Monday 21 October 2013

The Ottomans: The Armenian Genocide

The greatest test facing BBC Two's The Ottomans: Europe's Muslim Emperors was obviously how it handled the most incendiary event in the entirely of Ottoman history: The Armenian Genocide.

The Armenian genocide is widely regarded as the largest genocide prior to the Holocaust.

What resulted sounded uncomfortably like an apologia to me. 

I shall explain why. Please see if you agree.

The programme set the genocide in the context of the First World War. 

Rageh Omaar's commentary presented the Ottoman Empire as the victim of the Great Powers: 
"The Great Powers of Europe had been waiting for an opportunity to pounce on the Ottomans' lands. It came in 1914." 
A talking head immediately said that the Ottomans saw this would be "a struggle of life and death", and Rageh followed that by stating that "they soon faced an Allied attack". [The question of why the Ottomans entered the war on Germany's side, and what their war aims were was unexamined]. 

Another talking head talked up the size of the Allied fleet that landed at Gallipoli, "an attack the Ottomans had long dreaded." 

Ataturk's brilliant defence was sketched, as was the subsequent stalemate leading to the Allies' "humiliating defeat".
"Gallipoli convinced the Ottomans they were in a fight to the death. After years of battles that had seen them lose vast territory and great wealth, this was a war they felt they had to win. At any cost."
Thus encouraged to see the Ottomans as the victims with "life or death" dread of the Allies, we - the programme's viewers -  were primed to see that what Rageh meant by "at any cost" - here the Armenian genocide - may have had some just cause behind it. 

We were then taken to the ruins of the city of Van in South East Turkey, where we were told that Kurdish Muslims and Armenian Christians had lived together up to the start of World War One. 

The implication was that the massacre of Armenians in Van arose partly from the shock of the Allied invasion at Gallipolo on April 25th 1915. 

In fact, the siege of Van began on April 19th 1915, and was unrelated. So this was a false correlation on the programme's part, and deeply misleading. Whether that was deliberate or merely a result of ineptness, I cannot say.

A ruined Armenian church and a ruined minaret in what's left of pre-war Van were pointed out. This highlighted that both religious communities suffered, with the implication of comparable suffering.

Rageh's commentary said that "Ottoman tolerance had worn out" as a result of "years of nationalist struggles in the Empire". We had been told earlier, by Eugene Rogan (the series consultant for The Ottomans) that both sides had behaved as badly as each other in those nationalist struggles, and that both sides had been "scarred" by them. 

"Thousands of Armenians has already been massacred", said Rageh, with this context ringing in our ears.

Now, whether you put this down to the series' sketchiness or its pro-Ottoman use of rose-tinted spectacles, this short miss-it-if-you-blink clause in Rageh Omaar's commentary conceals a long and very bloody history of Ottoman persecution of their Armenian Christian population. 

It skirts over the fact that Armenian villagers were second-class citizens in the Empire, that they had been overtaxed, kidnapped and forcibly converted to Islam for centuries. Their testimony against Muslims was inadmissible in court. Their houses couldn't overlook Muslim houses. They they forbidden to ride horses. They weren't allowed to carry weapons. The ringing of church bells was forbidden.

It avoids mentioning the Hamidian Massacres of 1894-96 - a savage series of pogroms by state-backed paramilitaries which saw the deaths not of "thousands" but of hundreds of thousands (estimates range between 100,000 and 300,000). 

Many see the Armenian genocide as a rolling genocide, and one that got into its stride at this time - not because of the First World War, or because of Allied aggression against the Ottoman Empire. 

Another 15,000-30,000 Armenians were the victims of further pogroms in 1909, in what's known as the Adana Massacre. 

So, "thousands of Armenians had already been massacred" doesn't really convey the sheer scale of the slaughter faced by the empire's Armenian population in the run up to the First World War, does it?

It was followed a minute of so later by another clause: "The Ottomans had dealt brutally with Armenians before". 

Those two clauses are all the programme had to say about the pre-WWI atrocities committed by the Ottomans against the Armenian Christians. Is that not a case of whitewashing? It does give the appearance of that to me.

Anyhow, back to events in Van. 

Some Armenians fought back, and fought for autonomy, backed by Russian "until things escalated into a single dreadful event".

A Turkish talking head talked of "bad things happening". 

Those bad things - in his account - were the Russian army's arrival, and the fact that "the Armenian army burned all Muslim quarters of the city, and many of the Muslim population left the city". So the Ottoman army's subsequent destruction of the city was "revenge" for those actions - i.e. another apparent justification of the Ottoman's actions on the programme's part. 

Now, I've read quite a bit about this, and this is a defence of the Ottoman's brutality in Van that I've never come across before. 

Most accounts emphasise the duplicity and genocidal intent of the Ottoman governor Jevdet Bey. ["If the rebels fire a single I shall kill every Christian man, woman, and" (pointing to his knee) "every child, up to here".]

Rageh's commentary continued, however, describing what the Ottomans did in 1915 as "unprecedented". 

Well, yes, but not entirely - as we've seen.

He continued:
"They forcibly rounded up whole villages of Armenians and marched them to the desert".
Well, again, yes, but that's only one part of the Armenian genocide. 

The missing part from The Ottomans's account is its first phase - the wholesale slaughter of able-bodied Armenian males. That's quite a very big thing to omit. 

That phraseology also omits the fact that the second phrase of the genocide was the forced to the desert of the others - i.e. women, children, the elderly and the infirm. Something that makes the wickedness of it seem much, much worse. 

