Martin van Bruinessen’s response in MERIP Reports 127 (October 1984) contains innuendos and inaccuracies which make it an unacceptable last word on the Armenian question.
Van Bruinessen equates Armenian and Turkish views of the mass killings of Armenians under the heading of “dogmatized versions.” In so doing, he ignores many eyewitness accounts of the mass murders of Armenians beginning in 1894 and continuing through Atatürk’s conquest of Smyrna in 1922. These accounts are not limited to those of Armenian survivors. They were recorded by people as varied as missionaries, ambassadors, military attaches and advisers, journalists, teachers, travelers and businessmen.
Van Bruinessen also fails to note the findings of the Permanent People’s Tribunal which convened in Paris in April 1984 to hear testimony on the Armenian genocide. Richard Falk, James Petras and George Wald represented the US in a group which included Nobel Peace Prize winners Sean McBride and Adolfo Perez Esquivel. Its verdict condemns the Young Turk government for its act of genocide committed against the Armenian people during the years 1915-1917. The Tribunal specifically considered and rejected, on the weight of the historical evidence, Turkish claims that the deaths of Armenians were a response to Armenian rebellion and the inevitable result of life in the war zones of eastern Anatolia.
Contrary to van Bruinessen’s claim, Armenians do not “usually remain silent about” acts of resistance in Van and other areas of eastern Anatolia before the spring of 1915. Undertaken in a context of extortion, kidnapping, forced marriage, rape and murder, they are precisely the sorts of actions which oppressed peoples the world over have pointed to with pride. Nonetheless, the record makes it clear that these were exceptional acts and the vast majority of Armenians remained loyal to the Ottoman Empire.
Van Bruinessen relies upon the Shaws’ History of the Ottoman Empire and of Modern Turkey. Yet this book has been widely criticized for historical inaccuracies, and its handling of the Armenian genocide is a restatement of official Turkish denials and coverups.
Determination of the precise number of victims of an act of genocide committed nearly 70 years ago in a remote area certainly poses difficulties. Van Bruinessen offers the vague figure of “hundreds of thousands,” and employs two techniques to argue that claims of a million or more victims are exaggerated. First he separates those who were killed outright from those who perished from hunger or typhus. When we understand that it was forbidden to feed or otherwise care for Armenian deportees, the distinction made by van Bruinessen becomes artificial, and starvation and disease emerge as policies of extermination. Second, van Bruinessen employs the lowest estimate of pre-war Armenians in Anatolia and the highest estimate of survivors. When these considerations are factored in, the few hundreds of thousands implied by van Bruinessen become many.
I was puzzled by Martin van Bruinessen’s claim (MERIP Reports 127) that my book Armenia: The Survival of a Nation was “highly dependent upon Armenian publications.” Of all my sources (just under 1,000) I calculate that slightly over 29 percent of them are Armenian, almost all of which are eyewitnesses, or scholars who have examined the evidence clearly. If Van Bruinessen can find in my book a single dud reference on a contentious matter I would be glad to hear of it.
As we differ on mathematics, so do we differ on who is or is not impartial in the debate. I was not aware that Gwynne Dyer was ever interested in examining any version of the events other than the Turkish until a couple of letters in the journal he wrote in suggested that there might be an alternative version. His article on “Turkish ‘Falsifiers’ and Armenian ‘Deceivers’” was, by appearing impartial, the cleverest form of partisanship. At least I do not claim to be “impartial,” because after examination of the evidence, I have been unable to discover what the other side is which one should be impartial to.
As for Van Bruinessen’s version of the events of 1915, I wonder what he is referring to as “acts of violence…before…the massacres.” Neither the revolt in Van nor the establishment of the Volunteer Regiments nor Armenian treachery in Cilicia fit into that category. And if there were no massacres as state policy, but merely localized killings, why are supporters of the Turkish version so keen to identify Armenian provocation before April-May 1915? There seems to be little point in attempting to prove provocation to an act which did not happen. Finally, it would be helpful to everyone if those who enter the dispute about 1915-1916 could read at least part of two collections of prime documents: the Bryce-Toynbee collection, The Treatment of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire (1916), and Johannes Lepsius’ Deutschland und Armenien, 1914-1918 (1919).
Christopher J. Walker
Issues of your journal have recently come to hand. It was a pleasant surprise to read the lead article by David Barchard in the February 1984 issue. I have for some time now despaired of finding in any American journal or magazine an article questioning the censorship, or worse, self-censorship in the American press of news from Turkey.
On the heels of this fine Barchard piece it was all the more strange to find injected into an article on the Kurds, by Martin van Bruinessen (and expanded in his response to a letter in the October 1984 issue) an “evenhanded” view of the Armenian exterminations (as they were accurately called in 1915).
Van Bruinessen’s sources are certainly skewed! The Dyer article, which dwells for the most part on my book on the burning of Smyrna in 1922, may be subtler than most, but it is about as “evenhanded” as Commentary articles on Israel. It is certainly odd that van Bruinessen takes the Kurdish point of view without feeling any need for being “evenhanded” by giving the Turkish “apology” (and rightly so), but insists on impartiality when it comes to the Armenians. Perhaps this is because the Turks have not yet had time to make up an “apology,” or rationale, viz the Kurds, though you may be sure that in time they will; they simply have their hands full (historically) rewriting documents and census figures and establishing a brand new past when it comes to the years of World War I and the Armenians.
Marjorie Housepian Dobkin
New York City
Martin van Bruinessen responds: The main thrust of these letters is not so much directed against my position on the Armenian massacres as against the Turkish one, from which I think I disassociated myself clearly enough. They do not, on the other hand, address the few points I raised in trying to explain why I do not subscribe to the more extreme Armenian claims either. I sympathize with Walker’s partiality to the victims of the massacres, but I fail to see why this should warrant a partial attitude toward sources. The list of works he consulted is certainly impressive, but the bias shows in what is lacking or rejected out of hand as “pro-Turkish.” Turkish sources are conspicuously absent, and so are most Western sources that do not, for whatever reason, endorse the Armenian view. Although more careful than many others, Walker repeats common exaggerations; he is moreover so convinced of the “predetermined extermination by Turkish racists” thesis that he neglects to review other circumstances that may contribute to explain why and how the massacres took place.
I am aware of the bias in the Shaws’ account (which I called “basically an enlightened version of the Turkish view”), and what I quote and rely upon is not their analysis but archival materials that they were the first to publish, notably the results of the Ottoman census of 1914. I see no reason to dismiss these key demographic data as inaccurate, nor does Chorbajian try to offer any. I quoted these data not because they happen to be “the lowest estimate,” but because they are based on actual counts, and probably the best data available. Simple arithmetic shows that the number of those killed, or even of all Armenians who perished during the war, cannot have exceeded a million. Incidentally, I do not believe that killing, say, half a million people is only half as bad as killing a million, and I fail to understand why my calculations should give so much offense. I tried to be balanced, but do not pretend to say anything final, as Chorbajian seems to believe. An accurate last word on the Armenian question, especially on the extent to which the massacres were actually planned by the Young Turk leaders, is not yet possible as long as the Turkish archives remain closed.