4 February 2010

Forging the past: OUP and the 'Armenian question'

In 2005 Oxford University Press published Donald Bloxham's The Great Game of Genocide. Imperialism, Nationalism and the Destruction of the Ottoman Armenians. The first hardback edition was followed by a paperback version in 2007. The book is more of a prosecutor's brief than a balanced study of the fate of the Ottoman Armenians during the First World War, but forgery and not balance is the point of this article.

The book includes nine photographs printed on glossy paper. Eight of the photographs are credited. One is not. It shows a man in an unbuttoned jacket and tie standing in front of a circle of ragged children and one apparent adult with something in his hand. The caption reads: 'A Turkish official taunting starving Armenians with bread'.

Even a cursory glance is enough to show there is something wrong with this photo. One side of the man's jacket is darker than the other. A ragged line clearly runs between the two halves. The wall in the background abruptly disappears into a blank white space behind the standing man. A child lying on the ground is raising an emaciated arm. If stretched out to its full length it would fall below his knees. His scarcely visible other hand and wrist seem quite plump by comparison. The little boy sitting to the right of the standing man seems to be clutching something in his hand but it is impossible to tell what it might be.

Suspicions aroused, the photograph is taken to a photographic analyst in Ankara. He is not told what the subject matter of the photograph is supposed to be. He subjects the photo to a 2400-fold pixel magnification. The pixels come up like little crosses. It takes him ten minutes to conclude that this is not a 'photograph' at all but a photographic soup, composed of bits and pieces taken from other photographs.

The technical giveaway is the pixels. Were the photograph genuine they would have to be homogeneous but they are not. They are leaning in various different directions. Otherwise the analyst concludes that the man's right arm does not belong to the body. It has come from somewhere else. His right leg seems to have disappeared altogether. The boy sitting on the ground on the man's right is not clutching anything at all. The forger simply did not take enough care when cutting the paper around the fingers in the photograph from which his figure was taken.

The man in the caption obviously cannot be a 'Turkish official' as there was no Turkey at the time the photo was apparently taken (i.e. during or shortly after the First World War). A similar reference to 'Turkish soldiers' appears in the caption of one of the other photographs.

Having finally been told what the photograph of the standing man is supposed to be, the analyst points out the obvious, that no Ottoman memur or civil servant would be dressed in an unbuttoned jacket over a shirt with a collar and tie. He would be wearing a collarless shirt buttoned up to the neck. Almost certainly (definitely for a photograph) he would have a fez on his head, and it is hardly likely that an Ottoman memur would pose for such a photograph anyway.

Furthermore, given the cumbersome equipment photographers had to carry around with them early in the 20th century, even if the photographer arrived on the scene just as this 'Turkish official' was tormenting starving children with a piece of bread he could not have taken the photograph unless the standing man and the starving children agreed to hold their poses or to reenact the tableau when he was ready.

Oxford University Press had already been informed (by the writer of this article) that the 'photograph' was a forgery when Servet Hassan, the General Coordinator of the Federation of Turkish Associations in the UK followed up with a complaint in October. Responding to her protest, in an e-mail sent on October 19, Christopher Wheeler, OUP's history publisher, conceded that that the 'photograph' was a forgery. 'Existing stock' of the book had been destroyed but the 'photograph' had been retained in a new printing with the following caption:

'This photograph purports to be an Ottoman [sic.] official taunting starving Armenians with bread. It is a fake, combining elements of two (or more) separate photographs: a demonstration were one needed of the propaganda stakes on both sides of the genocide issue with evidence of all sorts manipulated for latterday political purposes. The photograph was also included when the book was first published but then was believed to be genuine. It had previously been used in Gérard Chaliand and Yves Ternon's Le Genocide des Arméniens (1980), which shows that prior use is no substitute for rigorous investigation of a picture's provenance – and in the absence of clear provenance, for a minutely detailed examination of the picture itself. It is a cautionary tale for historians, many of whom are better trained in testing and using written sources than in evaluating photographic evidence. The publishers and author are grateful to have had the forgery drawn to their attention'.

In a follow-up letter written on November Mr Wheeler, describing the forgery as a 'composite photograph', said OUP regarded republication of the 'photograph' with a fresh caption as 'a more effective rejoinder to the forger than silently dropping his or her photograph from the book'. Although the unknown provenance of the 'photograph' could have created suspicions, 'it is by no means uncommon for photographs from this period to lack one. And while the forgery is no masterpiece, without magnification it does not deceive the naked eye. These are not excuses for having been 'taken in' but they are mitigation'. The letter ends with a reference to forgeries going back to the Donation of Constantine and the need for historians and publishers to be vigilant. There is no mention of what could and should be done about copies of the book already sold, particularly those on the shelves of libraries around the world.

