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Why we should read... "An American Physician in Turkey" by Clarence D Ussher, 190pp "The Tragedy of Bitlis" by Grace H Knapp, 110pp (Both Sterndale Classic titles, 2002, England) Armenian News Network / Groong August 19, 2003 By Eddie Arnavoudian Sterndale Classics is a relatively new imprint specialising in republishing contemporary and eyewitness accounts of life and politics in the late 19th/early 20th century Ottoman Empire particularly as they relate to the Armenian experience. Edited by Ara Sarafian, from the Gomidas Institute and the 'Armenian Forum' Journal, the series serves a valuable purpose independent of the merits or otherwise of individual titles. Whether tainted by prejudice, one-sided, politically motivated or in some other way faulty, each volume establishes a significant Armenian presence in Anatolia and the provinces of historical Armenia that, incorporated into the post-imperial Turkish state, are now empty of their Armenian population. This seems a peculiar and slight credit. But in view of widespread and systematic attempts by some to write Armenia and Armenians out the history of the region and to dismantle or destroy any physical evidence of an Armenian presence, affirming it has become a matter of great importance. These accounts, many of them long unavailable, are valuable also to those engaged in debate about the Armenian Genocide. Term it what you will: 'genocide', 'mass ethnic cleansing', the 'unfortunate and tragic consequence of war', the fact remains that during the Armenian genocide in 1915 a nation was uprooted and destroyed, removed from its historic homelands, its wealth, property and land confiscated, with no compensation or right of return. The Sterndale Classics are timely reminders of this crime against humanity, reminders too that debates over definition cannot alter the substance of the barbarism they describe. Naturally caution is required in evaluating memoirs offered by American, French, British or German authors, many missionaries. No altruistic angels, they worked unashamedly and brazenly within the Ottoman Empire on behalf of the imperialist ambitions of the states of which they were citizens or subjects. Their accounts, tainted by racist arrogance as they carried the white man's burden of a perceived oriental primitiveness, need to be treated critically in the context of each other and subsequent historical research and investigation. But trite as it may seem to say so, the virtue of their historical record outweighs the vice of their individual attitudes. Clarence Ussher and Grace Knapp provide rich detail on the politics and society of the Ottoman Empire and its Armenian subjects. Incidents and anecdotes on the savagery, venality and corruption of the Ottoman state sit alongside shocking descriptions of social backwardness and poverty, economic underdevelopment and decay. One senses immediately the reasons behind the political turmoil and the growth of nationalist movements in the last decades of the Empire -the Ottoman state and elite provided no prospect of relief from the endless brutality of everyday life. Central to both books, however, are accounts of the 1915 Armenian resistance in Van and the terrible massacres in nearby Bitlis during the same year. Both expose the fraud of those who legitimise the Young Turk deportations and genocide by claiming that it was an inevitable response to the threat of wartime Armenian pro-Russian insurrections of which Van was a prime example. Ussher and Knapp convince the readers otherwise, showing that in Van they witnessed a desperate act resorted to only in the last instant and only to save the community from imminent slaughter. A joint reading of both volumes moreover shows that where there was resistance, massacre was limited. Where there was none, it was horrific. According to Ussher, as far back as 1908, Ali Bey, then governor of Van, 'used every means in his power to incite Armenians to revolt in order to have a pretext for massacring them.' (p70) Though the massacre did not take place many were murdered including 'one hundred...Armenian merchants...[whose] bodies were thrown into the lake...' (p72). Thereafter in the run up to 1915 Armenians in the Van region lived an unending nightmare of massacre, assassination, burning and pillage. Turkish authorities seeking to deplete the Armenian population of men of fighting age arrested and murdered even young boys not yet old enough to be called up. In the face of intense violence and extreme tension Ussher writes that the Armenian leadership nevertheless: '...did all in their power to keep the peace...So they told the Armenians to submit to anything rather than antagonize the government; to submit to the burning of two or three villages, the murder of a dozen men, without attempts at retaliation that would give the Turks excuse for a general massacre. (p118) But eventually Armenians were forced to fight for their lives, a fight for which they were ill-prepared and had not planned. 