Insurance and the Armenian Genocide
Prof. Bill Long 1/30/05
The Deep Past as the Visible Present
The first story my eye fell on when reading the California Department of Insurance's Home page was the settlement recently approved by Judge Snyder in of the Central District of California Federal Court ("CDC")
authorizing payments of $20,000,000 to descendants or beneficiaries of around 2,400 Armenian holders of life insurance policies killed in the Armenian Genocide (which claimed around 1.5 million lives) in Turkey in 1915-1923. I couldn't get past this story without spending some time doing research and writing these two essays for you. It is a story of incredible brutality, tenacity, disappointment and triumph which only succeeded because of the "insurance law" dimension of the issue.
Putting the Issue in Context
When Adolf Hitler was contemplating his program of liquidation of Jews and other "undesirable" in WWII, he was asked about the long term effects of such a plan. His response was: "Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?" Finally, 90 years after it began, people are speaking about the annihilation of the Armenians. Indeed, the Armenian "interest" at the moment is to make sure the term "Genocide" is included with "Armenian." It is not enough to call it a "massacre" or "war" or "loss." It must be a "genocide." And, the Armenians have turned a corner in the last year or so on the issue. I predict that within 10 or 20 years even high school textbooks will begin to speak of the "Armenian Genocide" as one of the more s important events of the 20th century.
Beginning about 1875, enterprising agents of New York Insurance Co. began to sell life insurance policies in the Ottoman Empire (now Turkey). Their targets were mostly Armenian merchants. Armenians were increasingly oppressed by the majority Turks as the 19th century wore on, and many had begun to emigrate to America, settling mostly in Boston and New York (by the early 20th century, one of the largest Armenian communities was Fresno, CA, as well as Los Angeles). NY Life sold nearly 8,000 life insurance policies to these merchants, with total payout value of more than $10,000,000.
During WWI and thereafter, while the world was not "looking," more than 1.5 million Armenians were killed in the Ottoman Empire in a systematic attempt to liquidate this population. You may read stories of these atrocities at many sites on the web. After WWI ended, the Ottoman Empire was carved up, with the states of Iraq, Turkey and Palestine, among others, resulting. The new nation of Turkey would take a turn for the West in the 1920s under the firm hand of Kemal Mustafa Ataturk. All interest in trying to compensate victims of previous atrocities had diminished. Indeed, denial of massacre or genocide was the order of the day.
Back to the Insurance Policies
A number of the people killed in the Armenian genocide of 1915-23 held life insurance policies from NY Life (not all of the 8,000 policy holders were of course killed in these years). But it became very difficult to ascertain who had died. The new Turkish government didn't issue death certificates for the dead, usually the first step in a beneficiary's ability to cash in on the insurance policy. New York Life, in a statement released only a few years ago by its president, said (obviously with the lawsuit--which I will mention below--in view) that immediately after the War they hired a lawyer of Armenian descent to go through the devastated Armenian community of Turkey to try to find out what happened to the policy holders. NY Life wanted to settle up with some of the survivors by ignoring the traditional formalities of death certificates or other testimony that the policy holder had died. In addition, NY Life would ignore the statute of limitation clause in the policy, which means that if people don't claim the money within a specified time (usually two years), they lose their claim. NY Life claims that it was able to settle several hundred policies in this manner.
Near the close of WWI, the Ottoman leader, Mehmed Talaat Pasha (1874-1921), hit on a scheme wherein the Ottoman government might be able to profit from the remaining unpaid insurance policies. He asked Henry Morgenthau, America's ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, if he would kindly ask NY Life to give a list of Ottoman Empire policy holders to the committee ominously entited the "Liquidation Committee" of the Ottoman Government. Talaat's interest was as follows: The Committee would determine if the policy holders had died and then would assert that under Ottoman law the proceeds of the policies should escheat to the state. Morgenthau told the Pasha in no uncertain terms that no list would be forthcoming. But, the communication made the world aware (if anyone was listening) that there actually was a list of these policy holders tucked somewhere in a vault in NYC in the NY Life archives.
The next mini-essay concludes the story.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long