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A Note on the Armenian Genocide

I published this article in Turkish at the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide in 2015. Please note that it was intended for a Turkish audience, and contains details that are more immediately relevant to the Turkish debate. I translate it into English  to convey an idea of what we have been talking about in Turkey — or did, until the country slid into utter madness in the past few years.


The idea of ethnic cleansing, and a faction advocating it, appear to have been influential in the Ottoman state apparatus from the 1880s or ‘90s on. The Armenian massacres of 1895 cannot be put to the personal caprice of Sultan Abdülhamid II[1] alone. The Adana massacres of 1909 were obviously organized from the center and controlled by the provincial governor and the security apparatus.

The idea of ethnic cleansing found support among the “Young Turk” cadres of the Committee of Union and Progress[2] from 1909; it became dominant toward 1913. The decision to enter the war in 1914 seems in part motivated the idea that the war would be a good opportunity to carry out this great “national project”.

The logic is clear and comprehensible. The Ottoman state is collapsing. Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria and Albania have been detached from the empire on ethnic grounds. The creation of an Armenia is proposed on similar grounds. [The Armenian population of the six “Armenian” provinces is hardly 25%; but it would be a relatively simple matter to increase that density or shift it geographically to create majorities.]

The ethnic cleansing of European Turks in the Balkan War of 1912-13 marked the thinking of the UP leadership. The possibility of a similar purge in Anatolia is dominated Turkish minds. If Salonica can be lost, why not Izmir or even Istanbul?[3]

Ethnic cleansing came to be regarded as an effective measure to eliminate this risk.


The method of the purge was ambiguous until about mid-1915. Possibly it was not thought through, or perhaps there was no agreement.

Pogrom was the classic method in Turkey and elsewhere. The community to be purged is intimidated with state terror, driven into panic with selective massacres, and forced to emigrate. The residue is assimilated as far as possible. This method was applied successfully by Russia against the Caucasian Muslims in the 1860s and against the Balkan Turks in 1913.[4] In the Ottoman Empire the pogroms of 1895 caused Armenians to emigrate to the Balkan countries, Russia, Iran and the United States in large numbers, suggesting the same recipe could work again. In 1913 and 1914, hundreds of thousands of Greeks were forced to migrate to Greece from western Anatolia in pretty much the same way.

The World War eliminated this option. Pushing the Armenians out to Russia would only result in creating an enemy concentration on the border. Indeed, the 1828 pogroms of the northeastern provinces of Kars, Bayezid and Erzurum had led to the creation of a troublesome Armenian neighbor in Yerevan.

The idea of letting the Armenians to migrate en masse to the US was seriously discussed in the summer of 1915. The US ambassador Morgenthau, who devotes some space to this issue in his diaries,[5] reports that Enver Pasha[6] was positive about this idea but was adamant on two points: that whole families should be accepted as immigrants and migrants should relinquish their Ottoman passports. Clearly, the concern was that migrants should not come back after the war.

Another option was to spread Armenians within the Ottoman territory to reduce their concentration. This seems to have been the dominant mode of thought in the first half of 1915. However, if the war ended in defeat, internal exiles would certainly attempt to return to their homes and there would be an intractable problem of compensations.

The decision to drive the Armenians to the Syrian desert seems to have turned into a definitive policy in August 1915. This decision was the result of an impasse. It was undoubtedly foreseen that most of the displaced would die. It was probably also known that Syria would be lost at the end of the war. Therefore the main objective should be to prevent the emergence of a strong (and naturally hostile) Armenian concentration on the southern border. [The 1918-1921 Cilician crisis should be evaluated in this context.[7] It is not so much the French occupation that was painful, but the French policy of resettling Armenian refugees in the provinces of Adana, Antep and Maraş.]

I believe it would be more accurate to pinpoint the transition from ethnic cleansing into genocide around August 30th, 1915, rather than April 24th.


The presence of the Armenian revolutionary movement played an important role in this process. There were more than one secret and armed revolutionary organizations. [The Socialist Khinchag Party was more active at first; after about 1905, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, came to the forefront.] Both Abdülhamid and the UP governments display an almost paranoid fear of these organizations.

Morgenthau’s diaries are enlightening. On the evening of April 24, Talat Pasha, the interior minister and ta member of the all-powerful UP triumvirate, tells the ambassador about his serious fear of an Armenian coup. When the Morgenthau expresses his doubt, he replies that they (the UP Committee) overthrew Abdülhamid with only 50 people, the Armenians are more numerous and better organized. The mass arrests of March-April, which marked the first stage of the deportations, aimed to crush the revolutionary organization. All suspected members and sympathizers of the organization, i.e. nearly all leaders of the Armenian community were arrested, and most were murdered without further ado. [The number arrested seems to be about 250 in Istanbul and 50 in Erzurum, so the total should be somewhat over 500.]

