An interview with Ara Sarafian - Turkish Review VIRGUL- Issue 95 - May 200601 May 2006 OSMAN KOKER : If I remember right your name was first heard in Turkey in the year 1995 when your research at the Ottoman Archives was interrupted by the officials there. In the past few years your name is mentioned in connection with the "Treatment of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire 1915-1916”, known as the "Blue Book". At the conference in the Istanbul University on 15-17 March you made a presentation about the Blue Book. Why did you choose the Blue Book as your topic ?
ARA SARAFIAN : I chose this subject because it is topical in Turkey, and because the Blue Book issue reflects the disturbing face of the official Turkish thesis on the Armenian Genocide. The whole case against the Blue Book, according to the official Turkish thesis, relies on deliberate misinformation about the subject. This is why I call many of my antagonists "denier” of the Armenian Genocide rather than people I disagree with.
O.K. : How was the Blue Book prepared ?
A.S. : The Blue Book was originally compiled as a report. We do not know how the decision was taken to request such a report, but certainly we do know that its compilers, Arnold Toynbee and James Bryce, acted in good faith when putting it together. We can make this assertions because we have Toynbee’s working papers from this period (including his correspondence with Bryce), as well as his later published works where he talks about the Blue Book and the Armenian Genocide.
O.K. : What are the criteria employed in deciding to include a witness account in the book ? Do you think these criteria are reliable ?
A.S. : The key criteria for the inclusion of reports in the Blue Book was that sources had to be authentic primary records (eye-witness accounts). Most of these reports were from a neutral United States, which had its consulates in the interior of the Ottoman Empire until April 1917. These consuls reported what they saw around them, and they also forwarded other reports written by Americans and non-Americans in these regions, such as the letters of American, German, or Swiss missionaries.
Given these source of information, Toynbee and Bryce did not doubt the originality of these accounts from the Ottoman Empire, and they judged their value as primary sources on a record by record basis.
I think the criteria used by Toynbee and Bryce to gather and assess their materials were creditworthy under the circumstances. They even made provisions for possible errors creeping in by basing their case on the weight of all the evidence without relying on one or two documents. They also, for example, made sure that, the core narrative of events rested on the evidence of Americans, Germans and other foreigners, in case the "native evidence” (those from Armenian or Assyrian sources) may have overstated what they saw.
In fact, when they did so, they realised that the strongest reports were provided by non-Armenians, and that the "native evidence” merely provided additional information.
According to the available evidence, the report that was compiled by Bryce and Toynbee was accepted as a Parliamentary Blue Book in the summer of 1916 because of the strong case it represented. Certainly Toynbee had no idea that the report he compiled would become a Parliamentary report.
The strength of the Blue Book today lies in the fact that we have a complete record of how it was put together. We also know where (most of) the original documentation came from, as well as how these documents were selected from a wider body of archival records in the United States. This is why we can still find the original records today (and can not simply speculate about their real or fictitious origins).
I used these archival and published sources to carefully annotate my critical edition of the 1916 work.
O.K. : Do you think we can refer to the Blue Book as a propaganda tool ? What were the means/methods used by the British in their propaganda efforts at that time ?
A.S. : The British used propaganda as part of their war effort. Some of this was crude, and some of it not so crude. The British government was careful such propaganda did not backfire. That is why they did not publish anything on Ottoman Turkey early in the war (for example when they were landing at Gallipoli), because they did not have reliable information. They were concerned that, if they made a poor case against the Ottoman Empire, it would offend the Muslim population of the British Empire. The first pamphlet they printed, not under an official title, was after October 1915-when they first began receiving reliable information about the destruction of Armenians. In fact, the basis of that booklet was a speech Bryce made in Parliament, based on the new evidence from the USA. Toynbee was asked to create a publication from Bryce’s speech, which is what he did, and it was published under his own name.
As more evidence of atrocities against Armenians was revealed, Toynbee and Bryce continued to collect such records in a more formal way in February 1916, for a more critical and systematic report. Once the decision was taken to publish the Blue Book, it was used for effective propaganda purposes. However, the work itself was not compromised by crude propaganda considerations, nor fabricated as some deniers of the Armenian Genocide like to suggest. The Blue Book was compiled to a high academic standard, and the archival records we have today support this point out.
O.K. : As you know, Ottoman Empire too published a book, "Ermeni Komitelerinin Amal ve Harekat-i Ihtilaliyesi”, for propaganda purposes about the Armenian issue during the WWI. What can you say on this book ?
A.S. : Regarding Ottoman wartime propaganda against Armenians, it cannot be compared with the Blue Book. Turkish nationalists have republished the Ottoman government’s anti-Armenian propaganda without serious examination where the records came from, who compiled and edited them, who forwarded them to the compilers, where the original materials are today, how records were included or excluded from the Ottoman publication, etc. It would be an interesting exercise for the TTK (Turkish History Association) to undertake and publish such an annotated republication, as the Gomidas Institute has done for the Blue Book.
