The following review of Dr. Guenter Lewy's book,
The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman
Turkey: A Disputed Genocide, appeared in Critique: Critical Middle
Eastern Studies, Vol. 76, No. 7 (possibly Vol. 16, Issue 1), 85-92, Spring
2007. It's a fair and thoughtful review of this wonderful book, but what
sparked its inclusion was the behind-the-scenes lowdown on Peter Balakian's shenanigans.
Ethnic Cleansing or Genocide?
University of Utah
The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey : A Disputed Genocide
Guenter Lewy Salt Lake City: University of Florida Press, 2005
Guenter Lewy's The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey: A Disputed Genocide has unleashed
debate in the United States as well as in different countries such as Canada, France,
Germany, and Turkey. In the United States, Lewy's articles expressing skepticism about
historiographies constructed by both Armenian and Turkish historians about the Armenian
genocide appeared in Middle East Quarterly and Commentary; in subsequent issues, these
journals published several letters to the editors from readers, mostly Armenians, who
objected to Lewy's thesis.1 Among the letters in Commentary, perhaps the most antagonistic
criticism was presented by Peter Balakian, a poet, professor of English, and author of The
Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America's Response. Subsequently, Balakian asked
Chronicle of Higher Education to investigate the process of publishing Lewy's book, as
well as the forthcoming book of prominent Ottoman historian Justin McCarthy.2 Chronicle
reporter Jennifer Howard's investigation provides an insight into the ways ideology can be
used to try to discredit scholarship.
According to McCarthy, Howard telephoned him on 7 September 2006 and asked the following
three questions: Did you send your manuscript to Oxford and other presses before you sent
it to the University of Utah Press (UUP)?; did you receive money from the
Turkish government to write this book?; and why did the editor of UUP resign?3 McCarthy
said he responded: 'No, I did not send my manuscript to any publisher. I know Hakan [Yavuz],
who is the series editor [at UUP], and he asked me whether I had any manuscripts. I sent
it [the manuscript for The Armenian Rebellion at Van] to him, and three months later I
received two referee reports along with comments from the editor whether I would address
some of the issues raised in those two letters. One of them was positive and the second
one suggested a number of changes. I wrote back and said I would make some changes in
response to the second referee's report. A month later I received a contract from the UUP.'
As for Howard's second question, whether McCarthy had received any funds from the Turkish
government, he said he told her, 'none,' adding that 'whoever makes these charges must
prove it. I am a tenured professor and do not need money.' With regard to the resignation
of the editor of the UUP, McCarthy said he told Howard that, as far as he knew, it
occurred for totally personal reasons and had nothing to do with the Press. The reporter
informed Professor McCarthy that it was Balakian who had called the Chronicle of Higher
Education and informed it about these accusations.4
Several months earlier, following the publication of Lewy's book,
Richard Hovannasian, a leading Armenian scholar, had visited the University of Utah campus
(23 March 2006) and delivered a harsh speech against it.5 In fact, no book has created
such a controversy at the UUP as this one by Lewy. For this reason, it is important to
examine Lewy's argument in order to understand the reasons for Armenian scholastic anger
against the book. The attacks on the book demonstrate how an inquiry into the tragic
events of the First World War can be removed from historical context and elevated to
mythological level, a process that, in turn, prevents any rational exchange between the
Lewy's purpose is to evaluate the consistency
and validity of the ongoing debate over the evidence for the Armenian massacres in
Ottoman Turkey. The literature that pertains to the fate of the Armenian population
during the First World War involves two narratives. On the one hand, Armenian
scholars present this tragedy as the first genocidal event of the twentieth century.
They argue that the Armenian massacre was a product of the Ottoman government's
special intent to deport and exterminate the entire Armenian population in the
empire. On the other hand, Turks contend that this event was an outcome of Armenian
collaboration with the Russians, inter-communal warfare in eastern Turkey, and the
harsh economic and social conditions of war (such as food shortages and the spread
of diseases). Both sides produce and maintain their own readings, understandings,
and selective historical memories, resulting in two highly polarized historical
Lewy traces how Armenian and Turkish historians as well as other experts on this
subject have constructed their arguments and tried to assess to what extent their
reasoning, presentation of historical events, and choices of evidence support the
validity and reliability of their theses. For this goal, he provides careful
corroboration of the main pillars of Armenian and Turkish historiographies by
cross-examining their arguments, in particular, their ways of using quotations about
'genocide,' citing references to primary and secondary resources, and comparing
these approaches with the work of other eyewitnesses and scholars.
