An Inconvenient Genocide: Who Now Remembers the Armenians?
Geoffrey Robertson, QC

Reviewed by Jeremy Salt
Associate Professor of Political Science Bilkent University, Ankara

Biteback Publishing, 2014. 304 pages. £20.00, hardcover.
Summer 2015, Volume XXII, Number 2

American readers of this book might wonder what the initials “QC” stand for, but what does not count for much in the United States counts for a lot in Britain, where the title of Queen’s Counsel is conferred on those who have risen to the top of the legal profession. Mr. Robertson is a distinguished human-rights lawyer and supremely confident public speaker. In 2009, he was asked by the Armenian Centre in London to provide an opinion on British policy, which is based on the admission that massacres of Armenians took place during World War I, while avoiding the question of genocide. In this book, Robertson gathers the evidence and comes up with his own conclusion: that what happened did amount to genocide.

Such a judgment can only be passed on the basis of a fairly comprehensive knowledge of the history of the period. Speaking to a gathering of American Armenians in 2013, Robertson declared, “We know the history. It’s there in the books.” Thus it was not for the historians but the judges to decide, “looking at the evidence.” He concedes that he is not a historian, and this fact is his basic problem. Without a proper understanding of the history, not just of World War I, but of the general state of the Ottoman Empire when it was plunged into the war by its government, how can judgment be passed?

Mr. Robertson dismisses military necessity as a legitimate reason for “relocating” the Armenians in 1915 without having the qualifications to examine it in the first place. Turkish military histories of the war include dozens of books, document collections, monographs and memoirs. These alone would keep any historian busy for years, apart from which there is the mass of Ottoman documents in the archives dealing with the military campaigns.

It is not just the military history, however. What is also needed is a sound knowledge of Ottoman history, especially of the conditions that prevailed in the eastern Anatolian provinces, from which the bulk of the Armenian population was removed. One needs to understand the nature of relations between the center and the periphery, between the Ottoman government and the tribal chiefs. One needs to know about authority and power and where it truly lay in these regions. One needs to have a solid grasp of the material conditions of these provinces and how backward they were, even compared to the western provinces of the empire: no sealed roads but only wagon trails leading from the interior to the coast, almost no railways, very little in the way of health care, poor communications and a population that was largely tribal, illiterate and conservative. Nothing had changed by the time the war broke out, and all of these factors were relevant to the fate of the entire civilian population, not just the Armenians.

One of Robertson’s “facts” is the statement attributed to Hitler and reproduced on the front cover of his book, “Who now remembers the Armenians?” Heath Lowry has done the research necessary to show that in the speech he made just before the invasion of Poland in 1939, Hitler may never have said it. Robertson relies on a version produced by an American newspaperman, Louis Lochner, that is markedly different from the two versions tabled by the prosecutor at the Nuremberg tribunal. There is no mention of the Armenians in either of them. The prosecutor specifically declined to accept the Lochner version.

Robertson relies on a range of questionable sources, including James Bryce’s 1916 propaganda collation of accusations against the Ottoman government and statements by senior figures in a British government at war with Germany and the Ottoman Empire. They paint a dark picture, but what else would one expect? Dealing with the violence that swept the eastern provinces of the empire in the 1890s, Robertson relies on British documents while ignoring (or being unaware of) Ottoman documents that present quite a different version. He accuses Sultan Abdulhamit of masterminding these outbursts, picking up where Gladstone and other nineteenth-century bigots left off.

While Robertson dismisses the “military necessity” argument for the “relocation” of the Armenians in 1915, others who actually know the military history, notably Edward Erickson, say it was the only reason. Robertson downplays the significance of Armenian insurgency behind the Ottoman lines, when, again, the evidence shows that it was widespread, breaking out across the eastern provinces, building up to the fall of Van in May 1915 and the massacre of large numbers of Muslims in and around the city. The threat to Ottoman lines of communication and resupply was real enough, in the eyes of the military command, to endanger the entire war effort.

