They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else
By Ronald Grigor Suny
Published in 2015
Thibault’s Score: 2/5
This book is awful, and I didn’t finish it.
It starts off as a fairly standard academic account of the Armenian genocide. However, very quickly, problems start manifesting. First, it commits the crime of jumping around chaotically. The first few chapters haphazardly move from the history of the Ottoman Empire during WW1 to the medieval kingdoms of Armenian Cilicia then back to the early 19th century breakup of the Ottoman Empire. If I hadn’t spent much of the last year studying Ottoman, Byzantine, and Armenian history then I would have found it very hard to follow.
However, the gravest crime which ultimately caused me to put the book down was committed several chapters later.
Suny engages in what I can only characterize as victim blaming. He says that capitalism is ultimately to blame for the destruction of the Armenian people. He points out that the Armenians were a merchant people, which made them more successful when capitalism arrived in Turkey. As a result of their success, the Muslims found themselves left behind. He describes the genocide as “a class conflict which took on racial overtones.”
Although the facts he discusses seem correct, the way he discusses them was absolutely repulsive. I interpreted his writings as subtly implying that the slaughter would have been justified if it had not crossed racial lines, and had been confined to a class conflict.
Suny and I see the same facts, but have completely different interpretations.
In the context of 20th century genocides, I often see minorities achieve success due to a combination of genetic and social factors. For example the Tutsi, Jews, and Armenians all had high-IQ, productivity driven, and pro-family lifestyles. This allowed them to outcompete their lower IQ, less productive, and less socially conservative peers. Similar patterns can be seen with the non-racialized slaughters of Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao. Clever and successful people are persecuted by the dumbed down masses for being economically productive.
In my worldview, the Armenians deserve better outcomes than the Turks because they are hardworking. If the tides of history change, and the Armenians become decadent while the Turks become more virtuous, then I would make the case that the Turks should become wealthier. I think that this worldview is fundamentally non-violent, because it sees disparities and hierarchy as natural rather than as problems that need to be corrected.
Suny sees the Armenian success as problematic. He implies that if there had been socialism, the genocide wouldn’t have occurred, because the races would have been more equal. The way he made this point felt extremely disrespectful.
Unintentionally, this book gave me some insight into some of the left-right conflicts that I saw when I visited Armenia and gathered from speaking to my Armenian friends.
Stranger still, Suny is Armenian. This book made me reflect that Armenians with Dashnak sympathies are communists first, and Armenians second. Many communists, whether Jewish, Congolese, Chinese, or Arab often will make decisions that favor other communists rather than their historical ethnic kin. If the Armenians are the capitalists, then the Turks are at least partially justified for wanting to level the playing field.
I don’t recommend reading this left-wing rag of a book. Instead, if you want to learn about the Armenian genocide, I would suggest The Great Catastrophe by Thomas de Waal.
The Great Catastrophe
By Thomas de Waal
Published in February 2015
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
Writing about genocide is hard. People hate reading lists of atrocities followed by more atrocities. Further complicating the issue is the fact that the Armenian genocide was two sided. Although more Armenians than Turks were slaughtered; the killing went both ways. Although few people want to study genocide, doing so is a moral imperative - failure to do so is bound to result in more atrocities. Considering the challenges that surround writing about such a contentious topic, Thomas de Waal did a phenomenal job.
In 1915, the Ottoman Empire was dragged into World War One. The backwards, outdated Ottoman military stood little chance against the superpowers of Russia and Britain. Worse, the Ottomans had just recently come out of three decades of nonstop war which resulted in the secession of most of the Christian Balkan states and loss of North Africa.
The war-weary and tired Ottoman population came to resent the Armenians for many reasons. First, the Armenians were a highly educated and intellectual minority group. Armenians occupied many high level government positions, and many of the wealthiest people in the empire were Armenian. Second, Armenians held strong cultural ties with Europe. Armenians did not dress in traditional Turkish garbs, and instead wore the clothing of Europeans. Finally, many Armenians resented the Turks after centuries of oppression, and had strong sympathies with Russia and Britain. Many Armenians went as far as going into open rebellion against the Ottomans, and massacred small groups of Muslims in contested areas. It is important to note that only a small handful of Armenians rebelled against the Ottoman Empire.
The Turkish solution was to eliminate all non-Turkish populations. Several groups of Christians - namely Armenians, Assyrians, and Pontic Greeks - were marked for extermination. What followed would be the wholesale destruction of 1.5 million Christian civilians. Many reprisal killings against Turks would later follow, with some resulting in massacres and rape of tens of thousands of Turkish civilians.
