This book puts a magnifying glass to a short period of history in the frontier lands of an immense, but collapsing empire. Yet these events help illustrate the much larger narrative of what happened to the Armenians of the eastern Anatolian portion of the Ottoman Empire, which resonates to this day. As the authors conclude on page 218, "The Armenian revolt in Van province was a pivotal component of the disaster of war in the Ottoman East." How such feeds the complex debate about whether the Armenians suffered genocide is ultimately left for the reader to determine.
Historians appear to be in fair unanimity about the general events that occurred in and around the poor, yet strategic city of Van, in eastern Anatolia, during late 19th and early 20th centuries. Hotly disputed, however, is how to characterize the Armenian forces that ultimately captured and held the city before handing it over to Russian forces in 1915. Were they representatives of an oppressed minority valiantly gritting out a last-ditch battle, knowing that if they lost, they and their kinsmen would surely find calamity? Or, were they classic guerilla rebels, in a coordinated fight against their mother country to form a new state with the outside support of an enemy state? In other words, was this all a valiant act of self-defense, or a devious act of treason?
The opening chapters of the book lay out not just the physical geography of the area, but the political landscape as well. The authors provide, among other things, a plausible explanation of the dynamics among the tribal population versus the settled and why religion was not a factor in this rivalry. These chapters also discuss, relying primarily on Armenian sources, the founding of Armenian revolutionary movements, their penetration into the Van polity, and their aims against the Ottoman state.
In assessing the First Van Rebellion (1896), the authors provide crucial context to the run-up to the definitive encounters that would take place during World War I, including the miscalculations of the Ottoman central government in creating the Cossack-styled Hamidiye corps, the methods of Armenian rebel supply via Iran, and the machinations of the European powers who were forming contingency plans for the expected dissolution of the Ottoman state. The authors also describe the Armenian rebel strategy, which can be summarized as: massacre-reprisal-European intervention. The first rebellion lasted little more than a week yielding, according to the British, approximately 500 casualties, sixty percent of which was Muslim.
During most of the next 10 years the Armenian rebel organizations consolidated power, often by extortion and physical force, smuggled supplies, and fortified positions. They made periodic attacks, mostly in the Mus-Sasun region, which according to British and Armenian sources, were aimed at sparking a disproportionate response that would then motivate European intervention. This failed. The authors describe one episode in 1903 in which, after a small Armenian rebel force had been repulsed, it claimed that the Ottoman troops massacred an Armenian village. Yet the local British consul, reported back that the massacre was a fiction and that he had slept in that very village several nights after it was allegedly destroyed.
The authors conclude that, based on the level of organization of the rebel groups and the amount of weapons they had cached, it was no longer plausible by 1908 ( the year the C.U.P. became the de facto temporal power in Istanbul) to ascribe motives of self-defense to the rebels. Treason was the goal ascendant and Russia was the wagon to which Armenian separatist aspirations would be hitched. "The Armenians have thrown off any pretense of loyalty ... and openly welcome a prospect of a Russian occupation..." wrote a the British Consul in Van quoted by the authors. The authors provide a highly nuanced discussion of how this change of emphasis also impacted the Kurdish tribes, who, though minimally loyal to the Ottoman government saw a worse fate under prospective Russian rule which, they believed, would result in the loss of their lands to Armenians.
As the Ottoman government under the C.U.P. instituted reforms partly aimed at improving the lives of Armenians, the revolutionaries, ratcheted up their activities against all who disagreed with their ambitions, whether Muslim or Christian. In 1912 Armenian rebels assassinated the Mayor of Van in 1912, Bedros Kapamaciyan, an Armenian, because they felt he was too loyal to the Ottoman central government. That the rebels would not relent was quite logical, the authors point out, because the Russians were likely to win the looming war.
The stage set, the last third of the book describes the main Van Rebellion, which took place after the outbreak of World War I. By February of 1915 Muslims in mixed villages were fleeing to be among other Muslims. Armenians did the same. The confrontation, the authors deduce, was no longer one of Ottoman forces against Russian forces and their Armenian partisans; "[i]t had become a general war between the Muslims and the Armenians." It raged first outside of the city an then, by late April 1915, in the city itself.