Let us admit that revolution is risky business in a country that is struggling for survival. Revolutionary romanticism and ignorance of the realities of power balance undoubtedly paved the way for the Armenians’ disaster. In fairness, however, one should recognize that armed conspiracy was essentially the product of a defensive reflex. Did Armenians have any other choice in a country which witnessed the events of 1895 and 1909? Where the state embarks on ethnic purge and massacre, how should its victims behave?


The theory of “mutual massacre”[8] is dishonest. There are only two significant documented cases where the Armenians actually massacred Muslim civilians, viz., the Bitlis-Hizan massacres under the Russian occupation in 1916, and the terrible bloodshed along the Erzurum-Sarıkamış-Kağızman front during the retreat of the forces of the Temporary Government of Western Armenia during January-March 1918. These must rather be seen as chaotic acts of retribution against the earlier devastation of the civilian Armenian population.

I am not aware of any substantiated case of Armenians having either carried out or planned a massacre of the Muslim population prior to 1915. It would defy logic. One side had an army, the police, the law and the state at its disposal; numerically it was overwhelmingly superior; it was heir to a thousand-year tradition of arms and war. The other side was nowhere more populous than 25%; its arms were smuggled, its organization illegal; in case of retaliation it was incapable of defending its shop or house. Who would start a massacre against such odds?

This said, one must also admit that, if the Armenians did not massacre in the past, it does not follow that they would not do it if the conditions were to be ripe after the war. The Greeks did it. Bulgarians did it. Why not the Armenians? If the Armenians stayed and Turks lost the war, how many Turks would remain today in the cities of Erzurum or Van? How many Turks remain now in Yerevan, once a city of 70-percent Turkish (Azeri) population?[9]


A large-scale social movement activates the dynamics that already exist in society and adapts to them. You can make your own rules if you work with fifty people. With fifty thousand, you must submit to the will of majority.

Islamic culture has a strong vein that counts as lawful to assault the life, property and sexual integrity of the Infidel. That vein swells especially in times of war and confusion. This factor came to the fore after April-May 1915. No matter what the original intentions of the government, a spirit of gaza – religious war – and conquest seems to have taken over the country from this date onwards. It is very doubtful that the train of events could be stopped even if the government wanted to give up for whatever reason after the mid-summer of 1915.


The economic dimension of the genocide cannot be ignored.

In the second year of the war, the Ottoman state and the UP regime were bankrupt. The total budgeted revenue of the state had been 33 million pounds sterling in 1913 and 36 million in 1914. No reliable figures are available for 1915 and after, but it can be assumed that public revenues fell to zero. There was no possibility of borrowing in the open market, although a loan of 110 million pounds was received from Germany. Just to compare, Britain had a defense budget of £2.4 billion and Germany one of £1.6 billion in the last year of the war.[10]

Between 1913 and 1923, about a quarter of the country’s population was deported or destroyed. Being the more economically active segment of the society, we can assume that they owned more than a quarter of the national wealth. This means that rather more than a quarter, perhaps one third of the national wealth changed hands in the process. Even if some of the abandoned assets went to waste, that would still be a gigantic transfer of wealth.

The question of Armenian properties dominates administrative correspondence after May 1915. Most of the immovable property was taken over by UP party organs or parceled out to loyalists; the rest was plundered by local entrepreneurs who took more or less active part in the deportations. The latter can be seen as a sort of hush-payment. It helped quell any social discontent that could arise from war conditions, and it created large body of war profiteers connected to the UP regime (and its successor) with ties of profit and complicity. [Let us note that the economic hardships the Second World War were nothing compared to the First, yet they caused far greater resentment against the government. Why? Why did the Turkish people who turned against the regime in the second war, fail to show the same spirit of rebellion in the first?]


Nothing can be understood of the events of 1915-1923 without taking into account the issues of retribution and compensation. In case the war ended in defeat, the surviving Armenians (and possibly the fugitive Greeks) would come back to ask for their lost homes, daughters, lands and bank accounts. Even if the war ended in victory, a reckoning might be inevitable. For this reason, it was not enough to deport. It was necessary to destroy the deported and annihilate the records.

