The Ontology of Genocide Against Minorities in the Ottoman Empire

The Armenian Weekly April 2013 Magazine

The metaphysics of the relationship between the unit and the multitude have long been contested in scientific, political, historiographic, and other contexts. Even the terms we use to refer to different tensions often unavoidably commit us to favor one or the other term: the atom and the molecule, the part and the whole, the one and the many, the individual and the masses, the subject and the state, and so on.

Still, there is often some kind of material support for one side or the other: It is the atom that is the fundamental unit of matter, not the molecule or compound (nor the proton, quark, or any other subatomic particle). In the social realm, however, even such objective physical features, though they might exist, do not hold sway. True, human beings are physically discrete relative to one another. Yet, the individual human being appears dependent on other human beings not only for basic survival, but for emotional and intellectual development. If linguistic rationalists such as Noam Chomsky are correct, then our minds are fundamentally social, in that (the fundamental social mechanism of) language is embedded naturally in them and is the form of thought itself. The more we consider such issues, the more ambiguous such a relationship appears. Think also of the deep political conflicts, not to mention the oppressions and perverted extremisms, generated by adherents to one side or the other on whether the citizen or nation/state, individual member or race, etc., is primary.

This conceptual tension becomes even more fundamental when we engage historical issues, and interpretation overwhelms materiality. The data of history are indeterminate, and any set allows a range of cohesive accounts to be proposed. At the same time, material factors, such as statements by genocide perpetrators of the intent to destroy, or consistent patterns of exterminatory actions that cannot be coincidental, or even consistencies in structural situations, such as different groups in the Ottoman Empire occupying similar positions within the millet system and experiencing similar fates during the Ottoman genocidal process against minorities. What is more, the parsing of a unitary event in space and time is, ultimately, arbitrary, in the sense of allowing more than one parsing, not any parsing. Did the Armenian Genocide comprise the events of the 1890’s, 1909, 1914, and 1915? Did it end in 1918, 1923, or much later? Was the French Revolution a series of specific events or one overarching event? Both at once? Local- and meso-level variations fragment the event to the point at which what appears to be an internally complex single event can just as easily be regarded as a series of distinct events and moments that are not linearly causally connected (in a causal chain), but which at any point were the function of a variety of forces such that the next situation was not entirely determined by the previous one in the sequence of events retroactively understood as the French Revolution. But the push is just as much in the other direction. Did the killing of returning Armenians after the fall of the Young Turk regime constitute the beginning of a new set of violent acts, or was it a continuity of the genocide? As we reflect, it seems that the previous violence and entrenchment of the ideology behind it made possible and largely determined the later killings, suggesting that the bulk of the genocide is inseparable from the later killing of Armenians.

Or does interpretative framework always trump material possibilities if we decide it does? Is all “unity” the function of consciousness, and so whatever we want it to be (as proposed by postmodernist relativists) or whatever our prejudices and conceptual limitations determine it to be (as maintained by superscholars placing themselves beyond such limitations due to their ability to transcend “nationalism” or some other putatively limited perspective)?

There are many ways we might try to dig ourselves out of this mire of ambiguity, not just regarding what the right interpretation of events is but what the right framework for interpretation is. We could say that both drives, one toward unification and the other toward fragmentation, are primary and related, with the focus on elements making possible appreciation of composites or superindividual wholes, and the focus on the overarching unity of historical processes giving context and meaning to discrete events. Choosing one or the other perspective as correct means losing the essential contributions of the other or the one as part of a comprehensive approach to historical events that allows us to see them in both their detailed specificities and their overarching patterns and causal trajectories. We can go even further than this simple binary, as explained by such genocide scholars as Scott Strauss and Ugur Ungor, to recognize multiple levels of genocidal activity, typically referred to as the familiar macro (overarching), micro (local, individual), and meso (regional) levels. All levels affect the other levels and all are essential to comprehensive understanding of a case of genocide. This approach allows us to recognize that each level of analysis has a function and a value. What is more, dialectically (or trialectically), the more we attempt to approach a case exclusively at one of the levels, the more our findings and interpretative needs push us to consider and even depend on the other levels—indeed, the more we must take account of the other levels even to produce any findings at one of the levels. The more we push one perspective, the more essential the other perspective(s) become.

If we hold that concept has primacy over empirical fact in some kind of Kantian sense, then concept itself is conditioned and necessary. We have to see unities and multiplicities in history not because they exist in the events we regard, but because that is how our minds organize the world for us. The problem, of course, is that rational people can disagree about precisely how to organize their perceptions of reality, so we need a deeper principle to decide which parsing of historical events is correct. The view that the simplest explanation that fits all data is best is often proposed for scientific theorization. But it, too, is incomplete. How do we define “simple”? What is a “best fit”? And, which data do we exclude, because any theory that goes beyond a mere restatement of the data never fits the data perfectly and thus requires discounting some data.

