By Kamer Kasim*
The Ottoman Empire’s final years were turbulent ones, with the empire facing numerous revolts originating in the Balkan region. Greece became independent in 1830, and the Greek revolt, which began in 1821, served as a model for others, so that through the nineteenth century until the onset of World War I, Balkan nations were gaining independence. Throughout this process Muslims living in the Balkans were killed or expelled for the sake of creating nation states. Armenians mostly lived in Eastern Anatolia where they constituted 17% of the region’s population. Armenian uprisings organized by Armenian associations started mainly in the 1890s with revolts in Erzurum and Kumkapi in 1890; Kayseri, Merzifon, Yozgat, Çorum, Sasun, Zeytun, Van and Adana witnessed the Armenian revolt from 1890 to 1909; and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation occupied the Ottoman Bank in 1896 and attempted to assassinate Sultan Abdulhamit II in 1909[o1] . The aim of these actions was to terrorize the population, to stir up disturbances and to foment an atmosphere that would provoke the intervention of European powers. During these revolts not only Muslims, but also Greeks and Jews who did not support the Armenian revolutionary movement fell victim to various atrocities. Armenians who did not cooperate with the revolutionaries were also targeted; even the Armenian Bishop of Van was killed during this time. The Ottoman Administration had difficulty handling the revolts and faced European pressure to pardon rather than punish the revolutionaries. Such pressure, combined with negative propaganda in the European press, led to the release of captured revolutionaries. Yet the Ottoman Administration’s attempts to take control and prevent the atrocities committed by the revolutionaries continued to be labeled as massacres. Despite the fact that Armenian revolutionaries used the same tactics that were used during the Balkan uprisings, there was a key demographic difference between the two: Armenians were not even close to constituting a majority in any of the cities of Eastern Turkey.
The Ottoman Empire’s entry into the Great War changed this picture. As Russian forces in Eastern Anatolia advanced on Van, an Armenian revolt began in the city, as did the slaughter of the Muslim population of Van. The Ottoman Administration shut down Armenian revolutionary committees and 235 people were arrested on April 24, 1915. Van was captured by Russian troops with the help of the Armenian volunteer units. On May 24, 1915 the Armenian newspaper Gochnak published in the United States reported that “only 1500 Turks remain in Van,” and that the rest were killed. The Ottoman Administration decided to relocate Armenians on May 27, 1915, with the purpose of keeping them away from war zones. The implementation of the decision began on June 1, 1915. Basically, the Armenian population of Eastern Anatolia was relocated to Mosul province, Aleppo province, the province of Syria, etc. At that time these Ottoman territories were not part of the war zone. Relocation later expanded to include Armenians who were living in areas other than Eastern Anatolia and who were found to be engaging in harmful activities and collaborating with the enemy. Detailed arrangements were made regarding where these Armenians were to be settled, how they would be transported, and what would be done with their property. For example, the property of deported Armenians was placed in state custody, while their perishable goods were auctioned off by special commission with the proceeds being sent to the owners.
The Armenian questions and allegations started from there. Later, the Armenian side claimed that the Ottoman Administration made a deliberate decision to eliminate Armenians, and when the concept of genocide was introduced after the Second World War, Armenians made allegations of genocide. On the other hand, the Turkish side argued that the Ottoman Empire was fighting for its survival and the relocation decision was taken due to war time conditions. Deaths occurred from disease and clashes between different ethnic groups, etc. There are also disputes and counter claims regarding the size of the Armenian population in the Ottoman Empire as well as the number of Armenians who reached their destinations.
In order to assess these allegations, it is necessary to mention the Genocide Convention that was adopted in 1948 and came into force in 1952. According to the Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group, such as:Killing members of the group;
- Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
- Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
- Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
- Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
The Convention sought to protect four groups: national, ethnic, racial, and religious. Political and other groups were left outside of the scope of the Convention. The crime of genocide consists of two parts. One is the subjective element, referring to the intention, aim and will to commit a crime. The other is the objective element. Thus, the crime of genocide only exists if acts are committed with the intent to destroy one of the four groups mentioned in the convention. The concept of general intent is not enough to constitute genocide, it can only apply to simple offences.
