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A Perfect Injustice: Genocide and Theft of Armenian Wealth (review)

From: Genocide Studies and Prevention
Volume 5, Number 2, Summer 2010
pp. 223-227 | 10.1353/gsp.2010.0000

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Between 1895 and 1955, Ottoman Armenians suffered enormous loss of life and property as a result of pogroms, massacres, and other forms of mass violence. The 1915 Armenian Genocide can be seen as the zenith of this process of decline and destruction. It consisted of a series of genocidal strategies: the mass executions of elites, categorical deportations, forced assimilation, destruction of material culture, an artificially created famine, and, last but not least, collective dispossession. The state-orchestrated plunder of Armenians immediately pauperized the victims; this was at once a condition for and a consequence of the genocide. The Young Turk political elite launched this process of societal and economic transformation in order to establish a Turkish nation-state with a robust economy under ethnic Turkish dominion. As part of this process, the ethnically heterogeneous Ottoman economic universe was subjected to comprehensive and violent forms of ethnic homogenization. The redistribution of Armenian wealth—including shops, farms, churches, cash, jewelry, precious metals, fields, factories, and schools—was an essential part of this process. The genocide ripped apart the fabric of urban, provincial, and national economies, destroying market relationships and maiming economic patterns that had endured for many centuries.

The field of Armenian Genocide studies is rapidly developing. The publication of several important monographs in the past decade has opened up new ground with respect to the organization of the mass violence, the international context of imperialism, the national context of ethnic homogenization, and various rescue efforts. But so far there exists no detailed treatment of the expropriation of Ottoman Armenians as a component of the genocide. This highly significant aspect of the event still needs to be properly understood. In A Perfect Injustice: Genocide and Theft of Armenian Wealth, Hrayr Karagueuzian and Yair Auron aim to fill this gap by exploring the confiscation of Armenian life-insurance policies by the Young Turk government. From a broader thematic perspective, the authors tackles two important questions in genocide research: How are victims of genocide dispossessed? How do third parties behave in this process of plunder? Their book provides an interesting but fragmented discussion that has both merits and shortcomings.

A Perfect Injustice consists of ten short chapters addressing some of the key debates around Armenian life insurance. Chapter one is an overview of Armenian history from the late nineteenth century to the period of the genocide. Chapter two demonstrates that on the eve of the genocide, thousands of Armenians bought life insurance from various European and American companies. Chapter three gives an overview of the insurers' counterclaims against Armenian claims for restitution, and chapter four highlights how the Young Turk regime attempted to collect the benefits from these life-insurance policies after it had murdered those insured. Chapter five charts how insurance companies held Turkey liable for the deaths of their policy holders and pressured their foreign ministries to pursue this agenda. In chapter six, the authors develop a legal argument, using the 1915 sinking of the British passenger ship Lusitania as a "mini-precedent," while chapter seven discusses the realpolitik of "dollar diplomacy" in the wake of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. Chapter eight poses the question of whether Armenians' unclaimed life-insurance policies are still recoverable. Finally, chapters nine and ten explore the 1915 and 1916 deposits to the Reichsbank, distinguishing two separate deposits, the latter of which, they argue, was of confiscated Armenian money. A conclusion rounds out the volume.

This book has many merits. It includes quotations from the letters, legal texts, and protocols of various insurance companies that lift the veil on how the companies behaved toward their Armenian clients when the latter were being persecuted and murdered. Karagueuzian requested undisclosed documents from New York Life (NYL) on the company's transactions with Ottoman Armenians, and even received copies of some of them. NYL's internal correspondence demonstrates that the company knew of the Armenians' fate but willfully prevaricated toward the public to avoid incurring losses. For example, on 20 November 1922 NYL vice president Thomas A. Buckner wrote to the US secretary of state, Charles E. Hughes, that "much of this insurance . . . was written upon the lives of subject peoples, such as the Armenians and others who have...