An alternative explanation to the malign intentions attributed to the Ottoman government by Robertson would begin with the destruction of the Third Army at Sarikamis early in the year. The whole of northeastern Anatolia was exposed to Russian invasion, with the army too depleted to protect the civilian population and prevent the disruption of lines of communication and supply by Armenian insurgents. Unable to staunch these attacks, the Ottoman military command concluded after the Van uprising that the bulk of the Armenian population, the sea in which the insurgents swam, had to be removed or the war was going to be lost. Detailed instructions were sent to the provincial authorities given the responsibility for arranging the “relocation,” but the problems would have been daunting for even the most competent administrator. The military had first call on all resources — food, medical supplies, manpower and transport — and was stricken by shortages throughout the war.

On the way south, Armenians died in large numbers from disease and food shortages. They were also killed in mass attacks by tribal groups out for booty or taking revenge for the killing of Muslims. The Armenian convoys were poorly protected, not because the government did not want to protect them — as Robertson argues — but the manpower was not available to give them the protection it turned out that they needed. The Muslim civilian population was also left to fend for itself as well as it could against the attacks of well-armed Armenians fighting alongside the Russians and sabotaging the war effort from behind the Ottoman lines. Negligence, incompetence and criminal complicity were all part of the picture. In late 1915, the government set up three commissions of inquiry, resulting in the court-martial of more than 1,600 people, including senior provincial officials, for crimes committed against the Armenians. More than 50 were sentenced to death and hundreds were imprisoned. These very important trials — far more important than the show trials held after the war during the British occupation of Istanbul — have no place in Robertson’s book.

The author argues that the Ottoman government “must have known” when it ordered the “relocation” at the end of May 1915 that it was sending the Armenians to their deaths. What was in the minds of the dominant triumvirate — Enver, Cemal and Talat Pashas — apart from what they had already committed to paper, has been lost forever as all were assassinated within a few years of the war’s end. Robertson’s argument means that they must have known ahead of time of the destructive consequences of the British naval blockade of the eastern Mediterranean coast, and must have known there would be a locust plague in Syria and how devastating it would be. It means they must have known that chronic diseases would sweep through the civilian population as well as the military, killing throughout the war hundreds of thousands of people, in addition to those who died of exposure or starvation. What they “should have known” is a separate matter, but “must have known” is the questionable hinge of Robertson’s argument: “must” signals deliberate intent, and “should” does not.

There are other aspects of the war Robertson does not bring into his account. One is Kurdish-Armenian relations, which had been worsening ever since the “Armenian question” was created at the Congress of Berlin in 1878 and British politicians began referring to a region even the sultan and his ministers called Kurdistan as “Armenia.” Many of the victims of Armenian violence in the eastern provinces were Kurds, who, in tribal fashion, would strike back when the opportunity arose — and it did, when the Armenians were vulnerable to attack. As is often the case, it was the innocent who suffered, terribly, not the armed men who had massacred Muslim villagers.

Robertson both overstates and understates to prove his case. The bulk of Armenians were entirely innocent but so were the bulk of Muslim civilians who died during the war. It was not a case of perpetrators on one side and victims on the other. Armenian insurgent gangs were slaughtering Muslim civilians well before the “relocation” was ordered. Their violence was large-scale, with terrible atrocities being committed across the eastern provinces before the Ottoman army could return in 1918. Perpetrators and victims existed on both sides, yet the fate of the Armenians has been the subject of one book after another, while not one has yet been written on the fate of the Muslim civilian population. There is no consensus on the number of Armenians who died in this war, but at least there is discussion and debate. Of the estimated 2.5 million Muslim civilians who died from exactly the same range of causes as the Armenians, however, nothing is said.

This book is not likely to sway people, one way or the other. The Armenians have made up their minds, and so have the Turks. Armenians will see it as further vindication of their case; Turks will see it as further evidence of bias, propaganda and an unwillingness to give them a fair hearing. For general readers knowing little or nothing of late Ottoman history and having little opportunity to assess this question from different perspectives, Robertson will only confirm what they think they already know.

Historians might know something of international human-rights law but would not have the temerity to pass judgment on it, and lawyers should not pass judgment on history when they don’t know it well enough. That is probably the most appropriate judgment to be passed on this book.