Again, whitewashing may be suspected. 

The next talking head, Sir Hew Strachan, then gave the Ottoman's justification - the need to secure their lines of communication and contain a rebellion. He did, however, note that the Ottoman's then "proceeded to outright massacre of Armenians, come what may". We weren't, unfortunately, allowed to hear him expand on that point. 

What forms did the massacres take? What about the mass burnings? What were the death marches really like? What about the concentration [some say 'extermination'] camps? What about the widely-made allegation of mass rape? The claims of deliberate drug overdoses, the deliberate infection of children with typhoid, and the use of poison gas? The accounts of the deliberate drownings of women and children?

Very little sense of any of this was given.

An Armenian historian described eye-witness accounts of the deportees being sent to their deaths in an organised fashion, but was talked over by Rageh's commentary saying that Turkey dismisses such accounts as "war-time propaganda". 
"There's intense debate over what happened to the Armenians and whether it should be described as 'genocide'". 
There is indeed, in Turkey, though most historians believe it very clearly is a genocide - something you might have hoped Rageh's commentary would point out. 

A very short consideration of this vexed question followed. 

Sir Huw Strachan didn't commit himself in the short extract featured. The aforementioned Armenian historian, just as briefly, said that what happened comes "pretty close to the definition". Sir Huw then observed:
"The round figure that tends to be used is a million Armenians die out of a possible population of two or three times that".  
That concession to reality [though many estimate the figure as high at 1.5 million - and the closest that there is to a consensus figure has settled on 1.2 million] was immediately countered by an apologist comment from Mustafa Akyol, author of Islam Without Extremes:
"It's a story which did not happen because of the Ottoman system. It's a story that happened because of the fall of the Ottoman system. Armenians had lived in the Ottoman Empire, side by side with Turks, for six centuries and because of the fears of nationalism that the conflict [sic] they had this tragic end".
Rageh's earlier talking head (the one who talked on "bad things happening") then ruminated with Rageh, in front of several shots of a ruined minaret in Van. 

"Did anyone win in the end to you think?", asked Rageh - as if one side came out as badly as the other. 

"No," came the reply. "We lost the city, and we lost the friendship between two communities", said the other - as if their had really been friendship between the two communities in the happy-clappy, multicultural Ottoman Empire.

Now, I'm perfectly willing to accept that the programme was a rushed, sketchy affair and didn't have the time to go into great detail about the Armenian genocide, given how much ground it had to cover in such a relatively short space of time. 

Still, this was so inadequate an account as to raise doubts about the programme's agenda - doubts I've reflected here. 

Do you share them?


  1. Yes, to your question of bias. The BBC, which I admire, has for some years chosen to present a one-sided view and ignore the Armenian genocide. Gone are the days when they made programmes filmed in Turkey questioning why some villages were deserted (documentary by Fergal Keane). Rageh Omar looked distinctly bored and uninterested when Ara Sarafian was reading eye witness accounts in British archives, and afterwards the historian's words were drowned. It all felt like propaganda, and as with all such attempts, it had very little to offer except misleading conclusions. One talking head said to call it a genocide, it would have to be planned, and there was no evidence for that. What planet is he living on?

  2. The British have always supported the Turkish state and are therefore unlikely to give an impartial view of what happened during the Ottoman Empire. It is sad that the BBC which was revealed world wide as an impartial body has now become the mouthpiece of the British Government.

  3. I agreed to give an interview for a BBC documentary regarding the Ottoman Empire and World War I. The focus of the interview was the British Parliamentary Blue Book, "The Treatment of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire," which was published in 1916.

    Prior to our interview, I corresponded with the BBC production team. I pointed out the strength of the various accounts that underpinned the British report, how such material was used to construct the Armenian Genocide thesis, and how this thesis can be critically evaluated today.

    When I met the film crew, they had already shot their interviews in Turkey and chose not to discuss any of their previous material with me. All of the questions in our interview were provided by the producer and restricted to the Blue Book. There was no exchange of views regarding the Armenian Genocide and its denial by Turkey today.

    The final cut of the film was a stitch-up.

    * Ara Sarafian is a historian specialising on the late Ottoman Empire. He is the editor of the critial edition of the British Parliamentary Blue Book "The Treatment of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, 1915-16... [uncensored edition]" and "Talaat Pasha's Report on the Armenian Genocide." For more information please contact

  4. Armenians are continuously HIDING and manipulating facts. Ihope now that the researchers can freely and without any fear research what happened in 1915.
    Notice that in 2013 ALL Ottoman Empire archieves are open to the researchers and any researcher can freely read ALL the archieves and documents in Turkey.
    However, Armenia still does not allow its archieves to be searched and reserached.

    1. murat felsefe, I don't know if you are misinformed or a propagandist but the Armenian state archives are, in fact, open to researchers and you can find their contact information on their website here .

      The Armenian state was established after the Genocide so it is anybodies guess exactly what documents your side wants to examine and how those documents will shed light on whether the mass deaths of Armenians were due to a secret Ottoman policy of Genocide or not.

      What will reveal the true intent of Ottoman policy are the archives of the political party in power during the WW1, that is, the archives of Committee of Union and Progress (Ittihat ve Terraki). These crucial archives have disappeared from the face of the earth and the reason is obvious. So you are wrong to say that ALL Ottoman archives are open. It's simply not true.

  5. I don't understand why the modern Turkish Republic, which is usually so concerned to distance and dissociate itself from the Ottoman Empire, is so sensitive about this issue. One would indeed expect the reverse.


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