Anyone writing a book on the Armenian Question obviously likes a challenge, is naïve, or has not done it before and therefore does not know what to expect. Assuredly, Michael Gunter does know what to expect. Even with the best of intentions, however, books on this subject are doomed never to satisfy everyone. If the author goes too far for one side, he does not go far enough for the other. In this book, however, Professor Gunter makes an attempt to find common ground between two historically polarized positions.
The book opens in the nineteenth century, with the development of the Armenian Question as a subset of the Eastern Question. His method is to present conflicting versions of the same history under the general headings of "the Armenian Position" and "the Turkish Position." This has its merits but will still leave readers wondering what actually happened at many points in this tangled history. For example, under the Turkish Position, he does not challenge David Lang's allegation under the heading of the Armenian Position that at least 200,000 and perhaps a quarter of a million Armenians died between 1894 and 1896 (p. 5). The reader needs to know that these figures have no foundation in reality. The author paraphrases Armenian claims about the role of Sultan Abdulhamid, writing that he "sat by approvingly" as Armenians were being massacred in the eastern provinces (p. 4). This reinforces the stock accusation that not just Abdulhamid but other sultans approved the massacre of Christians in the nineteenth century. In a short book, allowances have to be made for space limitations, but these are serious charges, and Professor Gunter needed to deal with them. There is no evidence that any sultan approved of massacres. They certainly took place, but blaming the sultan is no substitute for analyzing the complex causes lying behind each. Needless to say, Muslims themselves were also the victims of massacres and often in far greater numbers than the Christians. Abdulhamid certainly ordered the suppression of uprisings, but there is no evidence that he "approved" of massacres and almost certainly he did not. Under the Turkish Position, Professor Gunter repeats the claim that the sultan "ignorantly turned loose the mobs on the Armenians in the capital" after the seizure of the Ottoman Bank in Istanbul by Armenian militants in 1896 (p. 8). Once again, there is no evidence of the sultan's doing this, ignorantly or otherwise. It was an accusation making the diplomatic rounds that was picked up by missionaries and the pro-Armenia movement in Britain.
On the other hand, Professor Gunter deals effectively with the reality of Armenian rebellion in the late nineteenth century. He shows that Armenian aspirations for self-government were not realistic in a situation in which they constituted — as Christians — a small minority among the Muslims. He refers to Armenian historian Louise Nalbandian (p. 8) to buttress the argument that the Armenian revolutionary parties used terror with the specific purpose of causing such chaos in the eastern Ottoman provinces that the European powers would be compelled to intervene. However, he refers too often to "the Turks" and "Turkish" when writing of the Ottoman Empire and conflicts in which people of various ethnoreligious backgrounds were caught up. Many of the upheavals in the east began as conflicts, not between Armenians and Turks, but Armenians and Kurds. The Kurdish aspect of the Armenian Question has yet to be fully developed. The Armenian revolutionary parties did succeed in inciting turmoil, but it was not followed by European intervention. Professor Gunter does not explain why, so it should perhaps be said here as an addendum — and as a warning to any Middle Eastern minority or rebel group still tempted to place its trust in a distant government — that the powers were interested in the Armenians only insofar as they fit into their broader interests. By the 1890s, they no longer did.
Having dealt with the nineteenth century, Professor Gunter moves on to the fate of the Armenians during World War I. Again, he runs through Armenian claims and Turkish rebuttals, referring to the wartime propaganda of James Bryce, a long-time foe of the Ottoman government and, indeed, Muslim governments anywhere. Given the task of flinging mud at the enemy, Bryce first produced a report on German atrocities in Belgium. Many of the most lurid accusations were later found to be without foundation. Bryce followed this report with a compilation of atrocity stories published under the heading, The Treatment of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire 1915-16. Professor Gunter argues that Bryce believed that what he was being told about the Ottomans was true. This is hard to accept. Bryce was a historian himself. Much of his report was based on hearsay, the partisan accounts of Armenians in Tiflis or somewhere else, and allegations made by unidentified correspondents writing from the scene. None of these claims could have been accepted as being "true" without the verification they all lacked. Bryce's claim that the reports came from people who "saw the events they describe" is not true in many, if not most, cases. Neither is it likely, as claimed by Bryce (but not mentioned by Professor Gunter), that these accusations would stand up in a British court or anywhere else in the commonwealth.
In response to the Armenian accusation that the wartime Ottoman government "planned and then executed the systematic genocide of some one and a half million of its Armenian citizens," Professor Gunter refers to Justin McCarthy's conclusion that the Armenian death toll from all causes — massacre, malnutrition, disease and exposure — was probably about 600,000 (p. 17). Naturally, even this is too high for some people. Professor Gunter probably needed to underline the fact that the Armenian death toll applies to the whole war and not just 1915. The claim often made that one million or more Armenians were killed in the second half of 1915 has no basis in fact. The author balances out Armenian accusations of atrocities with references to Turkish accounts of atrocities, but without introducing figures that would put the wartime suffering of the Ottoman civilian population in some kind of perspective. The death toll among Muslims probably stood at about 2.5 million people, of whom a very significant number (hundreds of thousands, according to figures compiled from documents in the Ottoman archives) were massacred.
