Raphael Lemkin coined the term in 1944:
Genocide is the systematic destruction of all or a significant part of a racial, ethnic, religious or national group.
The UN defines genocide as:
…any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
Lemkin was asked how he came to be interested in the crime of genocide. He replied:
I became interested in genocide because it happened so many times. It happened to the Armenians, then after the Armenians, Hitler took action.
April 24 is the date Armenians commemorate their genocide. This year will mark 100 years.
The Armenian Genocide…was the Ottoman government's systematic extermination of its minority Armenian subjects inside their historic homeland which lies within the territory constituting the present-day Republic of Turkey. The total number of people killed as a result has been estimated at between 1 and 1.5 million. The starting date is conventionally held to be 24 April 1915, the day Ottoman authorities rounded up and arrested some 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders in Constantinople.
In addition to the historic tragedy, a review of this episode offers the opportunity to witness in real-time the impact of realpolitik on the writing and interpretation of history – a peek behind the curtains of the development of myth and the obfuscation of truth.
Therefore, I will first review the tragic history, followed by a review of the current dialogue – greatly in the news now due to the aforementioned 100 year anniversary.
The Fall of the Ottomans, Eugene Rogan
I have this book on my shelf, to be read. The end of the Great War saw the end of several European empires; I have yet to do much work regarding the Ottoman. I am not ready to start through the book, however, given the upcoming commemoration of the Armenian Genocide – as well as my recent posts on the Ukrainian Famines and Jewish Holocaust, putting me in the mood, I guess – I decided to take it off of the shelf and read (and comment on) chapter 7, “The Annihilation of the Armenians.”
I offer the following high-level and superficial summary leading up to this period: By 1915, the Ottoman Empire was a fraction of its former self – most of the European portion now independent or under authority of the Austro-Hungarians, central Asia either to Russia or Persia, much of the Middle East and North Africa under control of primarily either the British or Italians, the French are in there somewhere. Meanwhile, some factions of the Armenian minorities in what remained of Ottoman-controlled lands were agitating for more control, looking to European powers to aid in the quest for independence.
In other words, things weren’t going well for any Ottoman concerned with hanging on to any portion of past glories. It is worth keeping in mind while considering subsequent events: the Armenians were seen by the Turks as an existential threat to what little remained of the Ottoman state – a meaningless “threat” unless one views the state as a god.
And then, the Great War as practiced in the Near East:
By the spring of 1915, the Ottomans faced invasion on three fronts. Since their conquest of the Basra region of southern Iraq in the final months of 1914, Anglo-Indian troops had poised a grave threat at the southern gates of the Ottoman Empire. In the east, the Ottoman Third Army was in total disarray in the aftermath of Enver Pasha’s ill-conceived Sarakamiş campaign against the Russians in December 1914 and January 1915. To the west, British and French fleets had mounted sustained attacks against the Dardanelles, and Allied infantry had managed to secure several beachheads on both sides of the straits.
What remained of the empire was under threat:
There were good grounds for the panic that swept the imperial capital in March 1915. The empire’s collapse appeared eminent.
The Armenians were located primarily in what today is eastern Turkey (“Western Armenia” to some Armenians; a loaded term for Turks) – right on the lines of the failed battles with the Russians. There were also Armenians in Russia (“Eastern Armenia” to some Armenians). Armenians from Russia fought against the Turks, and some portion of Armenians from eastern Turkey joined their further-eastern brethren, or at least supported them.
The divided loyalties of some Armenians had turned all Armenians in the eyes of many Turks. The Young Turk leadership began to contemplate permanent solutions to the “Armenian problem.”
…when, in the spring of 1915, the Young Turks declared the entire Ottoman Armenian population a dangerous fifth column, the Unionists even mobilized average citizens to assist in their annihilation.
Targeting Armenians was not new in the Ottoman Empire. There were the Hamidian Massacres of 1894 – 1896, with an estimated 200,000 – 300,000 Armenians killed; there was the Adana massacre of 1909, with 20,000 – 30,000 Armenians killed. The first was committed under the Sultan; the second during the transition to a constitutional monarchy and the Young Turks. The Young Turks were to be different, more liberal – even having support of the Armenians and other minorities.
