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Justin McCarthy
Justin McCarthy

Justin McCarthy, an American historian, made his name writing on the expulsion of Ottoman Muslims Turks from the Balkans and the Caucasus in the 19th and early 20th centuries. As he put it in the Introduction of his book Death and Exile:

"Not only during World War I, but all through the nineteenth century, the Muslim peoples of Anatolia, the Crimea, the Balkans, and the Caucasus had suffered overwhelming mortality. Their losses were worthy of further research … It is a history of Muslim suffering, not because Muslims alone suffered, but because a corrective is needed to the traditional one-sided view of the history of the Turks and the Muslims of these regions."

He sets out to explore what he calls the story of one of history's great migrations:

"In 1800 a vast Muslim land existed in Anatolia, the Balkans, and southern Russia. It was not only a land in which Muslims ruled, but a land in which Muslims were a majority or, in much of the Balkans and part of the Caucasus, a sizeable minority. It included the Crimea and its hinterlands, most of the Caucasus regions, eastern as well as western Anatolia, and southeastern Europe from Albania and Bosnia to the Black sea, almost all of which was within the Ottoman Empire. … By 1923, only Anatolia, eastern thrace, and a section of the southeastern Caucasus remained of the Muslim land. The Balkan Muslims were largely gone, dead or forced to migrate, the remainder living in pockets of settlement in Greece, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia. The same fate had overcome the Muslims of the Crimea, the northern Caucasus, and Russian Armenia they were simply gone."

As a result of these events, the new Turkish Republic was a nation of immigrants whose people came from Greece, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Armenia, Georgia, Russia and Ukraine. However, he notes, despite the historical importance of Muslim losses, they are not found in standard history textbooks.

McCarthy discussion of the destruction of Ottoman Armenians during World War one is nonetheless highly controversial among Western historians. While sometimes arguing in favour of the so-called provocation thesis (i.e. it was Armenian actions or rebellion that provoked their destruction) at other times he presents whatever happened during World War I as inevitable, such was the spirit of the times. There are then no choices and there is no individual responsibility: he writes, Donald Bloxham points out, as if the Ottoman war-time government

"were just another government swept along powerlessly by an irresistible meta-historical force. At one point McCarthy suggest that 'imperialism and nationalism had created a state in which both Muslims and Armenians knew that they had the choice of killing or being killed. The only other option was flight." (Donald Bloxham, The Great Game of Genocide, p. 210)

It was an era of mass-death where a state was fighting for its survival in a dog-eats-dog world. In such a world, notions of war crimes, crimes against humanity, the criminal nature of ethnic cleansing (of Muslims, Christians or Jews) make no sense, he suggests, since everybody commits them and was bound to commit them:

"In its historical context, the deportation of Ottoman Armenians was logical. In its historical context, the deportation of Ottoman Armenians is logical. This is not to pass moral judgement on deportations the actions of all groups in the World War I period were so filled with inhumanity that no group should cast the first stone."

But when does this era of inhumanity end? Does a similar approach justify further ethnic cleansing and deportations as a "defensive measure" in the Balkans in the early 1990s

Sometimes it appears also as if, in McCarthy's reading of history, some things never change. In March 2005 McCarthy was invited to address the Turkish Grand National Assembly to speak on the Armenian issue. He encouraged Turkish lawmakers not to bend to those who claimed that 1915 was a case of genocide. To give in, McCarthy warned, would be to open the door to potentially devastating consequences, in terms of both money and territory. The Armenian nationalist agenda had not changed in more than a century:

"First, the Turkish Republic is to state that there was an 'Armenian Genocide' and to apologize for it. Second, the Turks are to pay reparations. Third, an Armenian state is to be created … Then they will demand the Turks give Erzurum and Van and Elazig and Sivas and Bitlis and Trabzon to Armenia."

This, in turn, would have serious implications for the current inhabitants of East Anatolia:

"The population of the new 'Armenia' would be less than one-fourth Armenian at best. Could such a state long exist? Yes, it could exist, but only if the Turks were expelled. That was the policy of the Armenian Nationalists in 1915. It would be their policy tomorrow."

McCarthy once told an audience in Istanbul, almost flippantly, that by the standards of the UN Genocide Convention "Turks were indeed guilty of genocide" and "so were Armenians, Russians, Greeks, Americans, British, and almost every people that has ever existed." The only meaningful use of the term, he suggested, was the Holocaust: the only reason some people would want to describe what happened in Anatolia as genocide, therefore, was "political".[9] But this view has few adherents today among Western scholars.

In the 1990s NATO stepped in, having witnessed passively three years of massacres in the Balkans and end attempts to create, through mass expulsions and genocidal massacres targeting Bosniak Muslims, new ethnically homogenous nation-states. The Srebrenica massacre was later found to be genocide by international courts. Thus Srebrenica and the intervention which it helped trigger the first time European and American troops fought in the Balkans to prevent the "death and exile" of Balkan Muslims marked a turning point in the history McCarthy describes. It also suggests that calling war-crimes by their name at the time they are committed, regardless who commits them, is essential to increase the likelihood that they are brought to an end.


[9]  Presentation made by Prof. Justin McCarthy (Seminar on Turkish-Armenian Relations Organized by the Democratic Principles Association 15 March 2001 /Istanbul)

August 2009

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