The Resistance Network: The Armenian Genocide and Humanitarianism in Ottoman Syria, 1915-1918
By Khatchig Mouradian
Michigan State University Press, 2021
Resistance and humanitarianism are two words which conjure up certain expectations of outcomes in history. In today’s world, humanitarianism is an avowed principle of most governments and people. Our world is saturated with charities and NGOs which provide humanitarian assistance to people all over the world for all sorts of reasons: war, famine, disease, natural disasters of all kinds, poverty and so on. It is difficult to escape the realities of what goes on among the less fortunate people in this world. However, we can salve our conscience with the click of a button and send money for relief. Or, if we are so inclined, we can join a lobbying organization to influence our government to ‘take action’ for whatever cause lies near to our heart.
It was not always so. One hundred and six years ago, although the word ‘humanitarian’ was already in use, the action of doing humanitarian deeds far away from home was not as common. The logistics of mounting charitable organizations in distant lands—the governments of which, unseen by the rest of the world, could act with absolute impunity toward their people—seem to have been the domain of religious organizations. In the case of the Armenian Genocide, these were missionary organizations. Various ambassadors and consuls were extremely important in gathering information and for ‘pulling strings’ in situ. So it is no surprise that the most effective humanitarians in Ottoman Turkey during the years of the Armenian Genocide were such people.
Resistance is more complicated. When talking of the Armenian Genocide, we think of a huge number of passive people who went ‘like lambs to the slaughter’ on the death marches, helpless and unable to defend themselves against the monstrousness of the policy of extermination pursued by the triumvirs of the Committee of Union and Progress in their determination to Turkify the country. We sometimes think of the fedayee and their heroic armed resistance in Hajin, Sassoun, Van and Zeitoun—to name the most famous—all of which ultimately failed.
Khatchig Mouradian’s book describes another kind of humanitarianism and another kind of resistance. In addition to the missionaries and consuls, the Armenians themselves provided assistance and unarmed and subtle resistance. Some people’s refusal to die or succumb to the more extreme atrocities was a kind of resistance too, he argues. Mouradian provides many examples of the speed with which local communities mobilized to provide the destitute with food, shelter and even employment. He writes of the act of providing some dignity to the naked and starving, destitute moribund women and children. He writes of the people who got married, even as chaos reigned around them, because it was easier to survive as two. This was resistance too.
But above all this, Mouradian’s clearly and beautifully crafted prose gives an insight to what went on in the hell that was the triangle in the Syrian desert—between Aleppo, Ras ul Ain and Derzor—during the years from early 1915 to early 1919.
Mouradian describes much kindness and benevolence from the Armenian communities who received the poor deportees in disbelief—a few hundred to start with could be looked after; pocket money was provided, clothes, shelter, food and employment. But once they started arriving in their tens of thousands, it became very difficult to find the funds to assist them, even with the help of Catholicos Sahag of Cilicia, who worked unstintingly to support them—and was himself finally exiled to Jerusalem.
Mouradian does not then shy away from documenting the full exploitation that the deportees had to endure at the hands of Turks, Arabs, Kurds and some Armenians alike. These Armenian collaborators turned out to be merciless in their actions toward their fellow Armenians. They procured children and women for Turkish officers; they accepted bribes from desperate people; they took jobs as henchmen to some of the most notoriously cruel governors; they did not scruple to enrich themselves by robbing the destitute; they thieved relief money and supplies. These collaborators were present in many camps.
In recent years, there has been a desire to find ‘righteous Turks’ to include in a sort of ‘feel good’ part in the list of horrors of the genocide. One of those whose reputation it has been tempting to revise, to elevate him to the position of ‘defender of Armenians,’ is Djemal Pasha. This Janus had Armenians among his friends, and he disagreed with Talaat on some policies regarding the treatment of Armenians. However, he gave with one hand and took away with the other. He was very careful of his image and as Mouradian says, “Cemal distinguished individual Armenians with whom he had cultivated relationships from Armenians as a group.” He adds, “Through his efforts to conceal the annihilation of Armenians by showcasing a good deed here and a good deed there, and by employing deportee labor to advance his military plans and packaging the policies ‘helping Armenians,’ Cemal emerged as one of the first effective deniers of the Armenian Genocide.” And let us not forget that Djemal, together with Halide Edib, experimented with the Islamization and Turkification of thousands of Armenian orphans.
Mouradian makes the important point that the deportations and marches were “an attempt at demographic engineering through annihilation.” He describes the systematic and statistically worked-out methods used in setting limits of Armenians in settlement areas. The proportions of Armenians in these areas was to be below 10-percent. The surplus was disposed of.
Another very important point is that scholars of the Armenian Genocide have hitherto sought to be scrupulously objective and have shied away from using first-hand accounts of survivors in their research, lest they be accused of subjectivity or inaccuracy. Lack of access to Ottoman archives has complicated matters, and there are the considerable efforts made by Turkish political authorities and scholars to trivialize and deny the Armenian Genocide.
This book should be read by all those who think that “the job [of countering the denial of the Turkish State] is done” since President Biden’s recognition of the Armenian Genocide in his message of commiseration on April 24, 2021. Mr. Biden’s very carefully worded missive stressed the names Ottoman Empire and Constantinople. In other words, this was something that happened long ago…in a place and city which no longer exist. He did not say the Turkish Ottoman Empire, nor did he say Istanbul. So, having fulfilled his election pledge to the Armenians of the United States to recognize the Armenian Genocide, he has drawn a neat line under the subject. Significantly, this has not elicited the usual bluster and threats from Turkey. The reaction instead was rather a muted whimper.
The job is not done. As Mouradian explains in his forensic study of the methods of extermination, the genocide was a well-planned and systematic act. The sheer numbers involved and the methods deployed, some with clinical precision, were not haphazard actions of a people fighting an ‘insurrection in times of war’ nor were the numbers of the dead ‘regrettable casualties of war,’ as the denialists have it.
There is so much detail in this book: how the deportees lived, how they got from A to B, and most important of all, how some of them survived. It is an important book for those who have a limited understanding of how the Genocide was carried out and for scholars alike. Mouradian has included excerpts from first-hand accounts which are written with eye-popping detail. Ultimately, even if you thought you knew the history of the Armenian Genocide, this book will send chills down your spine.