Quine’s solution is the “web of belief.” According to this model, no single belief about the world exists independently of other beliefs; rather all beliefs an individual holds are related to one another in a complex network. If one belief is falsified, this affects other dependent or related beliefs as well. The most reasonable interpretation of new historical data is the one most consistent with the set of beliefs about the world a person already holds, that is, the one that disrupts that person’s web of beliefs the least. The obvious problem is that socially inculcated ideologies and manipulative propaganda work precisely by warping a person’s web of beliefs away from what others not subject to this propaganda would find most reasonable. It is precisely the web of preexisting beliefs about the world—that “our” society is inherently good and could not commit horrific acts of genocide, that extreme views tend to be biased so the truth in a case of conflicting views lies somewhere in the middle, etc.—that deniers exploit.

Does this mean we are stuck with a postmodernist relativism? Here ethical commitments as well as practical concerns can have a decisive role. That the evaluative principles we employ might be ultimately arbitrary does not mean that those committed to human rights cannot choose to agree to the basic Utilitarian principle that “suffering is bad” and its implication that “the intentional or neglectful infliction of human suffering is bad.” If the latter is true, then we can choose to organize historical data in such a way as to maximize our recognition of suffering. Thus, the best interpretation of a set of historical data is the one that least downplays or hides dimensions of suffering. Similarly, an obvious practical concern is capturing as much detail within a “unity” as possible. In neo-Hegelian terms, it is precisely unification that preserves internal complexity that is optimal, so that the drives toward unification and fragmentation themselves are misleading, as true unification is a unification of complexity such that if that complexity is superseded or obscured the unification becomes less interesting or trivial. Reduc tion by suppression of complexity is not unification but misleading simplification. The question is no longer which drive we emphasize, but how to follow each in a manner that maintains as much as possible appreciation of the other feature of reality. We want to look at details in all their complexity in such a way that we do not thereby lose sight of overarching connections.

But how do these ontological abstractions relate to the Ottoman-Turkish treatment of minorities? In recent years, there has emerged a new way of looking at what had long been studied as “the Armenian Genocide.” Broadening attention to the fates of Assyrians and Greeks under the Young Turk and Kemalist regimes has led to a recasting of “the Armenian Genocide” as the Ottoman-Turkish Genocide of (Christian) Minorities. Although earlier work had increased this attention, David Gaunt’s work [1] is arguably the first to present more than one victim group as the targets of an integrated genocidal process. Through this framework we can appreciate the conceptual interfusion of the three groups (because of the territorial focus of Gaunt’s work, Greeks are not a focal element, but an extension of his approach can easily be made to include them) in a single genocidal process, even as historical sources are typically precise in the local fates of the groups [2] and thus help preserve a precise understanding of the complexity of the overarching process. In the same period, some Armenian studies scholars began a similar push. For instance, in the 2005 conference on the Armenian Genocide he hosted at UCLA, as well as the subsequent book of papers delivered at the conference, Professor Richard Hovannisian included papers on both Assyrian and Greek victimization. [3] The shift quickly fostered explicit analysis of a unified genocidal process, in the work, for instance, of Hannibal Travis [4] and Panayiotis Diamadis.[5] What is more, this attention on the unified process has also been coupled with groundbreaking work on the heretofore neglected Assyrian and Greek aspects, most notably in recent anthologies. [6]

As comparative genocide studies showed that consideration of diverse cases of genocide was not simply a matter of logging analogical comparisons and contrasts, but of recognizing historical relationships and common contextual factors across often apparently disparate instances of genocide, the new works on the Ottoman-Turkish genocidal process are not simply developing parallel histories of three target groups. On the contrary, the more analysis of the particular groups that is done, the more the inevitability of consideration of the treatment of the other groups becomes apparent.

These works show that it is not simply a matter of adding two cases to a set of Ottoman-Turkish genocides, but taking an integrative approach. As already suggested, that approach arises organically through the sustained treatment of any of the particular victim groups. As I have explained to students regarding Gaunt’s Massacres, Resistance, Protectors, and George Shirinian has commented about editing The Asia Minor Catastrophe, study of the fate of Ottoman Assyrians and Greeks, respectively, has taught us a great deal about the fate of Armenians. In fact, I contend here that it is no longer possible to study the latter in isolation. As the opening ontological considerations imply, a truly comprehensive understanding of the genocide of Armenians depends on attention to the broader genocidal process in the Ottoman Empire.

