April 24, 2005 marked the 90th “anniversary” of the Armenian genocide. With the purpose of decapitating the Armenian community, on April 24, 1915, Turkish Interior Minister Mehmed Talaat ordered the arrest of all Armenian political and community leaders suspected of opposing the Ittihad (“Young Turk”) government, or favoring Armenian nationalism. In Istanbul alone, 2,345 seized leaders were incarcerated, and most were subsequently executed. None were nationalists, political or charged with sabotage, espionage, or any other crime. None were even tried.1 According to Turkish author Taner Akcam, systematic plunder, raids, and murders of Armenians were already occurring daily, under the pretexts of “searching for arms, of collecting war levies, or tracking down deserters…” 2 Within a month, the final, definitive mass deportations of the Armenian genocide would begin.3
In recognition of that anniversary, I interviewed Vahakn Dadrian, the world’s preeminent scholar of the Armenian genocide. The author of Warrant for Genocide and The History of the Armenian Genocide in March and April alone received two lifetime achievement awards—from the Annual Scholars’ Conference on the Holocaust and the Churches, and from the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.
Dadrian studied mathematics, history and international law at the Universities of Berlin, Vienna and Zurich before earning his Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Chicago. He has been a Research Fellow at Harvard University, a guest professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a visiting professor at Duke University, received two large National Science Foundation grants and for years headed a genocide study project for the H. F. Guggenheim Foundation. From 1970 to 1991, he taught sociology at the State University of New York. In 1998, he received the Khorenatsi Medal, Armenia’s highest cultural award. He currently heads Genocide Research at the Zoryan Institute.
Q. I’d like to know about your recent lifetime achievement award.
A. Which one there are many.
Q. The recent one.
A. The work by the specialists of the Holocaust [in Los Angeles] was a lifetime achievement in the area of the general genocide studies and the Armenian genocide in particular. Five years ago, the same assembly of Holocaust scholars had invited me to deliver a keynote address on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the Holocaust conference, along with the Nobel prize laureate, Eli Wiesel and distinguished Holocaust scholar Yehuda Bauer. When I finished my recent delivery to the Holocaust scholars, I got a standing ovation. Several people were unhappy that I couldn’t speak longer. One female graduate student came to me, it is very funny, it never happened, and said at her table, they were betting that I was reading rather than speaking and she asked me to verify. I said, no, I never read, I always speak, I never read from notes.
Q. Does Yehuda Bauer recognize the Armenian genocide.
A. Bauer is one of the few Holocaust scholars who does recognize the Armenian genocide, and tells everybody that whatever he knows about the subject comes from Dadrian.
Q. Well it’s true, you have written an encyclopedia. What are the most important sources for your study, because I noticed in the background, you try not to use British, French, Russian sources.
A. You are so prepared. It is a pity this is for Internet.
Q. Most readers are not familiar with the historical background, so could you briefly review the Abdul Hamit era, and the triumvirate of the Young Turks or the Ittihad, in other words, the origin of the genocide.
A. The Armenian genocide was the culmination of a decades long process of persecution of the Armenians in the Ottoman empire. That persecution was punctuated in the last two decades of the 19th century during the reign of Sultan Abdul Hamit, the so-called Red Sultan.
Q. Red for blood?
A. Yes. In the period of 1894-1896, some quarter of a million Armenians fell victim, directly and indirectly, victim to a series of atrocious massacres, and what is significant about these pogroms was that there was no retribution against the perpetrators. In other words, impunity became the hallmark of the history of the Armenian persecution and it is the dominant feature of the tragedy of the Armenian people. We have yet to appreciate the incredible ramifications of the problem of impunity in international conflicts. In the most recent three volume Encyclopedia of Genocide, I have a separate article analyzing this problem in order to emphasize [its] immense destructive potential.
Q. Well was the Armenia genocide the first time this happened.
A. No, I will explain what happened. The subsequent 1909 Adana massacres was a byproduct, in my judgment, of this phenomenon of impunity, even though it was carried out by a successor regime, namely the Young Turk, Ittihad triumvirate, [Constantinople military governor Ahmed Djemal Pasha, war minister Enver Pasha and interior minister Mehmed Talaat] and I maintain that the World War and the Armenian genocide is the culmination of the consequences of impunity accruing to the perpetrators of the massacres of the previous decades.
