They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else: A History of the Armenian Genocide: An Interview with Ronald Grigor Suny

By Norman M. Naimark, Stanford University

This article was originally published in the March 2017 edition of NewsNet.

The 2016 Wayne S. Vucinich Book Prize was awarded to Ronald Grigor Suny for “They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else”: A History of the Armenian Genocide (Princeton University Press). Suny’s book provides a comprehensive overview and deep analysis of an historical event that stands out not only for its senseless brutality, but also for its longstanding denial.

Can you tell us what it was like personally to research and write an in-depth study of the Armenian Genocide as an Armenian yourself, with deep roots in Armenian culture and history?

As an Armenian born in the United States, I grew up with an awareness that something horrific had happened to my ancestors. But in my family, divided as it was between Armenians from the Ottoman Empire and Armenians from the Russian Empire, there was no concentrated and repeated expression of anti-Turkish or anti-Kurdish sentiments. Stories about massacres and repeated references to lost relatives were an undertone, but the dominant voice in my political upbringing was my father, who was consistently liberal, left, and anti-nationalist. When I was appointed Alex Manoogian Professor of Modern Armenian History at the University of Michigan in 1981, I had to investigate as a historian the what, why, how, and when of the Armenian Genocide. The literature was sparse and heavily influenced by anger at and hatred of the perpetrators. My sense of outrage was equally divided between genuine personal anguish at what Armenians had suffered and anger toward those who denied, distorted, and misrepresented the historical record. I was motivated by a sense that this history should not be lost or misused and that real scholarly discussion could help heal festering wounds and perhaps end the “incomplete mourning” of many Armenians.

Writing the book came after a decade and a half of workshops that I and colleagues – Fatma Müge Göçek, Jirair Libaridian, and Norman Naimark among them – had organized, bringing Turks, Armenians, Kurds, and others together to discuss what happened in 1915 and create a body of historical research on the subject. This effort, known as WATS (Workshop on Armenian-Turkish Scholarship), was enormously successful, occurring at the same time as Turkish civil society was reconsidering the dark spots of Ottoman history. Papers from those meetings were published in a volume edited by me, Fatma Müge Göçek, and Norman Naimark, A Question of Genocide: Armenians and Turks at the End of the Ottoman Empire (Oxford University Press, 2011).

I had no intention to write my own monographic synthesis about the Genocide until urged to do so by my Princeton University Press editor, Brigitta van Rheinberg, and her husband, Eric Weitz, the editor of the Princeton series on human rights. I was lucky enough to receive fellowships from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the American Academy in Berlin, where the bulk of the research and writing took place. It was extraordinary to be in the midst of discussions of the Holocaust, in the museum and in Berlin, while trying to deal with this earlier holocaust (as the Armenian events were referred to at the time, since the word genocide had not yet been coined). The whole process was for me therapeutic, a kind of coming to terms with a phenomenon that defied explanation. At the same time, however, like all of my work it had a politics embedded in it. In this case it was an attempt to provide context and complexity to demonstrate that categories such as “perpetrator” and “victim” are too simple and dichotomous, and that one needed to explain the reasons a government would turn to such a catastrophic policy without rationalizing or justifying such a pathological political choice.

In analyzing the motivations and actions of the Young Turk leaders during the genocide, you use the psychological concept of “affective disposition” to understand their move towards deporting and murdering the Armenians in 1915. What is the contribution of that concept to your analysis?

My sense is that structures and environments are insufficient as causes capable of explaining action; that the mediating understandings, affective and rational readings of the world, provide the path that leads to action. Too often, scholars see political choices as simply strategic, rational, and carefully calculated, but in the real world they are considered worth making because of both the emotional and cognitive readings of oneself and others, or of the past and the possible futures. In the case of the Armenian They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere ElseGenocide, the Young Turks who ordered and carried out the Genocide saw the Armenians as an existential threat to their rule and to their empire that had to be eliminated. The book attempts to explain how they acquired that mindset, that affective disposition, and why they thought that the circumstances they faced and their political ambitions powerfully demanded the kinds of actions they took. Their view of the Armenians was perverse, colored by perceptions of betrayal, based on feelings that the Armenians were taking advantage of Muslims, that they were duplicitous, not to be trusted. Yet their decisions were not decisions taken by madmen but by rational, emotional creatures who had the power to carry out their plans and were willing to do it no matter the consequences. As I put it in the conclusion to the book, “The Young Turks’ sense of their own vulnerability – combined with resentment at what they took to be Armenians’ privileged status, Armenian dominance over Muslims in some spheres of life, and the preference of many Armenians for Christian Russia – fed a fantasy that the Armenians presented an existential threat to Turks. Threat is a perception, in this case the perception that one of the empire’s subject peoples was as great a danger as invading armies. Threat must be understood not only as an immediate menace but as perception of future peril.”

