A Disputed Genocide: Genocidal Consequences

Guenter Lewy, 2005. Publisher The University of Utah Press

The literature is voluminous on what Armenians call the first genocide of the twentieth century and what most Turks refer to as an instance of intercommunal warfare and a wartime relocation. Yet despite the great outpouring of writing, an acrimonious debate over what actually happened almost one hundred years ago continues unabated. The highly charged historical dispute burdens relations between Turkey and Armenia and increases tensions in a volatile region. It also crops up periodically in other parts of the world, where members of the Armenian diaspora push for recognition of the Armenian genocide by their respective parliaments and the Turkish government threatens retaliation. 

Vestnik Kavkaza publishes chapters from the book by Guenter Lewy "The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey: a Disputed Genocide," revealing the essence of the issue.

Many authors of Armenian origin point to the large number of their people who perished during the course of the deportations of 1915-16 as proof that the large death toll must have been part of a premeditated plan of annihilation. Attained results, argues Dadrian, can give us an indication of the objectives of the Young Turk regime—an exterminatory intent is best revealed in an exterminatory outcome. It is possible to ascertain the aims of the CUP by posing the question: "Were the Ottoman Armenians in fact largely exterminated or not?"52 

This approach, of course, raises a difficulty of logic, for objective results are not the same as subjective intent. Finding a man with a smoking gun standing next to a corpse tells us nothing about the motive for the killing—it may have been murder or a case of self-defense. Indeed, we cannot even be sure that this man is the killer. Similarly, the fact that large numbers of Armenians died or were killed during the course of the deportations can give us no reliable knowledge of who is to be held responsible for these losses of life. 

The high death toll certainly does not prove in and of itself the guilt of the Young Turk regime; nor can we infer from it that the deaths were part of a genocidal plan to destroy the Turkish Armenian community. Large numbers of Turkish civilians died as a result of severe shortages of food and epidemics; large numbers of Turkish soldiers, especially the wounded in battle, perished for lack of adequate medical care and as a result of neglect and incompetence on the part of their own officers; and large numbers of British prisoners of war lost their lives as a consequence of inattention and the kind of gross mismanagement rampant in the Ottoman regime (see the discussion below). Yet these results surely do not prove that the Ottoman government—ultimately responsible for all of these conditions—sought and intentionally caused the death of its own civilian population, of its own soldiers, and of its prisoners of war. 

The Turkish wartime government may deserve to be severely rebuked for its corruption and bungling misrule as well as for indifference to the suffering of its population during World War I. The Young Turk regime may be subject to special moral censure or condemnation on account of its treatment of its Christian minorities. Yet all this does not prove that this regime intended to annihilate the Armenian community. A large death toll, no matter how reprehensible, is not proof of a premeditated plan of extermination. 

Most authors supporting the Armenian cause completely ignore the severe shortages of food that eventually were to afflict most classes of the Turkish population and led to widespread famines.

The mobilization of large numbers of peasants in 1914 as well as the reckless requisitioning of their horses, oxen, and carriages had made it impossible to bring in the harvest, eventually left many fields unfilled, and was one of the reasons for the growing food shortage. The American consul in Smyrna, George Horton, reported on November 14, 1914, that there was much misery to be seen and that "people are actually beginning to starve."53 The domestic situation in the spring of 1915, American ambassador Henry Morgenthau noted, "was deplorable: al 1 over Turkey thousands of the populace were daily dying of starvation."54 In the late spring and summer of 1915 Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria were devastated by a plague of locusts that destroyed everything in its wake and led to famine conditions. On October T8, 1915, Enver told Morgenthau that the possibility of shortages of flour existed even in Constantinople and that "therefore it is not certain if they can furnish bread to the Armenians all through the winter." 55 

By the fall of 1916, the provincial governor told a German physician, sixty thousand had died of hunger in the Lebanon alone; entire villages had become desolate and abandoned.56 According to the Austrian military attache, the death toll in the Lebanon during the winter of 1915-16 was a hundred and fifty thousand.57 Syria and Lebanon had always imported large amounts of food from Egypt. When allied warships blockaded the coast, all trade with the outside came to a halt and the consequences for the food supply were severe. 

