The History of the Armenian Genocide: Ethnic Conflict from the Balkans to Anatolia to the Caucasus / Empires in Conflict: Armenia and the Great Powers, 1895-1920

Article excerpt

The History of the Armenian Genocide: Ethnic Conflict from the Balkans to Anatolia to the Caucasus, by Vahakn N. Dadrian. Providence and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 1995. xxviii + 423 pages. Append. to p. 427. Bibl. to p. 446. Index to p. 452. $39.95. Empires in Conflict: Armenia and the Great Powers, 1895-1920, by Manoug J. Somakian. London and New York: I.B. Tauris Publishers, 1995. xi + 258 pages. Bibl. to p. 269. Index to p. 276. $59.50.

Reviewed by Rouben P. Adalian

The coincidental publication of the Dadrian and Somakian volumes once again brings into focus the turbulent final years of the Ottoman Empire. Both books explore the fate of the Armenians and observe it within the context of the rivalry of the Great Powers, especially Germany, Great Britain and Russia, as they vied to influence the destiny of the declining Ottoman Empire. Dadrian probes a broader period, 1856 to 1923, and offers the more penetrating analysis. It would be unfair, however, to compare Empires in Conflict, Somakian's first work, with Dadrian's History of the Armenian Genocide, which represents the author's culminating synthesis of a lifetime of research on the difficult subject of the extermination of the Armenian population in Ottoman Turkey.

Dadrian's work has to be read on at least two levels of analysis. The first focuses on the legal principles by which states behaved in the 19th and early 20th centuries in order to conduct foreign relations, pursue their domestic policies and overseas ambitions, and effectuate their influence in remote capitals. In a remarkable tour de force, Dadrian explains every legal argument invoked by the Ottoman rulers and the Great Powers, both from the body of domestic laws and of international agreements, that, over the course of the years, was applied to resolving, peaceably or brutally, what became known as the Armenian Question. The disregard, and on occasion the outright defiance, of these laws and international treaties, which were binding on their signatories, but whose inconvenient provisions were allowed to lapse, constitute the matrix within which Dadrian places the unfolding drama of the series of atrocities which, in his view, ineluctably culminated in the deliberate formulation of a policy targeting wholesale the entire Armenian population during World War I.

Three fundamentally significant aspects of the history of the period, as reconstructed by Dadrian, bear mentioning. The first concerns the concept of "humanitarian intervention" as it evolved in specific application to the case of the Armenians. Dadrian argues repeatedly that the failure of the Great Powers to enforce the provisions of international covenants, such as the 1878 Treaty of Berlin, which provided for a measure of security for the Armenian population, contributed dangerously to the escalation of the atrocities committed against the Armenians. Dadrian maintains that such failure increased the vulnerability of an exposed population by demonstrating amply, to the satisfaction of each Turkish regime, the incapacity of the Powers to act collectively in times of serious danger to the Armenians. He also maintains that the countervailing and preeminent principle of sovereignty and the immunity enjoyed by state authorities, in the context of aggravated inter-ethnic relations, became the source of impunity.

Dadrian argues that there is a history to the Armenian genocide. The term genocide as applied to the Armenian case does not embody only, as is generally understood, the singularly mortifying policies implemented by the Young Turks in 1915. Rather, the very large-scale destruction of life observed during World War I is consistent with a pattern originating in the series of massacres of Armenians organized during the reign of `Abd al-Hamid II in the mid-1890s, which remained a recurring phenomenon right up to the final military campaign waged by the Kemalist forces against the short-lived Republic of Armenia in 1920. …