This book tackles the question not of the scale of Armenian suffering but of 'the
premeditation thesis.' Although there are wide discrepancies with regard to the
total number of victims, at least both camps acknowledge that hundreds and thousands
of Armenians lost their lives during the deportation. Thus, Lewy focuses on the
dispute over the cause of Armenian massacres by inspecting the way in which
Armenians and Turks have offered contradictory or competing accounts.
By attempting 'a historical reconstruction of the events in question—to show what
can be known as established fact, what must be considered unknown as of today, and
what will probably have to remain unknowable' (p. x).
He concludes that an Ottoman intent to organize the annihilation of Armenians cannot
be determined with the evidence that so far has become available to scholars. Thus,
he rejects the term 'genocide' to describe the mass killing of Armenians, while
admitting the indirect responsibility of the Ottoman local government officials for
the loss of life of a large number of Armenians.
Lewy divides his book into four parts. First, he introduces readers briefly to the
history of the relationship between the Ottoman Empire and its Armenian subjects,
the development of the Armenian revolutionary movement, the acceleration of tensions
between Armenians and Turks that led to the Armenian massacres of 1894-96, and the
impact of the Young Turks' seizure of power from Sultan Abdulhamid in 1908. In this
period, the deterioration of the socioeconomic environment in the Empire awakened
the national consciousness of Armenians, most of whom were peasants and oppressed by
their Kurdish neighbors, the latter of whom resisted control by the authorities.
In addition, the infusion of Western and revolutionary ideas through European books,
education, and missionaries accelerated the rise of Armenian identity. Furthermore,
an economic prosperity gap in towns between Turks and the comparatively wealthier
Armenians promoted feelings of enmity against the latter (although a large number of
Armenian peasants were not better off than Turks in the countryside). For these
reasons, the Ottoman authorities, who had perceived the Armenians as 'the loyal
community' to the Empire began to suspect them as a people 'in league with foreign
enemies' (p. 7), namely Russia.
Among Armenians, a group of revolutionaries began to dream of the revival of
historic Armenia ; they created the image of Armenians as dedicated patriots while
depicting Turks as the villainous 'Other', in order to mobilize the Armenian masses.
These growing tensions culminated in the intercommunal explosion of 1895-96 in which
a series of mass killings of Armenians took place. When the Young Turks came to
power in 1908, the suspicion about Armenians had become more widespread in the
government, owing to the successive loss of Ottoman territory in the Balkan
Peninsula. Since then, what Lewy calls 'a siege mentality' was pervasive among the
Part II includes the crucial chapters that scrutinize two differing views among the
Armenians who argue for the genocide thesis and one Turkish version of historiographies.
The first group of Armenians claims that the large number of Armenian victims does support
the existence of a state organized plan of annihilation prepared by the Young Turks, who
intended to achieve their ideological goal to homogenize Turkish society. In order to
prove the premeditation thesis, Armenian historians offer several manifestations of
Ottoman premeditation: a secret speech allegedly delivered by Talaat Pasha encouraging the
use of the army to eliminate the Armenian population; the role of Ziya Gokalp, sociologist
and ideologue of Turkish nationalism, in the planning for the eradication of the Armenian
population; the so-called 'Ten Commandments of the Committee of Union and Progress'
indicating Turkish intent and planning of the deportation, extermination, and forced
conversion of Christian Armenians to Islam; and the Young Turks secret February 1915
meeting at which the extermination plan is alleged to have been formulated.
The second group of Armenians believe that the claim of Turkish premeditation is
substantiated by the following factors: The Memoirs of Naiyim Bey, a Turkish official
whose account was published in Armenian, French, and English by Aram Andonian and others;
the proceedings of special court-martials that the Turkish government convened in 1919-20
to try the Young Turks; and the vicious role and involvement of the Teskilat-i Mahsusa
(Special Organization) in the Armenian massacres. Authors such as Vahakn N. Dadrian, a
sociologist who is known as the theoretician of the Armenian genocide thesis, generally
regard these cases as sufficient evidence for the premeditation thesis.6
However, Lewy is skeptical about the reliability of this evidence and tests its
consistency by referring to governmental documents of European countries as well as other
historians' accounts, including those of Armenian scholars. Also, he criticizes the manner
in which Armenian authors rely on the consequences of the Armenian deportation to prove
that the Young Turk leaders had prior plans for total destruction of the Armenian
population. He argues that 'objective results are not the same as subjective intent' (p.
