi, At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew’s Search for God with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land (Morrow, 2001), p. 156.

  4. 4

    Leslie A. Davis, The Slaughterhouse Province: An American Diplomat’s Report on the Armenian Genocide, 1915– 1917 (Aristide D. Caratzas, 1989). Collections of press and missionary correspondence on the atrocities can be found in Richard Kloian, The Armenian Genocide: News Accounts from the American Press (Anto, 1988); The Armenian Massacres, 1894–1896: US Media Testimony, edited by Arman J. Kirakossian (Wayne State University Press, 2004); and Turkish Atrocities: Statements of American Missionaries on the Destruction of Christian Communities in Ottoman Turkey, 1915–1917, edited by James L. Barton (Gomidas Institute, 1998). The best single volume of survivors’ testimonies is Donald E. Miller and Lorna Touryan Miller, Survivors: An Oral History of the Armenian Genocide (University of California Press, 1993).

    On American policy and attitudes toward the genocide see America and the Armenian Genocide of 1915, edited by Jay Winter (Cambridge University Press, 2003); Samantha Power, “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide (Basic Books, 2002); and Merrill D. Peterson, Starving Armenians: America and the Armenian Genocide, 1915–1930 and After (University of Virginia Press, 2004).

    For an Armenian perspective on the massacres, see Vahakn N. Dadrian, The History of the Armenian Genocide: Ethnic Conflict from the Balkans of Anatolia to the Caucasus (Berghahn, 1995). The interaction between Great Power diplomacy and native independence movements in the Armenian question is discussed in Donald Bloxham’s The Great Game of Genocide: Imperialism, Nationalism, and the Destruction of the Ottoman Armenians (Oxford University Press, 2005).

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