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"They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else": A History of the Armenian Genocide

by Ronald Grigor Suny


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A definitive history of the 20th century's first major genocide on its 100th anniversary

Starting in early 1915, the Ottoman Turks began deporting and killing hundreds of thousands of Armenians in the first major genocide of the twentieth century. By the end of the First World War, the number of Armenians in what would become Turkey had been reduced by 90 percent—more than a million people. A century later, the Armenian Genocide remains controversial but relatively unknown, overshadowed by later slaughters and the chasm separating Turkish and Armenian interpretations of events. In this definitive narrative history, Ronald Suny cuts through nationalist myths, propaganda, and denial to provide an unmatched account of when, how, and why the atrocities of 1915–16 were committed. Drawing on archival documents and eyewitness accounts, this is an unforgettable chronicle of a cataclysm that set a tragic pattern for a century of genocide and crimes against humanity.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691175966
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 05/09/2017
Series: Human Rights and Crimes against Humanity , #23
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 520
Sales rank: 584,487
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Ronald Grigor Suny is the William H. Sewell Jr. Distinguished University Professor of History at the University of Michigan and Senior Researcher at the National Research University–Higher School of Economics in St. Petersburg.

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A History of the Armenian Genocide

By Ronald Grigor Suny


Copyright © 2015 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-14730-7




History, one might argue, is written not only by the victors but also by those who have the greatest access to books, printing, and the means of communication. For most Europeans and Americans the history and images of the Turks of the Ottoman Empire emerged from the tales of Western travelers, resident missionaries, itinerant journalists, and a number of dedicated Orientalist scholars. These images were almost invariably negative, though fascination with the exotic aspects of Ottoman life—harems in particular—sometimes tempered, sometimes reinforced the dominant representations. The most prevalent Western visions of the Middle East, which have been dubbed Orientalism, saw Europe as progressive and dynamic and the Orient as stagnant, underdeveloped, and even deviant from the flow of history as defined by Europeans. Along with lazy Arabs and wild Kurds abided the "Terrible Turk." The prominent Liberal politician William Gladstone, who served as British prime minister four times between 1868 and 1894, wrote a widely read pamphlet, The Bulgarian Horrors, in which he graphically depicted the Turks as a threat to Christendom and as a people whose principal quality was unbridled savagery. "They were upon the whole, from the black day when they first entered Europe, the one great anti-human specimen of humanity. Wherever they went, a broad line of blood marked the track behind them; and, as far as their dominion reached, civilization disappeared from view." Professional historians have recently tried to revise these stereotypes, modulating and refining the long history of the Ottomans. Yet the frequent episodes of brutal violence, massacres, ethnic cleansing, and eventually genocide remain indelible parts of that history, neither to be avoided nor left without explanation.

Who were the Turks? The simplest definition of the original Turks is that they were tribes of people who originated in Siberia and Central Asia and spoke one or another Turkic language. Having converted to Islam by the tenth century, Turkish-speaking tribes migrated westward, and in 1071 the Seljuk Turks (named after an earlier chieftain), led by Alp Aslan, defeated the Byzantine army at Manzikert (Malazgirt), near Lake Van, and captured the emperor. Anatolia was then open to further migrations of Turks, who over centuries conquered much of the lands in Asia Minor and the Balkans until in 1453 Mehmed II the Conqueror (1451–1481) took Constantinople and ended the thousand-year Byzantine Empire. The achievements of the Ottomans were extraordinary, at least in the first several hundred years of their imperial rule. A former nomadic people became the founders and rulers of a vast and expanding empire. Their initial political vision was based on an "ever-victorious army" and an "ever-expanding frontier" until repeated defeats by European armies forced a reconsideration of their territorial ambitions. As in the Russian Empire of Peter the Great and Alexander II , defeat in war encouraged the Ottoman rulers to implement reforms in the military, in the bureaucracy, and more broadly in society. By the nineteenth century the Ottomans faced a double challenge: from imperialist competition among the Great Powers and from the rise of an alternative form of legitimacy and statehood—nationalism and the nation-state.

