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Why we should read... 'A critical look at the 1915 Genocide' by Garo Sassouni (64pp, Beirut, Lebanon, 1965) Armenian News Network / Groong July 22, 2002 By Eddie Arnavoudian Garo Sassouni's pamphlet 'A Critical Look at the 1915 Genocide', written in 1930 and revised on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Genocide, affords us a rare opportunity to consider seriously the role of the Armenian national leadership in the years leading up to the 1915 Genocide. Sassouni's conclusions are, and not surprisingly, debatable. As a leading Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) intellectual he writes to also defend his party's record during what was the most devastating episode in modern Armenian history. Yet this volume is of value for its explicit acknowledgment and discussion of the Armenian national leadership's failure to prepare nationwide resistance to the Young Turk Genocide. Sassouni's examination covers the years from the 1908 so-called 'Constitutional Revolution' that brought the Young Turks to power up to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. This was a critical period as 'the Armenian people's moral and physical condition in 1915...was a product of the preceding 6-7 years. The people's response in 1915 was a logical result of attitudes formed during (this) constitutional period' (p18). The Central Task of The National Liberation Movement Faced with a foe whose 'fundamental aim was to resolve the Armenian question by massacring the Armenian people' (p40) Sassouni argues correctly that the preparation and organisation of nation-wide armed resistance was the most critical task confronting the Armenian national liberation movement. Acceptance of and subservience to prevailing state power was not only 'senseless' it 'served to facilitate the massacre'. More crucially still 'mere passive self-defence was a delusion...' In conditions of acute conflict between the developing Armenian national movement and a resurgent Young Turk imperialism intent on a genocidal policy: '...decisive and bold insurrection was the only form of self defence, insurrection from Van right across to Cilicia.' (p43) Armed insurrection was indeed the only form of self-defence. How else were the Armenian people to resist the might of the Ottoman Empire as it set out to uproot an entire people from its historic homelands, confiscate its wealth and seize its land. In addition armed insurrection was no idle or irresponsible proposal. By the turn of the century armed self-defence was a firmly established tradition in the Armenian homelands. And underlining the historical validity of the strategy of armed insurrection, Sassouni shows that where there was resistance proportionately many more Armenians survived the Young Turk onslaught. Yet among Armenians people in 1915: 'The psychology of insurrection was absent. There was no plan or organisation for insurrection. Neither the Armenian people nor the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) were ready to undertake such a task.' (p43) Even when from 1913 onwards the ARF 'turned its attention to Armenian self defence... the effort... was tiny compared to the requirements and the dangers.' (p31-32) In attempting to explain the reasons for this failure Sassouni touches on some essential elements that contributed to disorganising, demobilising and disarming the Armenian national liberation movement. 1908 - A Deception Not A Revolution The decisive event, of course, in the political disintegration of the Armenian national liberation movement was its leadership's acceptance of and collaboration with the fraudulent 1908 Young Turk 'constitutional revolution'. 1908 was in fact no revolution. It was one of the first successful experiments in 'peace-process' politics that have been deployed to defeat modern national liberation movements in Palestine, Ireland, El Salvador and elsewhere. In return for a measure of status and privilege within the imperial political domain, the Armenian leadership and elite took on the task of reconciling the Armenian people to their subjugation. As bait for this entrapment the 1908 'revolution' came bedecked in slogans of freedom and democracy. But it was a fraud. As Sassouni notes, promises of reform were little more than 'diplomatic maneuvres', and proffered cultural freedom, merely occasions for 'festivals that could play no significant role in a genuine national cultural revival (p28). True, in Istanbul and Izmir and to a much lesser extent elsewhere, the more affluent and secure were able to enjoy limited freedoms and partake of some of the spoils of an impotent Ottoman parliamentary politics. But in the provinces the fortunes of the people continued to deteriorate. The Young Turks retained complete and dictatorial control of all mechanisms of state power - the courts, the police, the secret service and the army. They categorically refused to restore land robbed from the Armenian peasantry and connived in the intensification of national oppression, repression and expropriation. The wave of emigration from the historic homelands continued unabated. Blinded to all this by newly acquired privileges and full of illusions in worthless promises, the Armenian leadership effectively abandoned the terrain of the national liberation struggle. As Sassouni aptly puts