On March 23, 1916, the American charge d'affaires in Constantinople cabled the secretary of state on behalf of the Red Cross: Great suffering throughout the country, particularly at Constantinople and suburbs along the shores of Marmora, at Adriano, Broussa and Smyrna. In these regions five hundred thousand, not comprising Armenian refugees, need help for bread. Hundreds dying of starvation. No relief in sight. Sugar and petroleum oil at famine prices. Typhus is spreading, high mortality.58 

The food situation soon became even more severe. From 1916 until the end of the war in 1918, an Armenian pastor has written, the city of Urfa was plagued with famine, and many of the local poor died of starvation. "Starving Armenians and Turks were begging side by side in front of the same market and together were gathering grass from the fields." 59 

The shortages of food were made worse by the hoarding of speculators, who sold goods at exorbitant prices, and the widespread corruption. Some food supplies bought for the army never reached the fighting units. The troops, reported a German officer in November 1916, received a maximum of one-third of the rations they were supposed to get, and undernourishment was at a dangerous level.60 The Turkish soldiers concentrated in Palestine, another observer noted, "had not enough bread to maintain their strength. They received almost no meat, no butter, no sugar, no vegetables, no fruits."61 Whatever supplies were available in the rear had trouble reaching the troops in the front lines as a result of severe transportation problems. The few existing one-track railroads were overburdened. At times locomotives could not be used because of severe shortages of coal and wood. A crucial tunnel on the line toward Syria (the famous Baghdad railway) was finished only in September 1918. Because of these transportation difficulties the feeding of soldiers "varied enormously, depending on whether they were close to, or far away from, grain producing areas."62 A German officer reported in February 1917 that soldiers had started to eat grass because the bread ration was completely insufficient.63 

The worst situation prevailed during the winter of 1917—18. The German ambassador, Count Johann von Bernsrorff, informed Berlin on March 30, 1918: "There is actually a famine, which is only veiled by the fact that no one troubles whether the poor die." 64 The head of the German Turkish military mission and inspector-general of the Turkish army, Otto Liman von Sanders, reported to the German ambassador on June 20, T918, that by April of that year seventeen thousand men of the Turkish Sixth Army in Iraq had died of hunger and its consequences.65

Descriptions of the horrible life in the camps to which the Armenians had been sent leave the impression that it was only the deported Armenians who suffered from starvation. Yet, in fact, similar conditions at times prevailed even for soldiers in the Turkish army.

European travelers and missionaries who witnessed the misery in the camps in the Syrian desert reported that the Armenians at best received a small quantity of bread at irregular intervals and gradually were reduced to eating grass roots and even dead animals. A German engineer, who had visited the Armenian encampments along the Euphrates River, on September 10, 1916, reported to Jesse Jackson (the American consul in Aleppo) that in Abou Herrera he had seen women "searching in the dung of horses barley seeds not yet digested to feed on." The unfortunates were gradually dying of hunger.66 All this bears a striking similarity to what a German officer wrote on conditions in an artillery unit of the Turkish Fourteenth Infantry Division during the winter of 1915-16: "The men received, if they were lucky, a handful of barley. They began to gnaw at the carcasses of dead animals and scraped meagei seeds from the dung of horses that originated from still better times. Gradually they fell victim to hunger-typhus and pined away. None of them survived the month of January." 67 

This comparison, I should stress, is not meant to belittle the misery of the deported Armenians or to ignore the mass killings that w know to have taken place. Neither do I suggest that the situation of all Turkish soldiers was as bad as that of the deportees. However, at a time when even soldiers in the Turkish army were dying of starvation is hardly surprising that little if any food was made available-he deported Armenians, who were seen as in league with Turkey's enemies.