The Armenian genocide itself only accounts for one third of the book. The following two thirds follow the history of the Armenian diaspora in the United States and Europe, and of the Soviet Armenian state. The book ends with a short account of the wars in between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
I found the latter half of the book, which explains what happened to the Armenians after the genocide, to be the most fascinating part of the story.
First, what shocked me / terrified me is that many Armenians attempted to deny that the genocide had occurred. Many of the direct victims of the killings were traumatized, and preferred to forget the events of 1915 rather than speak about them. Women who were captured and taken as sex slaves or forced brides adopted new Turkish identities and did their best to forget that they were Armenian. Other Armenians were themselves implicated in war crimes or revenge killings, and also chose to forget. Early Armenian attempts at erasing the genocide would later on be used by Turkish nationalists to perpetuate the idea that the genocide had never occurred.
Second, the book explains how the term “genocide” came to be applied to what we today call the Armenian genocide. In 1915, the word “genocide” did not yet exist. Instead, people at the time referred to it as “the Great Catastrophe.” The word “genocide” was coined during World War Two by a Polish social scientist Raphael Lemkin commenting on the Holocaust. Lemkin specifically cited several past events which he believed to be genocides in his initial writings about the topic, such as the invasion of Ghenghis Khan, and importantly, the Armenian genocide. Some Armenians began immediately using the word “genocide” after Lemkin created the term.
Finally, the coverage of the conflict between the pro-communist and anti-communist Armenian groups was fascinating. Some Armenians saw Russia as the liberator which protected the Armenians against Turkey; others saw it as a second oppressor and the perpetrator of a second genocide. In many ways, this conflict still exists today. The nation of Armenia finds itself uncomfortably wedged in-between two major enemies - Turkey and Azerbaijan. Many believe that, without Russia, Armenia would have already been overrun.
I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to study Armenian history as a starting point.
The Ottoman Endgame: War, Revolution, and the Making of the Modern Middle East 1908 - 1923
By Sean McMeekin
Published in 2015
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
The collapse of the Ottoman Empire is one of the most important events in Middle Eastern history. Its age of decadence, followed by a century of civil wars, ultimately culminating in its defeat during World War One is the event that drew the borders of the modern Middle East.
After spending the last year studying Ottoman History, it has been really mentally difficult for me to “bridge the gap” and understand how the events that I have studied resulted in the modern world.
I love the writing style. The book is fast paced, incredibly clear, and easy to follow. Even without extensive background knowledge about the 20th century I was able to follow the events fairly well. The big picture geopolitics are very well explained; as well as the microscoping depictions of epic battles.
In its last days, the Ottoman government found itself increasingly influenceable by European powers. As the Ottomans grew ever more economically and technologically backwards, it became increasingly easy for lobbyists backing various European factions to push the government one way or another. At different times, the Ottomans found themselves under the influence of pro-French, pro-German, and pro-British factions. As a result of this, it found itself in the dystopian position of constantly changing its alliances. One year, the Ottomans were at war with Serbia. The following year they were allied to Serbia, and at war with the Russian puppet of Bulgaria. Two years later, they were now allied to Bulgaria, and at war with Russia.
The shifting constellation of alliances and allegiances isn’t the most important part of the story. The details of events in 1913 don’t matter very much when it comes to understanding the ultimate destruction of the Ottoman Empire. What matters far more is the fact that slowly, the Ottomans became so weakened they could do nothing other than serve the whims of various European masters - although no master had a monopoly.
One fascinating microcom of the broader picture depicted by the book is how the Ottomans ended up joining the Central Powers during World War One.
For centuries, the Ottomans had fought bloody wars against the Habsburgs for control of the Balkans. It would be fair to go as far as describing the Austrians as the traditional ethnic enemies of the Turks. In part as a result of their anti-Habsburg history, the French began supporting the Ottoman military through technology transfers and training programs.
In the years leading up to World War One, the Ottoman army also began receiving similar material support from France’s enemy, Germany. Germany hoped to undermine France’s influence in the empire by providing similar levels of material and technical support.
When World War One broke out, the Ottomans were initially neutral. On one hand, the Ottomans were long term rivals of the British who had supported Greece independence. The Germans promise to undermine the old geopolitical order and restore the Ottomans to power. Conversely, the French either urged neutrality or urged the Ottomans to join their fight against Austria and Germany. Furthermore, Bulgaria, the Ottoman Empire’s long term enemy, looked like it would imminently join the side of the Central Powers. However, France was allied to another long term Ottoman enemy: Russia.