By 1915, this changed substantially. Losses in the Balkan Wars resulted in massive population transfers of Muslims from what was Ottoman Europe to what remained – Turkey. To create space (and reduce the potential for divided loyalties), the Ottomans sent Ottoman-Greek Christians to Greece. The “abandoned” houses, farms, and workshops were then allocated to the newly arrived Muslims.
These “population exchanges” were regulated by formal agreements concluded between the Porte and the Balkan states – ethnic cleansing with an international seal of approval
Ultimately, several hundred thousand Greeks were forcibly expelled before and during the war (this does not include events at Smyrna in 1922, effectively ending the Greco-Turkish War three years after the Greeks invaded).
Unfortunately for the Armenians, there was no such independent state to which the Ottomans could deport them.
Armenians were concentrated in three parts of Turkey: Istanbul, Cilicia and in the east bordering the Caucasus. It is this group in the east that was most concerning to the Turks.
In the Caucasus, a minority of Armenian activists compromised the standing of the community as a whole when they allied themselves with Russia against the Ottoman Empire.
Unlike – and greater than – the Turks’ fear of the Greeks, their fear of the Armenians included the possibility of an independent homeland in the east – reducing even further the remaining stump of a once significant empire.
This brings us to the spring of 1915. Though there is no written record of a formal decision, “Ottoman documents and contemporary memoirs suggest” that the “Young Turk officials made key decisions initiating the annihilation of the Armenian community of Turkey between February and March 1915.”
Some members of the Armenian community did the rest no favors:
The hapless Armenian community of Istanbul played into their enemies’ hands by the open show of support they gave to the Allied campaign against the Ottomans and the Germans.
With the onset of the Allied attack on the Dardanelles, the Armenians made no effort to hide their celebration of imminent delivery from Turkish rule.
In Cilicia, on the Mediterranean coast, Armenians were forcibly relocated in February – inland, away from the coast and away from enemy warships. In response to the deportations, certain Armenians plotted an uprising – claiming to have 15,000 men ready to take up arms. Other Armenians, loyal to the Ottoman government, warned of this plot. Instead of gaining favor, this knowledge only served to unleash the very reprisals that the Armenians feared.
In March, an armed Armenian band ambushed Ottoman gendarmes near Zeytun. Total deportation of the local Armenian community followed – inland to Konya.
The major uprising, however, occurred in the eastern Anatolian city of Van; being at the focal point of Russian-Turkish border, the Turks took drastic action to neutralize the population.
The governor of Van was Cevdet Pasha, a committed Unionist and Enver’s brother-in-law. In March 1915, Cevdet ordered gendarmes to search Armenian villages for hidden weapons and to arrest anyone suspected of bearing arms against the empire. These searches led to violent pogroms against the Armenians in the villages surrounding Van.
Cevdet ordered the deaths of three leaders of the Armenian nationalist Dashnak Party in Van. Two were murdered. The third, Aram Manukian, went underground, in hiding; he saw his role as preparing the Armenians of Van to resist imminent massacre.
The battle went on for one month, beginning on April 19. Much of it was witnessed by Rafael de Nogales, a Venezuelan soldier of fortune who volunteered for the Ottoman army:
For twenty-one days, de Nogales took part in the Ottoman campaign against the Armenians of Van. “I have rarely seen such furious fighting as took place during the siege of Van,” he reflected. “Nobody gave quarter nor asked it.” As the battle wore on, he witnessed atrocities committed by Armenian and Ottoman alike. His memoirs of the siege of Van swing between sympathy and revulsion for both sides.
In the meantime, Russian forces slowly moved west – toward Van. By May 12, Muslims evacuated the city. The last Ottoman soldiers withdrew on May 19. Aram Manukian was named governor of Van by the Russians. Everything the Ottomans feared was happening in this easternmost region.
The Turks did not give up easily, however – Van changed hands several times over the summer before the Russians finally captured and held the city – or the rubble that once was the city.
