The idea of ethnic cleansing, and a faction advocating it, appears to have taken over the Ottoman state apparatus from the 1880s or 1890s onwards. The Armenian massacres of 1895 cannot be put down to the personal whim of Sultan Abdülhamid II. The Adana massacres of 1909 were clearly organised from the centre and controlled by the provincial government and security apparatus.
The idea gained ground among the “Young Turk” cadres of the Committee of Union and Progress from 1909 on became dominant towards 1913. The decision to join the war in 1914 seems in part motivated by the idea that it would be a good opportunity to carry out this great “national project”.
The logic is clear. The Ottoman state was collapsing. Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria and Albania had been detached from the empire on ethnic grounds. The creation of an Armenia was proposed on the same grounds. The Armenian population of the six “Armenian” provinces was hardly 25 percent; but it would be a relatively simple matter to boost that density or shift it to engineer a majority.
The ethnic cleansing of European Turks in the Balkan War of 1912-13 transformed the thinking of the CUP leadership. The possibility of a similar purge in Anatolia gripped Turkish minds. If Salonika could be lost, why not Izmir or even Istanbul?
Ethnic cleansing came to be regarded as the only effective means to eliminate that 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 by the Balkan nations against the Turks in 1913. 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.
World War One eliminated this option. Pushing the Armenians out to Russia would only result in creating an enemy concentration on the empire’s border. As in fact the 1828 pogroms of the northeastern provinces of Kars, Beyazit and Erzurum had led to the emergence of a troublesome Armenian neighbour in Yerevan.
The idea of letting the Armenians migrate en masse to the United States was seriously discussed in the summer of 1915. The U.S. ambassador, Henry Morgenthau, who devotes some space to this issue in his diaries, reports that Enver Pasha, one of the triumvirate ruling the empire, was positive about the idea, but would not yield on two points: that whole families should be accepted as immigrants, and migrants should relinquish their Ottoman passports. Clearly, the concern was that they should not come back after the war.
Another option was to spread Armenians within the Ottoman territory to cut down their concentration. This was probably the dominant line of thought in the first half of 1915. However, if the war ended in defeat, internal exiles would certainly try to return to their homes and there would arise an intractable problem of indemnities.
The decision to drive the Armenians to the Syrian desert seems to have turned into a definitive policy in August 1915. It was the result of an impasse. It was undoubtedly foreseen that most of the displaced would die. It was also known that Syria might be lost at the end of the war. Therefore the main concern would be to prevent the emergence of a strong (and naturally hostile) Armenian concentration on the southern border. The 1918-1921 Cilician crisis is best viewed in this context. It is not so much the French occupation that was painful to the Turks, but the French policy of resettling Armenian refugees in the provinces of Adana, Antep and Maraş.
I believe it would be accurate to pinpoint the transition from ethnic cleansing into genocide on around Aug. 30, 1915, rather than April 24.
The presence of the Armenian revolutionary movement played an important role in this process. There were more than one secret and armed revolutionary organisations. The Socialist Khinchag Party was more active at first; after about 1905, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation came to the forefront. Both Abdülhamid and the CUP governments display an almost paranoid fear of these organisations.
Morgenthau’s diaries are enlightening. On the evening of April 24, Talat Pasha, the interior minister and another member of the all-powerful CUP triumvirate, told the ambassador about his serious fear of an Armenian coup. When Morgenthau demurred, he replied that they (the CUP) had overthrown Abdülhamid with only 50 people, the Armenians were more numerous and better organised.
The mass arrests of March-April, which marked the first stage of the deportations, aimed to crush the revolutionary organisation. All suspected members and sympathisers of the organisation, i.e. nearly all leaders of the Armenian community, were arrested, and many were murdered without further ado. The number arrested seems to be about 250 in Istanbul and 50 in Erzurum, and the total should be somewhat over 500.
Let us admit that revolution is a risky business in a country that is struggling for survival. Revolutionary romanticism and ignorance of the realities of power undoubtedly paved the way for the Armenians’ disaster. In fairness, though, one should recognise that armed conspiracy was essentially a defensive reflex. Did Armenians have a choice in a country that had witnessed the events of 1895 and 1909? Where the state embarks on ethnic purges and massacres, how should its victims behave?
The theory of “mutual massacres” is dishonest. There are only two significant documented cases where the Armenians actually massacred Muslim civilians; they are the Bitlis-Hizan massacres under the Russian occupation in 1916, and the terrible bloodshed along the Erzurum-Sarıkamış-Kağızman route during the retreat of the forces of the Temporary Government of Western Armenia in January-March 1918. These must 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 1,000-year tradition of arms and warfare. The other side was nowhere more populous than 25 percent; its arms were smuggled, its organisation illegal; in case of retaliation it was incapable of defending itself. Who would start a massacre against such odds?
