The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey: A Disputed Genocide, by Guenter Lewy (2005 The University of Utah Press) ISBN: 978-0-87480-849-0
The Great Game of Genocide: Imperialism, Nationalism, and the Destruction of the Ottoman Armenians, by Donald Bloxham (2005 Oxford University Press) ISBN: 0-19-927-356-1
April 24 is a day of commemoration for Armenians, a day of controversy for Turks. Both nations continue to argue over the tragic chain of events that began in 1915, leaving up to 1.5 million Armenians in Ottoman Turkey dead.
Armenians today assert that the systematic slaughter of Armenians in 1915 constituted the first genocide of the 20th century. Meanwhile, Turkish leaders deny the genocide claim, saying the mass deaths were mainly caused by civil strife that accompanied World War I and its aftermath. Historians continue to struggle between doubt and certainty over what transpired and why, and the debate has become so polarized that researchers risk being pilloried for not cleaving to one or another position, or for not using words just so.
Two recently published books attempt tackle the complex subject: The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey: a Disputed Genocide strives to demonstrate how elusive history can be when scrutinized closely; The Great Game of Genocide explores the causes and legacies of the 1915 massacres in an international context.
Guenter Lewy, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, has a reputation for debunking stereotypes. He has written respected (and hotly criticized) works about the Vietnam War; and also the relationship between the Nazis and Gypsies, and the Catholic Church. The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey: A Disputed Genocide, too, has been both praised and condemned for its attempt to take a dispassionate look at the issue.
Readers with strong prior convictions about the subject will surely find much to disagree with in the pages of The Armenian Massacres; but those who are intrigued by history, and by the labor of trying to capture the texture of times past stand to be well-rewarded. This book, though clearly written, requires careful evaluation and reference to footnotes. Lewy dissects and teases out convoluted strands of historical evidence and counter-evidence, and analyzes the sources, methodologies, rhetoric, and conclusions of "pro-Armenian" and "pro-Turkish" researchers.
Lewy asserts that scholars on both sides of the debate have used data selectively. It should be noted that similar accusations have been leveled at him: in 2005 Lewy published articles summarizing his Armenian massacre findings in the Middle East Quarterly and in the journal Commentaryfindings for which he was taken to task by the eminent Armenian genocide scholar Vahakn Dadrian [www.jihadwatch.org, Oct. 18, 2005]. Dadrian accused Lewy, who does not speak Turkish or Armenian, or read Ottoman Turkish, of being out of his depth; Lewy riposted; and the scholarly "chewing" goes on.
Ottoman Turkey was being subjected to extreme pressure in 1915, from foreign invaders, namely British, French Anzac and Russian forces, and from rebellious ethnic groups inside the collapsing empire. It was a time of government crackdowns, reprisals, and paranoia about the "enemy within." Lewy demonstrates the difficulty of nailing down hard data about this period. Indeed, The Armenian Massacres may be viewed as a work of deconstruction, and one that possibly sets the marker of historical proof too high. The book delves into subjects not often covered, such as the appalling conditions in the Ottoman army and the depravations from typhus among Turkish soldiers and displaced persons of every nationality. The reader will learn about the often ambiguous complicity in the Armenian massacres of non-Turkish groups, including Kurds and Circassians; and also about the complicated matter of determining the population and demographics of pre-1915 Anatolia (which is important to know so that one can estimate the number of war, or massacre, victims).
Lewy's digressions help color in that turbulent period: [p.57] "If the Turkish authorities were unable or unwilling to provide adequate clothing, decent hygienic conditions, and appropriate medical attention for their Muslim soldiers, why should one expect them to be concerned about the fate of the Armenian deportees, whom they regarded as a fifth column?" And: [p.61] "
Alex van Oss is the Chair of Caucasus Advanced Area Studies at the Foreign Service Institute in Washington, DC.