Genocide is not the murder of people but the murder of a people.
In his first publication using the term he had coined, the lawyer Raphael Lemkin explained, “The practice of extermination of nations and ethnic groups as carried out by the invaders [the Nazis] is called by the author ‘genocide,’ a term deriving from the Greek word genos (tribe, race) and the Latin cide (by way of analogy, see homicide, fratricide).” As difficult as it is to discern, intentionality is key as the starting point, and death is the result of the intention to eliminate or render impotent. Genocide, thus, is “ethnically inspired violence” but should be distinguished from ethnic cleansing, which may entail killing but more immediately involves displacement and deportation, the physical moving of a distinct population.
The genocidal elimination need not be total, but it should render the “people” impotent, politically and possibly culturally. Few modern mass killings or even genocides have resulted in the total liquidation of a people, and both the Armenian and Jewish genocides resulted in new states being formed and populated with survivors and their descendants.
But the mass of Armenians never returned to the historic homeland in Anatolia that they had inhabited for three thousand years, and the Jews, while hardly totally erased, never reconstituted the vibrant Yiddish culture that they had evolved over many centuries in Central and Eastern Europe. Those genocides had results; they were genocidal in the physical, political, and cultural senses.
In both historical and more publicistic writing, the term “genocide” has been used rather promiscuously to apply to mass repression of political opponents, real or imagined. When the Genocide Convention was being debated at the United Nations in the late 1940s, the Soviet representatives strenuously held out against extending the term to political killings, which would of necessity have included Stalin’s purges, the millions lost in dekulakization, the Ukrainian Holodomor, the deadly settlement of Kazakhs, and the deportations of North Caucasians and other peoples during World War II. The American delegates also resisted any language in the convention that might be turned toward examination of racial segregation and the violence perpetrated against African Americans during the era of Jim Crow. In the interests of unanimity, political, social, and economic groups were not included in the protections of the convention that was adopted by the United Nations on December 9, 1948.
Although on moral grounds one form of mass killing is as reprehensible as another, the framers of the convention may have done historians and political scientists a favor by limiting the definition. In article 2 of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (December 9, 1948), “genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such: a) Killing members of the group; b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” A capacious definition, the UN’s conception has become standard and widely accepted, even as it is contested.
Because mass killings vary so greatly in origin, perpetrator, intention, scale, and intended outcome, no explanation can cover all or even most of the cases. Too many dependent variables make it impossible to come up with the principal causal factors…During the Irish Famine of 1845-1852, the Ukraine famine of 1932-1933 the Bengal Famine of 1943, and the Chinese Famine of 1958-1961, governments were culpable in the deaths of millions. It is understandable that such horrific occurrences should be thought of as genocidal in both scope and intention, given that the foreseeable consequences of state policy resulted in mass death. But since they were not directed at the extermination of a definite ethnic, religious, or cultural group, a different set of explanations is required, as is necessary for the Great Purges, the Gulag, and the ethnic cleansing of the “small peoples” of the Soviet Union. The value of the term “genocide” in the public sphere may be moral condemnation, but for historians and social scientists its salience stems, not simply from establishing a category, but from the explanatory potential of that category. Historians must ask the questions “when genocide?” and “why genocide?”
How Many Armenians?
The principal architect of the Armenian deportations, Minister of Interior Talat Paşa, compiled his own record book calculating the number and location of the Ottoman Armenians. Not trusting the official Ottoman count of 1,300,000, Talat estimated that the more accurate number was 1,500,000. This number fell between the official Ottoman figure of 1,251,785, and the figure given by the Armenian patriarchate of 1,915,858. The demographic historian Fuat Dündar holds that 1,500,000 is the best and most reliable number of Ottoman Armenians on the eve of the Genocide that we have.