With the fall of Van, the Ottomans began to implement a series of measures to eradicate the Armenian presence not just from the six provinces of eastern Anatolia but from Asiatic Turkey as a whole.
That the timing of the situation in Van coincided with Gallipoli didn’t help the Armenians in Turkey – it only served to convince the Turks that the Armenians were in league with the Entente Powers.
The event marking the date of commemoration for Armenians came on April 24. Two-hundred-forty Armenian notables – politicians, journalists, members of Armenian nationalist parties, professionals, and religious authorities – were swept up in the night by Turkish police.
None had to be found guilty of any crime or plot against the Ottoman state; being Armenian was sufficient evidence of guilt.
One of those caught in this sweep was the Armenian priest, Grigoris Balakian. Educated in Germany, his knowledge of the German language allowed him a means to escape and survive – as he made acquaintance with many Germans then working in Turkey on the Berlin-Baghdad railroad. His memoirs have survived him, “Armenian Golgotha.”
The existence of Armenians in Turkey was considered an existential threat; in desperation, Turks implemented policies to deal with not merely the Armenians who took up arms against the Turks, but all Armenians – guilty due to being born Armenian.
The deportation of Armenians was conducted openly by government orders. The Young Turk leadership had secured an early recess of the Ottoman parliament on 1 March 1915, which left Interior Minister Talat Pasha and his colleagues a free hand to enact law without parliamentary debate. On 26 May 1915, within a week of the Russian entry into Van, Talat submitted a bill to the Ottoman Council of Ministers.
The recess of parliament avoided the messiness of debating such a member with members of parliament who happened to be Armenian.
This was the “Deportation Law,” swiftly approved by the government. It called for the wholesale relocation of Armenians to undisclosed locations away from the Russian front. Orders were dispatched to provincial and district governors, bearing Talat’s signature and calling for immediate deportation of the Armenians.
Announcements were posted in each city and village, giving a few days’ notice to the local Armenian community. What the Armenians could not carry, the government offered to keep for safekeeping – as the Armenians were told they could return after the war; these belongings were distributed to the remaining Muslim population once the Armenians were taken from the village.
Alongside these public orders, verbal orders were given for mass murder. Any provincial governor asking for these orders to be confirmed in writing was dismissed or murdered.
Per the third UN definition of genocide, above: “Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.” Even without these verbal orders, the written orders for deportation were a death sentence for many – marching through the desert in the middle of summer, with no shelter, no food.
Enver’s secret intelligence service carried out the orders, assisted by local criminals newly released from prison, local Kurds, and recent Muslim immigrants from the Balkans and Russian Caucasus.
Even average Turkish villagers were reported to have contributed to the killing of Armenian deportees, some to rob them…others because government officials had convinced them that the killing of Armenians contributed to the Ottoman jihad against the Entente Powers.
This two-track approach was brought to light via evidence offered by government officials in 1918.
The deportations followed a similar pattern, village by village. A few days after the notice was posted, the Armenians were driven out of their homes. Males twelve years and older were then separated from the rest of the group and killed. The women and children were then escorted out of town under armed guard.
Hunger, robbery, massacres, brutalities of every kind followed. Stragglers, the sick and weak, were killed or otherwise left to die along the way. Many of the healthier survivors ended up in Muslim homes – as wives, servants, and adopted children; converting to Islam to save their lives.
There were western witnesses, as these regions were home to foreign consuls, missionaries, and other Europeans and Americans. American Consul Leslie Davis offered his witness. There were, of course, Armenian survivors as well who served as witness – the aforementioned priest Balakian being one of the more prominent.
Assyrian Christians were also accused of making common cause with the Russians, and were treated in a manner similar to the Armenians. Out of a population of something over 600,000, about 250,000 were killed during the war.
There is no agreed figure regarding the number of Armenians who died during this time. Even those who do not describe the events as genocide offer figures between 600,000 and 850,000 out of a pre-war population of perhaps 2 million. Others suggest the number killed is between 1 million and 1.5 million.