The first year of World War One was marked by political gridlock with pro-entente and pro-central powers lobbyists each attempting to force the Ottoman Empire to join a different side of the conflict.
Out of the blue, the Germans would stage a geopolitical coup. German officers, who were already embedded in the Ottoman army, disguised themselves as Turkish sailors. They then commandeered an Ottoman ship, and began bombing the Russian embassy’s beachfront complex. Pro-German factions within the Ottoman government, who were likely working in league with the Germans, immediately published a deceptive account of the events that made it sound like the sailors had been Turkish rather than German, and that the Russians had made the first move, attacking them.
Within days, the Russians retaliated by declaring war against the Ottomans. By the time the deception was figured out, it was too late. Britain had already deployed warships to launch a joint British-Russian invasion of Turkey; and the Ottomans were forced to defend themselves. The pro-entete faction of the Ottoman government would either fall in line, be executed, or go into exile.
The Ottoman entry into World War One is just one - of many - fascinating events covered in this history. Others included the role of communist revolutionaries in ending the war, the stunning British failure in Gallipoli, how Saudi Arabia got its independence, and the Ottoman civil wars that would result in the creation of Turkey.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand why Turkey exists.
The Greek Revolution: 1821 and the Making of Modern Europe
By Mark Mazower
Published in November 2021
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
This dinosaur-sized book isn’t for everyone. It is very long and detailed. Finishing it was a project. It also is a little bit on the complicated side, so I wouldn’t recommend it to people who don’t already have a lot of background knowledge. That being said, I am very glad that I took that time to plow through this tour de force of Greek history.
The Greek war of independence from the Ottoman Empire is one of the most fascinating events in 19th century history. It isn’t just important because it marks the birth of a major European nation and the end of the Ottoman Empire - it ties into nearly all major trends that were reshaping Europe at the dawn of the industrial revolution. I will summarize just some of the mind blowing details from this book in this review.
Breakdown of Society: Sometimes, societies completely break down. This results in looting, rape, killing, and destruction of cultural heritage. Warlords emerge. In the 21st century, we have seen this when authoritarian governments collapse. Examples include Syria, Libya, and Somalia. In all three countries, a totalitarian state destroyed all forms of non-state organization such as private enterprise, religious organizations, and local communities. As a result, when the state collapsed, the vacuum became extremely dangerous. Greece during the time right before the war of independence is a perfect example of this.
Greek Expats: Revolution was fostered by large communities of Greeks living outside of the Ottoman Empire. First, there were the many parts of Greece proper outside of Ottoman control such as the British Ionian Islands, the Venetian colonies, and areas controlled by Christian Balkan states. Then, there were cities such as Odessa in Russia with large Greek populations. These areas fostered the revolution, free from the scrutiny of Ottoman eyes.
The Age of Revolutions: The American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Napoleonic wars, and the South American wars of independence against Spain were all part of the broader “Age of Revolutions.” This was a time when the ideas of liberty, stoked by radical liberals, swept across the European world. Many Greek nationalists were influenced by these ideas. The Greek revolution would also be supported by foreign ideologues in places like France, Britain, and Italy. Many of the European philhellenes would be veterans of the Napoleonic wars hoping to restart the pan-European revolution.
Philhellenism: Europeans romanticized Greece. The European image of Greece wasn’t shaped by the realities of its long term occupation by the Ottoman Empire. Instead, it was shaped by ancient legends from Homer, Aristotle, and Rome. As a result, many European liberals volunteered to help in Greece. They would get killed, ripped off, and scammed by the Greeks. Many were ill prepared for war, and were shocked by the atrocities that they saw there.
British Banking: The British successfully captured the energy of the Greek revolution. Around 1822, they started encouraging British philhellenes such as Lord Byron to go to Greece. This diluted the ultra-liberal sentiment, making the philhellenic movement both more moderate and more legitimate. The British started issuing loans to finance some of the sides of the Greek war of independence. British money unified the many disparate warlord factions. As a result, the British had a major say when it came time to form an official Greek government, going as far as handpicking the first Greek monarch. Greece would become a sort of British puppet state after 1832 until late in the 19th century.
The writing style is decent. It isn’t anything special; but it's clear and concise considering the topic. Mazower gives just the right amount of background information - not too much, not too little.
