The Armenian Weekly
April 2011 Magazine
The recent publication of the volume A Question of Genocide: Armenians and Turks at the End of the Ottoman Empire (Oxford University Press, 2011), edited by Ronald Grigor Suny, Fatma Müge Göçek, and Norman M. Naimark, is an occasion of some significance for reasons of symbolism as well as scholarship. A Question of Genocide marks 10 years of WATS (Workshop on Armenian and Turkish Scholarship) gatherings, which began in Chicago in 2000. The volume gathers together 15 papers by many leading scholars of genocide, modern Armenian history, the Ottoman Empire, and related disciplines.
It is not the purpose of this article to assess WATS as a whole or A Question of Genocide in its entirety. The volume undoubtedly contains important contributions to the body of knowledge on the Armenian Genocide; the remarks that follow are thus not intended to be a reflection of the book’s contents in general. Instead, I look at how the issue of the Armenian Genocide is framed in the book’s introductory sections and some of the questions arising from this. The reader first encounters the book’s cover and title, and superimposed over a ruined Armenian church (the Church of St. Gregory at Ani) is the title, “A Question of Genocide: Armenians and Turks at the End of the Ottoman Empire.” The title seems designed to provoke a reaction, and is likely to do so. What does it mean? “A Matter of Genocide”? “An Issue of Genocide”? Or “Was It a Genocide”?
The darker possibilities of this last interpretation come through more clearly in the title of the forthcoming Armenian History and the Question of Genocide by Michael M. Gunter, a book which, according to its publisher, “presents the Turkish position regarding the Armenian claims of genocide during World War I and the continuing debate over this issue.” It is well established that the official Turkish position in its current manifestation no longer denies large numbers of Armenian deaths but seeks to keep the “question of genocide” as just that—a question—by asserting the “unresolved” and “controversial” nature of “the events of 1915” and thus the legitimacy of the so-called counter-genocide narrative.
The book’s introduction, bearing the names of Ronald Suny and Fatma Müge Göçek provides the rationale for the title: “For most of the scholars participating in these discussions the historical record confirmed that a genocide had occurred; for others the term itself led to more problems than it resolved. The title of this volume—A Question of Genocide—reflects both the certainty of some and the ambiguity of others, not so much on the nature of the killings, but how they might most convincingly be described” (p. 10).
This explanation provokes even more questions. We know what happened and the “nature” of what happened, the authors seem to say, but there are “some” who have hang-ups over what to call it. What, then, is “the nature of the killings?” And for whom does describing them need to be convincing? And convincing about what? It is interesting to compare this with the similar—but subtly different—explanation for the title in Suny’s 2009 “Truth in Telling” article: “The working title for the volume (forthcoming from Oxford University Press), A Question of Genocide: Armenians and Turks at the End of the Ottoman Empire, reflects both the certainty of some and the ambiguity of others about the nature of the killings.”
Note the differences: In 2009 it is “ambiguity…about the nature of the killings,” whereas in 2011 it is “ambiguity…not so much on the nature of the killings, but about how they might most convincingly be described” (emphasis mine).
What is of principal interest here is the way the introduction frames the “question of genocide” in contrast to Norman Naimark’s preface. This contrast can be boiled down to two quotes:
Naimark: The chapters that follow contain fresh evidence that undermines any attempt to mitigate the responsibility of the Ottoman government for the mass murder of the Armenians in 1915. After reading these contributions, which represent the ‘state of the art’ in the field, no scholar could contend that there was not genocide in the Armenian case (p. xviii).
Göçek/Suny: What remains open and in dispute for some, albeit a minority among scholars, is whether the murder of a nation in the case of the Armenians and the Assyrians was intentional or an unfortunate consequence of a brutal program of deportations (p. 10, and verbatim in Suny 2009, p. 945).
Unlike the explanation for the book’s title quoted earlier, from which one can infer general agreement on the genocidal “nature of the killings” but not necessarily that genocide is the most “convincing” word for them, to maintain that it “remains open and in dispute… whether the murder of a nation in the case of the Armenians and the Assyrians was intentional or an unfortunate consequence of a brutal program of deportations,” is to question precisely the “nature of the killings.” It should be emphasized that the authors do not state that “it remains open and in dispute” for them, but rather for some never-specified others; no scholars from this “minority” are named, nor are their arguments supporting the “unintentional” death of more than a million Armenians and Assyrians presented.
Note, though, the internal contradictions of the sentence: On the one hand, there is “the murder of a nation” (simultaneously borrowing a phrase from U.S. Ambassador Henry Morgenthau and retranslating genocide from its Greek and Latin roots), but on the other hand the possibility—“for some”—that this murder was not intentional. Of course, the notion of an unintentional “murder of a nation” beggars belief and, at any rate, is belied by the evidence. The authors, both of whom are well versed in the scholarly literature on genocide, cannot have been unaware of this contradiction. Nor can they be accused of being political naifs: Near the conclusion of the introduction, they write: “There may be no escape from the political aspects of setting the record straight on any genocide. The Armenian Genocide has been the exemplary victim of deliberate, sustained falsification. Historians are implicated in these politics no matter how faithfully they attend to the obligations of their craft” (pp.10–11, and verbatim in Suny 2009, p. 945).
