Alex J. Bellamy
As Australians and New Zealanders prepared to commemorate the Centenary of the Gallipoli landings, another Centenary is sparking heated global debate: the question of whether the Turkish government committed genocide against Anatolia’s Armenians. The issue is so sensitive for Turkey in part because it is not the old Ottoman regime that is accused of genocide, but the Young Turks – the progenitors of modern Turkey – who ruled in Constantinople at the time. Yet modern Turkey does itself no favors by disputing the evidence that from April 1915, the Turkish government rounded up, expelled, massacred and starved Anatolia’s Armenians with the intention of annihilating them. Indeed, Turkish restrictions on the archives have made it more difficult for historians to tell the whole story of what happened and why. Perhaps as a result, we still do not have a good understanding of the privations suffered by Ottoman Muslims at the hands of Balkan nationalists in the decades preceding the genocide. All that refusing to open up and look the evidence squarely in the eyes achieves is locking debate into patterns of denial and counter-argument that inhibit reconciliation and prevent the country from moving on.
To call what happened to the Armenians genocide is, of course, something of an anachronism since the term itself was not invented until after the Second World War. But there is little doubt that what the authorities in Turkey did to the Armenians of Anatolia meets the standard of genocide set by the Genocide Convention there is little doubt. Though they did not know it at the time, there was more at stake at Gallipoli than simply taking Turkey out of the war.
Here’s what we do know.
Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, the Ottoman Empire faced a series of armed insurrections in the Balkans to which it frequently responded with mass violence. In addition to massacres in Serbia (which elicited almost no criticism) and Greece (which prompted British and French intervention), an 1876 revolt in Bulgaria was suppressed by massacres, giving the Russians a pretext for war in 1877. Between 1894-6, the Empire’s Armenians revolted over a tax dispute and the authorities responded with brute force, killing between 80,000-120,000. Despite this outpouring of violence, the Ottoman Empire repeatedly found itself on the losing side, with terrible consequences for the Muslim populations living in the Balkans, thousands of whom were killed both during the conflicts and in reprisal attacks afterwards and hundreds of thousands of whom were forced to flee their homes and resettle in Anatolia. A staggering proportion of those forced to flee Bulgaria, some say as many as half, died along the way. Turkey therefore entered the First World War with a military culture (not untypical for the times) that prescribed civilian massacre as a legitimate response to popular insurrection and traumatised by decades of military reversals that had shrunk its imperial boundaries.
In that context, the regime was deeply concerned that Anatolia’s rebellious Armenians would find common cause with Russia and carve away territory from Turkey’s very core. The Young Turks that now ruled in Constantinople were determined not to let this happen.
On 24 April 1915, a day before the ANZAC landings in Gallipoli, over two thousand Armenian leaders in Constantinople were arrested. Only a handful survived the next few years. A month later, on 27 May, the government instructed all Anatolian Armenians to present themselves for deportation to the Mesopotamian desert for the duration of the war. In reality, they were to be annihilated. We know this not only because Turkey’s own archives show that this is what the government intended, but because they also told friendly foreign diplomats of their plans and made no provision whatsoever for the eventual return of the Armenians. There is no evidence to suggest that the expulsion to the desert in Mesopotamia was anything other than a one-way ticket. Indeed, many – perhaps thousands — of deportees were driven straight to their deaths, drowned in boats in the Black Sea. Others were set upon as they travelled. Women were systematically raped and killed. Many were sold into servitude. Children were massacred or carried off into slavery.
For the few that made it to Mesopotamia, all that awaited them was death. Desert camps were left without food or water and disease was rife – genocide by starvation and disease similar to that perpetrated by Turkey’s German ally against the Herero and Nama peoples of Southwest Africa a few years earlier.
We do not know how many Armenians died but most historians put the toll between 800,000 and 1.2 million. No one disputes that a great many Armenians suffered and died at the hands of the Turkish government. What is disputed is whether their deaths were the unintended by-product of civil war provoked by Armenian militia allied with Russia or whether they were the result of genocide.
The contours of the debate were established as early as 1920 when Turkey’s Kemalist government started to deny that the Armenians had been the victims of massacres and argue that their deaths were simply circumstantial. But that is not how Turkish leaders portrayed their actions at the time or how they were interpreted by diplomats, consuls and other foreign observers, many from sympathetic countries such as Germany, at the time. Talât Pasha told the US Ambassador in Constantinople, Henry Morgenthau, that “we have already disposed of three-quarters of the Armenians; there are none at all left in Bitlis, Van and Erzeroum. The hatred between the Turks and the Armenians is so intense that we have got to finish with them”. In a 1916 interview with the German newspaper Berliner Tageblatt, Talât justified the killing and expulsion of civilians, explaining that “we have been reproached for making no distinction between the innocent Armenians and the guilty; but that was utterly impossible in view of the fact that those who were innocent today might be guilty tomorrow”. The Sultan called upon Muslims everywhere to “massacre” Christians living in Muslim lands.
There is abundant evidence that these injunctions were translated in specific orders within regions and localities to kill and expel Armenians. Captain Shükrü, a Turkish gendarme in Yozgat, confessed that he had been ordered to kill all the Armenians there. In Van, Trebizond and Urfa, the authorities were so concerned that local Turks would not comply with their instructions that they saw it fit to pass decrees prohibiting Muslims from sheltering Armenians, on penalty of death.
Even the Turkish authorities, for a time, recognized what had happened. Immediately after the war, the new Turkish government charged several prominent Young Turk leaders with the massacre and liquidation of the Armenian people. These prosecutions were terminated when the Kemalists regained control of the government but the court documents and some testimonies still exist.
We need to be careful not to read too much of our contemporary situation into these events of the past. What happened in Anatolia a century ago was a product of its own time and place. There are few hidden lessons for policy makers today. But we do need a proper reckoning and full understanding of what happened in the past, and why. That should be shorn, as far as possible, of political points-scoring in the contemporary world. Only in this way will we be able to paint an accurate picture of such grave human suffering in the past and forge a new politics based on remembrance and reconciliation.