The causes and consequences of a crime against humanity.
Journalist, historian and senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, de Waal (The Caucasus: An Introduction, 2010, etc.) investigates an event still “highly politicized,” although it occurred a century ago: the massacre of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915 and 1916. Drawing on archival sources, interviews, contemporary newspaper accounts and current scholarship, the author assesses the context, and political and cultural aftermaths, of the atrocity that Armenians insist was genocide, an accusation that Turkey has consistently denied. De Waal presents evidence that the ruthless killings did not result from hatred and paranoia on the parts of all Turks and Kurds but rather were fomented by Turkish Unionist leaders intent on pushing the country into modernity. As one historian argued, some mass atrocities have been incited when a minority identified as “primitive” is “perceived as a threat and ultimately destroyed.” The Armenian narrative about the massacre became complicated after 1944, when a Polish-Jewish lawyer coined the term “genocide,” which he defined as “the mass slaughter of a national group.” In 1948, the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which stipulated that acts against the victim group were punishable if “committed with intent to destroy.” Turkey hotly denied that “intent” could be proved. Later, with increased attention on the Holocaust, the term “genocide” generated controversy when Holocaust survivors and historians objected to its application to anything other than the Nazi extermination of Jews. For generations, what to call the event has made a Turkish-Armenian dialogue impossible.
In this measured study, De Waal asserts his optimism that young scholars, freed from past narratives and drawing upon “hidden histories of the Armenians,” will amplify what is known about the late Ottoman period and complicate a history that both sides have tried mightily to own. A perfect scholarly complement to Meline Toumani’s outstanding memoir, There Was and There Was Not (2014).