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Ronald Grigor Suny
Ronald Grigor Suny

Ronald Suny is professor of Social and Political History at the University of Michigan and co-organizer with Gerard Libaridian and Muge Gocek of the Workshop for Armenian Turkish Scholarship (WATS). His expertise covers 20th century Russian and Soviet history, the Caucasus, and Armenia. Though he has not made many appearances in Armenia or Turkey, Suny is a well known media figure in the United States and around the world. Suny's grandparents left Turkey after the massacres of 1894-1896 and 1909; all of their remaining relatives died during the genocide.

Using the accounts of then US Ambassador Henry Morgenthau as a basis for his research, Suny suggests that psychological factors helped prepare the ground for the events in 1915. In doing so, he has challenged the view of many Armenian historians who claim that the genocide was planned rationally and in cold-blood.

"In Morgenthau's reports on the Young Turk leaders, fear is prevalent. The Armenians' role in Ottoman society, their successes at the expense of Turks, their lack of gratitude, and, in general, the reversal of traditional status relationships in which Muslims should be on top and Christians below all contributed to a generalized resentment of Turks toward Armenians. Anger is also expressed anger at rebellion and the threat presented by the Armenians to the war effort and their relationship with the Russians.

But anger is an emotion directed at what someone has done to you, while hatred is an even more powerful and destructive emotion directed at someone for what they are. For the Young Turks anger had turned into hatred of a group that was not conceived as an existential threat to their empire and their rulership. Fear and anger, resentment and hatred are all found in the statements of Enver and Talaat to Ambassador Morgenthau. Given their strategic aim to preserve the empire, and their conceptualization of the Armenians as internal traitors threatening its existence, anger metastasized into hatred and made possible the choice to deport and murder the Armenians.

Here was an ethnic cleansing combined with mass annihilation carried out, not by a nation-state, but by a decaying empire determined to save itself. That salvation required, in the minds of the Young Turks, and many of their German allies, the elimination of the Armenians."[1]

Religion, Suny believes, had nothing to do with the annihilation of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.

"Why religion should have led to genocidal violence at this time and not throughout Ottoman and Islamic history, when the two religious communities managed to coexist for centuries without mass killing is not explained."[2]

Rather than a long-planned and carefully orchestrated program of extermination, Suny has argued, the Armenian Genocide was a vengeful and panicky act of suppression. For this, he has come under fire from fellow Armenian historians.

Reviewing Suny's "Armenia in the Twentieth Century", Rouben Adalian writes:

"Suny does not differentiate between massacre and genocide. He treats the Armenian holocaust as a massacre with a larger number of victims. Its ideological roots in Turkish nationalism are never mentioned. Its deliberateness is ignored. Its finality overlooked. Its tragedy trivialized […].

To contend that 'Turkish actions against the Armenians were taken in dispersion and panic' is to minimize the guilt, responsibility, and inhumanity of the perpetrators of the genocide. Besides, the statement is false […] the facts so evidently show a very clear plan of action, executed with efficiency and not halted until fully implemented […]. I found Suny's analysis of the genocide of the Armenians disturbingly shallow."[3]

Genocide recognition is indispensable for Turkish-Armenian reconciliation, Suny has recently argued but it is not indispensable for establishing diplomatic relations.

"Recognition of the Armenian Genocide by scholars, the general public, and even officially by governments is an important step towards clearing the air that fouls relations between Armenians and Turks, Armenia and Turkey. Efforts to prevent such recognition only pollute the atmosphere and makes progress in improving relations more difficult. But this does not mean that official recognition of the Genocide by one or another government should be a prerequisite for discussion, negotiation, or other kinds of relationships. Armenian-Turkish relations can be normalized without official recognition. Indeed, relations can lead to recognition rather than the other way round."[4]


[1]  Ronald Grigor Suny, 'Explaining the Armenian Genocide', a talk by R. Suny, The University of Michigan, 10 April 2005, p. 11

[2]  Ronald Grigor Suny, 'Explaining the Armenian Genocide', a talk by R. Suny, The University of Michigan, April 10, 2005, p. 3

[3]  Rouben Adalian, Journal of the Society for Armenian Studies, Volume 2 1985-1986, pp. 217-222

August 2009

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