The application of the Convention to the 1915 events was impossible considering the circumstances in the Ottoman Empire at the time. First of all, there was no discrimination against Armenians under the Ottoman Administration. There was no racial hatred harbored against Armenians in Ottoman society. Here, Osman Bey, the first Ottoman ruler, permitted Armenians to establish a religious center in Kütahya. Then, in 1326, this center moved to the Ottoman capital, Bursa. In 1461, Fatih Sultan Mehmet issued a statement for the establishment of the Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul. Moreover, there were 29 Armenian Pashas, the highest governmental rank in the Ottoman Empire; 22 Armenian Ministers, including Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Finance, Trade, etc.; 33 Armenian representatives were appointed and elected to Parliament, as were 7 Ambassadors, 11 consuls general, etc. In 1912-1913 Gabrial Noradunkyan, an Armenian, was the Foreign Minister of the Ottoman Empire, and was responsible for drawing up the international agreements of the Ottoman state.
When compared with the position of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, the position of the Jews in the Nazi Germany was clearly quite different. Discriminatory laws were passed against the Jews. They faced “pogrom” type attacks such as the infamous “Crystal Night” (Kristallnacht) of November 1938. Jews were driven out of German society and forced to live in isolated ghettos. Most importantly, anti-Semitism was nurtured in Germany, by the government, to provide motivation for the genocide; such never existed in the Ottoman Empire with regard to the Armenians. The Ottoman Empire also provided shelter for the Jews who fled from prosecution in Spain in 1492.
The most important difference between Jews in Germany and Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, however, remains that Jews in Germany did not engage in an armed struggle for independence and they did not have organizations that attacked government officials, civilians and other ethnic groups. Alternately, as mentioned above, Armenian organizations did in fact engage in armed struggle, using terror against civilians and government officials even before World War I, and when the Ottoman Empire entered the war, they collaborated with foreign occupying forces. A great deal of evidence for this exists in the archives of various countries. Armenians did not hide these facts and many prominent figures admitted the existence of an Armenian armed struggle and the massacres committed in the service of attaining independence. Hovhannes Kachaznouni, who was one of the founders of the Dasnaksutyun Party and the first Prime Minister of the independent Republic of Armenia in 1918, said:
“In the beginning of fall 1914, when Turkey had not yet entered the war, but was preparing to, Armenian volunteer groups began to be organized with great zeal and pomp in Trans-Caucasia. In spite of the decision taken a few weeks before at the General Committee in Erzurum, the Dashnagtzoutune actively helped the organization of the aforementioned groups, and, especially, armed them, against Turkey. . . . There is no point in asking today whether our volunteers should have been in the foreground. Historical events have a logic of their own. In the fall of 1914 Armenian volunteer groups were formed and fought against the Turks. The opposite could not have happened, because for approximately twenty years the Armenian community was fed a certain and inevitable psychology. This state of mind had to manifest itself, and it did.”
Former Armenian Deputy in the Ottoman Parliament, Armen Garo or Karekin Pasdermadjian, who led Armenian forces against the Ottoman Empire, argued that Armenian participation in armed conflict was the leading factor in the Allied victory of World War I. In an official letter addressed to the French Foreign Minister, head of the Armenian Delegation to the Paris Conference stated that “Armenians since the beginning of the war, had been de facto belligerents.”
There are many examples of Armenian organizations participating in the conflict against the Ottoman Empire by killing officials as well as civilians, destroying telegraph lines and burning houses. Under these circumstances the Ottoman Administration made the relocation decision.
