Reading books about the tragic experience of the Ottoman Armenians during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire is a sorrowful experience. I have read nearly two dozen and in none, whether the author is a Turk, an Armenian, or an American, is one presented with a rosy picture. Armenians suffered horribly, died in appalling numbers and were permanently separated from many of their traditional heartlands that they had shared, usually in peace, with local Turks, Kurds and others. Overwhelming evidence also portrays that the Armenians did not suffer alone, that the prosecution of World War I in the Ottoman Empire by its leaders was disastrous for the population at large. Nearly all accounts demonstrate that this was a hard era of state-on-state war, widespread famine, massacre and counter-massacre, and unabated disease.
Thus, given the breadth of suffering, I find it mystifying that this issue has so neatly cleaved the reading public into two distinct camps: those who interpret the Armenian experience as a genocide not just of a similar impact to the Holocaust, but analogous in its inception and execution; and those who interpret the Armenian experience as an immense tragedy made up of numerous crimes, but one that does not as a whole meet the internationally accepted definition of the term, "genocide." At one extreme are authors and their supporters who, favoring the genocide thesis, take no note of the role of Armenian revolutionary organizations, the attacks instigated by them on local Muslims and Ottoman troops, or the politics of the Ottoman leaders who were concerned with the imminent collapse on their watch of an empire that had lasted nearly 700 years. This group of authors also finds no room in their tomes for mention of Muslim suffering, as if Christian losses somehow counted more. On the other extreme are authors and their supporters who, denying the allegation of genocide, not only attempt to show that Armenian losses were much smaller than even the most modest estimates, but that the decisions that led to the Armenian relocations and massacres were soundly reasoned and valid to such an extent as to absolve the Ottoman leaders completely of responsibility for not only Armenian losses, but Muslim losses as well.
The two camps have engaged in a sort of arms race. Those favoring the genocide thesis have produced many more volumes than those who oppose the genocide thesis or propose an alternative. Seeking to stifle future debate, those who favor the genocide thesis now argue that because of the numerical preponderance of works that favor the genocide thesis, the genocide theory is factually incontestable. This ignores the small but important body of scholarship that, while not ignoring the immensity of the Armenian tragedy, steadfastly concludes that it was not genocide. These works are in many cases derived from the same original sources as those that support the genocide thesis and are the product, for the most part, of identical scholarly methods as pro-genocide analyses. The works on the opposing sides of the genocide argument can be placed side by side and compared by reasoning, reasonable, people utilizing the same tools on each work. And this is precisely what Professor Lewy has done.
Lewy has critically surveyed the literature, meticulously checking the quotations and verifying the footnotes. In so doing, he blows some sizable holes in the ships of the extremist rivals and once and for all demonstrates that anyone concerned with these cheerless events must consider the historic record unsettled and ripe for further research by well-meaning scholars. Lewy proposes that the controversy of the genocide term has been allowed to overshadow ethical lapses by certain authors, who he gamely exposes. Lewy, not content merely to review and critique also dived into the source material and revealed some new pieces that will further enrich the debate. In the end, Lewy declines to conclude that genocide is the proper way to describe the events. This will earn him scorn from those whose minds are already made up. But it ought to earn him great respect from those who would like to make sense of a controversy that has been enduring for over nine decades.
I have two criticisms. First, Lewy employs premeditation as an element of the crime of genocide. The drafters of the UN Genocide Convention considered making premeditation an element, but they declined; rather, they focused on the specific intent element. This does not weaken Lewy's work, however, as his conclusions are equally justifiable if one substitutes the term, "specific intent" wherever he uses, "premeditation." My second criticism is Lewy's apparent distaste for analyzing these events according to the terms of the UN convention. For better or worse, the UN definition is the internationally-accepted definition of the crime and any analysis of whether or not the Armenian tragedy was a genocide ought not shy away from the UN convention.
The criticisms notwithstanding, Lewy has produced an brave, thoughtful work.