Given the gradually worsening severe food shortages, the lot of the Armenians soon went from bad to worse. Walter Rossler, the German consul in Aleppo, on February 14, 1917, expressed the view that despite great efforts to provide relief for the deportees in Rakka (Mesopotamia), carried out with American money and distributed with the permission of the Turkish authorities, most of them would surely perish. "For hunger now exists not only among the Armenians but also among the population of Rakka, so that the distribution of food to the deportees by the government has stopped almost completely." Typhus had broken out, and twenty were dying daily.68 

A Turkish historian has argued that the Armenians actually were better off than the Muslim population: "The Turkish citizens were starving while the Armenians were fed by American relief workers with money raised as a result of anti-Turkish propaganda."69 This appraisal is unsupported by any evidence and is undoubtedly false. The relief effort never had enough money or supplies to prevent the death of thousands of Armenians by starvation and disease. It is clear that the lot of the Armenians was made infinitely worse by their relocation. Still, it is important to see these events in their proper context. The corruption and incompetence of the Ottoman government, aggravated by a natural catastrophe, led to severe food shortages and sporadic famine that afflicted the Muslim civilian population as well as the Turkish army. In this situation, the high death toll among the Armenian deportees resulting from lack of food and disease in and of itself does not prove that the Ottoman government aimed at the annihilation of the Armenian community. 

The mistreatment of the simple Turkish soldier by his officers and - neglect of the wounded are another part of the historical setting King from Armenian accounts of the events of 1915-16. These con- 10ns led to the avoidable death of many thousands of Turkish soldiers, and they help explain why the Armenian deportees for the most lacked any kind of medical care. If the Turkish authorities were or unwilling to provide adequate clothing, decent hygienic conditions and appropriate medical attention for their Muslim soldiers, one expect them to be concerned about the fate of the-man deportees, whom they regarded as a fifth column?

The lack of regard for the welfare of their soldiers on the part of the Ottoman authorities was the main reason for the incredibly high number of deserters, which is estimated as one and a half million. The mistreatment of the ordinary soldier was the subject of many comments by contemporaries. "Provisions and clothing had been confiscated to supply the army," wrote an American missionary in Van, yet "the soldiers profited very little by this. They were poorly fed and poorly clothed when fed or clothed at all."71 The Danish missionary Maria Jacobsen noted in her diary on February 7, 1915: "The officers are filling their pockets, while the soldiers die of starvation, lack of hygiene, and illness."72 Many of the soldiers had neither boots nor socks, and they were dressed in rags. "The treatment received by these men by their officers," wrote another American missionary and president of Euphrates College, Henry Riggs, "offered spectacles every day that made the blood boil." Cruelty on the drill ground was common. "It was not at all unusual to see an officer step up to a soldier standing in the line, and for some offense equally unintelligible to the bystander and to the soldier, slap him in the face, or, if the offense was more serious, knock him down, or, as I have seen once or twice, kick him in the stomach."73 

The treatment of sick soldiers was especially appalling and was characterized "by a callous brutality that is unbelievable," Riggs wrote: One day I saw a squad of sick soldiers being taken to the hospital. For want of an ambulance they were trying to walk, and as I approached, I saw that one poor fellow had dropped down in the road. The spruce young officer who was escorting them ordered him to get up, and when he failed to do so, struck him several times with a horsewhip. As I drew near, I could hear the torrent of curses and abuses with which the horsewhip was being explained, but it was of no use. The man evidently could not get up. So, finally, the officer kicked the man over into the ditch beside the road.74 

A similar episode is described by an Armenian in Aleppo during the typhus epidemic of 1916, who "saw a Turkish soldier lying sick with typhus in acute fever and coma." A passing young Turkish officer simply kicked the dying man aside in order to clear his way.75 

During the fighting in eastern Anatolia, which had no railways and often not even regular roads, soldiers wounded in combat and trying to reach a hospital were lucky when they were able to catch a ride on the horse-drawn carriages or ox-carts on which Muslim refugees were making their way westward. Many had to walk on foot and never reached any hospital. The American consul in Ilarput, Leslie Davis, described the situation in the winter of 1915-16.

“All that winter sick and wounded Turkish soldiers came from the front to Mamouret-ul-Aziz. Notwithstanding what we know about the way the Turks treated the Armenians, it seemed incredible that their own soldiers fared little better. They were sent away from Erzerum and other distant places in midwinter, without food and with little clothing. They were told to go to the hospitals in Mamouret-ul-Aziz, which were the nearest to them. As no means of transportation was provided, they were obliged to make the journey of several weeks on foot, begging or stealing something to eat in the villages through which they passes {sie} and occasionally stealing a donkey on which to ride. I often met them as they were approaching the town. All but the hardiest ones, of course, had died on the way Those who did arrive were often so exhausted that nothing could be done for them.76 

