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Book Review


Ronald Grigor Suny, Fatma MügeGöçek, and Norman M. Naimark (ed.). A Question of Genocide: Armenians and Turks at the End of the Ottoman Empire. Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press, 2011. Pp.vii + 434. $26.19 (cloth).


     In the compilation A Question of Genocide: Armenians and Turks at the End of the Ottoman Empire, editors Ronald Grigor Suny, Fatma MügeGöçek, and Norman M. Naimark present nuanced essays by leading scholars analyzing different aspects of the Armenian Genocide with an emphasis on political history. Its five sections provide detailed accounts of the genocide and its implications without slipping into the political invective that often accompanies Armenian Genocide scholarship: Part I contains two essays examining different historiographies of the genocide; Part II offers a series of analyses on the process of radicalizing dynamics between Armenians and Turks in the Ottoman Empire; Part III examines the international context of the genocide with a focus on Ottoman and Armenian relations with Russia and Germany; Part IV delves into the details of genocide commission with local studies; and Part V concludes with chapters on the political and ideological continuity between Ottoman genocidal policies during the First World War and postwar Turkey. While the density of the book may prevent world history teachers from including it as assigned reading for a high school or lower-division class, it provides invaluable analytical perspectives on the Armenian Genocide that educators may use to help students gain a more complete understanding.

     The volume's careful attention to the complexity of identity construction in the Ottoman Empire contributes important nuance to the Armenian Genocide narrative, highlighting dynamics that transcended Turkish-Armenian relations within the empire. Suny and Göçek identify problematic simplifications in Armenian Genocide historiography, whether sympathetic to Armenian or Ottoman side, that elide the importance of complicated ethnic, religious, and political identification among the Ottoman Empire's diverse population. Göçek points out that Turkish historiography about the Armenian Genocide often adopts a framework of "historical fatalism whereby the nationally triumphant groups (the now secularized Turkish elites) always persevere by soaring to historical success against all odds [while] the vanquished (the rest of Turkish society, including all minorities) seem destined to failure" (p.50–51). Conversely, Suny faults Western historiography on the subject for focusing almost exclusively on victimization, removing agency from Armenian people, or simplifying the Ottoman-Armenian conflict into one of competing nationalisms in a time when Turkish national identity had yet to be fully realized (p. 30-35). Emphasizing Turkish nationalism as a constructed rather than an immutable identity, formed in the midst of different minority groups throughout the empire such as Kurds, Greeks, Armenians, Assyrians, and Jews, invites students to analyze the processes by which identity politics can lead to genocide.

     A Question of Genocide includes stories of other minority groups interacting with the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) before and during the First World War, groups left out of traditional Armenian Genocide narratives involving only Turks and Armenians. David Gaunt's chapter on the Assyrians demonstrates the similarities between their fate and that of the Armenians. The Christian Assyrians comprised a small part of the empire and, though the Ottoman central government's deportation policies focused on the Armenians, local officials governing towns on the Turkish-Iranian border participated in the deportation and massacre of Assyrians as religious tensions between Muslims and Christians combined with escalating suspicion of Christian disloyalty (p. 246). Stephan H. Astourian's chapter about land reform politics fleshes out additional dynamics important to the genocide, those of the Kurds and local Christian populations as well as the Muslim refugees from the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth century Balkan Wars who resettled in the eastern part of Anatolia. Astourian argues that the politics of land allocation contributed to increasing conflict between Muslims and Christians (largely Armenians) as they competed for finite resources. As the Kurdish tribes started to become less nomadic and settle the same regions, they joined Balkan refugees who were resentful that Christians from the Caucasus drove them from their homelands; the resulting fight for resources exacerbated local religious and cultural differences (p. 56). Fikret Adan?r's chapter about the way non-Muslim combatants were blamed for the Ottoman defeat in the Balkan War of 1912–13 provides additional insight into the destabilization of Ottoman-Armenian relations. For world history teachers, this crucial context helps students understand the way that mass killings became systematic despite the decentralized Ottoman government, as local officials and aggrieved Muslims participated in the massacre of their Armenian neighbors.

