A bungled case for the prosecution
THE BURNING TIGRIS: THE ARMENIAN GENOCIDE by Peter Balakian Heinemann, £18.99, pp. 473, ISBN 0434008168 As the Western world knows all too well, collapsing empires are lethal. Hundreds of thousands of people trudging along dirttracks. babies strung along the flanks of donkeys, pregnant women waddling, the sick dropping out by the roadside, bandits waiting in ambush to rape and loot, camps where people die in droves — such was a large part of the history of the 19th and early 20th centuries. As the Ottoman empire followed its Byzantine predecessor in decay, seven million refugees came to Anatolia — one-third of the population at the time and half of the urban component in the 1930s. They and their descendants have made a decent job of modern Turkey, but even the students of today remember the stories they heard of their grandparents' sometimes dreadful childhoods. They will not be happy with Balakian's book, which, among other gaps, fails to mention Justin McCarthy's Death and Exile: The Ethnic Cleansing of Ottoman Muslims (1996), the essential work on the subject.
The trudging and dying refugees on whom Balakian concentrates are the Turkish Armenians of 1915. A strong diaspora lobby keeps the memory going. Parliaments — the latest, the Swiss one, for some reason — pronounce. One, perhaps one and a half, million Armenians are supposed to have been killed in 1915 in what is called the first genocide which these public bodies 'recognise'. You get into trouble if you suggest differently. Professor Bernard Lewis, worldwide doyen of Middle East studies, lost a court case in France and was fined for 'holocaust denial' when he told a newspaper that there was no evidence proving the genocidal intentions of the Ottoman government. There have been similar cases involving respected Ottoman scholars in the College de France and elsewhere, sometimes with physical violence.
Balakian's book on the Armenian massacres of 1915 follows the usual line. The Armenians' history under the Turks is a millennium of woe. They pay crippling taxes and their tongues are cut out if they speak their language. They want rights, and are encouraged by American missionaries and the European powers in the later 19th century. Sultan ('Satan') Abdul Hamid II decides they need a lesson and wipes out 200,000 of them in the 1890s. His opponents, roughly 'Young Turks', make an alliance with the Armenians but then become Old Turks writ large and do another massacre in Adana. They want an ethnically pure nation. Then in 1914 Turkey goes to war with Russia, and that is a pretext for genocide. Talaat Pasha, minister of the interior, sends round a circular to the effect that the whole people is to be wiped out, but that it must be kept secret. Armenians do rise in self-defence, in the city of Van, just behind the Russian front, in the spring of 1915. That lets Talaat and co. order the deportation of all Armenians, beginning with the intelligentsia in Istanbul. One or one and a half million are killed. Balakian tops this off with various atrocity stories (horseshoes nailed to feet by the governor of Diyarbakir, little girls raped and crucified).
We have heard all this before, and the only novelty in Balakian's book is the space taken by the American side — the emergence of a public-relations network, or lobby. The Armenians in America learned fast, and worked out how to influence prominent Americans. 'The Turk', harems, hookahs, pyramids of skulls, etc., could not, in the world of prohibitionist and suffragette ladies, compete when it came to so-many-dollars-a-plate dinners with President Theodore Roosevelt in the Waldorf. The Turks are still not very good at public relations, perhaps because they are naturally bad at lying. They are certainly sometimes unprofessional when it comes to English translations. That does not make them mass-murderers.
