An authoritative examination of unspeakable horrors.
A century after the elimination of millions of Armenians from the Ottoman Empire, Suny (History/Univ. of Michigan; The Structure of Soviet History: Essays and Documents, 2013, etc.) unequivocally calls the event “genocide,” as distinguished from ethnic cleansing, purges and other forms of mass killing. “Genocide,” he writes, “is not the murder of people but the murder of a people.” His deeply researched, fair-minded study probes the “two separate, contradictory narratives” of the event that still persist: the Turkish denial of genocide, representing the killings as a rational response to a rebellious, traitorous population that threatened the survival of the state; and Armenian characterization of the tragedy as the ferocious determination of imperialist Turkish Muslims to rid the empire of non-Muslims. Drawing on archival sources, Suny, whose great-grandparents were victims of the massacre, thoroughly traces “the genealogy of attitudes and behaviors” and the historical context “that triggered a deadly, pathological response to real and imagined immediate and future dangers.” For hundreds of years, he writes, Armenians, although subjects of the Muslim state, were integrated into a multinational empire. As nationalist and reform movements arose in the 19th century, however, Ottoman rulers legitimized their position by identifying certain populations—in this case, non-Muslim Armenians, Greeks and Jews—as inferior, devious and subversive. Armenian intellectuals’ affinity for European ideas and “a powerful sense of secular nationality” made the ethnic group especially suspect. Late in the century, Armenians’ victimization by Ottomans came to the attention of European powers, which further fueled Muslims’ conception of them as alien and alienated. From 1894-1896, extensive massacres intimated what would occur later, when the militant Young Turks envisioned an ethnonational state that required the extermination of non-Turks, a policy exacerbated by social, political and economic chaos at the start of World War I.
Identifying the Ottomans’ decisive choices, Suny creates a compelling narrative of vengeance and terror.