53). Furthermore, Lewy claims that the Armenian side ignores the multiplicity of cases in
the tragedy by playing down the roles of starvation and disease, which afflicted not only
the Armenian deportees but also Muslim Turks.
Lewy also finds problems in the Turkish version of the stories. Turkish historians
maintain, first of all, that the Ottoman government needed to implement the relocation of
the Armenians because of the seditious movements among the Armenian revolutionaries and
their collaboration with the invading Russian troops. Turks contend that the initial
impulse for this affair came about as a result of activities by the Armenian
revolutionaries, especially the Hunchaks, which committed murders of Muslims in order to
force the Ottoman government to suppress the Armenians so as to restore social order. The
intent of these Armenian revolutionaries was to provoke excessive measures by the
government, and these in turn would prompt the intervention of European countries to save
the Armenians. This 'provocation thesis' constitutes the main pillar of Turkish
historiography on the massacres (pp. 16-17). In effect, the Turkish historians deny that
the Ottoman government had any a prior intent of destroying the Armenian communities.
Rather, the military measures and the relocation of the Armenians were necessitated by the
Armenian threat to the integrity and security of the Empire. This provocation thesis has
been rejected by Armenian historians who claim that the Armenians were innocent victims of
atrocities committed by the Turks. A second argument of Turkish historians is that the
government tried to prevent the excessive measures of local officials that resulted in the
killing of Armenians. Third, Turkish historians claim that it was not only the Armenians
but also many Muslims who lost their lives in inter-communal wars. One of the main reasons
for the Armenian relocation has been attributed to the rebellion in Van, which was a
center of Armenian revolutionaries. The Turkish historians argue that this uprising was
prepared in order to assist the Russian invasion, while the Armenians claim that this was
necessary to protect the Armenian population from the deportation. What is striking to
readers in this debate is that both sides provide one-sided arguments. As Lewy points out,
'Both Turks and Armenians have accused each other of horrible crimes while at the same
time denying or minimizing the misdeeds committed by their own forces' (p. 116). The
Turkish side tends to dodge the responsibility of atrocities against Armenians by shifting
the blame from the Ottoman government to 'the civil war cause.' On the other hand,
Armenian authors ignore the Armenian revolutionary movements' relationship with Russia and
the threat this relationship posed to the Ottoman government.
Part III of Lewy's book aims to clarify the gap in our knowledge of the Armenian
suffering. Lewy ‘reconstructs’ a history of this tragedy by strictly
distinguishing the confirmed facts from the mere assertions of historians who fail
to support their claims with substantive evidence.
In this process he attempts to determine how the government decided on the
deportation plan, how it was implemented in different regions and cities, who were
responsible for the massacres, and how many people died. The chapters in this
section reveal the diversity in the levels of Armenian suffering and the variation
of the degree of implementing the deportation.
This picture seems to imply that the deportation of the Armenian population was not
carried out in a systematic or well-organized manner, which would be necessary for
the purpose of total destruction of the Armenian community. Further, the
responsibility for the mass killing of Armenians was confused and dispersed among
several actors, including Kurds, wartime gendarmerie, local officials, and others.
In terms of the number of victims, different authors have generated different
estimations. It is also difficult to determine the precise death toll because we
have neither an exact figure for the prewar Armenian population nor an accurate
count for the number of survivors. It also is impossible to distinguish the number
killed by Turks and Kurds and those who perished due to starvation and disease (p.
After a critical examination of the Armenian and Turkish historiographies, Lewy
proposes an alternative explanation (pp. 252-57).
He argues that 'it was possible for the country to suffer an incredibly high death
toll without a premeditated plan of annihilation' (p. 253) for several reasons.
First, the Ottoman government, despite its willingness, failed to arrange an orderly
process of relocation of Armenians because of its institutional ineptness. The
systematic and organized relocation of tens of thousands of Armenians proved beyond
the ability of the Ottoman government. Food shortages and epidemic diseases which
the authorities could not prevent or control exacerbated the environment for
Armenians during the course of the deportation. Additionally, the government could
not provide adequate protective measures for the Armenian deportees from hostile
Kurds, Circassians and others.
According to Lewy, these severe conditions and the inability of the Ottoman
government to provide protection resulted in the high death toll of the Armenians.
Thus, while he concedes that the government bears responsibility to a certain extent
for the outcome, he emphasizes that it is the government's ineptness rather than a
premeditated plan to exterminate the Armenians that caused the Armenian tragedy.
