“History is written through conflict,” Justin McCarthy, a history professor at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, told a Lehigh audience Tuesday night.
At Lehigh, history has also created conflict. Over the past two years, students have avidly debated the veracity of an event that occurred nearly 90 years ago during the First World War, when the Ottoman Empire—what is now modern Turkey—forcefully moved and, according to most historians, murdered most of the Armenian community within its borders.
McCarthy, an expert on the Ottoman Empire, was brought to Lehigh Tuesday to counter a lecture last fall by Peter Balakian, an Armenian and the author of The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response
. McCarthy challenges the extent and the validity of the Armenian Genocide.
“The Armenian Genocide may be the first example of genocide,” Balakian said during his Sept. 14 appearance. “It was meticulously planned, well-organized and directed by the [Young Turk] government of the Ottoman Empire.”
(For more information, read Author Peter Balakian discusses Armenian Genocide.)
In his lecture Tuesday, McCarthy disagreed. The Ottoman Empire mistreated the Armenians, he conceded, but the Armenian people were not innocent victims of a malicious government. Instead, McCarthy suggested that the Armenians were engaged in anti-government activities, which could be interrupted as treason.
“The Ottomans indeed felt like they had to deport the Armenians,” McCarthy told the predominantly pro-Turkish crowd of more than 100 at Whitaker Auditorium. “They felt that way because the Armenians were acting as agents of Russia—as agents of the Ottomans’ enemies during war time.”
McCarthy’s views support those of the Turkish government, which claims that the genocide never occurred and has prosecuted Turkish writers who suggest it did. The controversy continues to rage on the international stage. A resolution introduced with bipartisan support from more than 150 members in the U.S. House of Representatives would, if passed, put the U.S. government on the record recognizing the Armenian Genocide. And last month, Turkish-Armenian editor and writer Hrant Dink, an outspoken critic of the government, was assassinated, allegedly by a Turkish nationalist.
For McCarthy’s work on the Ottoman Empire, the Turkish government awarded him with the Order of Merit of Turkey in 1998.
The Armenian-Turkish debate emerged at Lehigh two years ago when an Armenian-American student and computer science major, Mark Dilsizian, ’08, wrote an article on the genocide in Lehigh’s independent newspaper, now known as The Patriot
. The Turkish Students Association then responded with a column denying the Armenian Genocide, which incited a debate that culminated in Balakian’s lecture.
The Turkish Students Association hoped that by inviting McCarthy, they would further “promote dialogue and understanding between people of different views,” said Bora Baloglu, a graduate student studying mechanical engineering and the president of the Turkish Students Association.
Attempting to explain a tragedy
During the war, McCarthy argued, Armenians strategically organized revolts against the Ottoman Empire in order to assist the advancing Russian forces, inciting retribution from the Turkish government. These uprisings were designed to hinder the Turkish troops by interfering with the movement of troops and supplies, cutting off communication through telegraph lines and diverting Turkish troops from the Russian front. All this, McCarthy said, occurred before 1915, the year when the Armenian deportation began.
In 1914, Armenians throughout the region and some from Iran moved closer to the Russian border and staged guerilla attacks along the mountain passes and rebellions in strategic cities against the Ottoman Empire, McCarthy said.
“They weren’t defending themselves at all,” McCarthy said. “What they were doing is coming to attack the Ottomans. If they were defending themselves, they would have stayed home or they would have gathered together where there were a lot of Armenians … In no sense was this a revolution of local people.”
In the city of Van, McCarthy said, Armenians overthrew the government and held the city against Ottoman troops, troops that were desperately needed at the Russian front. “This is important,” he said. “This is treason of high order.”
If that is true, then the Ottoman Empire had a “very good reason” to fear the Armenians and to react against those people, McCarthy said. Their reaction, though terrible, may have been exaggerated, he suggested during the question-and-answer session following his lecture. Many sources estimate that one-and-a-half to two million Armenians were killed by the Turkish government, but McCarthy contended that from 1912 to 1942, the number of Armenian deaths was closer to 600,000, and many of them were not murdered.
The death of Armenians was only one part of the story, he said. In that same region, McCarthy estimates that close to three million Muslims also died—a greater number because there were originally more Muslims that Armenians in that area.
“As a matter of fact, it is important to note that all sides died,” McCarthy said. “The numbers don’t give an indication of the horror.”
Rather than just an Armenian tragedy, he said, it was “mutual genocide.”