There is currently a resolution before the United States Congress to give official recognition to the event in 1915 often referred to as ‘The Armenian Genocide’, and to incorporate this recognition into US foreign policy. For the sake of brevity, this resolution is referred to as H.Res.252, and it was introduced in March 2009. Barack Obama, prior to his election as President, made it clear that he fully supported such official recognition. It is a measure, then, of the controversial nature of the issue that, two years on, the resolution has not been passed, and very likely never will be. Mr Obama, for his part, seems to have cooled off on the issue.
I doubt that any of my readers are ignorant of the claims underlying this resolution, but, to be fair, let’s hear them from the Armenian National Institute:
‘The Armenian Genocide was centrally planned and administered by the Turkish government against the entire Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire. It was carried out during W.W.I between the years 1915 and 1918. The Armenian people were subjected to deportation, expropriation, abduction, torture, massacre, and starvation. The great bulk of the Armenian population was forcibly removed from Armenia and Anatolia to Syria, where the vast majority was sent into the desert to die of thirst and hunger. Large numbers of Armenians were methodically massacred throughout the Ottoman Empire. Women and children were abducted and horribly abused. The entire wealth of the Armenian people was expropriated. After only a little more than a year of calm at the end of W.W.I, the atrocities were renewed between 1920 and 1923, and the remaining Armenians were subjected to further massacres and expulsions . . . It is estimated that one and a half million Armenians perished between 1915 and 1923.’
Sounds bad, for sure, and not something that can be easily dismissed. However, no event in history can be isolated from what preceded it, so I plan to take you on a trip back in time. Before departure, though, I want to draw your attention to a small but significant detail in the first sentence of the ANI statement above: the genocide was planned and administered by the Turkish government between the years of 1915-1918. Admittedly there is a reference, later in the same sentence, to the Ottoman Empire, but I am sure the distortion is deliberate. In fact, there was no Turkish Government until it was established when the Republic of Turkey came into being in 1923, just as there was no United States Government until independence from Britain was declared in 1776.
I am not, at this stage, taking issue with anything else in the ANI’s statement – merely clearing the way for our journey back to an earlier and arguably happier time in the Ottoman Empire, whose government should more correctly stand accused. Generally dated from 1299, it was one of the longer-lasting empires in world history, and one of its features, little-known but deserving of recognition, was the ‘millet’ system of government. A ‘millet’ was a community of faith whose members formed a relatively autonomous group within the empire. They had their own leader, administered their own laws at a local level, collected and disbursed taxes, practised their own religion, educated their children, spoke their own language – and lived alongside members of the other millets in comparative harmony.
There were five millets in the Ottoman Empire: Muslims (not just Turks, by the way), Orthodox Christians, Armenian Christians, Jews, and later, Syriac Orthodox Christians. It was a system based on religion rather than race or nationality, because that’s the way the world was in those days. No doubt as a system of government it had its imperfections, but set it alongside what existed in Europe at the same time and it looks like a beacon of tolerance and open-mindedness. Take Spain, for example, as Roman Catholicism established itself in the Iberian Peninsula to the accompaniment of Inquisitorial torture, burnings and forced conversions of Muslims and Jews. Many of those Jews accepted the invitation of Sultan Beyazit to settle in the Ottoman Empire, and their descendants can be found in Istanbul today, worshipping in their medieval Spanish dialect.
|Recently restored Armenian church,
Lake Van, Turkey
So maybe the question arises in your mind, as it did in mine: if the Ottomans were so tolerant and open-minded, why did they suddenly decide to commit genocide on those poor, harmless, law-abiding Armenians? The roots of the answer lie in the growth of the major European powers during the 18th century, the ideas of the Enlightenment and the associated forces of Romantic Nationalism and Imperialism. The Ottomans had been a (if not the) major European power until the end of the 17th century, but times were a-changing. In particular, the imperial ambitions of its northern neighbour Russia were threatening its territorial integrity. Russia was expanding in all directions, but its southern march posed the greatest threat to the Ottomans. As they moved towards the Black Sea, into the Crimea and the Caucasus, the Russians pursued a policy of Russification, killing and displacing the majority Muslim inhabitants of those lands and replacing them with Christian Russians, Slavs and if necessary, Armenians.
As well as loss of territory, another negative result of this for the Ottomans was an enormous influx of penniless refugees who had to be fed, housed and settled – a huge financial drain on an empire that was already struggling economically. The Russian advance into Ottoman territory continued right into the First World War, and the Armenian population became an increasingly important tool in their expansion. It suited the Russian cause to encourage Armenian nationalism with promises of support for the creation of an independent state in return for assistance against their Ottoman overlords. The Ottoman government and its Muslim subjects, for their part, became increasingly intolerant of Armenian acts of insurrection and terrorism within their borders. It is interesting to note that, when the Ottoman Empire finally collapsed at the end of the Great War, far from supporting their independence, the new Communist Government swallowed the Armenians into their Soviet maw in 1921, after a scant three years of national sovereignty.
However, I’m getting ahead of myself here. There was one positive outcome for the Ottomans, at least in the short term, from the emergence of the Russian threat. The other European powers, in particular Britain and France, began to take an interest in the unfolding events. For a start, they were determined to prevent the Russians from achieving their ambition of controlling the Istanbul straits and gaining free access to the warm waters of the Mediterranean. One of the key issues in the foreign policy of all the European powers in the 19th century was what became known as ‘The Eastern Question’, the essence of which was: When will the ailing Ottoman Empire finally collapse, and which of us will get what parts of it when it does? The corollary of wanting to get the best bits for yourself, of course, was, naturally, ensuring that your rivals didn’t get them.
