Nick Danforth – The Armenian Genocide’s Samantha Power Problem

Armenian genocide victims
A picture released by the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute dated
1915 purportedly shows soldiers standing over skulls of victims from the
Armenian village of Sheyxalan during the First World War

We are living strange times. Although both Nazi and communist ideologies have made tens of millions of victims, we still have Nazi and communist adepts on one side, and Gulag and Holocaust deniers on the other. Besides, we have the fanatics, on both sides. Even today, Lavrov, the Russian (I almost said Soviet) foreign minister, was vehement about the (unproven information) that Americans instigated one of the East European countries to tear down one of the monuments dedicated to the (supposedly heroic) Soviet Army, while at the same time denying that they are the natural heirs of the Soviet empire, that Putin in foolishly and violently trying to rebuild, as we can see these days in Ukraine.

Things are not different with the Armenian Genocide that we are commemorating these days. One one side we have the Middle Ages-like Turkish regime of Erdogan, which continues to deny the primes of the Young Turks in 1915, while of the other side we have fanatic Armenian nationalists, who are trying, at any cost, to oversimplify things and to present the whole matter as merely anti-Christian persecution, denying the role played in these tragic events by the Armenian insurgents, who followed the example of various Christians nations in the Balkans who obtained – in most cases by violence, their legitimate independence from under the oppression exercised by the Ottoman Empire. Armenians in Eastern Turkey, a territory which for many centuries, even before the time of Christ, belonged to Armenia, until it was occupied by force by the Turks.

No surprise then that Armenians (in an absolutely legitimate way, I believe) tried to obtain their independence, if needed by the use of force, while Ataturk’s Young Turks, tried to hold on at any price – even that of genocide – to the leftovers of their damned empire.

This is, more or less, the argument of a well written article published by Nick Danforth in Foreign Policy. Danforth wraps his argument around a critique of Samantha Power’s 2002 book A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, which I choose to ignore here, as my interest is more on the facts of the genocide and their overall implications, than in their interpretation, in a way that tries either to accuse or to excuse the obvious American inaction on these tragic events. I am sure Danforth’s nuanced approach might not satisfy genocide fanatics, but I could not care less about that, as I could not care less about Turkey being upset about those, including Pope Francis, who openly use the hated g-word.

Here are, in my estimation, some of the most important passages in this text. The author is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Georgetown University studying 20th-century Turkey. He writes about Middle East politics, history, and maps at Afternoon Map.

* * *

…as we prepare to commemorate the Armenian genocide on its April 24 centenary, we should also reflect on the risks of reducing history to simple morality tales. When U.S. bureaucrats use the ambiguity of events in Bosnia to excuse their inaction, or when Turkish denialists use the complexity of what happened in 1915 to whitewash Ottoman atrocities, creating the clearest possible counter-narrative can seem like a moral duty. But in detailing the efforts by President Bill Clinton’s administration to avoid taking action in Yugoslavia, Power inadvertently shows why confronting ambiguity, rather than ignoring it, can make rationalized indifference less likely to win out in the future.

Understanding the more complex history of the Armenian genocide doesn’t diminish its horror or absolve its perpetrators. Instead, it gives us a firmer foundation for confronting genocide today and tomorrow by preparing the public for the fact that evil and ambiguity can coexist.

On the subject of 1915, some things are not ambiguous: In the past decade, Turkish and non-Turkish historians have become ever more successful in confronting official Turkish censorship in order to write openly about the Armenian genocide. As a result, a wealth of recent scholarship eliminates any doubt about the Ottoman government’s genocidal intent in ordering the death by deportation of more than 1 million Armenian citizens. But that’s not the end of the story. Ironically, by refusing to meet reality halfway all these years, Turkey undermined the very scholars who could have given the Ottomans a fair hearing. In suppressing any scholarship that deviated from a strict denialist line, Ankara ensured that even the most simplistic or anti-Turkish accounts of the genocide would seem legitimate in comparison with its account.

Until recently, Turkish pressure made it difficult for all but a few historians to publicly acknowledge the genocide while also presenting it in context, complete with a more thorough account of Ottoman motivations that includes the reality of systematic violence against Ottoman Muslims as well. This full version of history angers not only Turkish nationalists, long bent on denying any evidence of their country’s wrongdoing, but also many Armenians, who believe that evidence of Christian crimes against Turks negates the purity or even reality of their victimhood. As a result, Turks claim that what happened in 1915 was war, not genocide. And Armenians, with understandable anger, respond that it was genocide, not war.

In fact, almost every scholarly treatment of the subject makes clear that genocide is quite frequently committed in the context of civil war or insurrection and often has frighteningly “rational” motives for parties in these conflicts. In Rwanda, Darfur, and Bosnia, to name just a few examples, war and genocide were closely related, as militarily weak states engaged in what they believed to be existential conflicts against internal enemies.

The Holocaust differed from this pattern. The internal enemy existed only in the Nazi’s anti-Semitic imagination, which is why it often proves such a troubling reference point in Armenian-genocide debates. It becomes clear in countless Turkish statements that the unique outrage over the word “genocide” is often over the implied comparison to the Nazis. Armenian rhetoric, in turn, can exacerbate this comparison, suggesting, for example, that for Turks to be angry about crimes committed against their ancestors is equivalent to Germans mourning the soldiers killed in the Warsaw Uprising.

You may read the rest of this article at this link above.


Author: DanutM

Anglican theologian. Former Director for Faith and Development Middle East and Eastern Europe Region of World Vision International

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