Several years ago, a Turkish acquaintance told me that one of her ancestors had been an Ottoman governor in Eastern Anatolia during World War I. He was dismissed, she said, when he disobeyed an order to kill the Armenians living in his province. Amazed, I suggested that she must be one of the only people in Turkey who actually believed there was an Armenian genocide. "No," she said, "you can't call it that. The Armenians did terrible things to the Turks, too."
What this woman described — a government instructing its officials to kill all the members of an ethnic group in a given region — was the very definition of genocide. And yet she found the term unacceptable. So does Turkey’s prime minister, even though he recently expressed his sympathy for Armenian suffering in a statement on the global commemorations of April 24. Indeed, beneath this apparent contradiction lies an often overlooked fact: Our popular understanding of genocide presumes a neat division between a nation of collectively guilty perpetrators and their collectively innocent victims. Such a definition fails to account for the suffering Turks know their ancestors endured; they acknowledge it by responding to Armenian accusations by saying that “millions of people of all religions and ethnicities lost their lives in the First World War.” With this in mind, Turks often deny the mass killing of Armenians amounted to genocide, when what many of them mean to say is that their nation’s crime was different from the Holocaust.
In this they are correct. The Holocaust was a unique case: there was a clear moral line dividing the murderers and the victims, and this has regrettably become the template for evaluating all charges of genocide. As a result, the one thing both Turks and Armenians in this debate implicitly agree on is that any historical evidence of Turkish victimhood somehow negates Turkish guilt. Thus, Turks tend to highlight examples of crimes committed against them — villages massacred by Russian forces or families burned out of their homes by Armenian guerrillas — in order to refute accusations of genocide. And by insisting that things like this never happened, their Armenian counterparts indirectly perpetuate the absurd idea that a nation cannot both suffer atrocities and perpetrate them against others in an even more systematic form.
As long as we demand that our history conforms to an impossibly simple moral template, we will be unable to understand what happened to the Armenians and, more dangerously, unable to confront genocide in the world today.
As a wealth of scholarship makes clear, mass killings seldom fit the black-and-white narratives that nationalist historians and their readers crave. The guilt or innocence of individuals can be absolute, but it is not easily tallied along national or ethnic lines. In Rwanda, Darfur and Bosnia, to name just a few examples, civil war and genocide were closely related phenomena, with militarily weak states engaged in what they believed to be existential conflicts.
This was the very situation in which the Ottoman Empire found itself during World War I. So there is nothing paradoxical about suggesting that, as is common in these situations, genocide led to, but was also provoked by, acts of mass violence committed against Turks. In former Yugoslavia, for example, Croatian and Bosnian officers were tried in The Hague for acts of genocide alongside their more notorious Serbian counterparts.
Which is why, both in private and increasingly now in public, a growing number of historians — Mark Mazower’s thoughtful discussions of the subject and Uğur Ümit Üngör’s more recent scholarship stand out — believe both that the Ottoman government organized and carried out an unprecedented campaign of genocide against Armenians in 1915, and also that this crime was motivated, in part, by waves of ethnic cleansing committed against the Ottoman Empire's Muslim population in the Balkans and the Caucasus.
Turks are left to choose whether to believe that their people were evil or that they were blameless. Not surprisingly, almost all choose the latter.
Throughout the course of the 19th century the Ottoman Empire lost territory to nationalist movements in the Balkans. When these nations became independent, their new Christian rulers, driven by the brutal fighting they had just endured, sought to create new, "purified" nations, usually by killing or expelling as many Ottoman Muslims as they could. When Bulgaria became independent in 1878, for example, hundreds of thousands of Muslim civilians fled toward Istanbul, and by some estimates as many as half died along the way.
Farther east, the Russian army used a scorched earth campaign to secure the Caucasus, including the city of Sochi, from the Muslim Circassians who lived there. Again, hundreds of thousands died, and the survivors sought refuge in the Ottoman Empire.
Before World War I broke out, a small number of Armenians, living in the eastern portion of what was left of the Ottoman Empire, had already formed revolutionary groups in order to fight for their independence. Despite what some Turks now claim, by 1915 these violent separatists did not command widespread support among the Armenian population. But for Ottoman leaders who had seen small nationalist movements in the Balkans grow into insurmountable ones, the pattern appeared all too obvious. The Ottoman interior minister, Talat Bey, made the comparison explicit by saying he would not let Armenia become “the Bulgaria of the East.”
When the threat of Armenian independence was exacerbated by the outbreak of war with Russia, destroying the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire became, in Talat’s chilling euphemism, a way to remove “this abscess with its root.” The resulting campaign elevated mass murder, which men like Talat had seen carried out on a smaller scale, to the level of state policy, and death tolls rose accordingly. Not coincidentally, many of the paramilitary thugs who actually orchestrated the killing were Circassians who were eager to avenge the crimes committed against their own families. And when Russian troops advanced into Ottoman territory, this cycle of violence continued, with Armenian militias committing atrocities against Muslim villagers that live on in Turkish memory today.
The men who planned the Ottoman campaign of mass murder may genuinely have believed they were committing a pre-emptive or defensive atrocity against people whose future disloyalty they were sure of. It should be obvious that such fears cannot justify killing more than a million innocent civilians. And yet the Ottoman government’s motives are worth explaining, if only to help show that, seen in a broader historical context, there was nothing uniquely monstrous about “Turkish” behavior as a whole over the past two centuries.
Narratives that acknowledge, but also insist on contextualizing, the genocide have not been popular with either Turkish or Armenian nationalists. This has made it difficult for historians of any background to air such views publicly. And until a decade or so ago, when restrictions in Turkey began to loosen, it was almost impossible for Turkish historians to speak in any nuanced way about this issue. Ironically, in the U.S., the Turkish government's effort to suppress any recognition of what happened has ceded the debate to the Armenian side, whose version of history, though more accurate on several crucial points, is nonetheless deeply distorted by anti-Turkish hostility. As a result, Turks are left to choose between a version of history in which their people are evil, and another version in which they are blameless. Not surprisingly, almost all choose the latter.
Contemporary calls of ‘never again’ fall back on the simplistic black-and-white rhetoric that we seem to demand in identifying genocide.
It is important to consider this history in order to be intellectually prepared to confront genocide in the world today. Contemporary calls of “never again” frequently fall back on the simplistic black-and-white narrative that’s practically required for an incident to qualify in our minds as genocide. If it doesn’t, then that opens the door to objections that we heard during the crises in Darfur, Rwanda and Bosnia: "It's more complicated,” “This is really more of a civil war” or “Both sides are committing atrocities.”
Not realizing that such statements are applicable to almost any genocide, we lose our desire to do anything. But the line between perpetrator and victim is never as clear-cut as we want it to be. That does not make the crime any less horrific, nor make us any less responsible for trying to stop it.
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