Following efforts of deterrence by the executive in May and obstruction of the 4th Istanbul Administrative Court on Sept. 23, the “Ottoman Armenians in the Final Period of the Empire: Scientific Responsibility and Problems of Democracy Conference” was successfully concluded on Sept. 25. The venue of the event had to be changed from one university to another, and a three-day conference had to be condensed into just two days. The participants and the audience had to pass through a barrier of slandering nationalist protestors throwing eggs and tomatoes at them. Yet two-and-a-half institutions deserve credit for standing behind academic autonomy, freedom of expression and the culture of deliberation. The first is the government, which spoke through the prime minister. His resolve dwarfed the initial resistance of the minister of justice, who had called the initiative “treason” and “back-stabbing the nation” in May. The second is the university as an institution that defended the rights and liberties that make it a center and advocate of freedom. The third institution is the media – say half of it – which was conscious of the fact that this conference was not solely about the Armenian issue, which needs to be discussed impartially, but that it was more about a matter of democracy.
The speakers, or better, deliberators, were all Turkish scholars serving at domestic or foreign universities to avoid prejudice against ill-willed foreigners. Sundry topics such as “An Identity Squeezed Between the Past and the Present,” “Examples of Forgetting and Remembrance in Turkish Literature: Different Breaking Points of Silence,” “The Armenian Issue and Demographic Engineering,” “Scenes of Conscience Through A Bitter History,” “From Heranush to Seher: A Story of “Salvation,” “Mother Fatma,” “The Child of Deportation” and “Thinking About the Stories of the Survivors of Deportation” suggest that the issues were not just limited to the historiography and document rattling that have been taking place for a long time now. Both Armenian and Turkish nationalists and ”official historians” have unfortunately narrowed the discussion of this important matter to either acceptance or denial of the “genocide” allegations. This radical stance has not only impoverished scholarships but has also politicized the matter, forcing individuals to take sides. Amidst all this ado — unfortunately, the human side of the matter, i.e., the suffering of real human beings no matter who they were — has been neglected. Indeed, what we ought to start discussing is the human condition at the turn of the last century.
A multicultural society existed with different ethnic, linguistic and confessional groups. They were torn apart, their age-old relations were severed, their economy was shattered and the lives of EVERYONE was changed irreversibly and forever. The majority of them had little to do with the fate they were forced to endure if they had not lost their lives in the chaos of World War I.
I will not go into the arguments of “clashing nationalisms,” “securing the eastern front, where a war was waged against occupying Russian armies” or simply “revenge of the Turks over the Armenians, where a section of Armenians took up arms and tried to carve out an independent Armenia by exterminating Turks in eastern Turkey.” All of these are parts of a wider truth. But the truth is larger than that and larger than the lives of the individuals and groups that were caught up in the turmoil of the decade between 1910 and 1920. Turks were recruited for the Libyan (or Tripoli) campaign in 1911, which was followed by the Balkan War the next year, and they ended up losing all the eastern European lands of the Ottoman Empire in 1913. The next year, 1914, World War I started, ending with the dissolution of three major empires at the same time, the Ottoman being one of them. During that fateful decade, the Ottomans lost 2 million soldiers. No one knows how many civilians perished during the hostilities and the subsequent forced migration, hunger and famine. But a rough estimate is that 5 million Turks or Muslims identifying themselves as Ottomans had to migrate to present-day Turkey and its remaining territories. They left behind dead family members, their property and a life that had taken root on European soil in past centuries.
They were frustrated, impoverished, uprooted and bitter. However, they had come to a friendly land where they were welcome, and the government of the day compensated their loss to a certain degree. That’s why they chose to forget. Did they forgive? Obviously not. Historical evidence shows that the ruling cadre in the last Ottoman decade was the government of the Committee of Union and Progress, better known as the Young Turks. This group, including the dictating triumvirate of Talat, Enver and Cemal Pashas of the Young Turks, were basically of Balkan stock. When they moved the headquarters of their semi-secret organization from Salonika to Istanbul in 1912, they brought with them their feelings of loss and betrayal (by the non-Muslim peoples of the empire who had attained their independence through painful struggles for national liberation by fighting against Ottoman officers and officials who were mainly members of the Union and Progress).