That said, one must also concede that, if the Armenians did not massacre in the past, it does not follow that they would not do so if the conditions were ripe after the war. The Greeks did it. Bulgarians did it. Why not the Armenians? If the Armenians had stayed and the Turks had 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 with a 70-percent Turkish (Azeri) population?
A large-scale social movement activates dynamics that already exist in society and adapts to them. You can make your own rules if you work with 50 people. With 50,000, you must submit to the will of majority.
Islamic culture has a strong vein that maintains it is lawful to assault the life, property and sexual integrity of the infidel. That vein swells especially in times of war and confusion and 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 unlikely that the train of events could have been stopped had 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 CUP regime were effectively 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 on the open market, although Germany lent 110 million pounds in war loans. Just to compare, Britain had a defence budget of £2.4 billion and Germany one of £1.6 billion in the last year of the war.
Between 1913 and 1923, about a quarter of the Turkey’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 a third of the national wealth changed hands in the process. Even assuming 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 property was taken over by CUP party organs or parcelled out to loyalists. Local entrepreneurs who took a more or less active part in the deportations plundered the rest. 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 a large body of war profiteers connected to the CUP regime (and its successor) with ties of profit and complicity. Let us note that the economic hardships World War Two were nothing in comparison, but 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 indemnity. If the war ended in defeat, the surviving Armenians (and possibly the fugitive Greeks) would come back to demand their lost homes, daughters, lands and bank accounts. Even if the war ended in victory, a reckoning might be inevitable. For this reason, deportations were not enough. It was necessary to destroy the deported and annihilate the records.
The transformation of the “Secret Organisation” (Teşkilat-ı Mahsusa) of the CUP into the National Defence Forces (Kuva-i Milliye) in 1919-1920 was a direct response to the expectation that the victors of World War One 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. This topic dominated the national congresses of Erzurum and Sivas. The pressing issue was not some puny British police force holding the harbour of Samsun 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 Republic of Turkey were people who had profited from the deportations. The overwhelming majority of the members of the first five National Assemblies, all the fabled businessmen of Republican Turkey who became suddenly wealthy at the time, belong to that class; all except one or two cabinet ministers and the founder of the republic himself, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. They acquired houses, mansions, farms, hotels, trading houses, factories, servants, concubines and “adopted children” during or immediately after the war.
The defensive attitude of the republic towards an atrocity that technically occurred before its time 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. Confessing 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 100 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 permit. 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 1915 would not function in the same way today if similar conditions occurred.
Genocide is an inescapable corollary of the Turkish national doctrine.
Others, too, have been 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 crimes today. They are seen as tragic and horrible events, either to denounce, analyse or forget. There is hardly an example in the civilised world today of Turkey’s continuing passionate defence 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 100 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.
Endnote: I published this article on the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide in 2015. It was written in Turkish and meant for a Turkish audience, and some of its details are more immediately relevant to the Turkish debate. I have translated it into English to convey an idea of what we were then talking about in Turkey.
The country has come a long way since. What was risky enough to write in 2015, one can no longer talk about without risking rabid invective, ostracism and possible prosecution.
This is a shame, because it could have been different. For a brief moment, it did seem it would be otherwise. From about the turn of the millennium, the formerly untouchable taboo of the Armenian “disappearance” became gradually a part of the Turkish public debate. Books were published and seminars held; there were television debates and photographic exhibitions; foreign speakers were invited to speak on Armenian matters where it would have been unimaginable before, and timid demonstrations of Armenian remembrance were held without drawing the usual police violence. Opinion leaders from the right and left of the spectrum felt compelled to learn about the sins of their ancestors and face the darkest secrets of their Republic. Somewhat surprisingly, a majority of them either chose, or came close to choosing, an honest response. The g-word was never popular, but it became utterable in polite society. The finest minds of the country felt confident enough to talk about acknowledgment and apology.
That is all past now. An insane brand of jingoism has taken over the land, fanned furiously by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who had once appeared to many as a friend of liberty. The gâvur – the infidel – is the cosmic enemy. Any aspersion on Turkish honour is a self-evident imperialist lie to be drowned in abuse and hatred. The talkers and questioners of yesteryear have mostly dropped from public view. The most articulate – like Ahmet Altan, a journalist; Osman Kavala, a civil rights activist; and Selahattin Demirtaş, a political leader – are behind the bars. Many have left the country, hoping to return one day when the storm has passed.
My article would seem fair and reasonable to most people a few years ago. By 2015 it was already out on a limb. Today it reads like a quaint reminder of a different age.