In an age such as ours we take for granted that nations and nation-states are the normal form of human political existence. Yet throughout most of human history the most long-lived and ubiquitous states were in fact great multiethnic, multireligious empires. From ancient Egypt, Assyria, China, and Rome through the last days of imperial rule in the 1970s, empires held sway over much of the globe. And European empires, formed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, ruled most of the non-European world for about one hundred years.

Like other great empires, the Ottoman Empire was a composite state in which the ruling center was distinct from those it ruled. The realm was governed by the imperial dynasty, the Family of Osman (Al i Osman), which based its right to rule on the view that its superiority was natural, divinely ordained, and therefore justified. The imperial paradigm was a system in which the Ottoman sultan, by right of conquest and divine sanction, ruled over subjects of various religions and ethnicities in a structure of inequity and subordination that maintained, reinforced, and even produced difference. Two kinds of distinction were institutionalized in the Ottoman Empire in its first centuries: a vertical distinction between the ruling institution and the ordinary subjects of the sultan; and horizontal distinctions among the various religious communities in the empire. The ruling institution, made up of the sultan, his high clergy (the ulema), ministers, governors, bureaucrats, and the military, those who served the state (the askeri), was separate and above the "flock" (the reaya, the ordinary people). Within the askeri an elite of Osmanlis arose, those most knowledgeable of the "Ottoman way." The askeri paid no taxes, while the reaya—the peasants, artisans, merchants, herdsmen, and others—were subject to taxation. From the eighteenth century on, the term reaya was applied only to non-Muslims, underlining their inferior status.

Like other traditional empires, the Ottoman realm was organized on the basis of strict distinctions and discriminations that were hierarchical in nature, with advantages and disadvantages ascribed to different persons and peoples according to their official positions and religious beliefs. The various religious and cultural groups of the empire were separate but unequal. Occasionally non-Muslims could rise in government service if they were able to demonstrate the necessary cultural competence of the Ottomans, but they always retained the stigma of difference and implied inferiority. While possessing no rights that limited the power of the sultan, non-Muslims were, nevertheless, respected as different from but subordinate to the ruling Ottoman elite.

In the early modern period, from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, "a society existed ... where 'difference' instead of 'sameness' was paramount," and there was almost no desire on the part of political leaders to transform difference into sameness. The Ottoman political world was distinct from the Western Enlightenment public sphere of a value-neutral, universalistic ideal in which what is shared is highlighted and the particular, that which is different, becomes a problem to be resolved. In the Ottoman lands difference was seen as normal and normative, something natural to be accepted. In the early Ottoman centuries discrimination did not necessarily lead to repression. "Persecution of difference," one historian writes, "was not really acceptable. Since Ottoman rulers did not like social disorder, they attempted to fix or freeze the particular, but they did not change it." Because the very distinction of the ruling institution from its subjects, and its superiority, gave it the right to rule over others, it was essential to the legitimacy and justification of the rulers' power that distinctions and hierarchies be maintained. Until the twentieth century sultans did not engage in forced homogenization of the population, though at times they ordered movement (sürgün) of specific populations to shore up the security of a borderland or to increase Islamic presence.

Although the empire was by the nineteenth century most often ruled by ethnic Turks, it was not conceived as an ethnic Turkish state but as a multinational Islamic empire, which included Arabs, Kurds, and Circassians, as well as other Muslim, Christian, and Jewish peoples. Those at the top of society had their own language, Osmanlica (Ottoman Turkish), which was used in documents, poetry, and bureaucratic practice. The imperial language was not intelligible to ordinary people, and though it was not used widely as a spoken language, competence in Ottoman Turkish defined those in positions of influence and power from those outside. The governing Ottomans ruled over Sunni and Shi'i Muslims, as well as more heterodox groups like the Alevis, sometimes referred to as kizilbas, and the Yezidis. Ottoman authorities noted that these different sectarian or ethnic groups, even though Islamic in one form or another, might be troublesome to the state. But differences were tolerated, maintained, and even reinforced.