We all know what “never again” means. These new rulers of the Ottoman terrain promised that the remaining lands would not become a second “Macedonia,” as they called the bulk of the Balkans. They made a conscious effort to prevent a second catastrophe by adopting the method of demographic engineering. There were two aspects of this engineering: (i) the removal of the Christians; and (ii) the mixing up of non-Turkish Muslims. The first method was territorial; the second was demographic engineering. The Bulgarians living in Edirne and Thrace (the European part of Turkey) were sent to Bulgaria or exchanged with Turks who felt victimized and wanted to return to Turkey. Deterring Greeks from remaining in the western and Black Sea regions was realized without any overt exertion of force but with a convincing determination. The policy was to cleanse the Aegean littoral of Greeks 50 kilometers into the heartland. This policy reached its peak with population exchanges with Greece in 1924.
Territorial mopping up concerning the Armenians was put into effect with the official policy of deportation. It was an announced and acknowledged government policy of the time. However, territorial sterility was not only directed at these largest of Ottoman groups; it encompassed all Christian peoples, large or small, including the more peaceful Assyrians in the Southeast. How could the vengeful and wrathful Young Turks know that by scaring off the peaceful Christians they would allow the Kurds to have sole control of southeastern Anatolia or that the “later Turks” would have to put up with the unruly behavior of the more favored Muslims?
As regards the non-Turkish Muslims, a ratio of 1 in 10 (alternatively, 10 percent) was observed when they were moved from places where they were more crowded into wider Turkish communities where they would be a controllable minority. This plan was put into effect, and the Armenians faced the harshest fate of all because there was no receiving state willing to compensate for their loss like the Bulgarians and the Greeks. From the day Armenian deportation started, the events were no more a political matter born out of the exigencies and vagaries of the day and its power struggles. It is a human condition imposed upon all of us, on all human beings, and that is the responsibility to understand and to reconcile.
The present Turkish government bears no responsibility to what the adventurous Young Turks who led the Ottoman state to its death throes had done to the peoples over whom they ruled. They not only deported Christian subjects; they sent armies totaling 2 million recruited among Muslims to three continents and watched them perish in pursuit of their ambitious scheme of creating a Turanian Empire out of Turkic peoples. They depleted the Turkish stock of the motherland, too.
The conference drew attention to these (other) angles of the last decades of the empire during which the Armenian disaster took place. It was not peculiar to the Armenians. It was a human tragedy staged by an adventurous cadre that valued their imperial design more than human life without distinguishing between that of their own or others. Their Machiavellian political methods justified the means they used for their exalted end, which never succeeded but consumed the lives of millions as well as their own.
What befalls us is acknowledging what happened to the Ottoman peoples of the time and why. No nation or nationality, no adherent of any creed can claim that those fateful years are the mark of a history that denotes only his or her loss and grief. This is a shared calamity that we all lived through and bear responsibility for, some much less, some much more. Those days are now behind us but are never to be forgotten, however. We must remember what took place, what ambitions, policies, or impossible dreams led to such large-scale suffering so that we do not commit the same mistakes again. However, our primary duty is to understand what role our forbears played and what we can do to ease the pain of those who still suffer today because they feel that their wounds are psychologically bleeding.
We need a little empathy, just like former Minister of Health Cevdet Aykan said in the “Memories and Witnesses” section of the conference: “In 1915, Tokat was a part of the Sivas Province. According to the 1908 Sivas Population Registrar, there were 240 Muslims, 24,000 Armenians, and 14,000 Greeks in the province. The population of Tokat at the same time was 28,000. Of this number 8,600 were Armenian and they were all living peacefully together. When the news of deportation reached Tokat and Sivas, the Turkish and Armenian community leaders got together and sought a solution. The Armenian merchants and artisans transferred their property to their neighbors and trusted their spouses and daughters to Turkish families with mock weddings. Those who were sent away never came back.”
Mr. Aykan told this story as a witness and added the most honorable statement: “I am revealing this in order to pay back my moral debt to my Armenian citizens.”
This sentence says everything. The Armenians and Turks must now unite and stop blaming one another for the injustices of the past and how much suffering their ancestors inflicted upon each other. Humane stories can be told just as inhumane ones can, for example, officers committing suicide so as not to carry out unjust orders or neighbors hiding forbidden citizens and forsaking their own lives. No, what we ought to discuss is how we can heal the wounds that are the monopoly no one. If we do not wish to carry the burden of history, we must unload our feelings and expectations by cleansing our thoughts and souls of vengeance and hatred, and wish for dialogue, which we can hopefully turn into an agenda for peaceful coexistence and mutual history building. Can we do it? Restless minds and souls only produce hatred and violence. Let us leave the souls of our ancestors alone to rest in peace. They have suffered enough, and they do not want to be woken up to fight another war just because we want them on our side.