A large part of the “deliberate, sustained falsification” of the Armenian Genocide aims at legitimizing the idea that the Armenian deaths—and even the Turkish state now acknowledges a large number of Armenian deaths—occurred unintentionally. “Setting the record straight” should involve identifying such an unsupported and unsupportable position as what it is: “deliberate, sustained falsification.”
Göçek and Suny write that “[f]or most of the scholars participating in these discussions the historical record confirmed that a genocide had occurred; for others the term itself led to more problems than it resolved,” suggesting that it is the term genocide that is problematic. However, the difference between the intentional and unintentional (and oxymoronic) “murder of a nation” does not center on a term but rather on how the facts are understood.
One is inclined to read a value judgment in Naimark’s choice of words: “no scholar could contend that there was not genocide in the Armenian case.” He seems to say that a scholar who has access to the evidence contained in the book (and elsewhere, of course) and still contends that there was not genocide is, in effect, “no scholar.” A wag might suggest that when Naimark wrote this he had not yet read his co-editors’ introduction.
It should be noted that based on their writings neither Göçek nor Suny themselves question the appropriateness of the term “genocide” for the killing of the Armenians and Assyrians.
Suny in no way avoids using the word in his various writings on the subject and uses it without any qualifications whatsoever in his own chapter in the volume, “Writing Genocide: The Fate of the Ottoman Armenians.” He questions how some aspects of the genocide have been explained, but not the fact of its occurrence nor the aptness of the term.
Suny notes that “[a]mong the baleful effects of the denialist claims about the Armenian Genocide was the sense on the part of many scholars (particularly Armenians) that they needed to present a united consensus on what had happened and why” (p. 35). This may be true, but it is clear from reading Suny that what he means isn’t that there is not a clear consensus, based on all available evidence, that there were massive, intentional killings—a genocide; rather, Suny has for some time argued against a preexisting plan for genocide having existed, and for a cumulative radicalization on the part of the Ottoman leadership that culminated in genocide. This is far from arguing that the Armenian deaths were unintentional.
With a striking absence of ambiguity, Suny wrote in an essay published in 2008:
I have never been interested in discussing whether there was a genocide in Ottoman Anatolia during World War I. Once acquainted with the overwhelming evidence of deportations and mass murder of a designated ethno-religious group, planned, initiated, and carried out by the Young Turk authorities, I was convinced that no serious investigator can doubt that, by any conventional definition, genocide had occurred.
There is no reason to think that between the time he wrote those words and the time A Question of Genocide was published he became any less convinced.
Göçek has tended to refrain from using “genocide,” preferring “to employ the traditional Ottoman term” massacre (kıtal), but has also acknowledged that what occurred is rightly termed “genocide.” It is somewhat bewildering, therefore, to encounter references to “the Armenian ethnic cleansing of 1915” (pp. 43–44) in her chapter “Reading Genocide: Turkish Historiography on 1915.” “Ethnic cleansing” is hardly a traditional Ottoman term, having come into general use in the 1990’s, with particular application to events in the Balkans. (Though, of course, like genocide, it can be, and is, used to describe events that have occurred in earlier times.) Nor is it understood as synonymous with genocide. Yet, only a few pages later, one reads Göçek’s “conjecture that the Armenian deportations and massacres of 1915 would finally be recognized as the genocide they were” (p. 50; emphasis mine).
Suny is unhesitant in criticizing those who repeat the Turkish state narrative of denial—and does so in his “Writing Genocide” chapter (as well as in other published writings). Göçek has also been highly critical of the state narrative and its proponents. But are those unnamed scholars (one presumes this to mean WATS participants) who question “whether the murder of a nation in the case of the Armenians and the Assyrians was intentional” beyond criticism?
There appears to be an unstated different standard for those of a so-called (or self-proclaimed) “postnationalist” mindset who look at the same facts—facts that “no serious investigator” could look at and conclude anything but that “the murder of a nation in the case of the Armenians and the Assyrians was intentional”—and reach conclusions little different than those propounded by the Turkish state and their allies.
It should be noted that none of the chapters in the book present such an argument. It may be that this argument—which, it must be emphasized, goes well beyond the issue of whether to use “the gword” or not, and gets to the very nature of the killings—was made by some participants in the various WATS conferences over the past decade. One might infer that by not selecting for inclusion in the volume any essays that present such a dubious argument, the editors are drawing a clear line between serious scholarship and unserious attempts to explain away “the murder of a nation.”
It may be that two competing agendas are at work here: One has definite standards (“no serious investigator can doubt that, by any conventional definition, genocide had occurred”), the other allows the issue to dissolve into hazy obscurity (“the question of whether to call the mass killings genocide had yet to be resolved”).