The empire was a kind of negotiated arrangement between the central authorities and the elites of the various peripheries. The Ottoman center did not usually rule the provinces directly but through intermediaries over which they had varying degrees of control. In the eighteenth century the provincial local notables (ayan) were the key players in both the economy and governance of the regions and were usually trusted by the populace more than officials sent from the capital. The Ottoman practice of indirect rule had both advantages and disadvantages. The sultans could rely on local agents to keep order, collect taxes, and carry out the empire's policies; but at the same time Istanbul was faced by what political scientists call the principal-agent problem. What was the supreme ruler to do when his local notables went their own way and enriched or empowered themselves, diminishing the reach of the ruler? Particularly difficult to control were the easternmost provinces of Anatolia, what had been historic Armenia and where most of the Ottoman Armenians lived. There Turkish dynasties resisted Istanbul in the early Ottoman period even more than Christian notables did in the Balkans. Sultans granted Kurdish chieftains governorships and broad powers to rule in the lands that bordered Iran and the Arab lands. The enormous province of Diyarbakir, whose ancient walled city housed a large Armenian and Assyrian population, was for centuries a fiercely contested buffer zone between Safavid Iran and the Ottoman lands.

Besides social and geographic differences, the empire involved religious and ethnic distinctions and discriminations as well. Muslims had privileges and rights that non-Muslims did not. Islamic rulers conquered, subordinated, and tolerated the non-Muslim People of the Book, Christians and Jews, who lived under the dhimma or zimma, the pact of toleration of those living under Islam. Under this pact Christians and Jews could practice their religion, maintain their churches and synagogues, and largely control their own affairs as long as they recognized the superiority of Islam, paid the special poll tax (cizye), and obeyed the state authorities. The Christian churches and their hierarchies, like the institutions of the Jews, were part of the imperial structure. For centuries, right up to the 1870s, the sultans ruled over more Christians and Jews than Muslims and were able to do so precisely because they had effective imperial institutions that delegated power to obedient servitors of the regime. Between the Muslims and their non-Muslim fellow subjects the relationship was to be separate and unequal, but protected. The Quran contains verses that both stigmatize non-Muslims and praise the religion of Jews and Christians. While the texts can be taken to justify a variety of attitudes and policies, in different times and places Islam adapted to the social and political environment in which it was practiced.

Islam was the state religion both in the sense of the official religion that legitimized and bound the state to its Muslim peoples and as an actual institution and instrument of the state.15 Islam was key to justifying the rule of the Ottomans. The sultan was also the caliph, the leader of Sunni Islam. Shared religion linked the ruling elite to the Muslim population of the empire. They spoke in the same vocabulary and ideals. But at the same time Ottoman rulers subordinated religious concerns to the needs of the state. Conflicts arose with Shi'i Muslims, not so much on religious grounds but whenever the Ottomans perceived them as an internal threat to their state. Sultan Süleyman (1520–1566) energetically encouraged the education of religious elites, built magnificent mosques, and established schools and Islamic courts, integrating his empire while making sure that religion was subjugated to the state. The kadis (judges) were instrumental in administering justice and maintaining "a basic moral and cultural unity" in the realm. Both Muslims and non-Muslims took cases to the kadis. Along with the Islamic religious law (sharia, or seriat), the Ottomans promulgated more flexible secular laws (kanun), some of which were borrowed from their predecessor, the Byzantine Empire. But Islam spoke to only part of the empire's population, and sometimes not very loudly even to them. Difference coexisted with dissent from the official ideology. Ultimately the empire was marked by dominance without hegemony, that is, rule backed by force without a high degree of acceptance or acquiescence by many. When force weakened or was absent, people went their own way; when force increased, it was often met by resistance.


In the imagination of Ottoman elites their sultan's territories were the Well-Protected Domains (Memalik-iMahruse) and later the Sublime Ottoman State (Devlet-i Aliye-i Osmaniye). What the West understood as the Ottoman Empire, or more commonly Turkey, its rulers acknowledged in the nineteenth century as an empire, a great state governed through the offices of the Sublime Porte (Bab-iAli). The capital lay between what cartographers had designated as Europe and Asia, the border being the narrow strait, the Bosphorus (Bogaziçi), and the name of the city changed from Byzantium to Constantinople and finally to Istanbul for Turkish speakers. Each nationality in the city had its own name for the place: the Greeks were content with Konstantinopoulos, which came from their language; Armenians shortened it to Bolis; and Russians, who had their own claims on the center of Orthodox Christianity, called it simply Tsargrad, the city of the emperor. All recognized it as an imperial capital, the hub around which a multicultural society of diverse religions and languages revolved.