The Armenians, well armed, though without artillery, determinedly held their ground within the city center throughout the fiercest fighting, earning the upper hand by May 17, at which point they burned the Muslim quarter of the city and massacred those Muslims who had not fled. On May 20, they handed the city over to the Russian Army. The Russians rewarded the rebels by installing the rebel leader, Aram Manukian, as governor of the Russian Province of Van, which was short-lived, as Ottoman forces retook the city ten weeks later, leading to reprisals by Muslims against Armenians, who now were in flight toward the retreating Russian lines. Van was to change hands yet several more times during the ensuing weeks before Russian forces established firm control over the area in late September. This time, however, the Russians remained in charge, appointed a military governor, and disarmed local Armenian "volunteers." Van's fate changed yet again when the Russian Army decamped to join in the Russian Revolution. Armenians were left in control of the region and formed a government, which even issued its own currency. Despite an influx of returning Armenian refugees, the military strength of the Armenians had waned and Ottoman forces finally reclaimed the city of Van in April of 1918. When an American survey mission led by Captain Emery Niles toured the area in 1919, they beheld a depopulated, utterly devastated region.
Ultimately, the Armenian revolution was a lost revolution, despite what the authors consider its tactical brilliance.
The seizure of Van by the Armenian rebels has become a piece of Armenian folklore. Of critical importance, the authors attempt to square the Ottoman military accounts of the force strength of the Armenians in the city with later Armenian summaries. In the text and in explanatory notes, the authors show that a recent and widely lauded account by an Armenian researcher (Ter Minassian) is likely skewed based on a faulty reading of earlier studies. The authors' apparent goal is to demonstrate that the Armenian effort in the city was a significant military endeavor, and not a hastily patched together defensive scrum. This portion of the book, on pages 206-210, will likely cause the most controversy among those with hardened opinions on the ultimate question of whether the Van Rebellion could be considered an act of self-defense.
In sum, "The Armenian Rebellion at Van," is a fine, academic work, devoid of rhetorical embellishment. Indeed, it must be considered the most valuable work to date in the English language on the subject. Yet one does leave it with a few questions. For example, while much is made about the efforts of the Ottoman government to address the conditions of the Armenians in the Van region, little time is spent discussing the overall status of the Armenians in Ottoman society and what may have made them so desirous of European support to upend what the authors call the "centuries-old political and social system in Eastern Anatolia." Certainly many who will be attracted to this book will have read other works that address this. Also, while the movements of the Russian army in the South Caucasus and the aims of the Czar's government are amply described, most of the sources for such appear to be secondary. The authors note that Russian sources were unavailable, but do not describe why they were unavailable or what efforts they made to obtain them.
Additional criticism of this book will surely take the form of ad hominem attacks on the authors, particularly Prof. McCarthy, who has been embraced by Turkey. Yet this should render the work no less worthy. Indeed, most who level this charge ignore the wide esteem in which authors such as Vakhan Dadrian, Richard Hovanissian and Ronald Suny, are held in Armenia. This book provides ample notes and other references that will allow it to be critiqued on its scholarly merits. The conclusions drawn by the authors, especially about the complex tribal rivalries seem rational and supported by the evidence.
Finally, those with more than a passing interest in the history of the late Ottoman Empire and the fate of the Ottoman Armenians know that the Van rebellion was a primary impetus for the Ottoman government's issuance of the infamous relocation orders, which historians agree were poorly carried out with disastrous results for the Armenians. Yet the authors scarcely pay heed to this fact. One can surmise that the reason for this tact is not the authors' fear that they may be subject to arrest in France or Switzerland and tried for genocide denial, but rather that the rebellion itself is worthy of close examination in its own right.
Today a new city of Van sits 4 km east of the rubble that remains of the old city. But not everything in the area has been allowed to remain in decrepitude. The Armenian Cathedral of the Holy Cross on Akhtamar island had been restored using Turkish government funds, Kurdish labor, and Armenian guidance. [..]