This dichotomy is perhaps unwittingly crystallized by Mark Levene on his book’s back cover:
Nearly a century on from the attempted Ottoman destruction of the Armenians, Turkish politics of denial, on the one hand, and an Armenian mythic representation of a singular Turkish guilt, on the other, have repeatedly sabotaged chances for dialogue. Yet in this book a group of leading historians from both sides of the divide, and beyond, demonstrate that the reality of genocide can be examined in its multi-causal dimensions not only without partisanship but in recognition of a shared history. A Question of Genocide can be read as a breakthrough historical study providing a contextualized, nuanced yet sensitive set of interpretations of an Armenian—but also wider Ottoman—tragedy. Equally, however, it may come to be remembered as a timely intervention on the path to reconciliation between post-Ottoman peoples.
Levene, a leading genocide scholar, has no doubts about the intentional nature of the killings of the Armenians or that the word for this process is genocide. The implied equivalence of “Turkish politics of denial…and an Armenian mythic representation of a singular Turkish guilt” is echoed in the book’s introduction, where it is claimed that “[a]t present, the histories preferred by most Armenians and Turks remain embedded in their respective nationalist narratives” (p. 11). Only within WATS, an atmosphere “free of partisanship and nationalism,” have “[t]he two opposing Turkish and Armenian nationalist narratives [been] replaced by a single shared account” (pp. 4–5).
Let us set aside the blanket statement about “most Armenians and Turks.” As for “nationalist narratives,” the authors would have done well to heed Suny’s warning in his “Writing Genocide” chapter that “nationalism” is “[o]ne of the most unmoored signifiers in historical writing [that] simply has too many meanings to be unproblematically invoked” (p. 33). The invocation of “a single shared account” is undercut by the assertion elsewhere that some still question “whether the murder of a nation in the case of the Armenians and the Assyrians was intentional or an unfortunate consequence of a brutal program of deportations.”
Levene explicates what he sees as the dual agenda of the book and the manner in which the “question of genocide” is framed: “historians from both sides of the divide,” “a shared history,” “a timely intervention on the path to reconciliation,” etc. Not merely a collection of scholarly essays, he suggests (whether rightly or wrongly), A Question of Genocide is part of a larger reconciliatory effort.
However, the “divide” among historians is not principally between Turks and Armenians, but rather between (to adopt Suny’s phrase) “serious investigators” and unserious investigators. There is no reason the history of the “deportations and mass murder of a designated ethno-religious group, planned, initiated, and carried out by the Young Turk authorities”—the history, in short, of the Armenian Genocide—cannot become a “shared history.” This is the shared history, after all. Not shared in the sense of both parties having equal roles in “the murder of a nation,” but shared in the sense that both parties were (unequal) participants and bear particular (unequal) burdens as a result.
Perhaps by insisting on this point, one is blocking “the path to reconciliation.” But perhaps it may be time for “reconciliation” to take its place next to “nationalism” in the list of “unmoored signifiers” with “too many meanings to be unproblematically invoked.” If reconciliation means a willingness to set aside one’s scholarly standards—which is normally an abrogation of the responsibility of a scholar—then down that path, which leads far from “truth in telling,” we ought not to wander.
 A sketch of the history of WATS is provided in the introduction, as well as in Suny’s earlier article “Truth in Telling: Reconciling Realities in the Genocide of the Ottoman Armenians” (American Historical Review, October 2009, pp. 930–946). I attended the 2005 New York University workshop as a non-participant and the 2008 Geneva workshop as a panel discussant, and was a participant on the WATS listserv, which was terminated in March 2011.
 See, for example, Suny’s Armenia in the Twentieth Century (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1983) and Looking Toward Ararat: Armenia in Modern History (Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 1993), as well as various articles.
 Ibid., p. 945. The Introduction cites the 2009 article only as “a prehistory” of WATS.
 The fact that few argue, nowadays, for the existence of a preexisting master plan or “blueprint” is not the same, of course, as arguing that there was no consideration of or disposition towards radical solutions to the “Armenian Question” among the CUP leadership prior to 1915, and Suny acknowledges this in “Writing History.”
 “The Emotions of Genocide: Revisiting Ambassador Morgenthau’s Account of the Armenian Genocide,” in Barlow Der Mugrdechian, ed., Between Paris and Fresno: Armenian Studies in Honor of Dickran Kouymjian (Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Publishers, 2008), p. 511.
 “Turkish Historiography and the Unbearable Weight of 1915,” in R. G. Hovannisian, ed., The Armenian Genocide: Cultural and Ethical Legacies, p. 228.
 See, for example, Rony Blum, Gregory H. Stanton, Shira Sagi, and Elihu D. Richter, “‘Ethnic cleansing’ Bleaches the Atrocities of Genocide,” European Journal of Public Health (2008) 18 (2): 204–209.
 See Mark Levene’s Genocide in the Age of the Nation State: Volume I: The Meaning of Genocide (London: I.B. Tauris, 2008).