Q. Please elaborate.
A. As I see it, impunity is intimately linked to the problem of vulnerability that has been the curse of minorities, such as the Armenians and the Jews. I believe that impunity lies at the heart of the vulnerability of the potential victims. If you examine the two most prominent vulnerable minorities in modern history, that is the Armenians and Jews, you will see that the vulnerability was of dual character. First internally, which is associated with the status of minority. Minority status implies a number of disabilities that make them vulnerable. But equally and perhaps more importantly, both victim groups were vulnerable also externally, that is, they did not have a parent state to protect them. So I therefore maintain that genocide is intimately linked with the problem of vulnerability of the victim population.
Q. One thing I did before I came was to look at some maps, and Salonika is Greece, but it was part of the Ottoman empire. Can you talk about the changes of the map from 1910 to
A. There was very little change, because, geographically, the Armenian population remained constant within the confines of the Ottoman empire. In other words, there was a heavy concentration of the Armenian population in the 6 eastern provinces of the empire. It was historically and geographically Armenia, but it was never politically a separate Armenian state. Ottoman Armenians were a subject population. There was one minor change in boundaries. That was at the end of the 1877-78 Russo Turkish war, when Russia occupied the provinces of Kars and Ardahan, and therefore presently, Armenian territorial claims have relevance only with respect to those two provinces that they have considered part of Southeast Russia since 1877-78. So therefore the Armenians claim that it was reoccupied illegally by the Ottomans at the end of World War I, even though it was Ottoman territory before the 1877-78 war that Ottoman Turks had lost to the Russians.
Q. But Greece was part of the Ottoman empire, Syria was part of the Ottoman empire, all these countries that are now separate, were part of the empire. It was huge.
A. It was a huge empire, and the tragedy of the Armenian genocide is intimately linked to the massive shrinking of that empire.
A. Beginning with the end of the Russo Turkish war, one by one, the Christian nationalities of the Balkan peninsula emancipated themselves from the yoke of the Ottoman empire, and that process of emancipation reached its acme in the 1912 first Balkan war. It was in the fall of 1912 that the Ottoman Turks were literally expelled from Europe with grave consequences involving demography, human misery, destitution, frustration and anger against Christianity. I believe that this cumulative hatred against Christians very significantly played out in the World War I genocide, because many of the organizers and the perpetrators of the genocide were destitute refugees of the first Balkan war. All their cumulative hatred against non-Muslims and Christians was transferred into anti-Armenian savagery. We call this in social psychology displaced aggression. And even some Turkish historians recognize that in this sense the Armenians were the unfortunate targets, the scapegoats.
Q. Talk about it please.
A. The Bulgarians and Greeks were the main driving force in pushing the Ottomans out of the Balkans. This problem has not been sufficiently appreciated. Namely, the instrumental role of refugees of the first Balkan war in the Armenian genocide. For example, interior minister Talaat appointed 5,000 of them exclusively as gendarmes, and the gendarmes were the main escort personnel of the deportee convoys. Thousands of them were escorts.
Q. The Kurds, the Circassians.
A. The Kurds played a role in the utmost eastern provinces, particularly in Van and Bitlis. So in the Van and Bitlis segments, the Kurdish tribes were the principal instrument of the genocide. To illustrate the point, Mush city and Mush plain is the heart of historic Armenia. The golden age of Armenian civilization in the 5th century, Christianity, monasteries, the discovery of the Armenian alphabet, were all concentrated in that Mush plain. Mush city had about 15,000 Armenians and Mush plain is about 90 miles in length and had about 100,000 Armenian population. The overwhelming majority of this Armenian population experienced the most gruesome form of genocide, namely being herded into stables and burned alive. A veritable Holocaust. So this is the real Holocaust, burning alive, and this was done by the area’s Kurdish tribes.
