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Armenia - Turkey: was it "Genocide" or are there two sides to this story ?

Professor Edward Erickson, an authority on the Ottoman army during World War I, claims that there is no substantial evidence to support labeling the counterinsurgency operation against Armenians in 1915 as a genocide, but neither is there enough evidence to support a denial of the label.

Regardless of how we refer to the event, it is now of interest to historians, and the current Armenian endeavor to convince parliaments of different countries to pass genocide recognition bills, to come up with some better factual information, before everyone starts jumping to conclusions

Erickson, whose 2013 book “Ottomans and Armenians: A Study in Counterinsurgency” was the first account from a military perspective of the forced relocations, or “Tehcir" in Turkish, shared his views on what actually happened a hundred years ago.

A retired US army officer, Erickson delved into the Turkish archives and researched extensively before writing his book. He concluded that the Tehcir was vital, as it allowed the Ottoman government to disaffiliate insurgents from "Entente" (European powers), had posed a threat to the existence of the empire.

Frankly, the Armenian revolutionary committees were unsuccessful in achieving their goals; in the end they were crushed, and the majority of the Ottoman Armenians were either dead or refugees.

One of the major reasons for the failure of the committees was that the Armenian revolutionary committees were never a popularly supported movement among the majority of Ottoman Armenians, who were law abiding Turkish citizens. In order to be successful, a revolutionary movement must have a base of popular support and the Armenian revolutionary committees never had that.

The Ottoman government forced about 400,000 Ottoman Armenians to relocate. These Armenians mostly lived in six eastern provinces and in key cities along the army's lines of communication.

Since the Ottoman government and army were unable to determine which Armenians were actively supporting the committees and which Armenians were not. They erred on the side of what they believed to be national security, and relocated all of them from selected locations.

In 1917, there were still over 350,000 Ottoman Armenians living in their own homes in what is western Turkey today.

The successful inclusion of any minority in the political process is problematic at best. Simply having a few representatives in parliament cannot change the fundamental mismatch of political power.

The successful inclusion of any minority in the political process is problematic at best. Simply having a few representatives in parliament cannot change the fundamental mismatch of political power.

The Ottomans felt obliged to adopt a brand-new method to quell the Armenian insurrection, a method that was expressed in a decree by the government on May 31,1915. In what ways was this new method different from the counterinsurgency methods the Ottomans had resorted to throughout their history?

This was the first time the Ottoman government did not have sufficient military forces available to deal with rebellion. Traditionally, the Ottomans dealt with rebellion by sending in the army. In the spring of 1915, without the army in its normal garrisons, the Ministry of War had to find an alternative to the use of force.

The relocation of the Armenians from the rear areas of the eastern war zones was the solution of choice. While relocation was a new approach for the Ottoman Empire, in fact, it had been widely practiced by the Great Powers.

Confronting the past has nothing to do with it. It is important to consider that the Ottoman government in 1915 did not “invent” population removal as a way to deal with rebellion. It was widely used in practice by many of the Great Powers before World War I. We must also not forget that the government did not deport the Ottoman Armenians (deportation is permanent) and that the government intended to allow them to return to their homes after the war.

The relocations would not have happened if well-known leaders of the revolutionary committees (Andranik [Ozanian], Dro [Drastamat Kanayan] and Boghos Nubar, for example had not aligned themselves (and the committees) with the Russians, British, and French.

 Keep in mind that most Ottoman Armenians, and even many of the committee members, wanted the Ottoman Armenian population to remain law abiding and support the Ottoman government in 1914. They understood that rebellion would likely result in the destruction of Armenian lives and property. However, the actions of a few influential individuals brought great suffering to the majority of Ottoman Armenians, who were innocent bystanders.

Tens of thousands of Armenians died during the relocation  Were the Ottomans taking some kind of revenge?

There are number of explanations of why this happened. Many historians believe that hatred and jealousy against the Ottoman Armenians had built up over several generations. This made it easier for the numerous atrocities to happen.

There is absolutely no question that the Ottoman government did not fully consider what might happen to the hundreds of thousands of relocated Armenians. There is no doubt that the government did not have the resources to protect, feed and care for the huge numbers of Armenians under its care.

The relocations were badly managed and under resourced. The relocation convoys became easy targets for both criminal gangs and poorly supervised provincial officials. Let us also say that the Hamidiye cavalry regiments had long since been disestablished by the Ministry of War, but it is very likely that many of the renegades and criminals who preyed on the convoys were ex-Hamidiye cavalrymen.

Some historians argue that the Special Organization (Teşkilat-ı Mahsusa) opted to let things worsen and even facilitated the mass killings of civilian Armenians en route to the camps. Are these claims substantiated by historical facts?

The Teşkilat-ı Mahsusa  played no part in the relocations or the massacres of Armenians that accompanied the relocations and convoys.

Recent scholarly work by Dr. Ahmet Tetik and Ph.D. candidate Polat Safi establish that the SO had no part of this. The case against the SO was constructed by Vahakn Dadrian from a textual analysis of the 1919 newspaper accounts of the 1919 İstanbul show trials of individuals accused of war crimes. Dadrian's thesis is incorrect.

