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The Critical Corner - 08/19/2003

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Why we should read...

"An American Physician in Turkey" by Clarence D Ussher, 190pp
"The Tragedy of Bitlis" by Grace H Knapp, 110pp
(Both Sterndale Classic titles, 2002, England)

Armenian News Network / Groong
August 19, 2003

By Eddie Arnavoudian

Sterndale Classics is a relatively new imprint specialising in
republishing contemporary and eyewitness accounts of life and politics
in the late 19th/early 20th century Ottoman Empire particularly as
they relate to the Armenian experience. Edited by Ara Sarafian, from
the Gomidas Institute and the 'Armenian Forum' Journal, the series
serves a valuable purpose independent of the merits or otherwise of
individual titles. Whether tainted by prejudice, one-sided,
politically motivated or in some other way faulty, each volume
establishes a significant Armenian presence in Anatolia and the
provinces of historical Armenia that, incorporated into the
post-imperial Turkish state, are now empty of their Armenian
population. This seems a peculiar and slight credit.

But in view of widespread and systematic attempts by some to write
Armenia and Armenians out the history of the region and to dismantle
or destroy any physical evidence of an Armenian presence, affirming it
has become a matter of great importance. These accounts, many of them
long unavailable, are valuable also to those engaged in debate about
the Armenian Genocide. Term it what you will: 'genocide', 'mass ethnic
cleansing', the 'unfortunate and tragic consequence of war', the fact
remains that during the Armenian genocide in 1915 a nation was
uprooted and destroyed, removed from its historic homelands, its
wealth, property and land confiscated, with no compensation or right
of return. The Sterndale Classics are timely reminders of this crime
against humanity, reminders too that debates over definition cannot
alter the substance of the barbarism they describe.

Naturally caution is required in evaluating memoirs offered by
American, French, British or German authors, many missionaries. No
altruistic angels, they worked unashamedly and brazenly within the
Ottoman Empire on behalf of the imperialist ambitions of the states of
which they were citizens or subjects. Their accounts, tainted by
racist arrogance as they carried the white man's burden of a perceived
oriental primitiveness, need to be treated critically in the context
of each other and subsequent historical research and investigation.
But trite as it may seem to say so, the virtue of their historical
record outweighs the vice of their individual attitudes.

Clarence Ussher and Grace Knapp provide rich detail on the politics
and society of the Ottoman Empire and its Armenian subjects. Incidents
and anecdotes on the savagery, venality and corruption of the Ottoman
state sit alongside shocking descriptions of social backwardness and
poverty, economic underdevelopment and decay. One senses immediately
the reasons behind the political turmoil and the growth of nationalist
movements in the last decades of the Empire -the Ottoman state and
elite provided no prospect of relief from the endless brutality of
everyday life.

Central to both books, however, are accounts of the 1915 Armenian
resistance in Van and the terrible massacres in nearby Bitlis during
the same year. Both expose the fraud of those who legitimise the Young
Turk deportations and genocide by claiming that it was an inevitable
response to the threat of wartime Armenian pro-Russian insurrections
of which Van was a prime example. Ussher and Knapp convince the
readers otherwise, showing that in Van they witnessed a desperate act
resorted to only in the last instant and only to save the community
from imminent slaughter. A joint reading of both volumes moreover
shows that where there was resistance, massacre was limited. Where
there was none, it was horrific.

According to Ussher, as far back as 1908, Ali Bey, then governor of
Van, 'used every means in his power to incite Armenians to revolt in
order to have a pretext for massacring them.' (p70) Though the
massacre did not take place many were murdered including 'one
hundred...Armenian merchants...[whose] bodies were thrown into the
lake...' (p72). Thereafter in the run up to 1915 Armenians in the Van
region lived an unending nightmare of massacre, assassination, burning
and pillage. Turkish authorities seeking to deplete the Armenian
population of men of fighting age arrested and murdered even young boys
not yet old enough to be called up.