Those fortunate enough to reach the hospitals were not necessarily on the road to recovery, for conditions in most of these hospitals were horrendous. Because of the lack of beds, patients shared beds or simply lay next to each other on the floor, some on mattresses, others on blankets. Many hospitals had neither running water nor electricity; there was a shortage of medications, syringes, medical instruments, and clean linen. Hygienic conditions were catastrophic. There were not enough doctors and nurses, and pharmacists and orderlies had to substitute for regular medical personnel. The training of the doctors was not up to date. The American missionary Clarence Ussher described how on a visit to the military hospital in Van he could hardly find room to step between the men as they lay on the floor. They were covered with vermin, for facilities for keeping clean were very insufficient—The windows were kept closed because of the cold and patients and orderlies smoked almost constantly to counteract the stence. The army doctors refused to enter the wards. They would stand at the doors and inquire of the orderlies how many men had died and what were the diseases of the others.77 

According to Maria Jacobsen, the situation was no better in Harput. The Turkish doctors did literally nothing for the sick because, firstly, they have little knowledge, and secondly, a human being counts as nothing with them. If he lives, he lives. If he dies, he dies."78 The efforts of German doctors gradually brought about some improvement in this situation, but a high mortality rate continued to take its toll. A German nurse recalled that in the hospital in which she worked in the fall of 1917 forty to fifty percent of the patients admitted died of exhaustion and undernourishment before it was possible to treat them79 Hygienic conditions, too, continued to be a serious problem. A German inspector visited the military hospitals only after prior notice. "In this way I could be sure that at least on the occasion of my visit the hospitals were cleaned thoroughly."80 

In view of these conditions it is not surprising that typhus, cholera, dysentery, and other infectious diseases spread rapidly among the troops. 

Two Red Cross surgeons reported on March 3, 1915, from Erz-injan that an epidemic of typhus, made worse by the lack of sanitary arrangements and sufficient medical help, was decimating the ranks of the military "in a manner unthinkable under German conditions."81 A German doctor estimated that the death toll from typhus among Turkish soldiers at times reached fifty percent, while among German military personnel it was about ten percent. 82 

According to Consul Davis in Harput, as many as seventy-five to eighty soldiers died of typhus there on some days during the winter of 1914-15.83 Maria Jacobsen noted in her diary on May 24, 1916, that cholera had broken out in Malatia, and one hundred soldiers were dying every day. "The army there will soon be wiped out without a war."84

Facilitated by the disastrous sanitary conditions prevailing in the convoys and in the camps to which they were sent, typhus was rampant among the Armenian deportees. The Swiss missionary Jakob Kunzler called the disease the "great consoler," because the afflicted person soon lost consciousness and, without medical care, experienced a relatively quick death.85 From the deportees the disease spread to the Muslim population. Lice carried in clothing brought typhus to villages and towns along the routes of deportation.

Typhus was also spread by the thousands of Turkish refugees who fled the Russian offensives of 1915 and 1916.86 An American intelligence agent estimated in July 1915 that three hundred thousand had died from typhus in eastern Anatolia.87 In Aleppo more than thirtyfive thousand were reported to have died from the disease between August 1916 and August 1917.88 

Even though Ottoman casualty figures are incomplete, it is clear that Turkish military losses from disease by far exceeded those resulting from combat.

According to a new history of the Ottoman army by Edward Erickson, the Turkish armed forces experienced 243,598 combat deaths, while 466,759 soldiers died of disease. Another 68,378 succumbed to their wounds.89 Nearly seven times as many Turkish soldiers died of illnesses as died of wounds experienced in combat.90 No other army in World War I appears to have had such a disastrous ratio f losses from disease and wounds versus the number lost in combat. Furthermore, it is estimated that at least one and a half million Muslim civilians died as a result of the war, most of them probably from disease and malnutrition or starvation.91 

The terrible death toll among Turkish Muslims quite obviously does not excuse the horrible fate of the Armenians, but neither can it be ignored. Many of the Turkish deaths, as we have seen, could have been prevented by better sanitary conditions and medical care. A government as callous about the suffering of its own population as was the Young Turk regime could hardly be expected to be very concerned about the terrible human misery that would result from deporting its Armenian population, rightly or wrongly suspected of treason. The Ottoman government decided to dislocate an entire community—men, women, and children—and send them on a trek of hundreds of miles. The Armenians from eastern Anatolia had to pass through the most inhospitable terrain, a voyage that would have exacted a heavy cost in lives even during the best of times. As it turned out, thousands died of starvation or disease, while large numbers of others were massacred. Still, we can account for this tragedy without the hypothesis of a CUP genocidal plan. As discussed later in this book, other explanations of this human catastrophe are supported by far better evidence and are far more convincing. 