Dündar calculates that about 281,000 Armenians were permitted to remain in Anatolia and Rumelia…along with some 75,000 Catholic and Protestant Armenians, artisans, families of soldiers, and some 50,000 converted women and children. He estimates that around 300,000 Armenians survived the deportation and the settlement areas. Another 255,000 fled abroad, primarily to Russia. He concludes that 836,000 Ottoman Armenians survived the Genocide and by the end of the war in 1918 approximately 664,000 had perished. The historian Taner Akçam also uses the numbers given in Talat’s “black book,” where the minister of interior counted 924,158 Armenians deported. Since Talat had not included more than a dozen locations in his calculations, Akçam estimates the total number of Armenians deported to have been closer to 1,200,000, a figure that corresponds to the early estimates of Arnold Toynbee (1,200,000) and Johannes Lepsius (1,300,000). Historian Raymond Kévorkian has used the statistics gathered by the Armenian patriarchate of Istanbul, now housed in the St. James Monastery in Jerusalem, and estimates that there were just under 2,000,000 Armenians in the Ottoman lands on the eve of World War I. His detailed account in The Armenian Genocide, A Complete History concludes that 850,000 Armenians were deported in 1915—1916, of whom 300,000 had perished by the winter of 1915-1916; 500,000 survived until the last round of massacres in the winter and spring of 1916.
Further losses occurred in the half decade after the war when Armenians fought the nationalist Turks and were driven out of Cilicia, Izmir, and elsewhere. The twentieth century had not yet witnessed such a colossal loss of life directed at a particular people by a government. Mass killing of this magnitude made the unthinkable thinkable, and the political engineers that emerged from the Great War were able to calculate higher human costs as their population policies reshaped whole societies.
The purpose of the Armenian Genocide was to eliminate the perceived threat of the Armenians within the Ottoman Empire by reducing their numbers and scattering them in isolated, distant places. The destruction was carried out in three different but related ways: dispersion, massacre, and assimilation by conversion to Islam. A perfectly rational (and rationalist) explanation, then, for the Genocide appears to be adequate: a strategic goal to secure the empire by elimination of an existential threat to the state and the Turkish (or Islamic) people. But before the strategic goal and the rational choices of instruments to be used can be considered, it is necessary to explain how the existential threat was imagined; how the Armenian and Assyrian enemy was historically and culturally constructed; and what cognitive and emotional processes shaped the affective disposition of the perpetrators that compelled them to carry out massive uprooting and murder of specifically targeted peoples and to believe that such actions were justified.
The Young Turks, led by army officers and reform-minded intellectuals, first came to power in 1908. In January 1913, a splinter group led by the most radical Young Turks—Enver, Talaat, and Djemal—carried out a coup d’etat against their more moderate opponents. It would be under these “Three Pashas” that the Genocide was carried out during a moment of radical disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. In their mind, the state was threatened by both the Great Powers and the non-Turkic peoples who had long inhabited it (not only by Balkan Christians, Armenians, and Greeks, but also by Muslim Kurds, Albanians, and Arabs). Their nation within that empire was still in the process of being imagined, effectively neither Ottoman, Islamic, nor ethnically Turkish. Nation lay in the future, and the turn of the 20th century was a period of intense and passionate debate about the nature of Turkish national formation. How would the community be conceived: as a nation of ethnic Turks, with Turks defined as a race or a linguistic group; or as a supranation of Ottomans of various religions, ethnicities, and languages, perhaps with Turks (however defined) as the dominant group; or in the minds of some, as a pan-Turkic or pan-Islamic community that stretched into the Caucasus and Central Asia or into the Arab lands to include people of the same linguistic family or religion? What was clear to those Young Turks who eventually won the political contest by 1914 was that Turks would dominate in one way or another, and that this imperial community would not be one of civic equality. It would, in other words, neither be an ethnically homogeneous nation-state like the paradigmatic states of Western Europe nor a multinational state of diverse peoples equal under the law. It would remain an empire with some peoples dominant over others. For one of the most radical of the Turkish nationalists, Ziya Gökalp, “The people is like a garden. We are supposed to be its gardeners! First the bad shoots are to be cut. And then the scion is to be grafted.”
