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Journal ArticleDOI

The League of Nations' rescue of Armenian genocide survivors and the making of modern humanitarianism, 1920-1927.

01 Dec 2010-The American Historical Review (Oxford University Press)-Vol. 115, Iss: 5, pp 1315-1339
TL;DR: The essay centers of the efforts by the League of Nations to rescue women and children survivors of the 1915 Armenian Genocide, which was at once a constitutive act in drawing the boundaries of the international community, a key moment in the definition of humanitarianism, and a site of resistance to the colonial presence in the post-Ottoman Eastern Mediterranean.
Abstract: The essay centers of the efforts by the League of Nations to rescue women and children survivors of the 1915 Armenian Genocide. This rescue -- a seemingly unambiguous good -- was at once a constitutive act in drawing the boundaries of the international community, a key moment in the definition of humanitarianism, and a site of resistance to the colonial presence in the post-Ottoman Eastern Mediterranean. Drawing from a wide range of source materials in a number of languages, including Turkish, Armenian, and Arabic, the essay brings the intellectual and social context of humanitarianism in initiating societies together with the lived experience of humanitarianism in the places where the act took form. In so doing, it draws our attention to the proper place of the Eastern mediterranean, and its women and children, in the global history of humanitarianism. The prevailing narrative of the history of human rights places much of its emphasis on the post-World War II era, the international reaction to the Holocaust, and the founding of the United Nations. yet contemporary human rights thinking also took place within practices of humanitarianism in the interwar period, and is necessarily inseparable from the histories of refugees, colonialism, and the non-West.

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The League of Nations’ Rescue of
Armenian Genocide Survivors and the Making of
Modern Humanitarianism, 1920 –1927
HOUSED IN THE LEAGUE OF NATIONS ARCHIVE at Geneva is a collection of intake sur-
veys from the Rescue Home in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. These documents
record the histories of some 2,000 Armenian girls, boys, and young women who were
rescued— or, more often, rescued themselves— from Arab, Kurdish, and Turkish
households into which they had been taken during and after the First World War
and as a consequence of the Armenian Genocide of 1915.
The story of Zabel is
representative of the histories in the home’s records.
The daughter of Bedros, Zabel
arrived at the home on May 18, 1926, at the age of eighteen. Having been deported
along with her family when she was seven or eight, she recalled that she was from
Arapgir, a town in Southeastern Anatolia. She told the director of the home, Karen
Jeppe, enough that the following information could be reconstructed:
In the beginning of the deportation, Zabel’s father was separated from her family and was
sent in an unknown direction. Zabel was exiled with her mother, 5 sisters and a younger
brother. The caravan which consisted of men, women, boys, girls and infants, was formed to
go on foot 3 months, wandering upon the mountains, passing through the villages, crossing
the rivers and marching across the deserts . . . The gendarmes had received the order to kill
the unfortunate people by every means in their power. Near Veranshehir, they collected all
the beautiful girls, and distributed them among the Turks and the Kurds. The rest of the
caravan had to go further on in the deserts to die. Zabel had been the share of a Kurd, who
married her. She lived there 11 years, unwillingly, til an Armenian chauffeur informed her
Early drafts of this article were completed while I was in residence at the United States Institute of Peace.
I am thankful to my colleagues there, especially Steven Heydemann, Lili Cole, David Tolbert, and Matt
Chandler. Additional research support was provided by the American Academic Research Institute in
Iraq. Samuel Moyn and Fatma Mu¨ge Go¨c¸ek were absolutely critical to the successful outcome of this
project. My colleagues at UC Davis, Mark Elmore and Catherine Chin, cheerfully read portions of the
text. I also thank Jennifer Dixon, Beth Baron, Alberto Fernandez, Ann Marie Wilson, Margaret Lavinia
Anderson, and the anonymous readers for the AHR for criticism, suggestions, and support. Finally, my
deepest thanks go to Heghnar Zeitlian Watenpaugh. Preliminary versions of the article were delivered
at the graduate school of the American University of Armenia (2008), the Histories of Humanitarianism
conference at Columbia University, co-sponsored by the Consortium for Intellectual and Cultural His-
tory (2009), and the Workshop for Armenian Turkish Scholarship, VI, UC Berkeley (2010).
I have adopted the practice in this article of capitalizing the word “Genocide” when referring to
the genocide of the Ottoman Armenians.
Archives of the League of Nations, United Nations Organization, Geneva [hereafter ALON-
UNOG], Records of the Nansen International Refugee Office, 1920–1947, Registers of Inmates of the
Armenian Orphanage in Aleppo, 1922–1930, 4 vols.
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that many of her relatives still were living in Aleppo. Having made her escape in safety, she
reached Ras al-Ain, from where by our agent she was sent to us.