In his attempt to synthesize conflicting accounts, Professor Gunter refers to "an honest but inaccurate belief among the Turkish [sic] leaders that they were faced with a widespread and coordinated Armenian uprising from within at the very time that their state was in mortal danger from without" (p. 20). Whether this belief was inaccurate is very much open to doubt. The destruction of the Third Army at Sarıkamış early in 1914 exposed the whole of eastern Anatolia to invasion by the Russians. Armenian units were fighting alongside the Russian army, and Armenian bands were causing havoc in the eastern provinces. They were encouraged by the Russians, although the level of their coordination with them has yet to be established. There is no parallel between the "relocation" of the Armenians and the internment of Japanese in the United States during World War II (mentioned by the author), and not just because the United States had all the facilities needed to move the Japanese securely, whereas the Ottoman state was not yet modern and had no such organizational capacities. Japanese Americans were not involved in an armed uprising against their own government in a time of war. Substantial numbers of Ottoman Armenians were involved in such an uprising. Was it substantial enough and dangerous enough to eventually warrant the "relocation" of the bulk of the Armenian population? Therein lies the mystery, one which Professor Gunter can only circle around in a book of this size.
He deals with the legal definition of genocide, pointing out the ambiguity inherent in the UN Convention on Genocide of 1948. In the case of Bosnia, he argues for the term ethnic cleansing rather than genocide because, while many people were killed, "others were relocated or allowed to flee" (p. 33). He raises arguments for and against the definition of genocide in the case of Darfur without reaching a firm conclusion of his own. On the immediate issue at hand, the fate of the Armenians, he runs through several technical difficulties, specifically Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which declares, "No one shall be found guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed." Then there is "intertemporal law," or the application of legal criteria from one time to a time when they did not apply.
Professor Gunter refers to Guenter Lewy's book, The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey: A Disputed Genocide, which is probably the most balanced account yet of what happened, and runs through the ad hominem attacks he had to endure after giving the book a positive review. This is no more than par for the course. Approaching his own conclusion, Professor Gunter asks whether the enormous loss of Muslim Ottomans from the same causes as the Christians should also be classed as genocide. He does not give an answer but finds that the use of the word genocide to describe what happened to the Armenians is "inappropriate" because "the Turkish [sic] actions were neither unilateral nor premeditated" (p. 54).
The second half of the book describes what has happened since World War I, first the assassination of Ottoman wartime leaders and then, half a century later, the assassinations of Turkish diplomats, often along with members of their families or embassy guards, from 1975-83, a period when ASALA (Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia) and JCAG (Justice Commandos of the Armenian Genocide) were at their most active. Professor Gunter describes their links with other organizations and their fratricidal internal arguments as well as their impact on the international scene. It was not just Turkish diplomats who were the targets. In 1975, the bombing of the World Council of Churches offices in Beirut was the event that marked the birth of ASALA. In its July 1983 targeting with a suitcase bomb of the Turkish Airlines check-in counter at Orly airport, four French citizens, an American and a Swede, as well as two Turks, were killed.
While such actions have subsided, and these organizations have faded into the past, and while Armenians and Turks have moved closer to some kind of reconciliation — characterized by such events as Turkish President Abdullah Gul's presence at an Armenian-Turkish soccer match in Erivan — the barriers that remain are formidable. The protocols signed between Turkey and Armenia in 2009 soon bogged down (for reasons too complex to go into here), but it is the politicization of history that really stands in the way. This centers on the word "genocide" and the success of the Armenian lobby in implanting it into resolutions passed by parliaments in various parts of the world. Yet some governments remain wary of using it. Barack Obama referred to "genocide" in his primary campaign but has steered clear of the word as president.
Then there is the question of "denial" and the law. Bernard Lewis was prosecuted in France for challenging the Armenian version, but French legislators have stepped back from proposals to criminalize the refusal to acknowledge that what happened to the Armenians was genocide. Professor Gunter refers to the numerous "landmines" littering Turkey's path towards EU accession. The Armenian question is one of them. In 2006, the European Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee voted in support of a motion "asking Turkey to recognize the Armenian genocide as a condition for its EU accession," but when it reached the floor of the parliament, it was resoundingly defeated. Another issue is the different perceptions and needs of the Armenian republic as compared to the diaspora. The republic needs to normalize its relations with Turkey while, it might be said, the diaspora needs the genocide claim. It is what holds it together. There is no easy road here, but Professor Gunter is reasonably upbeat about the future. The process of reconciliation has begun, and he believes it can and will continue.
This is a short book — and other scholars will cavil, while the totally committed sneer — but it is one that should very satisfactorily serve as an overview of this complex issue for a more general readership.