As a form of state, empire is quite different from the ideal type of nation-state, which usually aspires to create national communities of homogeneous and legally equal citizens. Empires were almost always built on principles of hierarchy, inequality, and institutionalized difference—both among peoples and between ruling elites and their subjects. Indeed, these two state forms—nation-state and empire—stood in tension one with the other in the emerging nineteenth-century discourse of the nation, just as one of the longest surviving empires, the Ottoman, confronted the prevailing Western conceptions of the nation. A number of Turkish, Greek, and Armenian thinkers and actors were intrigued by the particularly modern form of "imagined" political community that came together in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries around the notion of bounded territorial sovereignties in which the "people," defined as members of a nation, provide the legitimacy to the political order. The implications of nationalism were subversive for many aspects of the imperial order. For those who could reconceive themselves as nations the idea of national self-determination provided a new legitimation for separation from the empire. At the same time Westernizing officials within the ruling Ottoman elites were intrigued by other Western ideas, such as equality under the law, and in the reforms of the Tanzimat (Reorganization) period (1839–1878) Ottoman bureaucrats introduced laws and practices that in their application began to undermine the legitimation formulas for the traditional distinctions and hierarchies of empire.


Excerpted from A History of the Armenian Genocide by Ronald Grigor Suny. Copyright © 2015 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction xi

Sources, Notes, and Transliteration xxiii

1 Empire 1

2 Armenians 31

3 Nation 64

4 Great Powers 91

5 Revolution 141

6 Counterrevolution 174

7 War 208

8 Removal 246

9 Genocide 281

10 Orphaned Nation 328

Conclusion: Thinking about the Unthinkable: Genocide 350
Historians Look at the Armenian Genocide: A Bibliographical Discussion 367
Notes 375
Index 463

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"The centennial of the Armenian Genocide has and will generate many scholarly studies and publications to commemorate this tragic event, the first genocide of the twentieth century. Prominent historian Ron Suny's excellent study stands out for the quality of its research, its judiciousness, and its breadth and depth. This is an invaluable, illuminating, and well-written book—a must-read."—Vartan Gregorian, president of Carnegie Corporation of New York

"Just how did the Armenian Genocide happen? One extreme view is that the intrinsically murderous Young Turk leaders had made up their minds long before 1915 and were simply biding their time. At the opposite end, apologists have seen no ideological intent whatsoever, arguing instead that the genocide was an inevitable, short-term reaction to Armenian nationalist activity. Against both views, Ronald Suny's illuminating and impeccable narrative argues that an ‘affective disposition' that developed among Turkish nationalists over many years led to the slaughter. This cuts to the heart of the matter."—Halil Berktay, Sabancı University, Istanbul

"I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that there is no one else in the world who is better able than Ronald Suny to provide a one-volume history of the Armenian Genocide. This is the best book we have on the subject. The narrative is fluid, the writing is crystal clear and engaging, and the scholarship is impeccable. Scrupulously fair-minded, Suny deepens our understanding of the causes of the genocide without, however, rationalizing it."—Norman Naimark, author of Stalin's Genocides

"This is an excellent comprehensive history of the Armenian Genocide—nuanced, balanced, authoritative, and based on a wide range of sources and perspectives. The interpretation is state of the art and the book is written with Ronald Suny's customary clarity and precision."—Donald Bloxham, author of The Final Solution: A Genocide

"Ronald Suny treats the Armenian Genocide in a balanced and thoughtful way, avoiding the pitfalls of both nationalist history and denial. He shows empathy and respect for the victims while at the same time explaining why the Young Turks did what they did, and why they thought they had to do it."—Erik Jan Zürcher, author of Turkey: A Modern History

"Suny's mission is to present a full picture of both sides rooted in deep history. His book, compiled with a mastery of sources, is an act of remembrance itself."—Tom Payne, Sunday Telegraph

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