One of the contributions of Lewy's work is that he clarifies what we have learned as
confirmed facts from both the Armenian and Turkish historians. Without leaning to
either side, he accepts evidence and arguments that are substantiated by other
His neutrality becomes obvious in Part IV, which discusses the politicization of the
controversy over the Armenian massacres. He argues that the Armenian side's argument
of the premeditation thesis lacks authentic documentary evidence and suffers from a
logical fallacy (p. 250).
But he also criticizes the Turkish side for distorting the historical fact by
translating the Armenian massacres into mere 'excesses'" or 'intercommunal
warfare' (p. 252). Lewy's book also tells us how historiography can go beyond
objective facts: It is constructed on the basis of what people want to remember and
what information they recollect from the past. He points out that each side
intentionally has forgotten historical settings that are not consistent with their
theses. Such simplification of a complex historical reality and disregard of crucial
evidence make it impossible to 'yield a more nuanced picture' (p. x).
The personal memories of individual Turks and Armenians are not separable from the
collective social memory of their communities because people can be confident about
the accuracy of their remembrances only when their own memory is confirmed by
others' remembrances.7 The politicization of the Armenian massacres, then,
facilitates the transmission of collective memories from generation to generation;
Armenian campaigns for the recognition of the genocide and the airing of the Turkish
government's argument have functioned as mechanisms by which both Armenians and
Turks are reminded of the past and their distinctive identities.8
The current rigid adherence of both sides to their historiographies thus is likely to lead
to the deepening of the gap between them, not pave a way to closing this gap. For this
reason, Lewy suggests that historians ought to keep the door of research open for further
exploration of the Armenian massacres.
Political confirmation of the Armenian massacres as historically established genocide, he
argues, will deprive future historians of opportunities to start collaborative research
for the advancement of common understanding grounded in historical facts rather than
Lewy's study carefully disaggregates the series of historical events into regions and
actors. Lewy knows that an attempt to put all the aspects of the Armenian massacres into a
single picture as a whole ignores the variation of stories. In this tragedy, there is a
diversity of experiences lived by each group of people. Therefore, Lewy adopts a method
with which he constructs his own historiography by aggregating different local incidents
and experiences. The Armenian and Turkish historians take the opposite approach. They look
into the events from the pictures that they want to see. In this process, evidence and
incidents that may disconfirm their theses are likely to be ignored in their analytic
There is one point that I find unsatisfactory in Lewy's book: he refrains from making his
definition of genocide explicit while claiming that 'the attempt to decide whether the
Armenian massacres in Ottoman Turkey fit ... definitions [of genocide] strikes me as of
limited utility' (p. xii). I agree that what constitutes 'genocide' and to what extent we
should restrict ourselves to the definition written into the Genocide Convention of the
United Nations are controversial issues. For example, genocide for some scholars is
equivalent only to the Holocaust while there is another argument that genocide includes a
variety of ethnic cleansings. Also I concede that the debate whether the Armenian tragedy
was genocide has caused unfruitful and never-ending exchanges of acrimony between
Armenians and Turks. However, this debate still is of substantive importance because
parliaments in several countries have proclaimed this tragedy to be an instance of
genocide. For example, in the fall of 2006 the French parliament adopted a bill that
criminalizes the denial of the Armenian genocide.
What is relevant to Lewy's argument is that the politicians who vote on these resolutions
are influenced exclusively by their ethnic Armenian constituents, and they rely only on an
Armenian version of the history of 1915. The politicians are not without their own
prejudices, and their determinations never can substitute for actual history. In the
French parliament. Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin argued that it is 'not a good
thing to legislate on issues of history and of memory,' but his caution was ignored.9
These resolutions spotlight politics, not the truth, and are therefore debatable.
Furthermore, historians need to clarify the concept of genocide when they conduct
comparative analysis of massacres in order to prevent conceptual proliferation. As Lewy
notes, genocide is used as a term of moral opprobrium as well as a legal concept (p. 262).
Thus, whether scholars find documentary evidence that proves or disproves the
premeditation thesis in the future, the debate still will continue without any agreement
between the two sides on the definition of the term genocide.
Despite my disagreement with Lewy on this point, The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey
is an important accomplishment by a political scientist who has worked on comparative
studies of genocidal issues. He not only spells out many inconsistencies, illogical
reasoning, and presentation of unauthentic historical documents appearing in the Armenian
and Turkish accounts but also identifies where researchers need to go for further enquiry.
The attack against Lewy's book and the controversy created by Peter Balakian and others
who share his views indicate the problem of academic freedom of speech with respect to
events associated with the Turkish-Armenian conflicts. There are coordinated efforts by
Armenian NGOs and scholars to silence and suppress different interpretations about the
events of 1915.
