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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.


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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.

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