In the face of intense violence and extreme tension Ussher writes that
the Armenian leadership nevertheless:

    '...did all in their power to keep the peace...So they told the
    Armenians to submit to anything rather than antagonize the
    government; to submit to the burning of two or three villages, the
    murder of a dozen men, without attempts at retaliation that would
    give the Turks excuse for a general massacre. (p118)

But eventually Armenians were forced to fight for their lives, a fight
for which they were ill-prepared and had not planned.

    'After the Constitutional Government had been established (in
    1908)...the Armenians had transformed their revolutionary
    societies into political parties had had ceased to drill their
    young men...(In)...the spring of 1915 very few men had been left
    in the villages. Thus it came about that in this crisis there were
    only about three hundred men with rifles and a thousand with
    pistols and antique weapons to defend thirty thousand Armenians in
    an area of over a square mile...' (Ussher p132)

The Armenian resistance had no anti-Turkish ambition. Extending a hand
of friendship the Armenian

    'Military Council sent a manifesto to the Turkish people saying
    that the Armenians were fighting one man, Jevdet, and not those
    who had been their neighbours in the past and would be in the
    future. Valis might come and go, but the two races must continue
    to live together and they hoped that after Jevdet went there might
    be peaceful and friendly relations with them.' (Ussher p134)

Courageous, stubborn and ingenious resistance saved the Armenian
population of Van. Knapp's volume with its extensive descriptions of
horrific Young Turk slaughter and savagery in Bitlis shows just what
would have happened had Armenians in Van submitted to Young Turk
government orders. Knapp, refuting claims that anti-Armenian violence
was the responsibility of Kurds, writes that whilst Armenians were
indeed driven from 'their homes by Kurds' the latter were 'acting
under the orders of the government.' (p32)

Ussher is by no means one-sided or blindly pro-Armenian. He rejects
the notion of collective Turkish responsibility for the Genocide
arguing that it was 'the Turkish government, not the Turkish people,
that has done all this.' It was the Government that 'tried to deceive
its Mohammedan subjects and arouse their hatred against the
Christians'. But in Ussher's opinion 'few...Turks were deceived' and
'eighty out of a hundred of them were opposed to the massacres and
deportations...' (p177) Interestingly he also absolves the Young Turks
of responsibility for the Adana massacres of 1910.

Neither does Ussher disguise or exonerate Armenian violence. After
their initial victory, whilst in their treatment of women and children
the 'Armenians showed themselves far more humane than the Turks' they
also 'burned and murdered'. The 'spirit of loot took possession of
them, driving out every other thought...' He does however suggest a
historical context and explanation for Armenian violence in his remark
that witnessing it he 'remembered what (the Armenians) had to endure
from the Turk all their lives...' (p154)

Both Ussher and Knapp point to German involvement and complicity in
the Genocide. Knapp quotes Turks saying that 'Germany is responsible
for the massacres' (Knapp p64) while Ussher charges them with
responsibility for 'planning the deportation', a fact, he adds, that
'cannot be doubted by any one who has had first hand knowledge
concerning them.'  Elsewhere, of particular interest is Ussher's
dismissal of the democratic pretensions of the 1908 Young Turk
so-called Constitutional Revolution. In a speech he made in the same
year he: '...warned those who were optimistic about the future of
Turkey that the slogan of the Young Turk Party was "Turkey for the
Turks"; that its friendship with Christians was a friendship of

He goes on to comment that 'within five years there would be a
reaction followed by the worst massacre the country had every

Both volumes contain much other material of interest to those
concerned with Armenian-Turkish history and their modern relations. Of
immense value, it would not, however, be fair to conclude without
comment on the nauseating expressions of the imperialist civilising
mission that animated both authors.

Claiming that 'the (Armenian) Gregorian Church had become 'very
corrupt early in its history' Ussher believes that it was the job of
the 'American purify' it and 'educate the priesthood and
the become Christians in reality as well as in name.'
(p47) Ussher concludes his memoirs with a triumphal 'Behold America's
opportunity!' (p178) Unbelievably he is here referring to American
missionaries training wretched Armenian orphans to reconstruct Turkey,
no doubt as a vassal of the US. Knapp in similar vein refers to Bitlis
with 'American help' becoming a centre for a project, 'greater than
the past has ever known', to 'civilise and Christianise the whole of
Kurdistan' (p75)

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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