Lessons of the Armenian Genocide and Western Responsibility – Then and Now

The speed with which President Bush rushed to pressure Congress late last year to abandon a resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide of 1915 was hardly a surprise. Maintaining good relations with Turkey – a key ally in the “war on terror” – means realpolitik will trump historical memory every time for this administration. What was dismaying (if hardly surprising) was the almost equal speed with which Congressional Democrats capitulated to the President’s pressure.

This time, as on so many prior occasions, a focus on Turkey’s responsibility for the genocide obscured the extent to which the European powers – Britain, France, Germany, Austria, and Russia – played a prominent role in what happened to the Armenians during World War I. A recent book[1] by the British scholar Donald Bloxham sheds new light on their role in the Armenian tragedy and, in the process, provides valuable insights into the historical roots of contemporary developments in Iraq and Palestine.

The Armenian Genocide

In 1915-16, in the middle of the First World War, the Turkish government determined to rid itself of what it perceived to be a troublesome ethnic and religious minority – the 3,000 year old Armenian community. The process began with extensive ethnic cleansing or forced collective displacement followed by direct physical annihilation. In the end, approximately one million Armenians – half of the pre-war population – died. As Bloxham explains, while the Ottoman government bears criminal, legal responsibility for the genocide, historical and moral responsibility extends to the European powers as well. Why is this so?

To begin with, the Great Powers repeatedly interfered in Ottoman internal affairs in a manner that profoundly disrupted the Empire, exacerbated its economic and political crises and intensified inter-ethnic and religious rivalries. The progressive decline of the Ottoman Empire over the course of the 19th Century made it a focus of acute inter-imperialist rivalry as each European power sought to take advantage of Ottoman difficulties to its own benefit. At the same time, external and internal structural stresses and the dissemination of Western ideas led to the growth of nationalism and independence movements amongst the Empire’s many oppressed ethnic and religious minority groups, including the Armenians, thereby further destabilizing the Empire.

When it suited their own geopolitical interests, the European Powers cynically championed the rights of these oppressed minorities; when it did not, their sufferings were studiously ignored. This practice created an increasingly more deadly dynamic – European pressure on the Ottomans for reforms to the benefit of minority communities raised minority hopes while fueling Ottoman hostility and suspicion of them and their foreign “benefactors.”  Appeals by minority representatives – including the Armenians – to foreign powers for assistance in their plight convinced Ottoman authorities that these communities were dangerous and disloyal threats to the integrity of the Empire.

The “Young Turk” revolt (directed by the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP)) that deposed the last Ottoman Sultan in 1908 brought to power a new leadership which favored an Empire reconstructed in accordance with late 19th century Western European norms. That is to say, the CUP was guided by a nationalism which was authoritarian, statist and ethnocentric. The Armenians, concentrated on the Empire’s sensitive northern border with Russia and already viewed with suspicion, were perceived as a vital threat to this process. The outbreak of World War I provided the perfect opportunity for the new government to implement an aggressive “nation-building” agenda predicated upon ethnic homogeneity and national territorial integrity.

From Ethnic Cleansing to Genocide

CUP Armenian policy over the course of the War unfolded through a process of what Bloxham call “cumulative administrative radicalization.” What began as limited repressive measures at the regional level expanded into a nationwide program which ultimately culminated in an intentional policy of general killing and death by attrition.

In May 1915, a decision was made at the highest CUP and government levels to systematically round up and deport all Armenians from Anatolia and Cilicia. That there was a genocidal intent behind the deportations can be seen in the fact that the Armenians were not being sent to places of possible settlement but to inhospitable desert regions. By mid-June, the CUP leadership resolved to use the cover of the war to finish for good the Empire’s “internal enemies” and a policy of mass extermination was implemented.