A notation on the next page explains that Zabel was later placed with relatives. The
other histories echo her story with unremitting consistency: the children and young
people arriving in Aleppo told of deportations, separations, mass extrajudicial kill-
ings, and repeated rapes, followed by years of unpaid servitude as agricultural work-
ers or domestic servants, servile concubines, unconsenting wives, and involuntary
Beyond capturing the raw horror faced by some of the Genocide’s youngest sur-
vivors, each of those histories is a reminder that the collapse of the Ottoman Empire
was accompanied by a humanitarian disaster of world-historical proportions. From
1914 to 1923, a quarter of the empire’s population perished from famine, disease,
and state violence.
The war and its aftermath created unprecedented numbers of
displaced persons: Turkish refugees fled advancing armies in the Balkans and the
Caucasus; Ottoman Armenians who had survived deportation to Mesopotamia filled
camps and shantytowns scattered along the outskirts of the major cities of the Levant.
Postwar diplomacy, which left the empire fragmented and under foreign occu-
pation, contributed to that disaster. Under the terms of the Treaty of Se`vres (1920),
much of Ottoman territory was divided among the victorious Allies, and what was
left was placed under strict military and economic control. Parts of Southern Ana-
tolia, Syria, and Lebanon were put in the hands of the French. The British took
control of Palestine, Trans-Jordan, and Iraq. Greece seized Thrace and expressed
ambitions to add much of Western Anatolia to its territory. The Allies jointly oc-
cupied and administered Istanbul, the capital. A new state for Armenians was carved
out of parts of Eastern Anatolia and the Southern Caucasus.
Armed resistance against the Western occupation began almost immediately af-
ter the armistice, leading to a multi-front war for the control of Anatolia that pitted
nationalist Turks against French colonial forces, Armenians, and Greeks. It ended
with the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1922, the absorption of Armenia
into the Soviet Union, and the abrogation of the Treaty of Se`vres by the Treaty of
Lausanne in 1923. These conflicts, too, led to mass casualties and created vast waves
of refugees. The drawing of new national borders and the attempt to “unmix” diverse
communities made permanent the displacement of Armenian deportees, and cul-
minated in the League of Nations–administered compulsory exchange of popula-
tions between Greece and Turkey in 1923.
Despite the evident chaos and uncertainty of the early 1920s, the newly founded
League of Nations envisioned a prominent role for itself in the “postwar” Eastern
Ibid., vol. 2, no. 961, March 25, 1926.
A rich literature based on oral history and first-person memoirs has emerged around the topic of
rescued captives, most notably Donald E. Miller and Lorna Touryan Miller, Survivors: An Oral History
of the Armenian Genocide (Berkeley, Calif., 1999); Mae M. Derdarian, Vergeen: A Survivor of the Ar-
menian Genocide (Los Angeles, 1997); and Aram Haykaz’s autobiographical Ch’ors tari K’iwrtistani
lernerun mej [Four Years in the Mountains of Kurdistan] (Antilias, 1972).
Estimates range as high as five million deaths from war, famine, civil violence, and genocide in
the period. James L. Gelvin, The Israel Palestine Conflict: One Hundred Years of War (Cambridge, 2007),
On the broad outlines of the political narrative of this period, see David Fromkin, A Peace to End
All Peace: Creating the Modern Middle East, 1914–1922 (New York, 1989).
1316 Keith David Watenpaugh
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FIGURE 1: Photograph of Zabel attached to the intake survey that was conducted upon her admission to the
Rescue Home. She is still dressed in the traditional garments of rural Mesopotamia. Courtesy of the United
The League of Nations’ Rescue of Armenian Genocide Survivors 1317
Downloaded from by U.S. Department of Justice user on 16 August 2022

It viewed repairing the damage that the war had inflicted on select
populations as one of its chief humanitarian obligations and imagined itself a pre-
eminent agent of change, bringing peace and security to the region through a moral
and political reordering along modern liberal nationalist, Wilsonian lines.
League’s efforts on behalf of deported and displaced Armenian women and children,
known collectively as the Rescue Movement, were considered crucial to the fulfill-
ment of these aspirations.
The records of various committees and subcommittees of the League of Nations,
correspondence and supporting materials submitted by the League’s relief workers
in the field, communications with the Ottoman state, and memoirs and histories by
Turks, Armenians, and Arabs can help to illustrate the complicated and often par-
adoxical historical experience of the Rescue Movement as it was conceived and im-
plemented by the League in the interwar Eastern Mediterranean. They show that
the rescuing of Genocide survivors such as Zabel—a seemingly unambiguous good—
was at once a critical moment in the definition of modern international humani-
tarianism and human rights and a site of resistance to the colonial presence in the
post-Ottoman Eastern Mediterranean, a presence that was often defended in the
language of progress and civilization. Rescue would also play a role in binding the
international community to Armenian communal survival, serve as an ex post facto
warrant for the First World War, and threaten, nonetheless, late Ottoman ethnic,
For a discussion of renewed scholarly interest in the League of Nations, see Susan Pedersen,
“Review Essay: Back to the League of Nations,” American Historical Review 112, no. 4 (October 2007):
Recent scholarship on Wilsonianism includes Erez Manela’s provocative The Wilsonian Moment:
Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism (Oxford, 2007).
