By Professor Malcolm E. Yapp*

The following are excerpts from his commentary on The History of the Armenian Genocide by Vahakn N. Dadrian.

“…The key issue, Dadrian contends is the genocidal nature of the massacres and this issue supersedes all others. The book is therefore a further contribution to the campaign waged by Armenian writers in recent years in an endeavour to persuade the public that a major crime against humanity was carried out by the Ottomans before and especially during the First World War and this crime has gone unpunished and unacknowledged at least in its full dimensions. It’s probably unnecessary to remind readers that the contrary view maintained by Turkish historians and by many other historians of the modern Middle East is that although massacres of the Ottoman Armenians undoubtedly took place, the available evidence suggests that those chiefly responsible were local Kurdish tribes and brigands and that there was some connivance even participation by local Ottoman officials, but that the central Ottoman government did not order or plan the 1915 massacres; what it did was to order the deportation of Armenians from areas made sensitive by the progress of the war without adequate arrangements for their transport, food or security. The question is: has Dadrian produced sufficient new evidence to turn the debate decisively in favour of the view that the massacres were planned by the Ottoman government with a view to the extinction of the Ottoman Armenians?

The book begins with the emergence of an Armenian question in 1878 when the Treaty of Berlin provided for internationally supervised reforms in the eastern provinces of the Ottoman Empire and Armenian hopes and expectations were accordingly raised. From then on the Ottomans feared that the same process which they had witnessed in the Balkans would be repeated in eastern Asia Minor; autonomy would be demanded, found to be inadequate, and eventually full independence would be demanded and conceded under international pressure. But there was one major difference between eastern Asia Minor and most of the Balkans; in eastern Asia Minor the Armenians were a minority in a Muslim majority region. Moreover among the Armenians only a small minority wished for independence; it’s a weakness of this book that there is no adequate analysis of the very varied Armenian population of the Empire.

…Although Dadrian produces many reports tending to suggest that members of the Ottoman government wanted to destroy the Armenian, he fails to find any document which constitutes a definite order for massacre…

In the last sections of the book, Dadrian describes the various post-war efforts by the Ottoman and Allied authorities to bring those responsible for the massacres to book. The 1919 courts martial, however cannot be taken entirely at face value because they were conducted by a government which was anxious to pin any blame on the CUP leaders…

Despite the numerous documents cited and the careful assembly of information about individuals and organizations, there is no decisive evidence to support Dadrian’s case…. Of course one may argue that even without clear unambiguous documentary evidence the weight of so many pieces of indirect and circumstantial evidence brought together could be persuasive, even conclusive, but one must enter a caveat. The author’s approach is not that of an historian trying to find out what happened and why but of a lawyer assembling the case for the prosecution in an adversarial system. What he wants are admissions of guilt from the defendants, first Germany as the easier target and then Turkey. What is missing is any adequate recognition of the circumstances in which these events took place; the surge of Armenian nationalism, the ambitions of Russia, the fears of the Ottomans and the panic and indiscipline of war. Dadrian is so obsessed by his theory of the long plan that he too often overlooks the elements of the contingent.

…It’s indeed the dimensions of that tragedy which have led many to feel that the massacres must have been planned by government. But the scale of the horrors doesn’t necessarily point to genocide. Some mass murders of the twentieth century have indeed been the result of deliberate government action; some have been the result of panic, indifference, ignorance or a combination of circumstances. To which category the Armenian massacres belong is still unknown.”

* Professor Malcolm E. Yapp is a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of the Middle Eastern Studies journal and is the author of The Near East Since the First World War: A History to 1995.