The sheer length and complexity of this book makes it hard to recommend. If you are studying the right topics, and have the right background information, then this is a great book. I wouldn’t recommend it to a more casual reader though.
The Travels of Reverend Olafur Egilsson: The Story of the Barbary Corsair Raid on Iceland in 1627
By Olafur Egilsson (historical), Karl Smari Hreinsson and Adam Nichols (contemporary)
Published in 1631 / 2016
Thibault’s Score: 5/5
In 1627, Ottoman-funded Algerian pirates attacked Iceland. The exact motives behind the raid are unclear; however many historians speculate that the Ottomans were attempting to disrupt the European’s Atlantic trade in the New World.
During this raid, an Icelandic protestant priest - Olafur Egilsson - was enslaved. He would eventually escape, and would write an epic and tragic history of his enslavement and escape. Egilsson’s entire family - his wife, and three children, were all enslaved. Eventually, he would ransom and rescue his wife. However, his children were sold off and never seen again.
This book is a combination of a primary source - the journal of Olafur Egilsson - and modern historical commentary spliced in, to give readers additional context. It also includes several other primary sources; most notably several letters and accounts written by other slaves.
Thinking about Ottoman pirates in Iceland is mind boggling. It shatters many geographical pre-conceptions that uninformed readers might have about the early modern era. The cross cultural aspects of this book are very interesting.
This book is well written. It isn’t overly academic. It isn’t trying to prove a point; instead it is trying to convey a story. If you want to pick up a highly readable story about one of the most bizarre and tragic episodes of the early modern era, then I highly recommend it.
The Ottoman Age of Exploration
By Giancarlo Casale
Published in December 2011
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
Did you know that the Ottoman Empire fought several battles against the Spanish in the Philippines? Did you know that a Portuguese-Indian-Omanese-Ethiopian alliance attempted to kick out the Ottomans from the Indian Ocean? Did you know that the Ottomans had trade outposts as far as China in the late 1500s?
This book is guaranteed to make you seriously rethink your understanding of geography and historical economics.
Starting in the early 1500s, Portuguese merchants arrived in the Indian Ocean via South Africa. Immediately, this triggered an arms race between Portugal and the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans understood the value of the maritime silk road, and began rushing to establish many trading posts across the Indian Ocean.
Like Portugal, Spain, Russia, England, and France, the Ottomans had their own colonial empire. Although Ottoman plans for colonies in the Americas, these were never carried out. Instead, the Ottomans purchased trading posts in the present day countries of Somalia, Kenya, Mozambique, India, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. They also influenced many states and kingdoms across Asia.
For several decades, wars raged in between Europeans in the Indian Ocean and Ottomans. The Ottomans won many of these wars, and could easily have become the dominant power in the Indian Ocean. Instead, history had other ideas. The Ottoman Empire began suffering from internal conflicts. The Empire refocused inwards, closing itself off to the outside world.
By late early 1600s, the last vestiges of Ottoman soft power in the Indian Ocean faded away, as decline set in. This made way for the Europeans to colonize nearly the entire world.
The writing style of this book is neither good nor bad. It is not overly academic, nor is it overly simplistic.
I recommend this book if you want to learn more about the history of colonialism.
The Evil Twins of Technocracy and Transhumanism
By Patrick M. Wood
Published in November 2022
Thibault’s Score: 2/5
This book can be seen as a sort of post-pandemic sequel to Patrick M Wood’s 2019 book Technocracy: The Hard Road to World Order. For the most part, the book rehashes the exact same material covered in the first book, with some slight updates referencing the pandemic and war in Ukraine. This book placed a much greater emphasis on transhumanism than the first book.
Overall, this book is much more biased and overly Christian conservative in tone than the first book. Instead of focusing on giving numerous clear case studies, he instead spends a lot more time sharing his opinions.
Currently, the world is being reshaped by invisible technocratic forces. Most regulations no longer come from the nation states. Instead, international bodies like the IMF, OECD, and BIS are increasingly shaping international policy. These bodies are unique for several reasons. First, like all countries, they have their own corporate lobbyists backing them. Second, they have a distinctive “scientistic” ideology that proposes replacing moral judgements with scientific economic planning. Finally, many governments have already signed off significant portions of their national sovereignty to these international bodies.
One part that I appreciated was that this book goes into far more detail discussing the history of the World Economic Forum. It also explains how WEF is funded, and how it indirectly influences policy by promoting academic research into specific fields.
The topic, as usual, is fascinating. But this book is a clear degeneration compared to its predecessor. I do not recommend it.