But the Young Turks, however Ottomanist they were in their inception, became over time national imperialists prepared to take the most desperate and drastic measures to homogenize their state while promoting some peoples over others and annihilating still others…While an anti-Armenian disposition existed and grew more virulent within the Ottoman elite long before the First World War, the war not only presented an opportunity for carrying out the most revolutionary program against the Armenians, but provided the particular conjuncture that convinced the Young Turk triumvirate to deploy ethnic cleansing and genocide against the Armenians. The moment at which disposition became action occurred after the outbreak of war when the leaders’ fear that their rule was in peril focused on the Armenians as the wedge that the Russians and other powers could use to pry apart their empire. The European-imposed reform program of 1914 was the immediate manifestation of the Ottomans’ fears that their sovereignty over their realm was being compromised and that the European support of the Armenians presented a danger to their state’s future.
Had there been no First World War there would have been no genocide, not only because there would have been no “fog of war” to cover up the events but because the radical sense of endangerment among Turks would not have been as acute. Without the war there would have been less motivation for a revolutionary solution and more political opportunities for negotiation and compromise.
Instability and social disintegration, the invasion of the Russians and the British, and the defection of some Armenians to the Russian side moved the leaders of the Ottoman state to embark on the most vicious form of securitization and social engineering: the massive deportation and massacre of hundreds of thousands of their Armenian and Assyrian subjects. Ziya Gökalp, who like so many others saw the Genocide as necessary or even forced on the Ottomans, could with confidence write, “There was no Armenian massacre, there was a Turkish-Armenian arrangement. They stabbed us in the back, we stabbed them back.”
Reversing an older image of ethnic violence as bubbling up from the masses below, the initiative and initiation of the Armenian Genocide came from within the highest levels of the state. The decisions, permission, and encouragement of a few in power provoked and stoked emotional resonance below. It turns out that a few killers can cause enormous destruction. Thugs, sadists, fanatics, and opportunists can with modern weaponry (or even with axes, clubs, and daggers) slaughter thousands with little more than acquiescence from the surrounding population. They in turn can inspire or let loose the rage of thousands of others who will carry out even greater destruction. Genocide in particular is an event of mass killing, with massive numbers of victims but not necessarily of massive numbers of killers. The thugs, set loose by the political elite, create a climate of violence that radicalizes a population, renders political moderates less relevant, and convinces people of the need to support the more extremist leaders. The context of war, with its added burdens and accompanying social disintegration, hardens hostile group identities. Added to that, thugs and ordinary people use the opportunities offered by state-permitted lawlessness to settle other accounts with neighbors, take revenge, or simply grab what they can.
Some of the killers in 1915 simply obeyed orders; others were motivated by much more mundane feelings than duty or considered ideological preferences. Social and economic inequalities when combined with ethnic and religious distinctions bred resentment toward those who received more than they deserved from those who had received less. Fear of the other and the future, anger at what had been done to oneself and one’s compatriots, simple ambition and careerism all could be found among those who murdered Armenians. Fear, anger, and resentment escalated into hatred, the emotion that saw the other as the essential cause of one’s own misery. Hatred required that the other be eliminated. Violence then begat violence and counter-violence. Killing became familiar and justifiable for reasons of self-defense.
The Armenian Genocide, along with the killing of Assyrians and the expulsion of the Anatolian Greeks, laid the ground for the more homogeneous nation-state that arose from the ashes of the empire. Like many other states, including Australia, Israel, and the United States, the emergence of the Republic of Turkey involved the removal and subordination of native peoples who had lived on its territory prior to its founding. The connection between ethnic cleansing or genocide and the legitimacy of the national state underlies the desperate efforts to deny or distort the history of the nation and the state’s genesis. Coming to terms with that history, on the other hand, can have the salutary effect of questioning continued policies of ethnic homogenization and the refusal to recognize the claims and rights of those peoples, minorities, or diasporas—Aborigines, native Americans, Kurds, Palestinians, Assyrians, or Armenians—who refuse to disappear.
Excerpted from “They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else”: A History of the Armenian Genocide by Ronald Grigor Suny. Copyright © 2015 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.