FIGURE 2: Armenian Genocide refugees from Anatolia in Aleppo, ca. 1915. Library of Congress, George
Grantham Bain Collection. LC-USZ62-88621 (b&w film copy neg.), Library of Congress Prints and Photo-
graphs Division, Washington, D.C.
1318 Keith David Watenpaugh
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religious, and gendered hierarchies and the unalloyed dominance of post-Ottoman
society by Turkish- and Arabic-speaking Sunni Muslims.
Moreover, the League’s rescue efforts confirm how the theory and practice of
international humanitarianism had changed by the early decades of the twentieth
century. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, humanitarians had sought to
alleviate the suffering of others, which could mean early death, starvation, forms of
exploitation, and disease. Motivated by an ethic of sympathy and sustained by the
sentimental narrative, this early humanitarianism was often made an instrument for
religious conversion, especially to forms of Protestant Christianity.
Early human-
itarianism was embedded in religiously driven and episodic forms of missionary ac-
tivity, in abolition, and in attempts to regulate the treatment of soldiers during Eu-
rope-based conflicts, the chief example being the founding of the International
Committee of the Red Cross in 1863.
In the context of British, French, and Amer-
ican colonialism, it featured in the “White Man’s Burden” and the mission civilisa-
trice, and it was at the core of the military and diplomatic concept of “humanitarian
intervention,” which, as Samuel Moyn has observed, “often exported to foreign lands
the savagery it purported to be banishing from them.”
While still possessing elements of its predecessor, modern international human-
itarianism, as embodied by the League, was envisioned by its participants and pro-
tagonists as a permanent, transnational, institutional, and secular regime for un-
derstanding and addressing the root causes of human suffering.
It paralleled the
evolution of philanthropy, and was distinct in its reliance on social scientific knowl-
edge-based approaches to the management of humanitarian problems— expanding
late-nineteenth-century notions of “scientific philanthropy” on a massive scale.
Craig Calhoun, “The Imperative to Reduce Suffering: Charity, Progress and Emergencies in the
Field of Humanitarian Action,” in Michael Barnett and Thomas G. Weiss, eds., Humanitarianism in
Question: Politics, Power, Ethics (Ithaca, N.Y., 2008), 73–97, 78–79.
Western Christian missionary hospitals and schools had been operating in the Eastern Mediter-
ranean since the 1840s. However, that work was generally inscribed in the interstices of the various
Christian communities of the Ottoman Empire. Late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century mission-
aries tended to view non-Western forms of Christianity, including Armenian Apostolic Christianity, as
nominally Christian, often insisting on the conversion of native Christians to Protestantism. The entire
enterprise was imbued with a distinctly American and European cultural chauvinism. For recent dis-
cussions of the ideological and cultural content of missionary work in the nineteenth-century Arab
Middle East, see Ussama Makdisi, Artillery of Heaven: American Missionaries and the Failed Conversion
of the Middle East (Ithaca, N.Y., 2008); and Heather J. Sharkey, American Evangelicals in Egypt: Mis-
sionary Encounters in an Age of Empire (Princeton, N.J., 2008).
“Although hardly a new idea in the fin-de-sie`cle, the civilizing mission acquired greater currency
in the age of democratic empire; ruling elites in France sought to reconcile themselves and the recently
enfranchised masses to intensified overseas conquest by claiming that the newly restored republic, unlike
the more conservative European monarchies, would liberate Africans from moral and material want.”
Alice L. Conklin, “Colonialism and Human Rights: A Contradiction in Terms? The Case of France and
West Africa, 1895–1914,” American Historical Review 103, no. 2 (April 1998): 419–442, 420. Gary J. Bass,
Freedom’s Battle: The Origins of Humanitarian Intervention (New York, 2008). Samuel Moyn, “Spec-
tacular Wrongs: Gary Bass’s Freedom’s Battle,” The Nation, October 13, 2008, http://krogers-dev.the
This transition was noted and endorsed at the time. As Frank T. Carlton observed in 1906, “The
opening years of the twentieth century are witnessing the development of a new and powerful human-
itarian movement. The economic developments of the preceding quarter of a century furnished the germ.
This movement is concerned with social settlements, charity work, educational reform, municipal bet-
terment, civil service reform and socialism.” Carlton, “Humanitarianism, Past and Present,” Interna-
tional Journal of Ethics 17, no. 1 (October 1906): 4855, 54.
See Merle Curti, “The History of American Philanthropy as a Field of Research,” American His-
The League of Nations’ Rescue of Armenian Genocide Survivors 1319
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