Martin Shaw

The Ottoman-era massacres of the Armenians also belong to a century of "mass-death" episodes forged in war, state rivalry, ethnic targeting and expulsion. 

When Armenian leaders in Constantinople (now Istanbul) were massacred on 24 April 1915, it was the signal for killings and deportations of Armenians across eastern Anatolia, then the heartland of the Ottoman empire and the core territory of what was in 1923 to become the Republic of Turkey.

The historian Donald Bloxham summarises what happened to the Armenians. They were, he said:

"either killed in situ, which was the fate of many of the men and male youths, or deported to the deserts of modern-day Iraq or Syria in the south. Along these deportation routes they were subjected to massive and repeated depredations – rape, kidnap, mutilation, outright killing, and death from exposure, starvation, and thirst – at the hands of Ottoman gendarmes, Turkish and Kurdish irregulars, and local tribespeople. The Ottoman army was also involved in massacres. The kidnapped and other surviving women, and many orphans, were then subject to enforced conversions to Islam … ."  

Together with deportations of Armenians from Cicilia and western Anatolia, "these events comprise the Armenian genocide. Approximately one million Ottoman Armenians died, half of the pre-war population and two-thirds of those deported" (see The Great Game of Genocide: Imperialism, Nationalism, and the Destruction of the Ottoman Armenians [Oxford University Press, 2005]).

The campaign of destruction was instigated by the leaders of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) government, which had been formed out of the Young Turk movement. It led to what Armenians call the "great catastrophe" – the end of the Armenian society that had existed in Anatolia for thousands of years, and the dispersal of most of the survivors.  

These depredations took place amid the great war of 1914-18, in which the Ottomans were allied to Germany against Britain, France and Russia, and Turkish leaders saw Armenians as a fifth column for Russia. But unlike other events of this period, only the Armenian genocide is a live political issue today. The Ottoman empire did not survive its defeat in the war, but the genocide was a step towards the consolidation of the modern Turkish state. Although the new Turkey tried some of the CUP leaders after the war, campaigns against non-Turkish minorities continued under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk), the revered father of the secular Turkish republic.

Even now the Turkish state and most Turkish institutions continue to deny that the Armenians suffered genocide: as recently as 2004, novelist Orhan Pamuk was imprisoned and in 2007, journalist Hrant Dink was murdered for acknowledging this crime.

In recent decades, organisations of the Armenian diaspora have mounted a powerful campaign for genocide recognition, linking the destruction of the Armenians in the first world war to the holocaust of Jews in the second. The European parliament and many national legislatures (including the United States congress) have now recognised the genocide; although US presidents, mindful of the strategic importance of Turkey, have so far refused. Barack Obama, who voiced support for recognition as a senator, could well become the first to do so, as Taner Akçam – a rare Turkish historian of the genocide – has argued he should. More important, an increasingly number of Turkish intellectuals have urged Turkey to apologise for 1915, and the government has also developed a more conciliatory attitude, moving to normalise relations with (post-Soviet) Armenia.  

Contextualising genocide  

That the genocide remains politically potent after almost a century should not be surprising. Historical wrongs powerfully influence national memories, and as Turkish leaders are finally beginning to recognise, sustained denial only compounds the harm. Yet it would be wrong to take this political morality tale as the end of the matter. This is also because the campaign to recognise the Armenian genocide as one of the most terrible such episodes risks skewing our understanding of genocide, both then and now.

The destruction of the Armenians was undoubtedly one of the largest, most murderous genocides in history, and it is fully justified to compare it to the Nazi holocaust and Rwanda. Yet none of these "mega-genocides" (as Mark Levene has called them) were stand-alone events. Rather they were the most concentrated and totally murderous among many episodes of mass death in their times. There were other victims of Ottoman and Turkish genocide – mainly Greeks and other Christians but also, especially later, Kurds; and there were other perpetrators in the same historical period, and other victims.

Indeed, as Donald Bloxham argues in his seminal study, the Armenian genocide was the climax of a whole period in which, as the Ottoman empire declined and eventually collapsed, new nation-states sought to establish themselves by establishing ethnic homogeneity – and therefore expelling, and sometimes killing, members of ethnic groups that they didn’t want in their new states. The southeastern European version of the "great game" was not just a system of rivalry among states and empires, but a system of conflicting ethnic expulsions and genocide.  

To recognise this wider picture should not detract from the particular depths of the violence against the Armenians. Contextualising does not mean condoning; nor does it mean buying the false balancing of the deniers, who say in effect that since Turks and Muslims were also killed and expelled (and they were, by Armenians, Greeks, Russians and other Christian Slavs, as well as by the Ottoman state), then why so much fuss about the Armenian victims? It is important to recognise the differences between the largest-scale, most murderous campaigns, such as the Ottomans’ against the Armenians, and the smaller-scale or less murderous campaigns and more isolated massacres, carried out by other parties. Yet all belong with the scope of genocide – classically defined as the deliberate destruction of a social group. The destruction of the Armenians was the largest, most ruthless, concentrated genocide during a series of wars in the region where many parties developed, at times, genocidal aims.

