"They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else": A History of the Armenian Genocide

By Jenkins, Philip | The Christian Century, April 29, 2015 | Go to article overview

"They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else": A History of the Armenian Genocide


Jenkins, Philip, The Christian Century


"They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else": A History of the Armenian Genocide

By Ronald Grigor Suny

Princeton University Press, 520 pp., $35-00

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A century ago, at the height of World War I, the Ottoman Empire decided to eliminate its substantial minority of Armenian Christians. In the ensuing massacres and deportations, at least a million people died, probably more. Outside Turkey few deny the scale of the violence or the intent of the perpetrators. This was a deliberate genocide, comparable in kind to the Jewish Shoah of the 1940s.

Beyond that bare fact, much remains to be debated. Above all, why did the Turks make such an appalling decision when the Armenians had for so long been productive and loyal imperial subjects? Had the genocide been plotted for decades beforehand, or did it arise from circumstances immediately surrounding the final decision? (That debate is, of course, familiar to scholars of Nazi atrocities against the Jews.) What role, if any, did Islam play in the violence, which was overwhelmingly committed by Muslim soldiers and militias against a solidly Christian populace?

Making that question more acute is the comparable violence that the regime inflicted in these same years on some other Christian minorities, especially the Assyrians. Should we classify such actions alongside other acts of jihad against unbelievers? The regime that ordered the massacres was anything but Islamist, and since the coup of 1908 it had been committed to a speedy modernization of the crumbling empire. Should we attribute the crime to fundamentalist religion or to intolerant modernizing nationalism?

Study of the Armenian genocide has attracted many fine scholars, but Ronald Grigor Suny's book stands out for many reasons, not least the author's extensive use of archives and his strictly current survey of the literature. An experienced historian of the Soviet Union, Suny does a fine job of critically navigating among the various myths and claims surrounding these events. His discussion of the controversies is judicious and convincing. This is an excellent book, a cogent piece of scholarship. It has much to offer anyone interested in contemporary debates about religious freedom and human rights worldwide.

Readers might be surprised to find that Suny begins to discuss the events of the genocide--the deportations and killings--only two-thirds of the way through the book. That allocation of space is an excellent decision on the author's part. It reflects his awareness that any worthwhile account of the events of 1915 has to be rooted in earlier eras of history, deep into the previous century. Throughout, Suny places the events of 1915 firmly in the context of nationalist and separatist politics. He is very good on the emergence of new kinds of national consciousness among both the Armenians and the Turks; his account of emerging Armenian consciousness is as good and as concise as anything I have seen.

Turks reconstructed their identities on the basis of who they were themselves and who their deadly foes were. As Suny shows, throughout the late 19th century an increasingly embattled Turkish elite was rethinking its ideologies of power in the face of an overwhelming threat from Western Christian powers. In order to retain their grip on the empire's territorial core, the court and the ruling elite redefined their concepts of loyalty so that Christian minorities were stigmatized as aliens and traitors, very much as Germans later viewed Jews. Religious rivalries played some role in that new formulation, but they were outweighed by xenophobic nationalism linked to new racial concepts. By the turn of the century, some Turks used biological metaphors to describe minorities as germs requiring scientific eradication.

New patterns of hatred became horrifically apparent in the massacres of Armenians carried out in 1894 and 1895 by order of the appalling sultan Abdul Hamid II, which claimed a quarter of a million lives. …

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