     A Question of Genocide also reexamines the political motivation for genocide, with chapters analyzing both the Armenian separatist movements and the political philosophies of the CUP. Gerard J. Libaridian's chapter about the Armenian revolutionary parties interrogates the concept of "revolution" in an Ottoman context, explaining that Armenian political parties sought to improve deteriorating living conditions for poor Armenians as well as achieve greater political equality—desires that led them to cooperate with the 1909 Young Turk coup against Sultan Abdulhamid II, partly to avenge brutal massacres Armenians suffered during his reign. Because the Young Turks later accused the Armenians of disloyalty and began the program of deportation which led to genocide, Libaridian asks to whom the Armenians owed their loyalty: "the empire, its territorial integrity, the sultan or the CUP?" (p. 105) He effectively demonstrates the way powerful Armenians disappointed with negligible political gain under CUP leadership turned to outside countries like Britain, Russia, and France that promised aid and which fueled suspicions of disloyalty, while the CUP government became increasingly autocratic in response to perceived internal and external threats. From the Turkish perspective, Uğur Ümit Üngör's chapter on demographic engineering in the Ottoman Empire argues that the Armenian Genocide and subsequent violent population exchanges demonstrate ideological continuity from 1913 to 1950, as the Young Turk's nation-building project built on existing ethno-religious tensions and political fears of subversive Armenians, constructing them as an "Other" against unifying Turkish national identity. These chapters provide useful insight into the extent and intention of revolutionary parties among Ottoman Armenians as well as insight into the political motivations for genocide, topics indispensable to understanding the motivation for and justification of the Armenian Genocide both during and after its commission.

     In addition to analyzing internal dynamics of the Ottoman Empire, A Question of Genocide includes an international component that examines the role of the German-Ottoman alliance in the atrocities. As the Ottomans and Germans were allies during the First World War, the question of German complicity in the Armenian Genocide intrigues scholars interested in comparative studies with the Holocaust during the Second World War. Eric D. Weitz contributes a chapter about the diplomatic relationship between the Ottoman Empire and Germany, concluding that German interests in a strong Ottoman state resonated with its own authoritative culture and motivated them to choose wartime political expediency over humanitarian intervention. Margaret Lavinia Anderson's chapter follows Wetiz's and explores the conversation in Germany about the genocide, using primary sources from the German press to argue that the genocide occupied an important part in German public discourse during the First World War. She emphatically answers the question "who knew?" with the following: "If we look not at the hard-pressed German-in-the-street but at the elites…then the answer is clear: everyone. And if we ask, what did they know? The answer, with equal certitude, is: enough" (p. 207). Despite protests from Protestant and leftist groups within Germany, the government did not ultimately intervene with the actions of their Ottoman allies beyond gentle and vague diplomatic requests for compassion. The question of Germany's moral responsibility to intervene in and/or prevent atrocities they knew their ally committed raises important questions for genocide recognition in the present day, as Turkey still vehemently rejects the label genocide and countries like the United States do not officially recognize the genocide for fear of political retribution from a strategic ally.

     Educators using the question of Germany to raise parallels with today's moral and political dilemmas would do well to supplement the discussion of German-Ottoman relations with other works addressing diplomatic context beyond German-Ottoman or Russian-Ottoman relations, such as Donald Bloxham's The Great Game of Genocide: Imperialism, Nationalism, and the Destruction of the Ottoman Armenians. A Question of Genocide includes pertinent but limited information about Ottoman relations with Entente countries, likely a product of the book's focus. It is reasonable that Germany, as a political ally, occupies two chapters given their proximity to and knowledge of massacres and abuse. Similarly, the Ottoman fear that Armenians would desert and join enemy Russian forces justifies a chapter on the question of Russian occupation and the reality of those fears. Including Ottoman-Entente relations would complete a detailed examination of the Armenian Genocide in the classroom, and provide critical information about the wider global context in which the genocide took place.

     A Question of Genocide is by no means an introductory volume, but it provides crucial, detailed discussions on the Armenian Genocide, ones that often obscure complexity to emphasize the plight of the Armenians or the innocence of Ottoman perpetrators in the ongoing politicized debate about whether or not the event constitutes genocide at all. Unlike historical works that avoid the political debate altogether by avoiding the word genocide, this volume moves the scholastic discussion forward by recognizing the Armenian Genocide as genocide and addressing important questions of the motivations and internal dynamics that created it. The Armenian Genocide happened during the chaos of the First World War in an empire struggling to define itself in a changing global landscape. The diverse groups of people involved in the complicated political and social dynamics are crucial to understanding how the genocide occurred and the factors motivating the various groups involved.

Elizabeth Dukovich graduated magna cum laude from the University of California, Davis with a B.A. in History where she completedoriginal research on Armenian Genocide denial. Elizabeth is currently working on her M.A. in History with a focus on Comparative Genocide at California State University, Sacramento. You may contact her at:


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