At the same time, this should not be seen as a purely "near-eastern" and Balkan problem.

The great game involved the rivalry of the European empires (including Britain, France and Germany), and was part of the European system that led to two world wars. In the second world war, the extent of genocide was even greater than in the first; but to view this in terms of the holocaust alone – its vast scale notwithstanding – would again be to skew the historical picture, just as if the genocide of the first world war only in terms of the Armenians.

The Nazis attacked, expelled and killed many groups, not just the Jews, although the latter were singled out with special murderousness in the later stages. Hitler’s empire involved a generally genocidal plan to expel undesirable Jews, Gypsies and Slavs and install German settlers in conquered eastern territories, and Germany’s allies all had their own genocidal plans to expel out-groups (see Mark Mazower, Hitler’s Empire: Nazi Rule in Occupied Europe [Penguin, 2008]).

At the same time the Soviets also pursued similar policies against groups like the Volga Germans and Chechens who were seen as unreliable, and developed their own master-plan to murderously expel whole populations, mainly but not only Germans, while redividing Europe at the end of the war. Stalin had no gas-chambers, but he competed with Hitler in genocide, and even the post-war Czechoslovak and Polish governments had their policies of revenge expulsions against Germans. Overall half a million German civilians may have died as about 12 million were forced to moved in 1945-49. Nor were the western allies innocent – Roosevelt and Churchill condoned the Soviet, Czechoslovak and Polish moves.

To recognise this larger picture does not minimise the holocaust of the Jews. Rather it shows that Nazi violence was not a terrible historical accident, but the culmination of the European system of the 19th and 20th centuries, and the catalyst for a wider pattern of genocide (see Mark Levene, Genocide in the Age of the Nation State [IB Tauris, two volumes, 2005]).

Genocide today  

This larger perspective is particularly necessary to establish the full present-day significance of the Armenian anniversary. Genocide was squeezed out of the Euro-Atlantic core of the international system after 1945, so that it now happens mainly on the "periphery", practiced by smaller states, armies and paramilitaries, mainly through policies of ethnic expulsion ("cleansing") of varying durations and degrees of murderousness. In the early 1990s, it reappeared on the edges of Europe – in Yugoslavia, and in the Caucasus, where Armenian and Azeri nationalists destroyed each other’s communities in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh (see Thomas de Waal, "The Caucasus: a region in pieces", 8 January 2009).

The historian Dirk Moses has suggested that the history of colonialism gave rise to repeated "genocidal moments" (see A Dirk Moses ed., Empire, Colony, Genocide: Conquest, Occupation, and Subaltern Resistance in World History [Berghahn, 2008]). Something similar is true of parts of the "post-colonial" world today. There are still some large-scale genocidal campaigns, like that of the Sudanese regime against the non-Arab people of Darfur. But more commonly, genocide rears its head quite locally, and sometimes briefly: as for example in January 2008 in Kenya, when opposition-linked militia attacked the Kikuyu, presumed supporters of the election-stealing government, killing over 1,000 and terrorising half a million from their homes in the Rift valley; and in August 2008 in South Ossetia, where Ossetian militias sought revenge for Georgia’s attack by murdering and driving thousands of Georgian villagers from their homes.

In both these cases, genocidal violence was carried out by local paramilitaries, not central states. It was eventually brought under control by their political sponsors, as the Kenyan opposition sought to share power through international mediation and the Russian regime concluded that it had taught Georgia enough of a lesson.

Being concerned about genocide is not just about preventing mega-genocides: such episodes are by definition rare. It is also about stopping smaller-scale genocidal campaigns and genocidal massacres, which if unstopped may to lead to mega-genocides. 1915 was after all preceded by smaller-scale, less coordinated massacres of Armenians in the 1890s and 1900s, and by other massacres and expulsions in the Balkans in the same period. The 1994 Rwanda genocide was preceded by other massacres of Tutsis from 1959 onwards and the Burundian genocide (against Hutus) in 1972. Not all localised episodes threaten to lead to mega-genocides. But to prevent "another Armenia" requires being concerned about every ethnic massacre and expulsion, and about stopping the wars and political violence that produce them.


Martin Shaw is a historical sociologist of war and global politics, and professor of international relations and politics at the University of Sussex. His books include The New Western Way of War: Risk-Transfer War and Its Crisis in Iraq (Polity, 2005) and What is Genocide? (Polity, 2007). His website is here www.martinshaw.org



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