O.K. : You are the editor of the 2000 "uncensored" edition of the Blue Book ? What does "uncensored" mean ?
A.S. : I am the editor of the 2000 and the 2005 "uncensored” editions ! The latter one came out last year with minor additions in the introduction.
I decided to call my annotated republication the "uncensored edition” because I included information that was left out of the original publication. In 1916, many of the witnesses whose reports appeared in the Blue Book, were still in the Ottoman Empire (for example, the US consuls in Trabzon, Harput, Aleppo, Mersin). The British could not reveal the identities of these people for obvious reasons. In other cases, the eyewitness accounts were so specific, that the identities of the sources inside the Ottoman Empire could be revealed by the witness statements, so some place names also had to be obscured as well. When Toynbee censured such information he also placed it into a confidential key, which was not made generally available-except to trusted individuals. Toynbee also explained all of this in his introduction to the main volume.
The confidential key was made public after WWI and has been in print for the past 50 years. So, when we reproduced the Blue Book at the Gomidas Institute, we also put all of this information back into the main work. This is why we called it the "uncensored edition,” because we put all of the missing information that was taken out in 1916 was put back into the main text.
Deniers of the Blue Book today do not acknowledge these facts and argue that the Blue Book hid its sources because the report used by the British were fictitious ! Recently, at the Istanbul University Symposium, Sukru Elekdag claimed that Justin McCarthy had just "discovered” a copy of the key in the British National Archives at Kew, and that the key showed that the reports comprising the Blue Book were not creditworthy. Of course, Elekdag’s assertions remain absurd : as mentioned before, the key to the Blue Book has been available for many decades. Furthermore, if one looked at McCarthy’s work over the last 20 years, one can see in his bibliographies that he has been consulting archival collections that have included the confidential key (most notably the Toynbee Papers, Record Group of the State Department). In fact the same is also true for other deniers, such as Mim Kemal Öke, Salahi Sonyel, Kamuran Gurun and others. The publication of the "uncensored edition” of the Blue Book has forced McCarthy to change his position, but it is not enough to save him. He has acknowledged the key only to claim (again wrongly) that the content of the Blue Book is inadequate.
Other than collapsing the confidential key back into the main Blue Book, I also used the Toynbee Papers in the British National Archives to trace the original records that were sent to him. Having traced the bulk of these records to the United States National Archives, I checked if the reports sent to the British were selective (i.e. were there any reports which did not support the Armenian Genocide thesis ?), and if the accounts that were sent were changed by communicants in the USA or by Bryce and Toynbee themselves. I then annotated the blue book with this additional information, including full citations where the original records could be found, and I gave my analysis in a new introduction to the "uncensored” Blue Book.
What were the results ? The Blue Book was exactly what it claimed it was in its original introduction. It was carefully put together with the authenticity of each document examined. I can also say that the U.S. reports appearing in the Blue Book were not selective nor distorted. In fact, if we added all of the missing records from the State Department files (i.e.including those which were not sent to the British in 1916), the Blue Book thesis would actually be strengthened. Some of the worst accounts about the Armenian Genocide were not made public by the Americans-but we can certainly read them today.
I have also published these sources in another book called "United States Official Records on the Armenian Genocide 1915-17” and these records (and more) will soon appear on the internet on www.gomidas.org.
O.K. : Turkish retired ambassador and member of parliament Sukru Elekdag said, in the conference at the Istanbul University, that the Blue Book was the "last fortress of the Armenian genocide allegations". Is this true ? Aren’t there any other publications or archival records on Armenian genocide.
A.S. : Sukru Elekdag is like the captain of a sinking ship who continues telling his passengers that he knows what he is doing. The Blue Book issue is a personal debacle for him, as well as others who have worked for him on this issue. The choice of staking Turkey’s reputation on the denial of the Blue Book was a political blunder which will only bring shame to the Turkish republic. I say the Turkish republic because Elekdag managed to get the whole TGNA behind him on this issue. I do not feel sorry for Elekdag, but I feel sorry for those well meaning Turks who trusted his judgement.
Furthermore, at the Istanbul University symposium, Elekdag claimed that his Blue Book campaign was part of the Turkish government’s peace initiative last year to resolve the Turkish-Armenian issue and to hand down a peaceful legacy to future generations of Armenians,Turks (and presumably Kurds). If his Blue Book campaign is a measure of that initiative, then we have to questions the actual peaceful intentions of the Turkish authorities.