Simultaneously, free speech about the Armenian massacres also is denied in Turkey. For
example, Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish novelist who won the 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature,
has been charged with insulting 'Turkishness' on account of his critical comments about
the way the Turkish government treats both Armenians (in the past) and Kurds (currently).
In an interview with a Swiss newspaper, Pamuk stated that '30,000 Kurds and 1 million
Armenians were killed in these lands [Ottoman Turkey and Republican Turkey] and almost
nobody but me dares to talk about it.' His comment triggered the fury of Turkish
nationalists who accused him as insulting the Turkish national character. Subsequently,
some Armenian groups, without paying close attention to what Pamuk said, presented his
statement as an 'acceptance of Armenian genocide.' The Turkish media have portrayed Pamuk
as facing criminal charges on suspicion of violating the Turkish penal code, which bans
insulting the Republic, the Turkish Grand National Assembly, and other state institutions.
His real intention behind the statement was misunderstood or misrepresented by both the
Turkish and Armenian media. Pamuk never said that what Armenians experienced in Ottoman
Turkey was genocide. Rather, he intended to raise the issue of freedom of speech in
Turkey. He said to BBC that 'What happened to the Ottoman Armenians in 1915 was a major
thing that was hidden from the Turkish nation; it was a taboo. But we have to be able to
talk about the past.'10 In the end, the case against Pamuk was dropped in January 2006,
but public reaction against his quotation indicated that any reference to the Armenian
issue may result in a criminal charge in Turkey.
In the final analysis, Lewy's book indeed has become like dynamite to both sides by
pointing out the shortcomings of both Turkish and Armenian scholarship and revealing
the difficulty of objective debate on the Armenian tragedy.
It is very unproductive for diaspora Armenians to turn the Armenian genocide thesis
into a source of identity.11
The shift prevents contextualization of the events and turns them into mythological
facts outside of any rational inquiry.
Lewy tried to de-sacralize the Armenian thesis by subjecting it to rational inquiry.
Lastly, it is also important to mention that Lewy's book has been relatively favored
in Turkey despite his criticism of Turkish historiography on the Armenian massacres
and the failure of Turkish historians to challenge the official view endorsed by the
state. Since its publication, the Turkish media has presented Lewy's book as a new
scholarly work that supports the Turkish explanation of the Armenian killings, but
the media also has ignored Lewy's disapproval of the Turkish historiography.12 It
seems that the Turkish side is satisfied with Lewy's conclusion that the Armenian
killing cannot be confirmed as a genocide 'as of now,' even though he criticizes
Turkish historiography. In other words, Lewy's book once again has illuminated that
both sides simply are concerned whether the Armenian massacre in 1915 was or was not
a genocide, an issue which Lewy has problematized in his work.
1. Guenter Lewy, 'Revisiting the Armenian Genocide,' Middle East Quarterly 12, 4 (2005),
pp. 3-12; and idem. 'The First Genocide of the 20th Century?', Commentary, 120, 5 (2005),
pp. 47-52. Letters to the editors (including Lewy's rebuttals) are presented in Middle
East Quarterly 13, 1 (2006), pp. 1 -5; and Commentary 121,2 (2006), pp. 3-9. Also, Lewy's
book is discussed in 'Was It Genocide?', Wilson Quarterly 30. 1 (Winter 2006), pp. 87-88.
2. Justin McCarthy et al. (2006) The Armenian Rebellion at Van ( Salt Lake City : The
University of Utah Press).
3. I wish to thank Justin McCarthy and M. Hakan Yavuz for making available the records of
their conversations and e-mail conversations on this matter.
5. Jay Logan Rogers , 'Scholar Questions Motives, Perpetrators of Armenian Genocide/ The
Daily Utah Chronicle, 27 March 2006.
6. See, for example, Dadrian's long response to Lewy posted at Dhimmi Watch, 'Vahakn
Dadrian responds to Guenter Lewy,' http://www.jihadwatch.org/dhimmiwatch/archives/008594.php
7. For the relationship between individual memory and collective memory, see Maurice
Halbwachs. The Collective Memory (New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1980).
8. Paul Connerton discusses how social memory is produced and transcends generational
boundaries; see Paul Connerton, How Societies Remember (Cambridge: Cambridge University
9. .French in Armenia "Genocide" row' (2006) BBC NEWS, 12 October, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/6042730.stm
10. Sarah Rainstbrd, 'Author's Trial Set to Test Turkey ,' BBC NEWS.14December2005,