Balakian becomes all lofty because, he says, they will not plead guilty and 'recognise genocide'. How can they be so perverse? he wonders. But he himself shows no sign of even passing familiarity with their case, and cites none of the relevant literature (or the archives' websites and documentary publications). He suppresses
mention of a famous episode in 1894, when the first part of today's Turkish case was stated by the Armenian Patriarch, Ashikyan. He sermonised against the nationalists: Armenians had lived amicably with the Turks for 1,000 years — they were allies against Byzantium — and had prospered. Their culture had flourished (you can see this in the exhibition in the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem, vastly more dignified than Balakian's offerings). In no part of the empire, said the Patriarch, did they constitute a majority, or even a near-majority, of the population. Nationalism was a pipe-dream that would cause a horrible backlash, and there would be no help from outside, the Russians especially being no friends. This was all true, and the Patriarch's reward for this was to be shot. Thereafter vicious nationalists made the running. In 1914, five Armenian volunteer regiments joined the Russian army and pushed over the border towards Van, where the local Armenian population rose. This coincided with British and French threats to Gallipoli and the southern coast, and the government panicked. Talaat Pasha sent out the order for deportation of a potentially or actually hostile population (making numerous exceptions). 'Deportation' meant what it said, no more. But there were also local enmities of a ferocious kind in eastern Anatolia, which caused some of the local Kurdish or Arab tribes to attack the refugee columns, with much massacre. Officials were punished for letting this happen, and the Turks themselves staged war-crimes trials. These were written up by Taner Alccam in a German-language book (also ignored by Balakian) which states up-front that there could be no comparison with the Nazi genocide. The latest book, obviously scholarly as regards the numbers of people deported, is Yusuf Halacoglu's Facts on the Relocation of the Armenians 1914-1918 (ignored again). It counts 550,000 deportees, of whom 50,000 failed to arrive in Syria; many more died there, but that was because of the terrible conditions of the times. That figure squares with what the Armenian representative at the peacetreaty negotiations, Boghos Nubar, told the French. A horrible story, yes of course, but, as the Turkish Israelis say, the outcome of a vicious civil war, not a genocide, either in intention or in outcome.
Balakian, who relies on very few real
sources abounds), ignores this and anything that qualifies or contradicts him. He makes no reference to the context of refugees and Turkish victims. He is all at sea when it comes to foreign languages, and quotes Turkish, German and Armenian sources, even then only at second or third hand, sometimes with misspellings. He even takes seriously a collection called the `Naim-Andonian' documents, which was exposed as a forgery long ago. In the four years of British occupation, the Ottoman archives were available, and there were many Turks and Armenians anxious to find evidence to incriminate the wartime regime for genocide. None turned up. The British asked the Americans if they had anything: no. The law officers therefore advised that there was no case against the several dozen Turks interned on Malta, and they were released (meanly required to pay their own passage home). He also knows nothing of the Russian archives. They bear out the Turkish version of the Van uprising and indeed of much else — the Viceroy of the Caucasus knew about the Armenians' use of 'terror, underground murders, dynamite and every form of assassination'; 'Armenian volunteer regiments perpetrated a harsh massacre of Muslims regardless of sex or age. This atrocity served as the signal for the barbaric destruction of the Armenian nation in Turkey', but it had for Russia the 'positive result that Turkey has left us Armenia without the Armenians'. Exactly what Patriarch Ashikyan had warned against. Balakian's history is not just grossly inadequate; it is frequently inaccurate as well. Disraeli did not, as prime minister, take Great Britain into war in the Crimea: he was prime minister much later. The Turks conquered the Balkans not 'within decades' of capturing Constantinople, but nearly a century beforehand. Herder was not a 'key influence on Nazi Aryan ideology': he promoted dying languages. Balakian must be meaning Hegel, though he would be wrong there too. 'Bosnia and Herzegovina' were not 'seeking independence' in 1876. Byron did not die 'fighting for Greece', he died of disease. James Bryce was not 'foreign secretary under Gladstone'. The Young Turks' programme of 'paramilitary training' was not 'not unlike Hitler's': it was quite like the Boy Scouts'. The comparisons with the Nazis are preposterous. Pan-Turanism did not have 'a special appeal to Turkish fantasies'. It was marginal and its exponents were imprisoned. This list could go on and on: the book is an insult to its subject. At the very least, it will embarrass the 100,000 refugees from ex-Soviet Armenia who now live in Turkey. The author has apparently knocked out various books, from Father Fisheye (1979) to June-Tree: New and Selected Poems 1974-2000. He should stick to the poems.