Finally, the treatment meted out to Turkish prisoners of war is another illustration of how a great number of deaths can occur without a plan of extermination. The largest number of prisoners to fall into Turkish hands resulted from the successful siege of Kut-al-Amara in Mesopotamia, which ended with the surrender of the starving Anglo-Indian garrison on April 29, 1916. The captives were composed of about three thousand British troops and ten thousand Indian soldiers. Eleven hundred of the worst hospital cases were repatriated, but the emaining twelve thousand or so were sent into captivity. Of these over four thousand ultimately perished (i.e., roughly one-third).92 By contest, only 4 percent of British and American troops captured in World War II died in German captivity. 

Many of the captives of Kut-al-Amara never reached a prison camp, Though starved and weak from  the long siege, they were marched across the hot Mesopotamian desert. There was little food or water. Hundreds died each week from exhaustion and dysentery. A British government report described the situation: "The way in which an operation of this kind may be mismanaged in Turkey is almost incredible, familiar as the details become by repetition. It is a fact that these men were sent off without food for the journey, and that no provision was made for them at any point on the road."93 Those who survived the deathmarch were put to work on the construction of the Baghdad railway; but they were too weak to do any real work, and the dying continued. Eventually those still alive were sent to a prisoner-of-war camp.

Survivors later testified that there had been some brutality by the guards, but there also were cases where Turkish soldiers shared their meager ration with the captives.94 The guards, a British officer recalled, were not cruel or even hostile. For the most part, the prisoners died as a result of sheer neglect, incompetence, and mismanagement.95 Of the British rank and file who went into captivity, 70 percent lost their life; yet all this occurred without any plan to murder the prisoners. The treatment of the British prisoners-of-war does not disprove the proposition that the Young Turks sought to destroy the Armenian community, but it is another example of how in a setting of Ottoman misrule an extremely high death toll could take place without a premeditated scheme of annihilation.  