Q. A lot of the methodologies were later used in the Nazi period. Burning and drowning.
A. There was some of this in the Jewish Holocaust, but in the Armenian genocide, it was massive. It was the main instrument but also in Harput, and Mush were massive episodes of burning. There is a description by a Jewish eyewitness of the massive burning of Armenian orphans.
Q. I recall this from your article.
A. Of course, speaking of methods of genocide, another ghastly method that is unique to the Armenian genocide is the massive drowning operations. In particular in the Black sea coast, involving such cities as Trabzon, Samsun and Ordu, and many of the tributaries of the Euphrates River, in particular there is a spot of the Euphrates, north of Erzurum city, called the Kemach Gorge, where nearly 20,000 to 25,000 were mutilated and thrown into the river. And Ambassador Morgenthau says in his memoirs that at that spot in the river, the corpses were so massive that the river changed course for about 100 meters.
Q. Clearly there is a dispute about the statistics. What are your estimates and how do you source that.
A. I am glad that you used the word estimates, because given the primitive conditions of the empire and the statistics, there are no definite and reliable statistics. They are all estimates. I estimate that the number of dead as a result of the deportations and massacres [during the World War I genocide] was 1.2 million and an additional several hundred thousand succumbed subsequently to their deprivations and hardships. Included in that category are also tens of thousands of forcible conversions to Islam of children and women, orphans and harem victims. And I rely mostly on German estimates, and this is more acceptable because, unlike the British and the French, Germany was the military ally of the Ottoman empire.
Q. Does that include the massacres of 1894 to 1896?
A. No. My estimates for the victims of the Abdul Hamit era massacres, direct and indirect, is some 200,000 because large numbers of Armenians succumbed to the wounds inflicted in the massacres. There is one more thing. During the same massacres, in the aftermath of them, many Armenians died of famine. Indeed, because of the cataclysmic events of the massacres, tens of thousands of other Armenians succumbed to famine, starvation.
Q. Now, let’s discuss the importance of Islam in these events.
A. Now we come to the delicate issue of Islam.
Q. It’s pretty clear in Warrant for Genocide that Islamic teaching and practice is a problem and that religion played a big role in this.
A. A very big role. First of all, Islam played a major role both in the period of the Abdul Hamit massacres [1894-1896] and the 1909 Adana massacres and the World War I genocide. During the Abdul Hamit era, Islam was the main impetus, the direct impetus of the massacres, because 90 percent of the massacres took place on Fridays, which is the religious holiday. Immediately at the end of the religious ceremonies in the mosques, the mobs, harangued by Muslim clerics, were incited and as a result the motivation was reinforced to attack and massacre the Armenian population of the respective regions. In other words, Islam as an institution, and champions of Islam, the Muslim clerics, played a major role in the organization and execution of the series of massacres. In World War I, Islam also was exploited by way of formally declaring jihad, the main target of which became the Christian Armenians. Holy War can only be proclaimed by the sultan who is also the Khalif, the supreme religious authority, and the Sheikh ul Islam, the religious head of Islam. One of the greatest incentives of jihad for motivating people to kill is the promise of celestial bliss, and other kinds of rewards in heaven. This played a major role in mobilizing the masses, the naÃ¯ve masses. In Archbishop Balakian’s book, the Armenian Golgotha, there are scenes in which, after every massacre, the head of the gendarmes units, spread his prayer rug and thanked god for serving him through jihad-borne massacres massacres.
Q. Was Islam the state ideology during the Ittihadists rule?
A. Let me move to the era of World War I, and Islam, there is a very significant aspect to it. The authors of the Armenian genocide, the Young Turks, were almost entirely either atheistic or agnostic, they did not believe in religion, but they had to exploit the religious beliefs of the masses. So Islam was instrumental in this condition of paradox of irreligious leaders are seen exploiting religion.
Q. So they used Islam.
A. They exploited Islam and in both instances, the Abdul Hamid era and the World War I era, many many times victims were given the option of converting to Islam or to be killed instantly. And in that connection, I consider the condition of the Armenians very very grave when projecting into the future.
