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Guenther Lewy
Guenther Lewy

Born into a Jewish family in Breslau in 1923, Guenter Lewy escaped Germany with his family after Kristallnacht in November 1938. He first immigrated to Palestine and then to the United States, where he was to gain significant acclaim for his research on the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, and genocide. Lewy is currently a professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts.

In 2005, Lewy published "The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey: A Disputed Genocide", a book in which he investigated rival Turkish and Armenian historiographies relating to the last decades of the Ottoman Empire.

Lewy, as the title of his book indicates, is reluctant to use the term "genocide" in reference to the Armenian massacres. Initially, he questions the very need for using any label whatsoever to describe the events of 1915. "The issue of the appropriate label to be attached to these occurrences is relevant for the ongoing polemics between Turks and Armenians," he writes. "It is of secondary importance at best for historical inquiry, because the use of legal nomenclature does not add any material facts important for the history of these events."

But Lewy himself cannot keep from entering the fray. In justifying his non-use of the genocide label in relation to the Armenian tragedy, Lewy sometimes explicitly, sometimes not uses the Holocaust as his only yardstick.

"The large Armenian communities of Constantinople, Smyrna and Aleppo were spared deportation and […] survived the war largely intact […]. These exemptions are analogous to Adolf Hitler failing to include the Jews of Berlin, Cologne and Munich in the Final Solution."

The available evidence, Lewy concludes, "does not prove that this regime intended to annihilate the Armenian community. A large death toll, no matter how reprehensible, is not proof of a premeditated plan of extermination." Genocide, Lewy argues, requires a premeditated plan of extermination.

Citing the massive suffering of Turkish civilians and soldiers during the First World War for which the neglect of the Young Turk regime was largely to blame Lewy points out that at least 1.5 million Muslim civilians died as a result of the war, most of them probably from disease and malnutrition or starvation. "A government as callous about the suffering of its own population as was the Young Turk regime," he then contends, "could hardly be expected to be very concerned about the terrible human misery that would result from deporting its Armenian population, rightly or wrongly suspected of treason." Lewy manages, later on, to extricate himself from the contentious logic of this argument. "The agonizing deaths of Armenian women and children during the long Marches through the desert," he writes, "find no parallel among the adversities experienced by the Turkish population."

In other sections of the book, Lewy attempts to pick apart polarized Armenian and Turkish narratives of the events of 1915. Both Turks and Armenians, he writes, "cite important documents out of context or simply ignore the historical setting all together. A polemical and propagandistic style of writing now dominates the field and for the most part has displaced of the search for historical truth." On the one hand, Lewy complains, the Turkish government continues to maintain that the large loss of life was the result primarily of disease, starvation, and inter communal warfare; on the other, Armenian historians willfully omit the killing of Turkish civilians by Armenian guerilla bands.

While he rejects the so called "provocation thesis", according to which the Armenian revolutionaries organized incidents to bring about inhuman reprisals, and to provoke the intervention of the outside powers, Lewy takes stock of what he calls "the tactical designs of the Armenian revolutionaries." To do so, he emphasizes, "does not mean to ignore or excuse the malevolent intentions and deeds of the Turkish authorities." Elsewhere, citing Armenian assistance to the advancing Russian forces during World War I, particularly during the battle of Sarikamish, he writes: "None of this can serve to justify what the Turks did to the Armenians, but it provides the indispensable historical context for the tragedy that ensued."

"Given this context, the Armenians can hardly claim that they suffered from no reason at all. Ignoring warnings from many quarters, large numbers of them had fought the Turks openly or played the role of the fifth column; not surprisingly, with their backs against the wall, the ottomans reacted resolutely, if not viciously."

"While the Armenians were victims, not all of them were innocent victims; and the disaster that overtook them therefore was not entirely unprovoked. Most importantly, while the ottoman government bears responsibility for the deportations that got badly out of hand, the blame for the massacres that took place must be put primarily on those [individuals] who did the actual killing. […] The Ottoman government, I'm inclined to believe, wanted to arrange an orderly process but did not have the means to do so. The momentous task of relocating several hundred thousand people in a short span of time and over a highly primitive system of transportation was simply beyond the ability of the ottoman bureaucracy."

In closing, Lewy cites Turkish fears that any concession in the way of even a limited admission of wrongdoing "would initiate a chain reaction, leading to sweeping demands for financial and even territorial restitution." Reconciliation, he suggests, depends largely on putting such fears to rest:

"If the Armenians could be persuaded to forgo resort to the legal concept of genocide as a systematic and premeditated program of the destruction of the people and be satisfied with a Turkish acknowledgement of sincere regret for the terrible suffering of the Armenian people during the First World War, a path might open toward reconciliation."

August 2009

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