52. Vahakn N. Dadrian, German Responsibility in the Armenian Genocide: A Review of the Historical vidence of German Complicity, p. 118, and "The NaimAndonian Documents on the World War I Destruction of Ottoman Armenians: The Anatomy of a Genocide," International Journal of Middle East Studies 18 (1986): 338. In his 1986 article Dadrian applies this conceptual framework to the authen tication of documents that speak of a planned extermination, but in the 1996 book he uses the same approach to ascertain intent. 
53. NA, RG 59, 867.00/720 (M 353, roll 6, fr. 70). 
54. Morgenthau, Ambassador Morgenthau's Story, p. 186.
55. Morgenthau diary, LC, reel 5. 
56. Theodor Wiegand, Halbmond im letzten Vierlel: Briefe und Reiseberichte aus der alten Tiirkei von Theodor und Marie Wiegand 1895 bis 1918, pp. T93, 250. 
57. Joseph Pomiankowski, Der Zusammenbruch des Ottomanischen Reiches: F.rinnerungen an die Tiirkei aus der Zeil des Weltkrieges, p. 180. 
58. Great Britain, Parliament, The Treatment of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire: Documents Presented to Viscount Grey of Fallodon, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, p. 667. 
59. Ephraim K. Jernazian, Judgment unto Truth: Witnessing the Armenian Genocide, trans. Alice Ilaig, p. 99.
60. Carl MLihlmann, Das Deutsch-Tiirkische Waffenbiindnis im Wellkriege, p. 132. 
61. Ahmed Emin Yalman, Turkey in My Time, p. 251. 
62. Erik Jan Zlircher, "Between Death and Desertion: The Experience of the Ottoman Soldier in World War I," Turcica 28 (1996): 250—52, 248-49.
63. Wiegand, Halbmond im letzten Viertel, p. 229. 
64. Count Johann von Bernscorff, Memoirs of Count Dernstorff trans. Eric Sutton, p. 201. 
65. Otto Liman von Sanders, Five Years in Turkey, trans. Carl Reichmann, P- 243- 
66. Report of A. Bernau in Ara Sarafian, comp., United States Official Documents on the Armenian Genocide, vol. 1, pp. 132, 134. 
67. Hans Werner Neulen, Adler und Halbmond: Das deutsch-tiirkische Biindnis 1914-1918, pp. 55-56. 
68. PA, T. 183/46, A8613 (fiche 7163). 
69. Turkkaya Ataov, Deaths Caused by Disease in Relation to the Armenian Question, p. 4. 
70. Malcolm E. Yapp, The Making of the Modern Near East, 1792-1923, p. 269. 
71. Clarence D. Usshcr and Grace H. Knapp, An American Physician in Turkey: A Narrative oj Adventures in Peace and War, p. 220.
72. Maria Jacobsen, Diaries of a Danish Missionary: Harpoot, 1907—1919, trans. Kristen Vind, p. 61. 
73. Henry H. Riggs, Days of Tragedy in Armenia: Personal Experiences in Harpoot, 1915—1917, pp. 40— 41. (This is the first printing of an account written in 1918.)
74. Ibid., p. 43. 
75. James Kay Sutherland, 'Fhe Adventures of an Armenian Boy, pp. 133—34. 
76. Report of Leslie A. Davis, February 9, 1918, reprinted in Sarafian, United States Official Documents on the Armenian Genocide, vol. 3, pp. 98-99. For very simi lar descriptions, see Jacobsen, Diaries of a Danish Missionary, pp. 48, 52, 59, 161. 
77. Ussher and Knapp, An American Physician in Turkey, p. 227. 
78. Jacobsen, Diaries of a Danish Missionary, p. 172. 
79. Hedwig von Mohl, "Erinnerungen an ein tiirkisches Lazarett im Weltkrieg," Der Neue Orient 8 (1920): 44. 
80. Werner Steuber, Arzt und Soldat in drei Erdteilen, p. 281. 
81. Quoted in Liman von Sanders, Five Years in Turkey, p. 49. 
82. Victor Schilling, "Kriegshygienische Erfahrungen in der Tiirkei," in Zwischen Kaukasus und Sinai: Jahrbuch des Bundes der Asienkampfer, vol. 2, p. 76. 
83. Report of Davis to the State Department, February 9, 1918, in Sarafian United Stales Official Documents on the Armenian Genocide, vol. 3, p. 50. 
84. Jacobsen, Diaries of a Danish Missionary, p. 150. 
85. Jakob Kiinzler, Im Lande des Blutes und der Tranen: Erlebnisse in Mesopotamien wdhrend des Weltkrieges, p. 64.
86. Helmut Becker, Askulap zwischen Keichsadler und Halbmond: Sanitatswesen und Seuchenbekdmpfung im turkischen Reich wdhrend des ersten Weltkriegs, p. 427.
87. Lewis Einstein, Inside Constantinople: A Diplomatist's Diary during the Dardanelles Expedition, April—September, 1915, p. 164. 
88. Ellen Marie Lust-Okar, "Failure of Collaboration: Armenian Refugees in Syria," Middle Eastern Studies 32, no. 1 (January 1996): 57.
89. Edward J. Erickson, Ordered to Die: A History of the Ottoman Army in the Eirst World War, pp. 211, 241. 
90. Ziircher, "Between Death and Desertion," p. 245. 
91. Sarkis Karayan, "An Inquiry into the Number and Causes of Turkish Human Losses during the First World War," Armenian Review 35 (1982): 286; Ahmed Emin Yalman, Turkey in the World War, pp. 252-53; Neulen, Adler und Halbmond, pp. 123—24. 
92. Arnold T. Wilson, Loyalties Mesopotamia, 1914—1917: A Personal and Historical Record, p. 99; Erickson, Ordered to Die, p. 151. 
93. Quoted in Edward Herbert Keeling, Adventures in Turkey and Russia, p. 42. 
94. Becker, Askulap zwischen Reichsadler und Halbmond, p. 297. 
95. E. W C. Sandes, In Kut and Captivity with the 6th Indian Division, p. 319.