'After the Constitutional Government had been established (in 1908)...the Armenians had transformed their revolutionary societies into political parties had had ceased to drill their young men...(In)...the spring of 1915 very few men had been left in the villages. Thus it came about that in this crisis there were only about three hundred men with rifles and a thousand with pistols and antique weapons to defend thirty thousand Armenians in an area of over a square mile...' (Ussher p132) The Armenian resistance had no anti-Turkish ambition. Extending a hand of friendship the Armenian 'Military Council sent a manifesto to the Turkish people saying that the Armenians were fighting one man, Jevdet, and not those who had been their neighbours in the past and would be in the future. Valis might come and go, but the two races must continue to live together and they hoped that after Jevdet went there might be peaceful and friendly relations with them.' (Ussher p134) Courageous, stubborn and ingenious resistance saved the Armenian population of Van. Knapp's volume with its extensive descriptions of horrific Young Turk slaughter and savagery in Bitlis shows just what would have happened had Armenians in Van submitted to Young Turk government orders. Knapp, refuting claims that anti-Armenian violence was the responsibility of Kurds, writes that whilst Armenians were indeed driven from 'their homes by Kurds' the latter were 'acting under the orders of the government.' (p32) Ussher is by no means one-sided or blindly pro-Armenian. He rejects the notion of collective Turkish responsibility for the Genocide arguing that it was 'the Turkish government, not the Turkish people, that has done all this.' It was the Government that 'tried to deceive its Mohammedan subjects and arouse their hatred against the Christians'. But in Ussher's opinion 'few...Turks were deceived' and 'eighty out of a hundred of them were opposed to the massacres and deportations...' (p177) Interestingly he also absolves the Young Turks of responsibility for the Adana massacres of 1910. Neither does Ussher disguise or exonerate Armenian violence. After their initial victory, whilst in their treatment of women and children the 'Armenians showed themselves far more humane than the Turks' they also 'burned and murdered'. The 'spirit of loot took possession of them, driving out every other thought...' He does however suggest a historical context and explanation for Armenian violence in his remark that witnessing it he 'remembered what (the Armenians) had to endure from the Turk all their lives...' (p154) Both Ussher and Knapp point to German involvement and complicity in the Genocide. Knapp quotes Turks saying that 'Germany is responsible for the massacres' (Knapp p64) while Ussher charges them with responsibility for 'planning the deportation', a fact, he adds, that 'cannot be doubted by any one who has had first hand knowledge concerning them.' Elsewhere, of particular interest is Ussher's dismissal of the democratic pretensions of the 1908 Young Turk so-called Constitutional Revolution. In a speech he made in the same year he: '...warned those who were optimistic about the future of Turkey that the slogan of the Young Turk Party was "Turkey for the Turks"; that its friendship with Christians was a friendship of expediency...' He goes on to comment that 'within five years there would be a reaction followed by the worst massacre the country had every known...(p91). Both volumes contain much other material of interest to those concerned with Armenian-Turkish history and their modern relations. Of immense value, it would not, however, be fair to conclude without comment on the nauseating expressions of the imperialist civilising mission that animated both authors. Claiming that 'the (Armenian) Gregorian Church had become 'very corrupt early in its history' Ussher believes that it was the job of the 'American missions...to purify' it and 'educate the priesthood and the people...to become Christians in reality as well as in name.' (p47) Ussher concludes his memoirs with a triumphal 'Behold America's opportunity!' (p178) Unbelievably he is here referring to American missionaries training wretched Armenian orphans to reconstruct Turkey, no doubt as a vassal of the US. Knapp in similar vein refers to Bitlis with 'American help' becoming a centre for a project, 'greater than the past has ever known', to 'civilise and Christianise the whole of Kurdistan' (p75) -- Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in history and politics from Manchester, England, and is Groong's commentator-in-residence on Armenian literature. His works on literary and political issues have also appeared in Harach in Paris, Nairi in Beirut and Open Letter in Los Angeles.