My home country, New Zealand, was privileged last week to be visited by an eminent historian from the United States. Professor Jay Winter teaches at Yale University, and is said to be an authority on the First World War,
Well he had nice but sad things to say about New Zealand’s contribution to that horrendous conflict. It seems servicemen from my country died in greater numbers relative to population than those of any other combatant nation – a dubious honour, you’d have to think. Does that make our boys braver, more stupid, or just unlucky?
In the interview I read, Prof. Winter then proceeded to devote a lot of words to making a connection between New Zealand’s joining the ill-fated Gallipoli invasion, and another tragedy of the “Great” War, the deaths of thousands of Armenian civilians. The link is the date: 24 April is when Armenians remember the day in 1915 when their ancestors in SE Anatolia were rounded up by the Ottoman government and forced to “relocate” to what is now Syria, a lot of them dying on the way. On 25 April in the same year, the British Empire, following a plan championed by War Minister, Winston Churchill, landed on the beaches of the Gallipoli Peninsula in a vain attempt to take the Ottoman Empire out of the war.
Prof Winter seems to think he has found something very new and exciting, as every academic dreams of doing. Possibly in his professional writing he actually does manage to make some hitherto unnoticed link that will shine the unequivocal light of day on matters that remain highly contentious. After all, says the learned prof, “Historians are in the truth business.”
Naturally, historians, jealous of their professional reputation, would like to think so – but the sad reality is that history, like economics, is a social science, lending itself to interpretation according to the particular political or ideological lens one uses to view the “facts”. Prof Winter gives a clue to his real purpose in visiting NZ when he suggests that the country’s new “Labour” government may be amenable to joining the ranks of other self-righteous nations that have officially designated the Armenian tragedy “a genocide”, for which the modern Republic of Turkey should be held responsible.
He may be right. Self-styled left-wing parties in the wealthy First World, bereft of ideas for actually changing anything important in the lives of the planet’s 99%, tend to offer crumbs of trendy, fashionable issues to their diminishing ranks of supporters. Barack Obama, in his original presidential campaign, wooed the Armenian lobby, but changed tack later, for reasons best known to himself.
Wiser heads may win the day in NZ too, and not simply because they fear that offending Turkey may earn their globe-trotting citizens a chillier welcome on their annual pilgrimage to Anzac Cove on 25 April.
However sincere Prof Winter may be in his search for truth, certain aspects of this interview gave me cause for concern. First, it appeared on News Hub, a NZ news service that airs on TV Three and radio stations run by MediaWorks. A little digging turned up the interesting fact that MediaWorks is a New Zealand-based television, radio and interactive media company entirely owned by Oaktree Capital Management. And Oaktree Capital Management, according to Wikipedia, “is an American global asset management firm specialising in alternative investment strategies. It is the largest distressed investor in the world, and one of the largest credit investors in the world.”
Nothing necessarily wrong with that, of course. Everyone has to make a living, and I’m sorry to hear those guys are distressed. However, the page where that interview appeared contained a link to another article praising “a young Kiwi historian” James Robins, who is apparently “grappl[ing] with the fact that no New Zealand Government has ever formally recognised the genocide of Armenians”. Mr Robins’s “grappling” is supported by a “genocide expert”, Maria Amoudian, and an American heavy metal musician Serj Tankian.
In the interests of academic objectivity, we might want to also take a look at the work of researchers with less obvious connections to the Armenian diaspora.
One such is Edward J Erickson, a retired regular US Army officer at the Marine Corps University in Virginia, recognised as an authority on the Ottoman Army during the First World War. He makes some interesting points in a paper entitled “The Armenian Relocations and OttomanNational Security: Military Necessity or Excuse for Genocide?” I’m quoting a chunk from it, but you really need to read the whole document. It’s only 8 pages long.