The resulting death of one million Armenians was not some “regrettable byproduct” of wartime social dislocation as has been repeatedly argued by the Turkish government and its academic apologists around the world. Rather it was deliberate, premeditated policy, one with far-reaching consequences. It was, says Bloxham, “the emblematic and central violence of Ottoman Turkey’s transition into a modernizing nation state.”

If, by their prior meddling in Ottoman affairs, the European Powers had fostered the social conditions out of which the genocide developed, their response (or rather should we say non-response) to the crime itself demonstrated that geopolitical concerns not humanitarian considerations would continue to dictate Western policy.  While the massacres were occurring, Turkey’s allies, particularly Germany, either looked the other way or sought to justify them as “military necessity.” The German officer in charge of the Ottoman navy, Admiral Wilhelm Souchon for example, wrote “it will be salvation for Turkey when it has done away with the last Armenian; it will be rid then of subversive blood-suckers.”[2]

Turkey’s adversaries – primarily Britain and France – adopted a policy that, as Bloxham remarks, anticipated the one that would be followed in World War II during the Nazi extermination of the Jews. The fate of the Armenians was tied to an Allied victory and everything should be subordinated to achieving that end. Nothing would be done to aid the Armenians in their immediate crisis.

From Non-Intervention to Non-Recognition

Unfortunately for Turkey, it had chosen the wrong side in the War. The aftermath of Turkish defeat was the collapse of the CUP government, the ascendancy of Mustafa Kemal (“Attaturk”) and the birth of the Turkish Republic in 1923. The new regime consolidated itself under auspicious circumstances. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 had dramatically transformed international relations; the West was intent on containing the infant Soviet Republic and Turkey’s strategic location on Russia’s southern flank offered the promise of a bulwark against the spread of the “communist bacillus” into Asia and the Middle East. 

As a result, the European powers and the United States resolved to come to terms with Kemel and his Republic. Its sovereignty and territorial integrity was recognized and its remaining minority communities, including the Armenians – now clamoring for self-determination – were expected to sideline their ethnic and nationalist aspirations. As a result, even though there was substantial continuity between the old CUP regime that had authorized the genocide and Kemal’s government, there would be no war crime trials for the guilty parties. To justify these alliances, the unfortunate history of wartime atrocities had to be swept under the rug. All the European powers went along with this decision. In this regard, the role of the US government is singularly instructive.

US policy toward Turkey was dictated by a combination of concerns: anti-Bolshevism, the need for regional and national stability and a desire to promote American economic interests in the Middle East. Turkey’s rebellious minority groups were seen by the US government as a threat to these long-term geopolitical objectives. In the end, non-recognition of the genocide and acquiescence to forced assimilation of Turkey’s remaining Armenian and Kurdish populations became US policy. As the US High Commissioner to Turkey from 1919 to 1927, Admiral Mark L. Bristol put it, he “could see greater calamities to the world than for the Turks to come in here and clean out of Constantinople all of these Levantines of different nationalities, the Greeks and Armenians, and start to build up again without these people.”[3]

Current US policies toward Turkey, including the on-going refusal to acknowledge the Armenian genocide may be formulated in more elegant language, but in their indifference to the continuing plight of Turkey’s Kurdish and Armenian populations, they are no less reprehensible.

The Great Powers “Legitimate” Ethnic Cleansing

Many accounts of the Armenian genocide view it primarily as a precedent for the Nazi extermination campaign waged against European Jewry. While there are significant similarities as well as clear differences between the two crimes, the more enduring legacy of what happened to the Ottoman Armenians in 1915-16 is rather the mass physical displacement they suffered before and after World War I and the way this ethnic cleansing was legitimated in the postwar peace settlements.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Armenians were subject to numerous attempts by Turkish authorities to displace them from their traditional homelands. In this they were not alone – far from it. Ethnic cleansing had been going on in the disintegrating Ottoman Empire for decades. In the aftermath of the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, for example, some 400,000 Muslims were made refugees, expelled from the newly “liberated” lands and sent to Anatolia. But these events, like the rounding up and deportation of the Armenians during World War I, lacked all sanction in international law. At the peace conferences organized by the victorious allies at the War’s end, however, ethnic cleansing would become legitimate. Here state boundaries in the Middle East would be drawn and redrawn with scant regard for the rights or desires of indigenous communities and what were euphemistically called “population transfers” would gain international acceptance.