The CUP was a secret revolutionary group that did not oppose the use of terror to achieve its goals. The inner circle of the CUP had overthrown the Ottoman government and there is no question that Enver and the other CUP leaders knew exactly how dangerous secret revolutionary committees could be.

Enver and the leadership of the SO were also knowledgeable about guerrilla and irregular warfare, which also caused them to worry about the Armenian revolutionary committees' activities in 1915.

Whether it was a genocide or not. It might have been a genocide or it might not have been a genocide. To be honest, there is no authentic evidence (a paper trail of documents) today proving that this was a top-down, state-sponsored campaign of annihilation. However, neither can the reverse -- that it was not a genocide -- has been totally proven either.

What I assert is that the Armenian population of six provinces, as well as selected individuals elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire who were considered dangerous, were relocated for military reasons related to the perception that a large-scale Armenian insurgency , coordinated with and supported by the Russians, was about to erupt.

Bottom-line seems to be that this group of Armenians was not relocated to be killed; they were relocated as a precautionary military measure. In the absence of full evidence, it is premature to attach a label such as genocide to what happened in 1915.

Ottoman Armenians from all provinces and cities were relocated, mostly from the six eastern provinces.

However, many Armenians in the western provinces were excluded from relocation, such as Protestant and Catholic Armenians, also Armenians who worked on the railroad system, and also Armenian government officials and Armenian officers and soldiers (and their families). When the Ottoman government, however, thought, that Ottoman Armenian had links to, or was sympathetic toward, the committees, they were relocated.

Most Ottoman Armenians were law-abiding Ottoman empire citizens who had no interest in rebellion.

The mobilization and war plans, which were aimed at external threats, did not consider the Ottoman Armenians as an internal threat. It was only after an escalating series of incidents, including small rebellions and small landings on the Mediterranean coast by the British navy in early 1915, that the committees came to be seen as dangerous.

It is beyond doubt that the Armenian revolutionary committees in eastern Anatolia possessed the capability and the capacity to interdict the Ottoman army's lines of communications. What does this mean? Simply, there were small numbers of Armenians in key locations who had the ability to block and obstruct the flow of supplies (food, fodder and ammunition) to the Third Army, which was fighting the Russians.

If this had been allowed to happened, the Third Army would grow progressively weaker and would be unable to stop the Russians. The Ottoman military staffs believed that this was happening in March and April 1915 and they had plenty of reports as evidence.

Consequently the Ottoman government took action (relocations) to prevent this from happening. The relocations and elimination of the committees can be compared to cutting out a cancer before it metastasizes.

In American history, George Washington is a hero, but he was also a traitor to the British King George III. Washington's side won the war. Robert E. Lee, a famous confederate general, was also seen as a  traitor. His side lost the war.

So, whether one calls rebels, insurgents and guerrillas “traitors” depends on who wins or loses the war.

There is no question that the small numbers of Ottoman Armenians who engaged in rebellion, terrorism or who fought alongside the Russians were seen as traitors to the political entity known as the Ottoman Empire of which they were citizens.

The Ottoman army commanders and staffs saw the hostile activities of the Ottoman Armenians as evidence of military operations that were coordinated with and supported by the Russians. The Ottomans viewed the external operations of the Russian army and Armenian Druzhiny [legions] as complementary to the internal hostile

Opening up all of the archives on both sides of the argument will be good but probably won't accomplish much. Historians will never be able to agree conclusively about what actually happened. There will always be those who believe there was a genocide and those who think that it was something else.“

Open” archives is also an ambiguous and relative term. The Turkish archives are open, but it is very hard to gain access to because of the paperwork involved. For example, research in any Turkish archives by a foreigner requires a special visa from the Foreign Ministry.

US and EU archives do not require a special visa and anyone can walk in and get a research card.

Moreover, the Turkish military archives are located inside the military compounds in Ankara and one cannot just “walk in” like at the US archives in College Park, Maryland or in to EU archives in Bruxelles.  in Kew.

That said, however, the Turkish archives are “more open” than the Armenian archives or the records of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, which are not open to International scholars.

Some historians say that the Armenian archives are not open to researchers because  they contain information confirming that the Armenian revolutionary committees were engaged in an actual conspiracy with the Russians and the committees intended to conduct a coordinated joint offensive against the Ottoman Empire.

This is obviously only a guess on the part of some historians but it does make sense.

The official Turkish government position today is that more research is needed to fully understand what happened.

President Erdoğan has called for a joint historical commission to investigate the events of 1915.

Essentially, this also means the Turkish government has moved away from a position of total denial  (“it never happened”) to a more realistic position of “we don't really know what happened and we are willing to support historical research to discover the truth.” This is a good position.

Regarding the diplomacy surrounding the  issue. Today's Republic of Turkey was not in existence in 1915 and probably ought to totally ignore accusations on the subject until their has been an international and neutral, possibly UN study  done on the subject.

Parliaments cannot legislate history by voting on resolutions re: the Armenian genocide, which are not based on accurate facts and figures.

Parliamentary recognition, or the Pope's statements about the so-called Armenian genocide really don't mean too much or carry a lot of weight in the modern world of today, unless it supported by massive evidence - which so far it has not 

Turkey and Armenia will need to request the UN to do an in-depth study on the issue resulting in a binding conclusion to finally end this drama of mutual accusations.


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