Q. From now.
A. Yes, because Armenia is literally surrounded by Moslem populations and the growing trend of Islam renders the condition of Armenia very very precarious.
Q. What’s the population now.
A. I think in a few months there will be a census. Unofficially, right now it’s 3.2 million, but officially maybe 2.5 million. So Armenia is shrinking, because of economic conditions, but I will also add that recourse to exodus has been the curse of Armenian history. Armenians tend to migrate, and it is very significant that historically the largest Armenian populations in the Caucasus have been concentrated in Georgia and Azerbaijan, , i.e. Tbilisi and Baku, more than in Armenia proper. This is a weakness of the Armenians, not to hold on to their natural habitat, and to seek fortunes abroad. Thousands now, some of them justifiably, but some of them unjustifiably, are abandoning Armenia.
I believe that the greatest danger to Armenia comes from Islamic Turkey. I think the Turkish government that is also essentially Islamic, even though the Turkish government is going through the motions of embracing European values, I call this expedient adaptiveness. That is, to accede to the European Union, and then to use sheer demography, to become a dominant force in the future in Europe. By sheer demography, I mean by rapid population growth, Europe may be inundated by Moslem Turks, who then are bound to change the nature and design of European civilization. It should be noted that the present Turkish government is a reflection of an overwhelming ascendancy of Islam in Turkey, in particular in terms of the Islamic Turkish masses, The proliferation of mosques in Turkey today is a signpost of the ascendancy of Islam; the same proliferation is observable in those European countries with sizable and growing Muslim populations.
Q. Really a bad thing for Turkey to be admitted to the EU.
A. It is a major liability for Europe to embrace Turkey [but] I am not sure that the prospects are favorable for Turkey. It may well be that European leaders are using the prospects of accession to the European Union as a device to transform Turkey into a democratic country, but it’s an attempt with dubious prospects of success. I think Europe may be using the prospects of [Turkey’s] accession as a subterfuge.
Q. Interesting that you talked about the present government.
A. The present government is secular, but on the surface. They are essentially Islamic people with Islamic ambitions. I call this adaptive expediency. The tremendous political rapprochement of the present [Islamist] Erdogon government demonstrates immense agility, but which, I think, is superficial. All the reforms that the Turkish government is adopting now are essentially meant to accommodate Europe expeditiously.
Q. Reflective of history isn’t it. This is what happened in the 19th Century and 20th Century reforms that were in name only.
A. Tanzimat reforms [forced on the Ottomans by Europe from 1839 to 1876] never gained a foothold in Anatolia amongst the masses. It was a superficial phenomenon limited to the Europeanized leadership in Istanbul. There was massive resistance to the Tanzimat reforms in the provinces. But bear in mind that the Ottoman empire during the reign of sultan Hamit had very little connection to Turks or Turkey, but rather to Islam. Up to that time, there was no Turkish nationalism. And it is very significant that in all the discussions of the Armenian question in the 19th Century, they always use the sentence Armenians versus Moslem’s, never Turks. So as a result, non-Turks, i.e., Kurds, Circassians, Chechens, were subsumed under Muslims without differentiating them ethnically or nationality.
Q. But they had pretense historically, to reform on the surface, but nothing really changed. It’s like now.
A. You have to differentiate between European capital of the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul, and the backward provinces of Turkey. There was always a cleavage, a gap, between the capital of the empire and the coastal cities like Smyrna, Adana and Trabzon on the one hand, and the rest of the empire on the other. Indeed, the interior underwent very little change.
Q. And that is true now also. A. To some extent, yes.
Q. Would you say that now, there is a call to jihad.
A. Jihad is a byproduct of warfare and hence it is a call to war; presently, only terrorists are using it. This is the most belligerent aspect of Islam, the provision for holy war, to which it differentiates from Christianity. The propensity for lethal violence is a central element.
Q. Jihad is not a big factor now.
A. No, Jihad is a condition of warfare. It sanctifies murder with a promise of rewards. This is the most interesting part of jihad, that it holds out rewards, celestial bliss.
