by Tal Buenos
Geoffrey Robertson is not the first to write a book or a newspaper article in a manner that presents Turks as genocidal and deniers, without being a scholar of Ottoman history. He is not the first for whom the accusation of genocide is a hobby. The ease with which such writers can publish inaccuracies at the expense of Turks has become a regular feature of Western media. However, when it happens in Australia it is a matter of greater disappointment.
Australia, much like Canada, welcomes immigrants, and respects their cultural background. It is a place where multiculturalism can succeed. While Australia’s history is intertwined with British colonialism, the racial and religious prejudice of colonialism is not deeply embedded in its national identity.
In the UK, where political interests have not allowed for a truly reflective postcolonialist historiography to develop in recognition of the country’s changing social makeup, there is currently a major identity crisis experienced by the formerly colonized peoples who are now British citizens.
In the US, where affirmative action both in laws and in historiography has been helpful in the complicated healing process of African and Native American wounds, there is now a popular post-9/11 discourse that has supplanted the postcolonialist sensitivity. This has enabled a politicized history of the interaction between the West and the Muslim, showing the latter as an aggressive “other,” as if the lessons of colonialism were never learned.
Australia presents a whisper of hope that may rise above it all. If Australia wishes to remain a country that is fair to all of its citizens, then it must promote a diligent study of historical facts, and reject the dictation of prejudicial perspectives on the histories of its multinational and multiethnic citizenry.
Why has it become so easy for an article that degrades an entire people to be published in a major newspaper in Australia? Such is the case with Robertson’s article in The Australian on November 7, 2014. The inaccuracies cannot be ignored.
On April 24, 1915, there was a “rounding up,” but the Armenians who were rounded up were not simply “intellectuals and community leaders” as Robertson puts it, but rather they were leaders of an organized rebellion against their sovereign – the Ottoman state – that was in a total war against Britain, France and Russia. The Ottoman state faced destruction, which presented the Entente and the Armenian political leaders with an opportunity to make a final push for an Armenian independent state. When the Jewish leaders in Palestine were rounded up during the same war because of similar Ottoman concerns, they were released as soon as it became apparent that they were not planning to act as a fifth column while the Ottoman state was fighting for its life.
Armenian political aspirations on Ottoman land emerged long before WWI. Already in December of 1876, James Bryce made a name for himself as a rising politician in Britain’s Liberal Party and an expert in foreign affairs by raising the Armenian Question in the midst of the anti-Muslim campaign that was run by the Gladstonian circle of politicians, historians and journalists. It was in the heyday of Darwinism that claims about the inferiority of race and religion were made in Britain against the Muslim Turks, and the Ottoman sovereign as a Muslim political entity. These were utilized for imperialist interests, and the British political strategy in eastern Anatolia was articulated by Bryce in 1878 as he announced the death of Turkey. Bryce also called for plans to cultivate “the growth of a native Christian race” – the Armenians – to the point of establishing “the nucleus of an independent state” – Armenia – whose territories would comprise of Ottoman land in the size of “about three hundred and fifty miles in length by two hundred and fifty in breadth” (“The Future of Asiatic Turkey,” The Fortnightly Review 29, 1878). The fact that territorial claims are still being vocalized by people such as Robertson, who has suggested “that the majestic Mount Ararat… could be handed over by Turkey as an act of reconciliation,” shows the political nature of the conflict.
Therefore, the Armenians, though they had a distinct ethnic and religious group identity, were since the 1870s a political group in how they were handled by the British imperialist sponsor, and how they interacted with the Ottoman sovereign.
While Robertson talks of an Ottoman “wholesale attempt on a race” by citing the biased Entente for whom the Ottoman Empire was an enemy in WWI, it is evident that the Turks were the ones under an ideological attack on their race and religion, in justification of British imperialism. In 1902, Bryce gave the Romans Lecture at Oxford and said that there are “cases in which the exclusion of the Backward race seems justified, in the interests of humanity at large,” and he invited his audience to “Conceive what a difference it might make if Islam were within two centuries to disappear from the earth!”
The Armenians, whom he and many Britons regarded as racially superior to Turks, were his means to making Muslim rule disappear. Irresponsible Armenian representatives were enthusiastic to meet with Bryce and other British officials in London hotels to agree to a rebellion that compromised the safety of the Armenians in eastern Anatolia who were not the majority in any Ottoman province. Has Robertson consulted the papers of James Bryce at the Department of Special Collections, Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, especially MSS. Bryce 191-208, which reveal how the Armenians were mobilized into becoming a political entity within Ottoman territory?
Considering that it is documented that the Armenian leadership engaged in rebellion against the Ottoman sovereign over the course of decades leading up to WWI, how offensive is it to claim, as Robertson does, that Adolf Hitler was right when he equated – if he did – his victims to the rebellious, British sponsored, Armenians? Just because in Hitler’s mind the Jews or the Poles were as rebellious or politically dangerous as the Armenians were, does not mean that it was true. Is it really necessary to remind Robertson that the Jews in Germany, Poland and all of Europe, were not part of a plan to establish an independent state on German land?
It seems as though political actors and part-time scholars are not interested in historical facts, but rather they wish to make some politically convenient noise.
The Armenian tragedy became a much discussed issue only when it was politically convenient to make it into one. While Robertson writes that Raphael Lemkin “worked tirelessly between the wars to have the annihilation of the Armenians recognised as an international crime,” according to Lemkin’s own resume in the Raphael Lemkin papers in the Manuscripts and Archives Division at the New York Public Library, Box 2, Folder 1, there is no mention of international criminal law until after his employment by the US government during WWII. Prior to that, his positions were titled Deputy Public Prosecutor, General Practice of Law, and Professor of Family Law at Tachkomi College, Warsaw, Poland. The book in which genocide was coined under Lemkin’s name in 1944, The Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, does not mention the Armenians at all.
These are only some of the truly convenient inaccuracies on the Armenian tragedy. They serve three main political purposes. They allow the West to maintain control of the conversation on genocide and colonialist history; they allow the West to maintain leverage against the Turkish government so as to influence Turkish policies; and they allow the West to maintain this image of Armenian victimhood to distract from the Armenian aggression in an ongoing real grievance, which is the Armenian occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Australia does not have to participate in this political game; it has the capacity to protect its inclusive national identity through historiographical cleanliness.