According to documents that once belonged to Talaat Pasha, more than 970,000 Ottoman Armenians disappeared from official population records from 1915 through 1916. Talaat's widow, Hayriye Talaat Bafralı, gave the documents and records in 1983 to Turkish journalist Murat Bardakçı, who has published them in a book titled The Remaining Documents of Talat Pasha (aka "Talat Pasha's Black Book"). According to the documents, the number of Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire before 1915 stood at 1,256,000. The number plunged to 284,157 two years later in 1917.
There are estimates that the Armenian population in Ottoman Turkey before the genocide was as high as two million; it is generally agreed that the population remaining after the war was about 100,000. As many as 1.9 million Armenians went somewhere.
Like the Holocaust and the Holodomor, the Genocide of the Armenians remains controversial in some circles. The sticking point for Armenians seems to be application of the term “genocide.” The sticking point for Turkey appears to be concern about legal / land claims and national pride.
Armenia says up to 1.5 million Ottoman Armenians were killed in a genocide starting in 1915. Turkey denies that the deaths amounted to genocide, saying the death toll of Armenians killed during mass deportations has been inflated and that those killed in 1915 and 1916 were victims of general unrest during World War I.
There certainly was general unrest. Yet general unrest and deportations leading to death of an entire population are not mutually exclusive. There were deportations of an entire population – into the summer deserts of Syria, with no food or shelter.
Call it what you will.
The Current Dialogue
Given the upcoming 100th commemoration anniversary, these events are greatly in the news (a search for “Armenian” and “Genocide” occurring in the last week results in almost 300,000 hits).
It might be easier to take the Turkish side of the story a bit more seriously if their actions weren’t so adolescent. In what might be considered a transparent and childish move by Turkey and its President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan:
Turkey has been accused of belittling the imminent centenary of the Armenian genocide by advancing its Gallipoli commemorations to the same day.
The anniversary of the 1915 military operations on the Gallipoli peninsula has always been marked on 25 April, the day after commemorations of the massacre of more than 1 million Armenians in the Ottoman empire. This year, however, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has invited state leaders to join him in Gallipoli on 24 April.
April 24th, of course, being the internationally recognized date of commemoration of the Armenian genocide. And this year being the 100th.
On Sunday 12 April 2015, the Pope made a statement:
Pope Francis on Sunday called the slaughter of Armenians by Ottoman Turks “the first genocide of the 20th century” and urged the international community to recognize it as such…
The Turkish government disapproves of the use of the term and the implications of the term:
…Turkey, which has long denied a genocide took place, immediately summoned the Vatican ambassador in Ankara to complain.
The Pope’s statement drew strong reaction from Turkish officials:
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has accused Pope Francis of “joining the conspiracy” of an “evil front” targeting Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), after the pontiff referred to the killings of Ottoman Armenians in 1915 as “the first genocide of the 20th century.”
What do events from 100 years ago have to do with today’s ruling AKP?
In any case, this was followed by irrelevant deflection:
“I am addressing the pope: Those who escaped from the Catholic inquisition in Spain found peace in our just order in Istanbul and İzmir. We are ready to discuss historical issues, but we will not let people insult our nation through history,” he added, referring to Sephardic Jews who fled the Iberian Peninsula and found refuge in the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century.
“I know you are but what am I?”
The European Parliament weighed in:
The European Parliament on April 15 urged Turkey to use the centenary of Ottoman-era massacres to "recognise the Armenian genocide" and help promote reconciliation between the two peoples, infuriating Ankara.
Again, the reaction was swift, even pre-emptive:
Ahead of the vote, Erdoğan said Turkey would ignore the resolution, adding "it would go in one ear and out from the other."
“This resolution cannot merely be explained away by either lack of knowledge or ignorance. Unfortunately, what lays behind is a religious and cultural fanaticism and indifference towards others regarded as different,” the Turkish Foreign Ministry said in a written statement minutes after the adoption of the resolution at the European Parliament.
Followed by more irrelevant deflection:
"Members of the European Parliament may better encounter their own past and remember especially their roles and responsibilities in the most abhorrent calamities of humanity such as World War I and World War II, well before dealing with the 1915 issue," it concluded.
“I know you are but what am I?”