As Gündüz Aktan mentioned “There is no evidence to prove that relocation was planned to commit genocide in an indirect way. It is not possible to come across statements or instructions that would indicate the presence of the intent to destroy through relocation, which must be done to prove genocide.” The Ottoman Administration expended great effort to implement the relocation process with little harm to the Armenians. For example, during the relocation process relief organizations were free to operate and assist Armenians. The American Near East Relief Society was allowed to conduct its mission despite the fact that the Ottoman Empire and the US were in different camps during World War I. If the Ottoman Administration had any intention of destroying the Armenians, it would not have allowed foreign organizations to help during the relocation, and if the Ottoman Administration had anything to hide, it would not have allowed relief organizations to operate in the field.
As genocide is a concept in international law, the crime of genocide can only be judged by a decision of the international court. At the end of the World War I, 144 high level Ottoman officials accused of massacres were arrested. British occupation forces took these persons to Malta for trial. Great Britain appointed Haig Kahzarlan to conduct a documentary investigation in search of evidence against the detainees, and in the end the British could not find any evidence against Ottoman officials or the Ottoman government. The British government then asked for assistance from the US State Department in searching for evidence against the Ottoman officials. An expert from the British Embassy in Washington scoured the American archives, and on July 13, 1921 the British Ambassador sent a message to London stating that “There was nothing therein which could be used as evidence against the Turks who are being detained for trial at Malta… The reports in the possession of the Department do not appear in any case to contain evidence against these Turks that could be useful even for the purpose of corroborating information already in the possession of His Majesty’s Government.”
Like the British, the Americans could find no evidence despite the fact that they exerted all of their authority and looked everywhere for evidence. In the end, all Ottoman detainees were released.
The 1915 events and the tragedies before and during the First World War impacted all communities of the Ottoman Empire. Even Chairman of the Armenian National Assembly Boghos Nubar Pasha acknowledged that the Turks lost more people than the Armenians. However, the propaganda that accelerated in the 1960s, combined with the terrorist attacks against Turkish diplomatic missions from the 1970s until the mid-80s, created an atmosphere that shaped public opinion to identify the events of 1915 as genocide. The propaganda machine and lobbyists even used fake documents such as telegrams attributed to Talat Pasha, or used Russian artist Vassili Vereshchagin’s oil painting, which had nothing to do with the Armenians. Ambassador Morgenthau’s story has been used to support the Armenian allegations, while American scholar Heath Lowry’s work, Story Behind Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story, which questioned the credibility of Morgenthau’s book, has been ignored. Another source that was used to support the genocide allegations was the Blue Book prepared by Britain. Historian Arnold Toynbee took part in the preparation of the book, but he later confessed that it was actually a piece of war propaganda.
The Armenian question and the one-sided construction of its history may be explained by Vamık Volkan’s concept of chosen trauma, which refers to the mental representation of an event that causes a group to feel victimized: “The group mythologizes an event, and draws it into its identity… For each generation, the event is modified. What remains is the central role it plays in the group’s identity, even though the modified version of the event is different from the historical truth. This tendency goes hand in hand with the temptation to seek out a scapegoat. For groups of Armenians, that scapegoat is the Turks.”
The only way to reach a point at which an atmosphere favorable for the reconciliation of the two sides may arise, is to create a Just Memory. This is a concept that highlights the necessity to refrain from viewing history with a one-sided memory. As Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said, “…We should be empathetic about what the Armenians lived through, what they felt, and what followed for them afterwards. But while expecting respect for their memory, they in turn should show respect for ours too. We shouldn’t construct a one-sided memory.” Here, he has gone on to explain the concept of Just Memory in the case of Turkish-Armenian relations in an article, stating that:
“If intellectuals and politicians do their part to overcome the psychological barriers on both sides and to build a ‘just memory,’ we can expect a new, more grounded era of peace. Otherwise, both sides will inevitably be exploited by those who benefit from a sector that feeds off the status quo.”
In this sense, it would be possible to give life to a constructive dialogue and to create a new atmosphere for future generations, if only we manage to build a Just Memory.
 See Justin McCarthy, “The Population of the Ottoman Armenians”, in Türkkaya Ataöv (Der.), The Armenians in the Late Ottoman Period, Ankara, 2001, pp. 65-85.
[o1]Hopefully this is appropriate.