The caption in the new printing slides over all the important issues. Of course, there is propaganda on 'both sides', but there is nothing on the Turkish 'side' (as far as this writer is aware) to compare with the textual and photographic forgeries manufactured on the Armenian 'side'. It is very difficult to take at face value the statement that when the book was first published the photograph 'was believed to be genuine'. Nine photographs were published. Eight were properly sourced and one was not sourced at all, not even to the Chaliand and Ternon book. This suggests that someone must have had doubts about the authenticity of this photograph (which until 2008 at least was displayed prominently in the Museum of the Armenian Genocide in Yerevan. It can also be found online in the US Library of Congress – again without a source). Over and above all of this, it does not take a 'minutely detailed examination' or magnification to see that this 'photograph' is most probably and almost certainly a fake. OUP is usually meticulous in its sourcing. In his message to Servet Hassan on October 19 Mr Wheeler admits that there was no 'clear provenance' for the photograph. This implies that someone must have had misgivings. So why did the book’s editors allow this fake to go to press?

Forgeries have been part of the 'Armenian question' since the 1920s, produced with the intention of proving what could not otherwise be proved. The most notorious of them is the Andonian papers, a collection of 'telegrams' and other 'documents' purporting to show that the CUP government (and especially Talat Paşa) deliberately set out to exterminate the Armenians. These were shown to be forgeries more than 20 years ago but still surface from time to time, most notably in the writings of the journalist Robert Fisk.

Another 'document', appearing during the British occupation of Istanbul, is the 'ten point plan', supposedly drawn up by the CUP government sometime late in 1914 or early in 1915, according to which all male Armenians under 50 were to be exterminated, with girls and women converted to Islam.

The 'plan' was handed to the British by an Ottoman functionary. Then looking for evidence against the prisoners they were holding in Malta, the British did not make use of it. Taner Akcam, a Turk who has adopted the Armenian version of history in all its essential details, utilises the plan in the text of his own tendentious book 1, observing only in a footnote that the British were 'skeptical' of its authenticity. Bloxham himself has described the 'plan' as 'dubious at best and probably a fake'. 2 In fact, the 'plan' certainly is a fake.

In short, no serious historian could possibly take this plan as gospel truth, but this is exactly what Ben Kiernan, an Australian who is now Professor of Genocide Studies at Yale University, does in his recent publication Blood and Soil. A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur (Yale University Press, 2007). The 'plan' is the platform for his brief examination of the fate of the Ottoman Armenians and the accusations he makes that the Ottoman government drew up a plan to exterminate them.

What is extraordinary here is that it would have taken no more than a cursory check to establish that this 'plan' is suspect at least, is almost certainly a fake and is worthy of a footnote at most. Did no one at Yale University Press think of asking Ben Kiernan to come up with a better source than his only source for this accusation, Vahakn Dadrian, a committed Armenian national historian and propagandist for the Armenian cause?

It is often said that there are none so blind as those who will not see. Everyone knows what happened to the Armenians, everyone has the right to say whatever they want except the Turks. They are kept out of this debate altogether. Barack Obama, members of the US Congress, members of European parliaments and parliaments elsewhere, even of the South Australian parliament, which recently passed a genocide resolution, apparently know more of Turkish and Ottoman history than the Turks do. There could hardly be a clearer example of neo-Orientalism. It would be far too much to say that the members of these parliaments know little of late Ottoman history. It would only be accurate to say that they know next to nothing of Ottoman history apart from what they have been spoon-fed by lobbyists or have read in books such as those written by Ben Kiernan, Taner Akçam or Donald Bloxham. Very few books or articles are allowed into the western cultural mainstream as a counter-narrative. The Armenian question as it has been written into the western narrative has long since passed from history into theology. It has been sacralized and history, in this instance the need to deconstruct this issue on the basis of all the known 'facts' and not just some of them, suffers as a result. This, it seems, is how forgeries such as those described in this article get into print.

1 Taner Akcam A Shameful Act. The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility (London: Constable and Robinson, 2007). 2 History Today, July 2005, issue 7, p. 68, Bloxham's reply to a letter to the editor following the publication of his article 'Rethinking the Armenian Genocide' in the June, 2005, issue. I wish to thank Erman Şahin for drawing this letter to my attention.

Prof Jeremy Salt teaches in the Department of Political Science at Bilkent University Ankara. He is the author of Imperialism, Evangelism and the Ottoman Armenians 1878-1896 (London: Frank Cass, 1993) and The Unmaking of the Middle East. A History of Western Disorder in Arab Lands (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).

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