From Ryan McMaken:
Someone should tell Turkish politicians, however, that the hissy fits being thrown over the Pope’s remarks actually make the Turkish state look weak. If the Turkish state can’t handle its past sins being brought to light, one is forced to ask one’s self why it takes so little to undermine the Turkish state. The US state, for example, is in little danger of being torn asunder every time someone mentions the ethnic cleansing of the Plains Indians. The US government simply says “oops” and goes on calling itself a great bastion of human wonderfulness. The Turks might do well to learn from the American propaganda machine, which has long since learned how to blame its many sins on others.
The United States government has almost consistently avoided using the g-word. This has been in deference to Turkey; some cynically suggest in deference to defense contractors selling weapons to Turkey along with various geo-strategic considerations:
The United States April 14 called for a "full, frank" acknowledgement of the facts surrounding the mass killing of Armenians in World War I, but shied away from calling it "a genocide."
"The president and other senior administration officials have repeatedly acknowledged as historical fact, and mourned the fact, that 1.5 million Armenians were massacred or marched to their deaths in the final days of the Ottoman empire," State Department acting spokeswoman Marie Harf said.
One-and-one-half million of one national group “massacred or marched to their deaths…” by another. What to call it?
There are watchful eyes – what will Obama say on April 24? Some consider that if he finally uses the term “genocide” as president, it will signal a strategic shift by the US toward Turkey - realpolitik. Probably not worth betting on. In any case, given the statement above by the State Department official, the name applied is irrelevant to the victims.
In recent years, there has been movement. Several Turkish scholars have added their voices to opening this history. One of the more prominent is Taner Akçam. He has written several books on the subject; from the description of his book “A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility”:
Turkish historian Taner Akçam has made extensive and unprecedented use of Ottoman and other sources to produce a scrupulous charge sheet against the Turkish authorities. The first scholar of any nationality to have mined the significant evidence--in Turkish military and court records, parliamentary minutes, letters, and eyewitness accounts--Akçam follows the chain of events leading up to the killing and then reconstructs its systematic orchestration by coordinated departments of the Ottoman state, the ruling political parties, and the military.
Even Turkish PM Erdoğan made a more conciliatory statement last year than has ever been offered before by a high-ranking Turkish official – nothing close to the generally accepted version of this history, but better than anything that came before.
Generally accepted, but the acceptance among historians and scholars is not total. Perhaps the most well-known historian in this camp is Bernard Lewis.
On May 19, 1985, The New York Times and The Washington Post ran an advertisement in which a group of 69 American historians called on Congress not to adopt the resolution on the Armenian Genocide. Bernard Lewis, a prominent historian of Islam at Princeton, was among them and so the case was named after him. The advertisement was paid for by the Committee of the Turkish Associations…The Armenian Assembly of America found that many or most of the 69 academics apparently benefited directly or indirectly from Turkish government research grants.
Yet, this camp seems to be losing members:
After publication of the statement, professor Gérard Chaliand of Paris V – Sorbonne University expressed disappointment that Lewis had signed. Lewis responded that the statement was an attempt to avoid damaging Turkish-American relationships and that it included a call for Turkey to open its archives, but the former was not mentioned in the statement. Some of the other signatories confessed later that there are deliberate attempts by the Turkish government and its allies to muddle and deny the issue.
In October 2000, when the House of Representatives of the US was to discuss the resolution on the Armenian Genocide, Turkish politician Şükrü Elekdağ admitted that the statement had become useless because none of the original signatories besides Justin McCarthy would agree to sign a new, similar declaration.
One of the 69 signatories of the 1985 statement to the US Congress was Donald Quataert. He resigned from the position of the chairman of the board of directors of the Institute of Turkish Studies, which he had held since 2001. As he announced, he had to resign due to the pressure of the Turkish ambassador Nabi Shensoy after he characterised the massacres of Armenians in Turkey as genocide.
Thomas de Waal has written “Great Catastrophe: Armenians and Turks in the Shadow of Genocide.” In it, he describes the changing dialogue regarding the genocide in the intervening 100 years – the dialogue within and between Turks and Armenians. In an interview regarding the book, he offers:
…when I talked to elderly Armenians suddenly it was like a lightbulb going on, and the human story really struck me. There was an awful human story there – the worst atrocity of the First World War – but it has been overlaid by so much politics that it’s hard to get back to the human story.