This is not, of course, to suggest that there are no differences between these fates. Because of territorial distributions and sizes of the different groups, nuances in perpetrator ideology, opportunities (the defense of Van, for instance), considerations regarding statehood (the Greeks were understood to have a state already, though one seen as a threat to Turkish territory, the Armenians were perceived as a large enough group to make a claim on their historical homeland areas, while the Assyrians were not perceived as a large or concentrated enough group to pose an immediate territorial threat), and other factors, the timing, methods, extent, and even stated rationales varied among the groups. Yet, the same is true of differences within each of these groups, albeit to a lesser extent. For example, while Armenian Protestants were targeted for genocide, the trajectory of decision-making and implementation was different from that of Apostolic Armenians. Similarly, gender was a very significant factor in the specific ways members of each group were treated, though, for instance, Greek labor battalions included both men and women (yet the women were subjected to sexual violence). [7] But it is precisely the appreciation of these variations that allows a precise and unified analysis of the complex genocidal process that occurred in the Ottoman Empire, spanning war and peace, three governments, and a wide range of locations.


[1] David Gaunt, Massacres, Resistance, Protectors: Muslim-Christian Relations in Eastern Anatolia during World War I (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2006).

[2] Comments by Roupen Adalian in reference to the documents on the Ottoman genocidal process contained in the U.S. National Archives, “The Study of the Armenian Genocide Sources: Where and What to Look for?”, “Armenian Genocide: Challenges on the Eve of the Centenary” International Conference, Yerevan, Armenia, March 22–23, 2013, on March 22.

[3] See Anahit Khosroeva, “The Assyrian Genocide inthe Ottoman Empire and Adjacent Territories,” and Speros Vryonis, Jr., “Greek Labor Battalions Asia Minor,” pp. 275–90, in The Armenian Genocide: Cultural and Ethical Legacies, ed. Richard G. Hovannisian (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2007).

[4] Hannibal Travis, Genocide in the Middle East: The Ottoman Empire, Iraq, and Sudan (Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 2010).

[5] Panayiotis Diamadis, “Children and Genocide,” in Genocide Perspectives IV: Essays on Holocaust and Genocide, ed. Colin Tatz (Sydney: The Australian Institute for Holocaust and Genocide Studies/ UTSePress, 2012), pp. 312–52.

[6] Tessa Hofmann, Matthias Bjornlund, and Vasileios Meichanetsidis, eds., The Genocide of the Ottoman Greeks: Studies on the State-Sponsored Campaign of Extermination of the Christians of Asia Minor (1912-1922) and Its Aftermath: History, Law, Memory (Aristide D. Caratzas, 2012), and George Shirinian, ed., The Asia Minor Catastrophe and the Ottoman Greek Genocide (Toronto: Zoryan Institute, 2012).

[7] See Vryonis.

Henry Theriault

Henry Theriault

Henry C. Theriault is currently Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs at Worcester State University in the United States, after teaching in its Philosophy Department from 1998 to 2017. From 1999 to 2007, he coordinated the University’s Center for the Study of Human Rights. Theriault’s research focuses on genocide denial, genocide prevention, post-genocide victim-perpetrator relations, reparations and mass violence against women and girls. He has lectured and given panel papers around the world. Since 2007, he has chaired the Armenian Genocide Reparations Study Group and is lead author of its March 2015 final report, Resolution with Justice. He has published numerous journal articles and chapters. With Samuel Totten, he co-authored The United Nations Genocide Convention: An Introduction (University of Toronto Press, 2019). In 2017, Theriault was elected President of the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS), and was re-elected in 2019. He is founding co-editor of the peer-reviewed Genocide Studies International. From 2007 to 2012 he served as co-editor of the International Association of Genocide Scholars’ peer-reviewed Genocide Studies and Prevention, and has guest-edited for the International Criminal Law Review and the Armenian Review.


  1. As far as I know they were also part of the same death marches – the same routes and taken together. A friend’s Greek grandfather from Trebizond was put on the same marches through Van, Erzeroum, etc

  2. To my knowledge, one of the first international conferences encompassing the Hellenic, Armenian and Assyrian genocidal experiences was held at Sydney’s Macquarie University in September 1999. It was organised by the Centre for Comparative Genocide Studies, the predecessor of the Australian Institute for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Despite fierce interference from the Turkish diplomats in Sydney and Canberra, it gave a renewed momentum to the unified approach to analysis of genocide discussed by Prof Theriault.

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