- “They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else”: A History of the Armenian Genocide by Ronald Grigor Suny
No reputable scholar today questions the fact that the Young Turk regime in 1915–1916 deported and attempted to murder most of the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian population. Credible scholars also eschew Armenian perspectives that “essentialize” the Turks or argue that the Young Turk leadership had any intent to kill the Armenians prior to 1915. The calamitous Ottoman defeats during the Great War radicalized the Young Turk leaders while providing them with the rationale to attack those they imagined to be their internal enemies (Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians, and others). Only the Armenians, however, were to be eradicated from Ottoman lands, for they emerged, as Ronald Suny repeatedly observes, as the “existential” enemy in the minds of the Young Turks.
How did the Young Turk leadership, especially the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) and its ruling triumvirate (the “three Pashas”—Enver, Cemal, and Talat) arrive at the decision to massacre the Armenians? Suny explains: “The Young Turks’ sense of their own vulnerability—combined with resentment at what they took to be Armenians’ privileged status, Armenian dominance over Muslims in some spheres of life, and the preference of many Armenians for Christian Russia—fed a fantasy that the Armenians presented an existential threat to the Turks” (p. 361). That the Young Turks would launch a campaign of annihilation against the Armenians would, prior to the First World War, have appeared inconceivable. Suny sees the Hamidian massacres (1894–96) and the attacks on Armenians in Adana (1909) not as precursors to genocide, but rather as examples of the “exemplary repression” (p. 131) long practiced against the Empire’s minority subjects in order to punish real and imagined opposition. The Ottoman regime employed population engineering—perhaps a crude form of ethnic cleansing—in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to make lands, especially in eastern Anatolia, available for Muslim muhacirs (refugees) from the Caucasus and the Balkans (pp. 21–22).
Despite the indignities and systemic equalities the Armenians suffered prior to the reign of Sultan Abdulhamid II (1878–1909)—during which conditions deteriorated for all Christians in Ottoman lands—they had long lived in a state of “benign symbiosis” with the Turks (p. 45). Even in the face of their increasing marginalization during the Hamidian era, many Armenians, especially those following the socialist and Armenian nationalist Dashnaktsutyun political movement, found many areas of agreement with the CUP. After all, the Young Turks were “Ottoman modernizers” who initiated a series of reform efforts during the last decades of Ottoman rule (see chapters 2 and 3) and loathed Abdulhamid.
The first seven chapters of Suny’s “They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else” offer erudite narratives of emergent nationalisms (both Turkish and [End Page 495] Armenian) in the Ottoman Empire: the competition for land and scarce resources in eastern Anatolia (widespread plunder accompanied the later genocide, as it did, of course, in the Holocaust); the Balkan Wars and the arrival of ever more Muslim refugees requiring resettlement; and the “internationalization” of the Armenian question, culminating in the appointment, forced by the European powers, of two outside inspectors over the six Armenian vilayets, or provinces, in 1914. Ottoman military defeats at the beginning of the World War I radically altered the worldview of the CUP leadership; the experience of total war “allowed them, indeed in their minds required them, to eliminate whole peoples.” It created a “pathological response to real and imagined immediate and future dangers.” This Suny describes as the “affective disposition” of the future génocidaires (p. xx).
Perhaps the most original element of Suny’s examination of the background to the genocide is his attempt to map the mental world of the Young Turk leadership. In his assessment, the “emotional world” of those at the “top of the state” increasingly viewed the Armenians as “foreign, deceptive, and treacherous.” He continues: “It is...