Perhaps the best known of the post-World War I peace conferences is the one held at Versailles in 1919, where a draconian settlement was imposed on a defeated Germany. But for historians of the Middle East, the key conferences were San Remo and Lausanne. At San Remo in 1920, Britain received a mandate over Palestine as well as the Ottoman provinces of Basra, Baghdad and Mosul from which was cobbled together the new state of Iraq. In similar fashion, France was granted control of Syria and present-day Lebanon. Both arrangements were later confirmed by the League of Nations. At Lausanne in 1922-23, the Great Powers decided the appropriate boundaries of Greece, Bulgaria, and Turkey and, acceding to Turkish pressure, denied the claims of Armenians and Kurds for independence and their own states.

But even more infamously, Lausanne legitimated the Turkish goal of an ethnically homogenous nation-state by authorizing a large scale “population exchange” between Turkey and Greece. According to the terms of the settlement, each country would forcibly expel a troublesome ethnic/religious minority. Thus, under appalling conditions and with a significant death toll on both sides, close to two million people – over 1.25 million Greeks and a half a million Turks – were forcibly made refugees. Ethnic cleansing was now sanctioned by international treaty; a dangerous precedent had been set.

and its Kurdish Population

The lessons of the Armenian tragedy are of far more than mere historical interest. They have immediate relevance for understanding the roots of a number of current conflicts in the Middle East.  Both the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians and war and internal disunity in Iraq reflect the continuing legacy of foreign intervention and state-building by imperialist dictat that has plagued this region for so long. Both are in large part the product of the same international system of Great Power interference that initially contributed to and later sought to deny the destruction of the Ottoman Armenians.

As noted earlier, Iraq was the artificial creation of the post-World War I settlement conferences which carved up portions of the former Ottoman Empire to the benefit of Britain and France. By imposing a Sunni minority upon a majority Shia population and strengthening traditional clientist forms of allegiance, Britain’s efforts at state-making in Iraq under the League of Nations’ mandate undermined prospects for democracy and contributed to the chronic instability of the new nation.

Because Britain wanted control over the valuable oil reserves of Mosul, it insisted on the province’s incorporation into an Arab Iraq, notwithstanding its large Kurdish population. Having previously encouraged Kurdish demands for an independent state as a bargaining weapon against Turkey, Britain and the other great powers now sought to discourage Kurdish aspirations throughout the region. This was easier said than done and the “Kurdish question” has bedeviled Iraqi governments ever since.

The presence of a large Kurdish minority in Iraq has proven problematic for three reasons. First, the Kurds have consistently demanded a degree of autonomy if not outright independence in their traditional homelands. Second, the brutal efforts of successive Iraqi regimes to suppress and forcibly assimilate the Kurdish population have been a failure. Finally, the Great Powers have repeatedly used the “Kurdish problem” and Arab-Kurdish disputes to meddle in Iraqi internal affairs (in the same fashion that they had exploited Armenian suffering at Turkish hands to interfere in Ottoman affairs).

The United States in particular has repeatedly attempted to use the Iraqi Kurds to further its own policies in Iraq and in the Middle East in general. In the early 1970s, when the US was supporting the Shah of Iran in his conflict with Iraq, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger secretly channeled $16 million of military aid to the Iraqi Kurds to encourage an uprising. When the Shah was overthrown and an Islamic republic under Ayatollah Khomeini established, however, the US shifted its support to Iraq and now opposed the Kurdish insurgency it had previously fostered. In 1980, when Iraq invaded Iran, the U.S. and other Western Powers extensively supplied Saddam Hussein’s regime with weapons, including chemical weapons. In 1988, these weapons were used in gas attacks on rebellious Kurdish villages which were accused of aiding Iran.