Technocracy: The Hard Road to World Order
By Patrick M. Wood
Published in November 2018
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
This is an absolutely fascinating read. It was written in 2018, and it is remarkably prescient. It perfectly anticipates the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Technocracy is a political movement that originated in the 1930s. The original technocracy movement advocated for the scientific management of the economy. The goal of the technocrats was to create a centrally planned economy that would be managed by engineers using scientific data. By the time of World War Two, the technocracy movement petered out. However, many of its ideas would be adopted by the economic planners of FDR’s New Deal and of the wartime economy.
This book traces how the obscure technocracy movement from the 1930s influenced modern political thinking, especially when it comes to global organizations such as United Nations, the World Economic Forum, the WTO, etc…
Many current political and economic developments are no longer being primarily driven by the nation state. Now, most policy is being driven by a loose network of international para-governmental organizations (such as the UN), think tanks (such as the Brookings Institution), NGOs (such as the World Wildlife Fund), and consulting firms (such as McKinsey and Company). Democracy and traditional means of restricting governments are being bypassed using a wide variety of complicated mechanisms, the end result being the global homogenization of all legal and regulatory mechanisms.
This book does a great job of explaining why governments no longer are responsible for policy making, and what ideas are driving this trend.
I have one major criticism: the author is very critical of technocracy. As a result, he doesn’t do a very good job of explaining the pros of technocracy, only the cons. He comes from a conservative American Christian background, and doesn’t hesitate to use words such as “un-American” to describe various ideas and policies. Although his research is very good, and his findings align with things that I have seen in my professional life, his tone will be repulsive to the overwhelming majority of readers. As a result, his credibility suffers, and this book cannot be shared with the majority of people that I know.
I wish that he had written a calm, collected, and unbiased book about technocracy. On one hand, I can find books that support technocracy. These accounts always use euphemisms and besmirch opponents as conspiracy theorists. On the other hand, I can find conservative or communist critics who are obviously biased. What I cannot find are neutral accounts that eschew euphemisms but simultaneously (at least on the surface) appear neutral.
This is the best that I have found so far, so I will probably recommend it to a limited number of friends with many caveats.
Useful Enemies: Islam and The Ottoman Empire in Western Political Thought, 1450-1750
By Noel Malcolm
Published in 2019
Thibault’s Score: 2/5
I only made it about a quarter of the way through this book before I decided to put it down.
Malcolm’s main argument is that, by the mid 1600s, the Ottomans had become a pathetic shadow of their former selves. They no longer posed any real threat to Europe. However, European states found the threat of the Ottomans to be useful. Defense against the Ottomans justified religious persecution, raising taxes, military expenditure, etc… The Europeans would go as far as intentionally propping up the Ottomans in order to keep their threat alive.
There is a lot of stuff out there about the rise of the Ottoman Empire, the conquest of Constantinople, the Balkan and Habsburg wars, and the age of Suleyman the Magnificent. There is perhaps even more stuff out there about the fall of the Ottoman Empire. However, there are very few books about the long boring period after the rise of the Ottoman Empire but before its decline. I was looking for a history of the Ottoman Empire during the late 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, so I picked up this book.
This book doesn’t discuss the history of the Ottoman Empire, but rather European perceptions of the Ottomans. Like most modern historical works, it overemphasizes bias and under emphasizes understanding. The tone of writing is academic.
I could see a potential audience for this book, but it wasn’t for me.
The Enemy at the Gates: Habsburgs, Ottomans, and the Battle for Europe
By Andrew Wheatcroft
Published in November 2010
Thibault’s Score: 3/5
This book is a fairly standard narrative history describing the two Ottoman attempts at capturing Habsburg Vienna in 1529 and 1683. It opens by highlighting the local geographical politics. Then, it gives broad explanations of the Austrian and Ottoman armies and tactics. Most of the book concerns direct hour by hour descriptions of the various battles and conflicts. Finally, some were devoted to the aftermath.
Although the book was fast paced and the descriptions of battles were interesting, I remember remarkably little. You can only read about so many cavalry charges, famines, and last stands before it all starts to blur into one.
The writing style was great, and at the moment, I found the book very interesting. But endless accounts of battles inevitably become drab. I never feel like I learn a lot when I read military history. Military history rarely gives me insight into the evolution of societies, the reasons why things are the way that they are, or the lives of people who lived in the past.
Although it's a good book, unless you are specifically studying either the Habsburgs or the Ottoman Empire, there probably isn’t any good reason to pick up this book.
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