it, the once thriving Armenian national political movement was reduced to 'little more than a cultural community'. In turn illusions that popular political demands had at last been satisfied fed a virulent hostility towards the revolutionary movement. Within a substantial stratum of the population the view gained ground that 'revolutionary and armed organisations had ceased to be essential instruments of national survival'. Revolutionaries and revolutionary organisations 'became objects of derision'. Such sentiments produced a growing body of apolitical people, the so-called 'neutrals', whose weight and 'counter-revolutionary inclinations' played an important role in securing victory for the conservative establishment in its struggle against the revolutionary movement. (p25). Sassouni, who elsewhere readily refers to classes and groups among the Armenian population, doesn't identify those affected by such moods and sentiments. But one must assume that they were most widespread and concentrated among those who obtained some tangible benefits - however minor - from 1908: the relatively secure and well-off in Istanbul and Izmir. In the historic Armenian provinces the overwhelming majority continued to experience the bitter reality of Ottoman oppression and were hardly likely to have any illusions in the 1908 'revolution'. Nevertheless, fomenting and exploiting this growing body of 'neutrals' the Armenian 'conservative and counter-revolutionary' leadership, Sassouni argues, began to wage war against the nationalist forces and primarily the ARF, lining up against them a 'united front' that included: '...the Armenian reactionaries, the democrats (disorganised), the Hnchaks (though they always spoke in the name of socialism and Marx), the majority of the clergy, the wealthy Armenian, the landlord and the merchants and the numerous diclassi elements.....driven by concern for personal gain...' (p22) Thus the ground was established for debilitating internecine warfare, internal fragmentation, chaos and political illusions and confusions that marked the 1908-1914 period. Together these contributed significantly to the demobilisation and disarmament of the Armenian national liberation movement. The only beneficiaries were, of course, the Young Turks. For them, this was one of the important dividends of the 1908 'peace process'. It ensured that as they set about the Genocide in 1915: '... the Armenian nation was in a state of chaos and confusion. The Patriarchy, the parishes and churches became powerless as they preached caution and obedience. The rich, merchant class and the conservatives in general withdrew into their shell....The Armenian intelligentsia, split into factions, had no unified will or decisiveness... The revolutionary organisations remained indecisive whilst the established institutions and other elements slavishly succumbed. In six to seven months the Armenian people were turned to dust. (p14) The failure of the revolutionary responsibility Garo Sassouni's pamphlet suggests the inescapable conclusion that the ARF, as the main and dominant Armenian revolutionary organisation, was to a significant extent responsible for this disintegration of the liberation movement. He is explicit about its failure of political leadership by the ARF (p28). Instead of leading and enlightening the people 'the ARF marched along with the confused mentality of the times.' (p39) Instead of fighting to win the people over to its views, it remained 'wary of publicly raising the flag or revolutionary organisation and self-defence.' (p42) Even as its opponents campaigned against the ARF, the latter, 'for the sake of Armenian unity and collective strength' itself a 'hopeless expectation' nevertheless 'adopted a moderate stance.' Such passivity caused the 'organisation to steadily lose its absolute independence and its revolutionary spirit.' (p28) So much so that: 'However we put the question, the essential fact remains that our party (the ARF), to a significant extent, had been affected by the anti-ARF and counter-revolutionary assault and was infected with the poison of conservatism.' (p42) The 'poison of conservatism' was of course a mix of the desires, ambitions and illusions of the well-to-do in Istanbul and Izmir and of the Armenian establishment that was integrated into the Ottoman apparatus. An 'infected' ARF, instead of defending the interests of the population as a whole, and the masses in the homeland in particular, bent and adapted its politics to suit establishment needs. As a result of ARF prevarication and retreat: '...the final victory lay with the conservatives and counterrevolutionaries. The ARF was defeated. Defeated primarily for the fact that it failed to take the initiative to resort to resistance with its own forces and drag the masses behind it onto an insurrectionary road.' (p48) Sassouni's evaluation of the general social and political trends that operated and to a certain extent determined the actions of the Armenian national movement and leadership are perceptive. But he confuses rather than clarifies issues when dealing directly with the reasons for ARF's failure of political leadership. Sassouni argues that the ARF's retreat from revolutionary national politics begins not in 1908 but in 1909 following the unsuccessful revolt against the Young Turks and the formation of the powerful and overwhelming