The transformation of the “Secret Organization” (Teşkilat-ı Mahsusa) of the UP into the national defense movement (Kuva-i Milliye)[11] in 1919-1920 was a direct response to the expectation that the victors of the World War would impose a peace treaty stipulating the return, or at least the compensation, of the deported Greeks and Armenians. This was a deadly threat to those who held de facto power in the countryside after the war. It was the main agenda at the national congresses of Erzurum and Sivas.[12] The pressing issue was not some British police force of thirty, or a French garrison of 200 occupying the city of Urfa. Nor was it the penniless Republic of Armenia, squeezed between Russia and Turkey with a ragtag army. The issue was the Armenians and Greeks deported from Anatolia. The so-called War of National Independence was waged against them.


Almost all the founding fathers of the Turkish Republic were people who profited from the deportations. The overwhelming majority of the members of the first, second and third National Assemblies,[13] all the fabled businessmen who landed sudden wealth at the time, all except one or two ministers of Atatürk’s cabinets, and the founder of the Republic himself belong to that class. They acquired house, mansion, farm, hotel, trading house, factory, servant, concubine and “adopted child” during or immediately after the war.

The defensive attitude of the Turkish Republic toward an atrocity that technically occurred before the Republic cannot be understood independently of this fact. The class of people who held political, administrative and economic power in Turkey in the period from 1920 to at least 1980 owed its position to this event. Admitting the genocide is tantamount to the self-denial of the Turkish elite.


The genocide controversy is not a matter of history in the abstract. Bloody and reprehensible episodes are found in the history of every nation. And the pain of people who were killed a hundred years ago cannot by itself fire the conscience of the living, no matter how hard you push.

The real issue, unconfessed, lies elsewhere. We all know that the deniers of genocide are not engaged in a debate of facts, but one of rights and ethics. What they are in effect saying is that they were right to do what they did, and as a consequence, they would be right to do the same again if the circumstances arise. This is what galls people of conscience around the world.

Open defenders of slaughter are rarely heard these days, except for a radical minority. However, the idea that non-Muslim minorities represent a threat to the “Turkish” state, and therefore that ethnic cleansing was necessary and right, is a view that Turkish national and official discourse takes as axiomatic. It is the unchanging foundation of the national doctrine of the Republic of Turkey. We have seen how the logic of ethnic cleansing escalated step by step toward genocide. There is no reason to hope that the logic of 1914 will not function in the same way today if similar conditions occur.

Genocide is the inescapable consequence of the Turkish national doctrine.


Others, too, are guilty of pogrom and genocide. Remember the American natives. Remember Cromwell’s Irish massacres. Remember Algeria. What is the difference?

There is one big difference. Except for marginal minorities, no one defends those other ones today. They are seen as tragic and horrible events, either to denounce, to analyze or to forget. There is hardly an example in the civilized world today of Turkey’s continuing passionate defense of genocide under the guise of denial.

This is what horrifies people of conscience and intellectual integrity around the world.

It is not a matter of what happened a hundred years ago. It is what might happen today, and what it says about a people that find it in their conscience to make it happen.

[1] Abdülhamid ruled 1876 to 1909. He is said to have ordered the widespread masscre and looting of Armenians in 1895.

[2] The revolutionary committee that ruled Turkey from 1909 to 1918. The genocide of 1915 was perpetrated by its leadership.

[3] Salonica, now Thessaloniki, was the second largest city of the empire, and a predominantly Muslim town. İstanbul and İzmir were the first and third.

[4] As many as 1,5 million Muslim refugees came to Turkey in consequence of these two purges. They were instrumental in carrying out the genocide of 1915.

[5] United States Diplomacy On The Bosphorus: The Diaries Of Ambassador Morgenthau 1913-1916, ed. Ara Sarafian (Taderon P. 2004).

[6] Enver and Talat were the leading figures of the UP regime. Discredited after the Republic, they are considered national heroes today.

[7] France occupied the region of Cilicia, in southern Turkey near Syria, and proceeded to settle Armenian refugees there between 1919 and 1921.

[8] A very common argument among Turkish genocide-deniers.

[9] Zero, replaced by descendants of Armenian immigrants from Turkey and Iran.

[10] All figures from the Statesman’s Handbook, a UK semi-official publication, for the years 1914 and 1919.

[11] The former was an operational unit of the UP, the latter a nucleus of the national resistance. The former is now viewed with distaste while the latter is a part of the national saga, amd pointing out to the continuity is a shock to Turkish national sensibilities.

[12] Held in 1920, the two congresses were the founding steps of the Turkish Republic.

[13] Of 1920-23, 1923-27 and 1927-31.


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