In practice, this involved encouraging national consciousness among the subject peoples of the Ottoman Empire in order to hasten its fragmentation and demise. Needless to say, it is not to be thought that the European powers concerned had any great love of nationalism as a philosophy per se. If you have any doubts about this, ask the Irish or the Indians, or the Algerians, or the Turkic peoples of Central Asia. The first ‘nation’ to benefit, however, was the Greeks, the success of whose struggle for independence was ensured by the intervention of the British, French and Russian navies, which combined to destroy the Ottoman fleet in 1827. A little publicized side effect of Greek independence was the massacre and displacement of thousands of Muslims whose families had lived there for centuries.
The original Greek state established at this time was perhaps only 40% of its present area. Over the next century, successive governments took advantage of the weakening and embattled Ottomans to expand their domains northwards and eastwards into Macedonia, the Balkans and the Aegean Islands. As they advanced, non-Christian minorities were slaughtered or driven out. An interesting example is the city of Salonika, which fell to the Greeks in 1912. At that time the second city of the Ottoman Empire, Selanik had the largest Jewish population of any city in Europe. Fifty percent of its inhabitants were Jewish, twenty-five percent Muslim and the remainder, mostly Orthodox Christian. In 1917, a mysterious fire broke out destroying most of the Jewish and Muslim parts of town. Subsequently most of the Jews and Muslims, prevented from rebuilding their homes and businesses, departed. There were still, however, a large number of Jews in Salonika when Nazi Germany invaded in 1941. As far as I know, there is no suggestion that the Greeks conspired with the Nazis to exterminate the Jews – but they certainly benefited from the destruction of the large historic Jewish cemetery, where the city’s university is now located.
Interestingly, if you visit Istanbul and make inquiries, you will be shown numerous Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Jewish churches, synagogues and cemeteries occupying large and prominent sites in very expensive parts of the city. The land they stand on must be almost priceless – yet they remain, respected and untouched in this nation of Muslims. In contrast, Athens is, I’m told, one of the few European capital cities which lacks a functioning mosque, despite the existence of half a million Muslim residents.
Which brings me back to the Armenians – whom I am sure you were beginning to think I had forgotten. I mentioned, above, that the Russian Empire massacred and expelled hundreds of thousands of Muslim Tatars, Circassians and Abhazis as it expanded into the Crimea from the 1770s, and the Caucasus from the 1790s. An article in a recent Time magazine discussing the January terrorist attack at the Moscow airport, alleges a link to Chechen activists, and blames the situation on 200 years of Russian oppression. As occupied territories were cleared of their Muslim inhabitants, they were systematically resettled by Christians, more likely to be supportive of their co-religionist overlords. Among the groups used as pawns in this game of Russification were the Armenians, many of whom were invited to occupy the homes and farms of the dispossessed Muslims. Undoubtedly the Muslim refugees who flooded into Ottoman Anatolia would have harboured some resentment against the peoples who were seen to be profiting from their tragedy, and we need look no further for the roots of the sectarian hatred that began to build through the 19th century.
As an interesting aside, there are attempts internationally to have present-day Russia acknowledge a ‘Circassian Genocide’ that allegedly took place in the second half of the 19th century. The Putin government, of course, rejects responsibility for events that took place under the Czarist regime – yet, according to the Time article  cited below, similar policies continue to be implemented against Muslims in the area to this day.
What happened in Anatolia during the 19th century, then, was increasing encroachment on Ottoman territory by the Russians, and increasing desperation in the Ottoman Empire as their boundaries retreated, impoverished refugees flooded in with tales of horror, and the Armenian ‘millet’ (see above), encouraged by the Russians, increasingly resorted to terrorist attacks and insurgency.
But let’s not pick on Russia alone. I recently came across writings of a gentleman by the name of Edward J Erickson. Apparently he is a retired regular US Army officer at the Marine Corps University in Virginia, recognized as an authority on the Ottoman Army during the First World War. He writes of the activities of the Royal Navy in the Eastern Mediterranean from December 1914. In particular he refers to an RN cruiser, HMS Doris, commanded by a Captain Frank Larkin, which conducted operations around the Ottoman port of Iskenderun (Alexandretta), shelling shore installations and gathering intelligence from local Armenians. Erickson suggests that the Ottoman high command expected an allied invasion. They did not know where it would take place (with hindsight, we know it was directed at Gallipoli and the Dardanelles), but the rail links near Iskenderun were of enormous strategic importance to the Ottoman forces, and at the same time, very vulnerable to a sea-launched attack. Erickson suggests that the activities of Captain Larkin and the Doris, as well as the military incursions and machinations of the Russians, were instrumental in the decision to ‘relocate’ Armenians later in 1915.
In fact, ‘relocate’ is Dr Erickson’s word, not mine. Undoubtedly, Armenian people in the east of Anatolia suffered a terrible tragedy. I do not have the space here to discuss the extent to which the present Republic of Turkey should be held responsible for the sins of the Ottoman Empire; nor whether there was actually an official government decision, and if so, what its aims were. I do not intend to get involved in the discussion of how many Armenians died (also apparently a highly debatable issue), nor to question why so many Armenians remained in Istanbul, the seat of Ottoman Government, retaining their property, churches and cemeteries to the present day. My aim has been solely to suggest that whatever happened in that part of the world in 1915 needs to be seen in terms of events leading up to it in the previous 130 years. To compare what happened with the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire to the Nazi German extermination of the Jewish people is not only a distortion of historical evidence, but a grave injustice to the victims of the Nazi holocaust.