Book Review: Great Catastrophe by Thomas de Waal

Mass-scale death had many names prior to the 1944 invention of the term “genocide” by Polish lawyer Rafael Lemkin: war, massacre, calamity. For Armenians, that name was Medz Yeghern (“Great Catastrophe” or “Great Crime” in English). This was the phrase most commonly used to describe the events of 1915-1916 in which as many as 1.5 million Ottoman Armenians were killed at the hands of the Ottoman state. Tellingly, it is also the name of the most recent book by Thomas de Waal, the prominent journalist, historian, and Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

De Waal’s latest contribution is primarily historical, tracing the historical memory of both Armenians and Turks of what he refers to as the “Great Catastrophe.” The author is more concerned with history than legality, which is why his book traces competing narratives and mostly refrains from launching an investigation into whether Ottoman atrocities met the criteria of the 1948 UN Convention on Genocide.

The book begins with a brief account of 1915-1916, the years in which mass deportations and massacres nearly destroyed the empire’s Armenian population. De Waal pulls no punches in describing the atrocities, concluding that not only was it the most inhumane chapter in the First World War, it was carefully planned and directed by top-level Ottoman officials including head of state Talat Pasha. He insinuates, however, that the attempted destruction of the Armenians should be viewed through the lens of state-building rather than as a primordial nationalist struggle between Turks and Armenians. He also apportions a fair amount of blame to the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), an extreme nationalist group that supported the Russian Empire’s annexation of portions of eastern Anatolia during the First World War.

While de Waal’s account of the “Great Catastrophe” is vivid and substantial, the primary focus of this book is historiography. The current impasse, in which Turkey is unwilling to admit responsibility for genocide and the Turkish-Armenian border is sealed, is largely the product of confused and conflicting national narratives. These mental paradigms are as much affected by events occurring after the First World War than during it. Of notable importance is the war-torn relationship between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the subject of de Waal’s 2004 book Black Garden. Whereas memory of the genocide has been a force bonding ethnic Armenians in communities as disparate as Beirut, Marseilles, and Watertown, Massachusetts, it also has immense significance for Turkey. For a country whose national identity grew out of the ruins of empire, admitting to genocide not only legitimizes Armenian claims on Turkish territory, it also casts a dark cloud over the origins of the modern Turkish Republic.

As for the “G-word,” de Waal’s account is inconclusive. He cites primary sources supporting the view that the destruction of the Ottoman Armenians was the result of a centralized, carefully planned and implemented policy. On the other hand, he considers historians hard pressed to prove that extermination of the Armenians was the ultimate goal. De Waal presents an excerpt from the memoirs of US Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire Henry Morganthau, which claims that Talat Pasha told him that “the hatred between the Turks and the Armenians is now so intense that we have to finish with them.” He also cites the work of French-Armenian historian Raymond Kevorkian, who wrote that the Ottoman government intended to, rather than wipe out the Armenians completely, reduce them to a population quota of five to ten percent in each of the six provinces of eastern Anatolia. Seen from this angle, the Medz Yegern looks more like an especially brutal ethnic cleansing than legally-defined genocide. The question of intent (which is a crucial component of the UN Convention) appears to be answered in the affirmative, but de Waal reminds the reader of the lack of a “smoking gun,’ no archival paper trail that directly incriminates Talat Pasha and others with a clear order to exterminate the Armenians.”

Ultimately, the author expresses the view that the term “genocide” isn’t as important as is often supposed. Rather than contesting the retroactive convictions of the Ottoman state in a “virtual Armenian-Turkish courtroom,” both sides would be better served approaching the issue from a historical perspective. After all, genocide is “more a legal-political term than a historical one.” A powerful does of national introspection is particularly prescribed for Turkey, which should come to grips with its premeditated destruction of the Armenian people, whether they come to call it “genocide” or not.

Armenian campaigners for genocide recognition (most of whom come from the Diaspora), for their part, tend to view the Armenians as passive victims, downplaying the role that the ARF played in undermining Ottoman rule in eastern Anatolia as well as atrocities committed by Armenians (against Turks, Kurds, and Azerbaijanis) in Russian-occupied lands. De Waal attributes this to a trend in Armenian nationalist historiography, popularized during the 1960s, viewing the Armenian genocide through the lens of Nazi Germany’s attempted genocide of the Jews. While certain parallels are obvious, the differences are even more profound and, according to the author, this approach does more to obscure the Armenian genocide than illuminate it.

There is a silver lining to this century-old impasse, which the author duly points out. The Turkish government remains committed to denial of the country’s responsibility, repeating a nationalistic line (what de Waal calls “Turkish denialism”) that the events of 1915-1916 were merely a relocation gone awry, and in fact a natural (and understandable) response to the actions of Armenian fifth columnists and their Russian co-conspirators. However, the intensity of state denialism has abated, and grassroots voices around the country are coming closer to admitting Turkey’s responsibility for the Medz Yeghern.

While frank discussion of the topic remains taboo in Turkey, a thaw is clearly underway. Leading Turkish cultural figures such as Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk have broached the topic publicly, and opinions that not long ago would have been prosecuted under sedition laws can now be voiced without fear. Perhaps the now-deceased Turkish-Armenian magazine editor Hrant Dink said it best when he said that “the problem that Turkey faces today is neither a problem of ‘denial’ or ‘acknowledgement.’ Turkey’s main problem is “comprehension.” In the optimistic perspective of Thomas de Waal, that process of comprehension is finally underway. 

Joseph Larsen

14 May 2015 15:57