Martin Shaw: A century of genocide, 1915-2009





[Martin Shaw is a historical sociologist of war and global politics, and professor of international relations and politics at the University of Sussex.]

When Armenian leaders in Constantinople (now Istanbul) were massacred on 24 April 1915, it was the signal for killings and deportations of Armenians across eastern Anatolia, then the heartland of the Ottoman empire and the core territory of what was in 1923 to become the Republic of Turkey....

That the genocide remains politically potent after almost a century should not be surprising. Historical wrongs powerfully influence national memories, and as Turkish leaders are finally beginning to recognise, sustained denial only compounds the harm. Yet it would be wrong to take this political morality tale as the end of the matter. This is also because the campaign to recognise the Armenian genocide as one of the most terrible such episodes risks skewing our understanding of genocide, both then and now.

The destruction of the Armenians was undoubtedly one of the largest, most murderous genocides in history, and it is fully justified to compare it to the Nazi holocaust and Rwanda. Yet none of these "mega-genocides" (as Mark Levene has called them) were stand-alone events. Rather they were the most concentrated and totally murderous among many episodes of mass death in their times. There were other victims of Ottoman and Turkish genocide - mainly Greeks and other Christians but also, especially later, Kurds; and there were other perpetrators in the same historical period, and other victims.

Indeed, as Donald Bloxham argues in his seminal study, the Armenian genocide was the climax of a whole period in which, as the Ottoman empire declined and eventually collapsed, new nation-states sought to establish themselves by establishing ethnic homogeneity - and therefore expelling, and sometimes killing, members of ethnic groups that they didn't want in their new states. The southeastern European version of the "great game" was not just a system of rivalry among states and empires, but a system of conflicting ethnic expulsions and genocide.

To recognise this wider picture should not detract from the particular depths of the violence against the Armenians. Contextualising does not mean condoning; nor does it mean buying the false balancing of the deniers, who say in effect that since Turks and Muslims were also killed and expelled (and they were, by Armenians, Greeks, Russians and other Christian Slavs, as well as by the Ottoman state), then why so much fuss about the Armenian victims? It is important to recognise the differences between the largest-scale, most murderous campaigns, such as the Ottomans' against the Armenians, and the smaller-scale or less murderous campaigns and more isolated massacres, carried out by other parties. Yet all belong with the scope of genocide - classically defined as the deliberate destruction of a social group. The destruction of the Armenians was the largest, most ruthless, concentrated genocide during a series of wars in the region where many parties developed, at times, genocidal aims.

At the same time, this should not be seen as a purely "near-eastern" and Balkan problem....



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