But after its invasion of Kuwait in 1990 US policy toward Iraq and Saddam Hussein again abruptly changed. Suddenly, the plight of the Iraqi Kurds was “rediscovered.” Toward the end of the first Persian Gulf War, George Bush Sr. encouraged a revolt of the Kurds in northern Iraq. Once the rebellion broke out, however, the U.S. abandoned the insurrectionists, fearing that their success would result in a break-up of the Iraqi state, a result which could strengthen the hand of Iran in the region.

The situation of the Iraqi Kurds today, now under American occupation,  remains uncertain. Viewed as the community most favorable to the US presence, the Kurds initially enjoyed a privileged position. They were permitted to dictate critical terms in the new Iraqi constitution, afforded significant regional autonomy and, perhaps most importantly, promised rights to oil development there.  However, as the occupation’s need for a strong and effective central government in Iraq has become increasingly urgent, US policy again appears to be shifting against the Kurds. This change is being facilitated by strong pressure from Turkey which fears a strong Kurdish community in Iraq will inspire and energize its own Kurdish minority.

Once again, Kurdish rights will have to take a back seat to the needs of Western imperialism, this time in the interests of the “war on terror.”

The Tragedy of Palestine

The Palestinian tragedy is a product of the same international system which repeatedly redrew the map of the Middle East for the benefit of imperialism. Twice Palestine was betrayed – first, in the peace conferences following World War I when it was wrested from the Ottomans only to be turned over to the British Empire, and then, after World War II, when it was partitioned over the protests of the local Arab population. Through partition and at the expense of the Arabs, Europe sought both to atone for a crime committed by Europeans against Europeans (European Jewry) and to further rid itself of the remnants of an ethnic and religious minority that it had never been able to successful assimilate.

In the Palestinian case too, if artificial state-making over the objections of the local inhabitants was one face of imperialism, ethnic cleansing was the other. The forced expulsion of Palestinians from their land which accompanied Israel’s successful military actions in the war of 1948 drew inspiration and a sense of covert legitimacy from the involuntary “population exchanges” authorized by the victors at Lausanne. And the continuing acquiescence of the West – including and most prominently the United States – to the denial of Palestinian self-determination and genuine nationhood is a logical continuation of policies that subordinate the interests of minority communities in the region to Great Power politics. Such is the logic of imperialism.

Today the Israeli government, which constantly invokes the Holocaust to justify its own war against the Palestinians is compelled, by its close economic, political and military alliance with Turkey, to support the latter’s continuing denial of the Armenian genocide. Contemporary political realities, so the rationale goes, must take precedence over historical memory. In this manner, both the Jewish and the Armenian dead are dishonored in the service of two regimes, each seeking to hide its crimes, past and present, from the light of day.

Taking Responsibility

For many Americans, the on-going conflicts in the Middle East, with the exception of our own “war on terror” in Iraq and Afghanistan, are little more than, in Bloxham’s words, “murky interplay between barbarous orientals.”[4] The United States’ own contribution, as one of the leading imperialist powers, to these conflicts and the resulting death and suffering it has caused is all too often unknown or denied.

The debate in the United States over recognition of the Armenian genocide is likewise all too often exclusively focused on Turkey’s need to acknowledge its past. Missing is any demand that the international context in which Turkish crimes was initially facilitated, then overlooked and finally repeatedly denied by the world’s leading powers, including the United States, also be recognized. For international human rights activists, this latter demand is ultimately the more important one.

[1] Donald Bloxham, The Great Game of Genocide. Imperialism, Nationalism and the Destruction of the Ottoman Armenians (Oxford University Press, 2005).

[2] Ibid, p. 116.

[3] Ibid, p. 196.

[4] Ibid., p. 25.

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