Q. Well it is also the assets of the murdered people, their land, their property.
A. Yes, in addition to the celestial promises, there are mundane rewards, i.e. plunder, enrichment, sexual gratification, sexual designs. Rape has been a major ingredient of all massacres in the Ottoman empire, which is of course a common phenomenon in all episodes of atrocities.
Q. Can you talk about your family and your background. What interested you in the first place.
A. I was a student of mathematics in Berlin, but then I went to the University of Vienna, since it is customary in Europe to change universities after two or three semesters. And I went to the University of Vienna and my teacher upon learning that I am an Armenian, told me that he was a classmate of Franz Werfel, the author of Forty Days of Musa Dagh. So he urged me to read Forty Days of Musa Dagh, and I read it. Forty Days of Musa Dagh was a turning point in my education. I read it twice in its original German, and this was the first time that I had a powerful sense of injustice that has been afflicting my people. Such a crime of magnitude, and no retributive justice. That was my main and powerful experience of rebellion at the time.
Q. How old were you.
A. I was 21. Then I read a second book, Archbishop Balakian’s Armenian Golgotha, a book full of graphic descriptions of atrocity. Then another thing that was really final straw was a scene that is deeply ingrained in my psyche. It was a book by Leon Surmelian, titled I Ask you Ladies and Gentlemen. He was adopted as a young child to serve, tending animals, as a shepherd to a Muslim family, and there was a scene of a massacre nearby, and a woman in the throes of dying recognized that this boy was an Armenian and said, my child, if you ever manage to survive, please see to it that our martyrdom is not consigned to oblivion, that we are remembered. This impressed me terribly: the last wish of a dying victim of a massacre is not to be consigned to oblivion but to be remembered. It is a very powerful thing. So after that, I relinquished my interest in math and became fully engrossed in the history of the Armenian genocide. So after reading these books, my first step was to branch off into archive research. I visited the state archives of the German republic almost 14 times, digging into every possible German document, then I went to the Austrian state archive several times, collecting hundreds and hundreds of other documents, fully cognizant of the fact that these two countries were the military allies of Ottoman empire during the war. Then I studied the Jerusalem archives of the Armenian Patriarchate because the Armenian Patriarch after the armistice had collected many many documents of the Turkish military tribunal that was set up during the armistice. The Turks in the post-war period had initiated courts martial against perpetrators and during the courts martial, many documents came into the possession of the tribunal. And Armenian employees of the court martial at night stole the documents and copied them and then returned them in the morning. Then of course, there are surviving Ottoman documents. As I mentioned many times, a crime of such great magnitude is impossible to have all the documents disappear. Almost always, some documents survive. So there is a considerable body of authentic Ottoman documents that the military tribunal acquired, authenticated and used.
Q. What about your own family experience.
A. My family largely survived the genocide, because my father was very popular among the Turks. He was a judge, and I understand that he was very respected for his sense of probity and justice. At one time, he was even urged by his Turkish colleagues to become a deputy of Chorum, and he refused. I understand also that I come from a very wealthy family. My grandfather erected the church of Chorum, and my father built the school at Chorum, as a result the Patriarch issued an encyclical declaring the Dadrian family national benefactors. I have lots of title deeds documenting amassed wealth in Chorum involving Dadrian family properties. But I am prepared to relinquish any claim on property if the Turks recognize the genocide. A sizable portion of the city of Chorum was owned by the Dadrian family but I am an academician, and I have an aversion against wealth and greed.
Q. It’s very striking to read about the Constantinople Conference and the pressure to accommodate Turkey on reforms, so they watered everything down.
