In response to:

Turkey's Hidden Past from the March 8, 2001 issue

To the Editors:

Christopher de Bellaigue [“Turkey’s Hidden Past,” NYR, March 8] has done his part to keep Turkey’s past hidden, with these two references to the Armenians: “Under [‘Abd al-Hamid’s] rule thousands of Anatolian Armenians died while rioting against Ottoman Muslims during the 1890s.” Actually 200,000 Armenians (none rioters) were systematically massacred in 1895-1896. The second: “A Turkish identity had emerged out of the ethnic conflict, particularly the conflict between Turks and Armenians, some half a million of whom died during the deportations and massacres of 1915.” Three times that many were murdered, in a premeditated genocide. De Bellaigue’s curious usage, “Anatolian Armenians,” makes is seem as though they were from elsewhere. The Turks were. Armenians are the natives.

In April 1915, the leaders of the Armenian community of Constantinople were arrested and murdered leaving the nation headless. Telegrams to provincial governors then coordinated the extermination of the Armenians: young men were drafted into slave labor battlions and worked to death or killed. The rest were assembled at collection points for deportation. In Van there was some warning: Armenians resisted till the Russians came. Everywhere else, from Izmit to Erzurum, the genocide was total. In towns far from any border, death marches (“deportations”) were the means of murder; on the Black Sea coast, it was drowning. Nearer Russia and escape, people were burned in barns. In 1918 Turkey invaded Russian Armenia and Iran to finish the holocaust. In the east, Azeris began to massacre Armenians in Artsakh (Karabagh). But the campaign stalled.

Turkey lost the war. But war crimes trials at Constantinople stopped when Mustafa Kemal ejected the Allies. He declared the Ottoman leaders heroes: there had been no Armenian genocide; there had never been any Armenians. Their towns were given Turkish names. Monuments were destroyed, and continue to be: in 1994 I visited the monastery of Narek, near Van, and found a Cross-stone of the tenth century, which I photographed—when I returned in 1997 the Kurdish villages told me the police had come soon after my visit and destroyed it. Turkey uses the struggle for self-determination in Karabagh as a pretext for blockading the Armenian Republic. Tens of thousands have died as a result, and hundreds of thousands more are emigrating. This is a continuation of the genocide.

If a reviewer wrote that only a third of the actual number of Jewish victims of the Holocaust had died, or that their deaths came about because they had rioted, or elected to make war against the German government, would you print it? No. But if the Nazis had not been defeated, and had successfully promoted their falsified version of the Holocaust, one might write of the crime against the Jews that way, with a clear conscience. The big lie is easily swallowed. But France has not swallowed it. Armenians and their allies now turn our energies from combating Holocaust denial to pursuing justice. Turkey howls as though its world—an edifice erected on a lie—were coming to an end. Maybe it is.

James R. Russell
Mashtots Professor of Armenian Studies
Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations
Harvard University
Cambridge, Massachusetts

This Issue

August 9, 2001