Where do historians come down on the Armenian Genocide?
Irving Horowitz, an expert in the study of genocide at Rutgers University, says scholars agree on this much: In 1915 the government of the Ottoman Empire, caught up in the Great War against Czarist Russia and the Allied powers, saw the Armenians as an untrustworthy minority that might align with their cousins across the Russian border. (Armenia was divided in 1827 between the Ottoman Empire in the west and Russia in the east.) The predominately Christian Armenians tended to be wary of their Moslem rulers, who had encouraged a wave of religious pogroms in 1894-96 that left an estimated 200,000 Armenians dead.
Accordingly, the Ottoman government issued an edict in 1915 that all Armenians, of whatever age or condition of health, in the eastern provinces (Armenia) were to be deported into the empire’s southern deserts. Between 600,000 and 2 million Armenians lost their lives, many from starvation and exposure.
Says Horowitz: “It is widely accepted by historians that hundreds of thousands of Armenians were massacred, arbitrarily removed from their historic homeland, and that all traces of their presence were eliminated. We have eyewitness accounts, diplomatic accounts, that huge numbers of people were liquidated, wiped out. De facto, you had a genocide. The bottom line is the Armenians got what they got because they were not a loyal minority.”
That widely held view is not universally shared. A dissenting group of 69 American academics with backgrounds in Turkish history signed a letter to Congress stating that “current scholarship does not support a charge of genocide” — that is, a premeditated attempt to annihilate an entire group of people.
The Turkish view
Bonnie Joy Kaslan, honorary consul general for the Republic of Turkey, leans back on a Middle East-motif sofa in her house in an upscale neighborhood of Oakland. A bronze samovar, prayer rug and other family heirlooms grace the living room.
“People of conscience worldwide are very saddened by the loss of innocent lives that occurred,” Kaslan begins cautiously.
“The Turkish government doesn’t deny the tragedies happened. But if the Armenians want us to say there was a genocide, they won’t get that. For the simple reason that the evidence does not substantiate the claim that the massacres were genocide.
“The events of that era can best be described as a civil war within a global war. Because the empire faced a threat to its very survival, there was a deportation order given. Armenians in the eastern provinces were moved out. There was a rebellion. Armenians in the area launched an effort to ally with Russia, the historic enemy of the Turks, to launch an independent state.
“It’s a terrible thing to say, but they bet on the wrong horse. They separated themselves from their own country in which they were citizens. Wars have been won and lost on alliances and misalliances.”
Large numbers of Moslems died as well, Kaslan points out, many at the hands of Armenians. She also suggests that many Armenian victims died through tragic neglect rather than by design. “Even with good intentions, if the right infrastructure (provisions and shelter) is not in place, then there’s a problem.”
Kaslan and the Turkish-American community are incensed that the state’s high school students will be taught a genocide-studies curriculum this fall which ignores the Turkish perspective. She accuses the Legislature and state Board of Education of legislating history.
“This is a farce, and absolute political agenda,” she says, plunging a finger into the sofa. “The perspective students will be given is that Armenian history is right, Turkish history is wrong, and dissenting scholarship will be ignored.”
Kaslan suggests that church and community leaders have a stake in keeping the genocide issue burning. “The one thing that ties the Armenian community together is this absolute hatred, for some, of anything Turkish. I have sensed the red-hot hatred of some of these young people and I find that very disheartening.”
IT IS THE YOUNG, she points out, who have joined the terrorist groups seeking an independent Armenian homeland. Since 1974, Armenian terrorists have killed more than 40 Turkish diplomats and family members around the world, including an honorary consul general like Kaslan.
Security, then, is a constant concern: The Kaslans own four prize Dobermans, which respond to commands only in Turkish.
Kaslan says of the Armenian community, “What is it they really want? At one level they just want an apology. But then there’s another level of people who say, once that acknowledgement is made, then what’s the next step? Reparations, repatriation, remuneration, everything.”
And, indeed, there appears to be little consensus within the Armenian community. Some demand a simple apology, while others want permission to return to their ancestral homeland, and others demand an independent Armenian nation, perhaps unified with Soviet Armenia.
Kaslan doubts the blood feud will soon end. “How do we stem this tide of generational hatred? I have no glib answers. We have to get along with the business of living.
“I’m not sure what it’ll take to heal the wounds.”
A living history to heal the wounds
Across the continent in Cambridge Mass., at the headquarters of the Zoryan Institute, an Armenian research institution, director Jihrair Libaridian sees the issue in a different light.
“Something has to be done to heal this wound,” he says. “But first, there has to be recognition. By its denial of the act, the Turkish government has morally assumed responsibility for the crime as well. So denial becomes the last act of genocide.”
Libaridian, a scholarly looking man who speaks in professorial tones, maintains, “It’s not a historical issue. It’s a political issue, a psychological issue, a cultural issue.”
The Zoryan Institute, founded in 1982 to chronicle the modern Armenian experience, has collected more than 100,000 documents relating to the genocide. Libaridian says the evidence clearly points to the Ottoman government’s orchestration of the massacres.
Independent sources seem to buttress that conclusion. Records at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., contain the dispatches of U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Henry Morgenthau Sr., who described what he termed “race extermination” in his chilling cables to the State Department. (The term genocide became part of language at the end of World War II, after the Jewish Holocaust.)
The Permanent People’s Tribunal in Paris in 1984 found the Ottoman Turks had committed genocide against the Armenians. And a special United Nations subcommittee in 1985 concluded that the Armenians were victims of one of nine genocides occuring in the 20th century.
But the Zoryan researchers are doing more than collecting documents. They have begun a living history, of sorts. The institute is halfway toward its goal of videotaping 1,000 survivors of the genocide, including those from the Sacramento area.
Called the Oral History Project, it’s the last chance to preserve the memory of what life was like in Armenia before, and during, the genocide. That is what brought Salpi Ghazarian, a Zoryan representative, to St. James Church for her meeting with Sacramento area survivors and their families.
THE VIDEOTAPES on file at the Zoryan are a crucible of emotion. On one tape, a Turkish woman tells an Armenian woman: “I don’t know how you can even talk to me. I feel as though we don’t have a soul left, because we keep denying this happened.”
On another tape, one man, the son of an ashogh (troubadour), relates that his father’s repertoire of Turkish songs had made him a popular entertainer among the local Turks. One of the songs his father passed on to him was sung by the Turks during times of massacre. It was a killing song, glorifying the extermination of Armenians. He bursts into tears after trying to sing the first line.
Libaridian, whose father survived a machine-gunning during the massacres by feigning death under a pile of corpses for two days, says Armenians sometimes wrongly blame the Turkish people instead of the Ottoman government for the genocide.
“I do not like those who say the Turks did this or that,” he says. “It was not the Turkish people, it was the government that did it. There were very many Turks and Kurds who helped Armenians survive. Many endangered their own lives, and not an insignificant number of officials resisted, and were demoted.”
Says Libaridian: “What scares me mostly is not people, it’s governments. It scares me because the Armenian genocide tends to be a very rational genocide, a way for a government to solve some of its political problems. Genocide has become a form of conflict resolution.”