By Christopher J. Walker
In some respects, Armenians and Turks had been getting along rather well in the years before the Genocide of 1915. Armenians had played a significant part in bringing about the Ottoman constitutional revolution of 1908; in the years immediately following, many Armenians returned to Turkish Armenia from Russian Armenia, where conditions remained repressive and anti-Armenian until 1912. Armenians played a part, too, as soldiers in the Ottoman army in the Balkan War of 1912; 8,000 of them served, and served well, according to observers. However, the Turks did not show much response to Armenian indications of faith in constitutional Turkey, and of hope for a better deal than under the murderous old sultan Abdul Hamid. Armenian trust was sustained by little more than hope.
No move was made by the Turks for the return of lands stolen from Armenians during the massacres perpetrated in 1894-96 under the old regime. In terms of ideology, the Turks were moving in the direction of race-based Turkism, away from the religious societism of Islam. Despite its periodic hostility to Armenians, Islam did at least allow a position for Armenians in its socio-political theory. This was in contrast to the pan-Turkish ideology which was growing up among the Turks in the decade before World War I. Its essence was summed up in a slogan devised by a leading theorist, Ziya Gokalp “Butun Turkler bir ordu” (All the Turks are one army). This slogan gained a diplomatic shape as the war clouds gathered in the summer of 1914: the Turks signed an agreement with Germany, by which Berlin would facilitate a link between the Turks and the Islamic peoples of Russia.
Sometimes the Ottoman Empire has been portrayed as the victim at the time of its entry into World War I – poor Turkey, so soon assailed on all fronts. The opposite is true. The Ottomon Empire’s leaders ached for war. They sent their warships to bomb Odessa in October 1914, to create a pretext for the empire’s entry into the war. Their armies were mobilized on all fronts, especially that of the Caucasus, where Minister of War Enver Pasha saw an opportunity of launching a pan-Turanian offensive – that is, an offensive to unite all Turkish speakers, which would necessarily mean the reduction or extermination of Armenians. Soon indeed the Turks were pressing ahead with their war ambitions: Jemal Pasha launched an attack on the Suez Canal; Enver came to grief at Sarikamysh, in the initial stages of his grand assault, and Halil Pasha achieved a similar failure in northwest Persia. All these assaults were aggressive, and all failures.
These failures were in a way balanced by the Ottoman success in warding off the British naval attack on the Dardanelles in March 1915. By that time, measures were already in place for the destruction of the Armenian people. Massive and brutal arms searches were taking place; conscripted Armenian soldiers were being disarmed, and the Armenian people in general were being terrorized. Armenians remained law-abiding; the German liaison officer in Erzerum summed up the Armenian attitude in that city as “perfect” in April 1915. Nevertheless, the deportations began, first in Cilicia (currently the region of Adana, Turkey). In the east, the people rose in revolt in the town of Van – not in order to facilitate the entry of Russian troops, but to save themselves from extermination at the hands of a murderous governor.
In the Ottoman capital, Constantinople (Istanbul) the Armenian community was rendered leaderless by the rounding up and assassination of over 200 leading intellectuals. Then the people in the provinces were systematically ordered out of their homes and driven into the desert to perish of starvation or exposure. Guards prevented charitable representatives of neutral nations from giving them food or water, adding a sombre and emphatic note to the genocidal proceedings.
After the deportation of the Armenians from Cilicia, those of Turkish Armenia (eastern Turkey) were driven to their deaths as well as those of central and western Anatolia. The process was virtually complete by October 1915. A few months earlier, the U.S. vice-consul in Kharput summed up the events as “the most thoroughly organized and effective massacre this country has ever seen.” In a few places, Armenians rose up in rebellion and defended themselves, most notably at Musa Dagh, where about 4,000 heroic Armenians were rescued by a French warship; but there was no organized resistance. This was not surprising, given the war footing of the country at the time, and the vast distances between towns in Ottoman Armenia and Anatolia.
What were the deportations for? German observers noted that in some instances in Armenian exiles were driven aimlessly by their guards from place to place until they died. This indicated that the intention was to kill them, not to relocate them. Those who survived were herded into open-air camps along the Euphrates River. It was a horrible concentration of dying humanity, pitilessly starved to death by representatives of a brutal regime. Well over one million died; even the Turks (in the form of Jemal Pasha’s memoirs of 1922) quoted the figure of 600,000 Armenians dead.
Today the Turks say that many Muslims died as well. (They do not say Kurds, since Kurds are still non-people in Turkey as well as in official Turkish records.) And certainly many Kurds and Turks did die. But the memoirs of an Austrian military attache in Constantinople make it clear that these people died as a result of disease which spread following the anti-Armenian atrocities committed by the government. The deaths of so many Armenians, as a result of Ottoman policies, led naturally to the spread of disease among the rest of the population. In other words, the Turks and Kurds were victims of the Turkish government’s genocidal anti-Armenian actions.
Despite the terrible nature of events, these matters were forgotten. After 1919 I have found hardly a reference to the Armenian Genocide (“massacres” or “atrocities,” in the language of the time) in official papers. Why? Party, I think, because it is the case of the greater the crime, the greater the forgetfulness. At some level, we all are embarrassed by the issues of genocide and horrible mass-killings and prefer to cover them up, pretending they never happened.
Another factor was that the Allies were too busy quarrelling among themselves, staking out territories to grab, planning to seize control of raw materials and markets (while posing as high-minded representatives of civilized values) as well as worrying about the growth of Bolshevism, to bother about redressing the appalling war crimes committed against the Armenians. On the Armenian side, it was unfortunate that the people and their supporters did not keep the issue firmly and clearly in the sight of international policy-makers. Where they did write about the genocide, Armenians did so in a wordy and generalized manner, talking in grand and vague terms like “civilization” and “barbarity,” instead of putting together, in the manner of a lawyer preparing a case, chronological details covering the issues of what happened in 1915, indicating how it happened, who ordered it and what was the ideological motive behind it. If the Armenians had provided these details at the time, it is my guess that, given the pragmatic and empirical cast of mind which characterizes the British, they would have had a better chance of being heard. The nebulous language that they used did not benefit them.
As it was, the Armenian genocide was forgotten, and disappeared from the consciousness of international policy-makers. Indeed, the world had to wait until 1943 even for the coining of the word “genocide.” No recompense was made to the Armenians, and Hitler was given a precedent for the Holocaust.
Today, 75 years later, Armenians everywhere are rightly striving to have the historical record accepted as correct, and not opportunist lies. For two very central reasons, it is right that the events of 1915 should be remembered: One is that they actually took place, they are part of the experience of the twentieth century. The other is that if terrible deeds on the scale of those of 1915 are forgotten and ignored, it leaves the field wide open for violent dictators to repeat (or to attempt to repeat) what went unpunished in World War I.