More than a century after the horrendous events, how do you understand the persistence of official Turkish denial of the Armenian genocide? Will your book be translated into Turkish? What about the Armenians? Are they ready to accept a treatment of the genocide that emphasizes contingency and historical explanation versus the continuity of national enmities?

I am happy to say that the book has already been published in Turkish – by an Istanbul Armenian press, Aras – as well as in Hungarian. I am hoping that it might someday be translated into Armenian. Officially, the Turkish government still denies that a genocide took place and that the Young Turks ordered mass killing of Armenians and Assyrians. But within Turkish civil society, and increasingly within the Turkish and Kurdish intelligentsia, progressive people recognize the Genocide. Many Armenians, particularly in Armenia, still hold tight to a view that characterizes Turks, Kurds, and Ottoman governments as disposed to genocide, as intending to eliminate Armenians long before World War I. A more complex understanding of the contingency of the Genocide is difficult to accept at the moment, and some writers in Armenia have attacked me for being too “soft” on the Turks, even accusing me of rationalizing mass murder. My account is critical of nationalism and imperial domination, but for many people, both in Turkey and Armenia, nationalism is a comfortable harbor in which to shelter and look out on a world assumed to be hostile. In my view, nationalisms are radical simplifications of complex realities and tend toward ethnic isolation on one hand and interethnic antagonism on the other.

Denial is part of the Turkish state’s effort to create and fortify a fragile national identity, which has been built on a history that cannot face the facts of how the Turkish Republic came into being. Progressive Turks and Kurds, with whom I have worked, recognize the Genocide and believe that coming to terms with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the foundational moments of the Kemalist state are necessary for the development of a democratic Turkey.

Your book calls attention to the international context of external threats to the Ottoman Empire in 1914-15 in World War I as crucial in creating the conditions for the Armenian genocide. How do you evaluate the short-term and contingent factors of Turkish entry in the war against the growing late nineteenth-century hostility of the Ottoman authorities to the Armenians?

I argue in the book that World War I was the necessary context for the Genocide: without the war there would have been no genocide. The war turned an affective disposition into a fear upon which state actors believed they had to act. Wars have often played the role of radicalizing world views, heightening passions, simplifying reality in the hunt for enemies. The Great War did all of those things and acted as a cover for mass murder and displacement of whole peoples.

What does the Armenian genocide tell us about genocide in general? What does it tell us about the perpetrators, but also about the victims? As in many cases of genocide, did the Armenian Genocide present a problem of indifferent bystanders, both within the Ottoman Empire itself and in the international community?

Genocide is a rare and frightful phenomenon: the deliberate state-initiated program to physically eliminate a cultural, linguistic, religious, or ethnic group. The Armenian Genocide, at least in my account, shows that such policies are choices made by political actors; they are neither inevitable nor determined by structural or environmental factors, though the specific domestic and international contexts are a big part of the story of why and how such affective dispositions that can lead to genocide are generated. I emphasize the role of leaders who could have taken other paths but chose genocide. While ordinary people participated, often willingly, in the looting of Armenian property, the rape of women, killing of innocent people, including children, I see genocide as generated from above, by state authorities who gave license to kill to ordinary people.


Ronald Grigor Suny is director of the Eisenberg Institute for Historical Studies, the Charles Tilly Collegiate Professor of Social and Political History at the University of Michigan, and Emeritus Professor of political science and history at the University of Chicago. Norman M. Naimark is the McDonnell Professor of East European Studies, Professor of History and (by courtesy) of German Studies at Stanford University, and Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution and (by courtesy) of the Freeman-Spogli Institute for International Studies.