“The historical context that led to the events of 1915 is crucial for understanding the framework within which the relocation decision was cast. There are four main historical antecedents that must be understood in order to establish this context:
- the activities of the Armenian revolutionary committees (particularly the Dashnaks);
- the activities of outside powers supporting the Armenian committees;
- the contemporary counter-insurgency practices used by the Great Powers; and
- the Ottoman counter-insurgency policies and practices in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
“Many historians view the outbreak of the First World War as the proximate cause of what some historians refer to as the Armenian Genocide, others as massacres and relocations, and still others as the Events of 1915. To this day, interpretations of this question remain hotly contested by the advocates of the opposing positions. However, both sides agree on the fact that the Ottoman approach to the problem of quelling an insurgency clearly and dramatically changed in 1915 when it shifted from a historical policy of kinetic direct action by large-scale military forces to a new policy of population relocation. The problem then becomes that of explaining how the First World War created the drivers of change that caused this fundamental policy shift. Similarly to the four elements of the historical context, there were also four principal drivers of change created by the war:
- the actuality of an insurrection by the Armenian revolutionary committees;
- the actuality of allied interventions and support;
- the locations of the Armenian population as an existential threat to Ottoman national security; and
- the inability of the Ottomans to mass large forces effectively and rapidly to quell the insurgency.
“With respect to the question of whether the relocation was necessary for reason of Ottoman national security in the First World War, the answer is clearly yes. There was a direct threat by the small but capable Armenian revolutionary committees to the lines of communications upon which the logistics of the Ottoman armies on three fronts depended. There was a real belief by the government that the consequences of failing to supply adequately its armies that were contact with the Russians, in particular, surely would lead to the defeat of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman high command believed it could not take that chance. Pressed by the imperative of national survival to implement an immediate counterinsurgency strategy and operational solution, and in the absence of traditionally available large-scale military forces, the Ottomans chose a strategy based on relocation— itself a highly effective practice pioneered by the Great Powers. The relocation of the Armenian population and the associated destruction of the Armenian revolutionary committees ended an immediate existential threat to the Ottoman state. Although the empire survived to fight on until late 1918 unfortunately thousands of Armenians did not survive the relocation. Correlation is not causation and the existing evidence suggests that the decisions leading to the Armenian relocations in 1915 were reflexive, escalatory, and militarily necessary, rather than simply a convenient excuse for genocide.
Another article you might want to take a look at appeared in The Washington Times, in 2007, around the time Barack Obama was running hot on the Armenian issue.
“Armenian crimes against humanity and war crimes against the Ottoman Turkish and Kurdish populations of eastern and southern Anatolia during World War I and its aftermath have been forgotten amidst congressional preoccupation with placating the vocal and richly financed Armenian lobby.
“Capt. Emory Niles and Arthur Sutherland, on an official 1919 U.S. mission to eastern Anatolia, reported: “In the entire region from Bitlis through Van to Bayezit, we were informed that the damage and destruction had been done by the Armenians, who, after the Russians retired, remained in occupation of the country and who, when the Turkish army advanced, destroyed everything belonging to the Musulmans. Moreover, the Armenians are accused of having committed murder, rape, arson and horrible atrocities of every description upon the Musulman population. At first, we were most incredulous of these stories, but we finally came to believe them, since the testimony was absolutely unanimous and was corroborated by material evidence. For instance, the only quarters left at all intact in the cities of Bitlis and Van are Armenian quarters … while the Musulman quarters were completely destroyed.”
“Niles and Sutherland were fortified by American and German missionaries on the spot in Van. American Clarence Ussher reported that Armenians put the Turkish men “to death,” and, for days, “They burned and murdered.” A German missionary recalled that, “The memory of these entirely helpless Turkish women, defeated and at the mercy of the [Armenians] belongs to the saddest recollections from that time.”
“A March 23, 1920, letter of Col. Charles Furlong, an Army intelligence officer and U.S. Delegate to the Paris Peace Conference, to President Woodrow Wilson elaborated: “We hear much, both truth and gross exaggeration of Turkish massacres of Armenians, but little or nothing of the Armenian massacres of Turks. … The recent so-called Marash massacres [of Armenians] have not been substantiated. In fact, in the minds of many who are familiar with the situation, there is a grave question whether it was not the Turk who suffered at the hands of the Armenian and French armed contingents which were known to be occupying that city and vicinity. … Our opportunity to gain the esteem and respect of the Muslim world … will depend much on whether America hears Turkey’s untrammeled voice and evidence which she has never succeeded in placing before the Court of Nations.”
“The United States neglected Col. Furlong’s admonition in 1920, and again last Wednesday. Nothing seems to have changed from those days, when Christian lives were more precious than the lives of the “infidels.”
Will we ever know the truth? Who knows? But one thing is for sure: if you want to stand a chance of learning it, you need to keep an open mind and do your own searching. And beware of “expert” historians (and economists).