This year, on its hundredth anniversary, the Armenian Genocide of 1915 has received unusually prominent and long overdue attention. New, in-depth treatments have appeared from major presses: Thomas de Waal’s Great Catastrophe (Oxford), Eugene Rogan’s The Fall of the Ottomans (Basic Books), and Ronald Suny’s “They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else” (Princeton). The fact that current events echo the Genocide—in the last year, hundreds of thousands of Christians in Syria and Iraq, some of them descendants of the victims of 1915, have been displaced or slaughtered—helps explain this new interest. It is hard to see the photographs of the refugees of 2015 without recalling the photographs of Armenian Christians a hundred years ag0.
Scholar Ronald Suny’s treatment is an excellent source for readers wishing to learn the history. Suny has provided an exhaustive, dispassionate treatment, situating the Genocide in the centuries-long relationship between Armenian Christians and their Turkish Muslim rulers. In the classical Islamic system of the Ottoman Empire, Armenians were dhimmis—Christians who received toleration in exchange for their willingness to accept a subservient status. Although Armenians could do well in Ottoman society, their situation was always precarious. In the nineteenth century, a secular, national consciousness formed in certain segments of Ottoman Armenian society, encouraged by European revolutionary ideas and European-influenced reforms in the Ottoman government. The Armenian revolutionaries were always a very small minority, but they occasioned brutal, collective punishments from the government, which led to further unrest and resistance from Armenians in Anatolia.
Eventually, during World War I, the Young Turk government decided to solve the Armenian Question once and for all, by “deporting” the entire Armenian population of Anatolia to Syria—through the Syrian desert. (Suny’s title quotes a Young Turk leader’s dismissal of Armenian suffering). Deportation was a euphemism for an extermination campaign. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians—some sources put the number as high as 1.5 million—died in death marches and concentration camps. The government claimed military necessity; some Armenian revolutionaries were fighting with Russia in the hope of eventually gaining an independent state. But observers on the scene, including Turkey’s German allies, attested that the mass of the Armenian population remained loyal. Suny argues that the Young Turk leadership panicked after a military defeat in 1914 and decided that the survival of the Empire required the elimination of Armenians and other non-Muslims, whom the government saw as an existential threat. The Genocide, he writes, was “the pathological response of desperate leaders who sought security against a people they had both constructed as enemies and driven into radical opposition.”
Suny’s account is readable and thorough. The only criticism I have is that he sometimes discounts religion as a motivating factor. To be sure, he repeatedly discusses religious differences between Armenians and Turks. He explains the dhimma and the attitudes it fostered and notes that hundreds of thousands of Armenians were able to preserve themselves during the Genocide by converting to Islam. But, if I understand him right, he sees religion as an epiphenomenon, a marker for other, more relevant factors–tribe, politics, ethnicity. Religion, as such, was not so important.
The Genocide, like all major historical events, had many causes. The leaders of the Young Turk regime were not notably pious; they seem to have been motivated principally by a desire to create a Turkey for the Turks. But for many who did the actual killing, classical Islamic attitudes were an important motivating factor. The fact that Armenian Christians who converted to Islam were spared suggests this, as does the fate of the Assyrians, another Christian group that suffered genocide in 1915, though they posed no credible territorial threat. Besides, eyewitness accounts report that perpetrators proclaimed that they were acting in a holy cause, punishing rebellious infidels. This is not to say that classical Islam compels the genocide of Christians or that all Muslims believe this—obviously not. But religion deserves to be in the foreground of any explanation of the Genocide of 1915, and, indeed, any explanation for what is happening to Christians in the Mideast today.
Notwithstanding this criticism, Suny’s important book, the fruit of a lifetime of distinguished scholarship, is valuable for anyone wishing to learn the story of what happened in 1915. “By the end of the war,” he writes, “90 percent of the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire were gone, a culture and civilization wiped out, never to return. Those who observed the killings, as well as the Allied powers engaged in a war against the Ottomans, repeatedly claimed that they had never witnessed anything like it.” Sadly, the ensuing century would provide many further examples.
Mark Movsesian is the Frederick A. Whitney Professor of Contract Law and the Director of the Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s University School of Law. His previous blog posts can be found here.