I should make something clear about the “g-word.” I started out fairly agnostically about whether I would use the term, but pretty soon I realized that it was right to do so. I also met many people in Turkey who now use it. The term is very problematic, politicized, and not very helpful in many ways, but I made the decision that I’d rather be on the side of those who use the phrase “Armenian Genocide” than on the side of those who don’t.
Another fascinating thing was going to eastern Turkey, particularly the Kurdish parts of the country, and discovering just how long memories are in that part of the world. People remember everything.
The genie is out of the bottle and denial is no longer possible. Up to 2 million Armenians “went missing” from Anatolia during the First World War; it’s no longer possible to deny that. Turkey is beginning to face up to that black period in its history, like many other countries have done with their own history. But it’s a long process and it’s only just beginning.
De Waal offers perhaps the single-most revealing statement regarding this entire dialogue:
In the book I quote Hrant Dink, who for me was an oracle on this issue. He said, “Both the Armenians and the Turks have clinical conditions. For the Armenians it’s trauma, for the Turks it’s paranoia.”
And finally, as evidence that the dialogue is changing, perhaps the wisest comment – by a Turkish writer in the Turkish Hurriyet Daily News:
Whether it was genocide or not is for jurists to decide, though, with official evidence and historic evaluations. While there are many historians who say that it was, there are also those who dispute this. Such a legal decision has never been arrived at in the way it was for the Holocaust and other genocides, even though Turkey lost the war.
The Armenia side has not, however, taken the matter up in an international court, most probably because the 1948 Genocide Convention is not retroactive. It also opposes all calls for a panel of international historians to research the matter objectively, no doubt concerned that this might produce unwelcome facts.
As Rogan has pointed out, there are unwelcome facts on the Armenian side. Needless to say, “unwelcome facts” committed by a few Armenians does not justify “unwelcome facts” committed against the entire population.
However, this does not diminish the importance of the tragedy of the Armenians, and their grandchildren rightly want to remember what they clearly see as genocide perpetrated against their ancestors. The problem today is that the whole question has been dragged out of the domains of history and law into the domain of international politics.
For the memory of the victims and also for the memory of the many Turks and Kurds who took courageous acts to save whom they could, it would be helpful, it seems, if all parties removed the political.
The important thing for many Turks is not the politics, but the fact that the Armenian genocide, or tragedy – call it what you will – is discussed openly today. Even films are being made about it by Turkish directors. This is a fundamental change from the past, when the topic was shrouded by a seemingly impenetrable taboo.
This dialogue within Turkey has changed – it is much more openly discussed. Ignore the politicians; what will change the relationship is the people.
This centenary will pass, but what will remain is a growing awareness by Turks that their past is not just made up of heroic moments, but also dark ones. This is part of the national maturing process. Turks will also see that they are no different to any other nation in this respect.
“…no different to any other nation in this respect.” The most accurate comment of all, reflecting the dark moments: the state – every state – is the largest criminal organization on earth. The unfathomable death seen in the twentieth century – in Turkey, in Europe, in Asia – would not have been possible absent this abominable creation.
In the end, it is clear that the Armenians of Turkey endured tremendous suffering, purposely inflicted by the Ottoman state. A nation that traces its history in Anatolia for over 3,000 years was virtually wiped clean.
Call it whatever you want.
For centuries, the Ottoman Empire encompassed one of the most diverse multi-cultural environments of its time. Other than religion, most Armenians in the diaspora have more in common with Turkish culture than they do with the culture of today’s Armenia proper. And much of Ottoman history would not have occurred absent the Armenians of the Empire; most notably, the best cymbals in the world trace 400-year roots to this legacy.
Perhaps it is time to stop the politics and offer healing. This begins with recognition – the reality of the Genocide. If it wasn’t for the politicians, it seems this step would have come decades ago.
As suggested by Ryan McMaken, Turkey should just say “oops.”