Armenian anti-ARF united front. Thus Sassouni presents the ARF as an unwitting victim of counter-revolution. This is not at all satisfactory. The ARF itself, and independently, took all the strategic decisions that determined the political character of the time and the ARF's role. Furthermore it took these decisions in 1908 and before, well before its opponents ganged up on it after 1909. The first and determining ARF action was its leading role in the collaboration with the Young Turks that helped bring about the 1908 'Constitutional Revolution'. This commenced well before 1908. Through it the ARF joined the new establishment as one of its important components; it entered the corridors of power - but only as a powerless guest. By doing so, the ARF leadership accepted and gave important legitimacy to the Ottoman state and undermined other revolutionary opposition. As the largest and most respected trend within the Armenian national liberation movement, its endorsement and enthusiastic support for this fraudulent 'revolution' contributed substantially to the then prevailing illusion that Armenian ambitions were about to be realized. Thus ARF acted as a major catalyst for conditions conducive to the disarming of the military organisation of the oppressed national minorities, the demobilisation and de-politicisation of their populations and the entrenchment of their collaborationist leaderships. Significantly, in his evaluation Sassouni does not consider the views of people such as Antranig who in tune with the need of the people rejected collaboration with the Young Turks and turned down the offer of a seat in the Ottoman impotent parliament. The second and possibly the critical factor that Sassouni does not discuss was the ARF's long-standing strategic reliance on European support for resolving the Armenian question. It was this strategic ambition that prevented the party attending to the critical task of preparing a nationwide resistance in 1911 when ARF hopes in the Young Turks were finally dashed. Instead of concentrating on reconstructing the political and armed national liberation movement the ARF joined the conservative establishment to campaign for European intervention into the Ottoman empire in order to resolve the Armenian question. This naturally only made the Young Turks more determined in their designs, while simultaneously leaving the Armenians defenceless. A proper and fruitful inquiry into the reasons for the ARF's failure could perhaps center on this reliance on foreign powers to resolve the Armenian question. Uncovering the political and social reasons that drove the ARF leadership to trust powers, who themselves were responsible for brutal colonisation of small nations may yield the deeper reasons for its failure than those suggested by Garo Sassouni's pamphlet. Despite the risk of unduly lengthening the commentary one feels compelled to add two footnotes. Firstly, though Sassouni does not deal in any detail with the role of other trends in the Armenian revolutionary movement, nevertheless his bracketing of the Social-Democratic Hnchakian party with the band of Armenian counter-revolutionaries (p 22) suggests an unacceptable sectarianism. Despite political and military defeats and internal fragmentation, trends within the Hnchak party produced an accurate analysis of the essentially national-chauvinist and fascistic character of the Young Turks. Among their leaders, Paramaz, anticipating disaster, opposed the ARF-Young Turk collaboration and advocated the revival of armed self-defence. Fearing a resurgent Hnchak movement, the Young Turks in July 1914 moved to incapacitate them by arresting some two hundred organisers and leaders. Subsequently Paramaz and 19 of his comrades were publicly hanged in Istanbul. Secondly, Sassouni expresses certain Darwinist conceptions that conceal rather than reveal the real causes behind the genocide. He considers the Armenian-Turkish conflict as 'an essentially bitter struggle for racial survival' (p53). This standpoint allows him to claim that 'the immediate and first culprit was the Turkish nation.' (p8) Setting aside unscientific claims about racial types and their role in history, it would be preposterous to attribute responsibility for genocide to an entire nation. No one would dream of charging the people of the USA with the war crimes committed against the Vietnamese people, even though they elected their criminal government. All the more so for the Turkish people who did not vote the Young Turks into power. To claim that 'the Turkish government officially and the Turkish nation unofficially organised and executed the massacre and deportation of the Armenians' serves only to reduce the political debate to racist sloganeering. The Turkish government organised the genocide, not the Turkish people. Indubitably there were broad swathes of Turkish people who either actively participated or indifferently witnessed it. But this phenomenon requires historical interpretation not stereotype pigeonholing. ------------------------------------------------------------------- Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in history and politics from Manchester, England, and is Groong's commentator-in-residence on Armenian literature. His works on literary and political issues have also appeared in Harach in Paris, Nairi in Beirut and Open Letter in Los Angeles.