A. In the Abdul Hamit era, the Constantinople Conference was a failure because Abdul Hamit absolutely refused to grant European control over Ottoman reforms in the provinces. The European powers insisted that the reforms be supervised by the powers, and the sultan said, this is a sticking point; he said that this is an encroachment on Ottoman sovereignty. Another delicate point in the Constantinople Conference was the issue of non-Muslims, Christians, having the right to bear arms. And the Sheikh ul Islam said categorically no, our subjects, non-Muslims can never be armed, and this is the heart and soul of Armenian vulnerability. When you are surrounded by people armed to the teeth and you have no way of defending yourself, you learn the art of submissiveness as a means of survival. This was the case with the Jews. Submissiveness becomes a survival technique, because if you don’t submit, you are done. So five centuries of abject submissiveness nipped in the bud the Armenian spirit of combativeness and self-defense. And it is very significant that the few citadels of Armenian heroism and self-defense were locations where Armenians were armed, such as Sassun and Zeitun, this is north of Hajun near Adana. And other ones, such as Shabin Karaisor, and Urfa and Musa Dagh, of course. So mountain Armenians took advantage of the landscape and mounted self-defense. They had been armed for centuries, primitive, very primitive arms.
Q. What would you say were the most important factors were the warrant for genocide.
A. Two factors stand out. The extreme vulnerability of the Armenians, and the constancy of impunity with which the perpetrators have been rewarded, vulnerability and impunity.
Q. Do you have any optimism that Turkey will recognize the genocide for what it was.
A. No. Because as I said, vulnerability is a function of power relations. Vulnerable means that you are impotent, and the perpetrators are powerful. This is the relationship between victims and perpetrators. And today, Turkey is even more powerful than during the massacres, and as long as that power position holds, there is very little incentive for any perpetrator to concede guilt. The only prospect of recognition by the Turks can be if there is a civil war, Turkey is terribly weakened, destitute, as was the case at the end of the war, in the two years before the rise of Kemalism. Turkey was completely ready to acknowledge guilt and to compensate.
Q. So why didn’t they.
A. The ascendancy of Kemalism changed the picture dramatically. Abject weakness was transformed into defiant power.
Q. Some would say that if the U.S. and Israel accepted the genocide, then Turkey would recognize it, and they should.
A. I doubt it. As long as Turkey has the power and leverage it has, not even God can change the conditions. We cannot afford to underestimate the leverage of power. Power tends to make people arrogant, willfully deceitful and manipulative, especially in the Orient.
Q. But Israel should recognize the genocide. There are Zionists who recognize the genocide.
A. There is one remote possibility of recognition by Turkey, and that is if and when there emerges in Turkey today what we call a potent civil society that can challenge the omnipotent state. Turkey has always been ruled by an omnipotent state. In Turkey, the concept of devlet, state, is an all-embracing concept. Turks worship their state and they have always been submissive. But now, there are signs of the development of a middle class civil society that is posed to question and challenge the omnipotence of the state, in particular as regards the Armenian genocide. Next month, in Istanbul, three major universities will conduct a conference focusing on the Armenian genocide in which they will challenge the doctrines of the Turkish Historical Society, which is an arm of the state. In no democratic country can you see an academic organization such as a historical society being an arm of the state. They mimic, they copy, they emulate, they reflect the position of the state. Now these universities are saying enough is enough. Historical study should be detached from the state.
Q. So the factors behind the genocide were the Armenian victims’ vulnerability and the perpetrator power of the Turks.
A. Genocide almost always presupposes the power of the perpetrator against the vulnerability of the victims.
Q. Could it happen again.
A. Only if there is an armed conflict. I think, I am convinced that deep in their hearts, the Turks would like to do away with Armenia, because it is a constant reminder of this terrible blot in Turkish history. In fact, I think they would have achieved their goal of wiping out Armenia completely in the Fall of 1920 if it weren’t for the intervention of the 11th Red Army that marched into Armenia and imposed communism. In 1920, the fledgling and ill-equipped Armenian army was defeated by the Turkish armies, and Armenia, or what was left of it, wouldn’t have survived but for the intervention of the Red Army that preempted the Turkish conquest of Armenia by marching into Armenia and for all practical purposes rescuing it from near obliteration.
1. Uras E., The Armenians and the Armenian Question in History, 2nd ed., (Istanbul, 1976), p.612.
2. Akcam T., Turkish National Identity and the Armenian Question, (Istanbul, 1992), p. 109.
3. Hovanissian R., Armenia on the Road to Independence, (Berkeley, CA, 1967), p. 51.
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