Elekdag and his supporters seem to be mocking us when addressing the Armenian issue. They seem to believe that they are in a position of power, and that they think they can get away with anything they want. They are part of the problem in Turkish-Armenian relations today, not part of the solution.
I suggest Turkish intellectuals consider carefully the case I am making here. The Blue Book issue is very instructive how Turkey looks in the outside world-especially as the TGNA has made it into an international issue.
I believe the most important sources that are available on the Armenian Genocide are the memoirs of Armenian survivors. Many of these sources are incredibly detailed and provide the perspective of victims. Then there are the diplomatic records of the United States, Germany, Italy and other countries. Of course Ottoman records have their own significance, though I cannot comment on them. I was only recently readmitted back into Ottoman archives and I hope to have the opportunity to return to Turkey and work with such materials as well.
The Gomidas Institute has published the memoirs and diaries of foreign diplomats and missionaries, such as the diaries of Ambassador Morgenthau. The latter manuscript was published in its entirety, because it is a crucial primary source. It also supports Morgenthau’s stance on the Armenian issue. Most people in Turkey know about Morgenthau because of Heath Lowry’s booklet which misrepresents Morgenthau’s reports and diaries and castigating the American ambassador as some sort of an Armenian puppet. Heath Lowry’s assessment of Morgenthau is wrong and part of Elekdag’s denialist campaign from the 1980s. Lowry and Elekdag have worked together closely to deny the Armenian Genocide. In fact, there was a big scandal about this very subject not so long ago, following a clerical error at the Turkish embassy, when Lowry’s correspondence with Elekdag, where they discussed the denial of the Armenian Genocide, was sent to an American scholar. That scholar exposed this correspondence and there is plenty of information about that scandal on the internet.
The Gomidas Institute is currently fund-raising so that it can continue its research and publishing work, in English, Armenian and hopefully Turkish. Right now we have a number of key books to publish, including translations in our new Turkish language series.
However, as an independent academic institution, the Gomidas Institute has no government or other institutional backing. We are also not a lobbying organisation. We have to raise funds for each project we undertake and each book we publish. Sometimes we have to refuse funding because potential sponsors try to twist our work for partisan purposes. Like many other institutions, we have to remain vigilant to maintaining our academic integrity. There is no question where we stand in such matters. I hope we will continue our work and start cooperating with similar institutions in Turkey.
O.K. : Have you come across reference to a specific incident mentioned in the Blue Book in some other records/archival documents or books ?
A.S. : Yes. For example, the events in Harpout, including the mass murder of Armenian community leaders are corroborated in the diaries of Maria Jacobsen and Tacy Atkinson, as well as the memoirs of Henry Riggs. Similarly, the appalling condition of Armenian deportees in Osmaniye are corroborated by many sources, including the diaries of an Armenian schoolboy from Corum, Vahram Dadrian. There are many such examples.
O.K. : What do you think is the significance of the Istanbul University symposium on the future of Turkish Armenian relations ? And what are your expectations to follow ?
A.S. : By holding this conference, the participants at the Istanbul University symposium demonstrated a fundamental point : the treatment of Armenians in 1915, including the Armenian Genocide thesis, is a legitimate topic of discussion in Turkey today. This is a radical departure from the past, when the subject was both a taboo and proscribed by law. This does not mean that the official Turkish thesis, which does not recognize the Armenian Genocide, has changed. But it does mean that the subject is open to scrutiny and discussion.
I expect that there will be many participants in future discussions, where Turkish, Kurdish, Armenian and other historians will agree and disagree on concrete historical issues regarding their common history. I hope it will be a fruitful endeavour.
Even now, many ethnic Turks do not agree with the official Turkish thesis, just as many Armenian historians do not agree with the established Armenian one. The important thing is that the Armenian Genocide (and the genocide of Assyrians) can now be addressed within the boundaries of sensible academic debates.
O.K. : It was a big surprise for us that Yusuf Halacoglu, head of the TTK (Turkish History Association), offered you to make researches together and you accepted it. Doesn’t the Gomidas Institute and the TTK stand in opposition to each other on the events of 1915 ?
A.S. : Despite all our differences in the past, I accepted Dr. Halacoglu’s offer in good faith. I will try to work with him and the TTK as well as I can. The TTK and the Gomidas Institute stands in opposition to each other on the events of 1915. But I hope we can show by our example that it is still possible to agree and disagree with each other in a scholarly manner, in the interest of truth, as well as peace. Besides, the TTK is not the only body that discusses the Armenian issue in Turkey. There are many other official and unofficial organisations, as well as private individuals, who already take part in such work and discussions. The Gomidas Institute is only one party in this debate.
O.K. : Don’t you see any pitfalls and difficulties ahead ?
A.S. : Yes, there is always the possibility of failure for all sorts of reasons. But that is not a reason not to try. Peace is a great prize we can all share together.