One of the strangest holdovers from the disasters of the 20th century is the refusal of the Turkish government to acknowledge the genocides of Armenians and Assyrians that were perpetrated under the Young Turks a century ago this year. Many governments, including our own, hesitate to call a spade a spade for fear of offending the Turkish government, but the Pope has recently called Turkey on the matter. At the very least, as Eugene Rogan observes in his newly published study The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East 1914-1920 (Allen Lane 2015), massive killing took place at the hands of the Turkish authorities of a nature and on a scale which made it genocide by any other name.
The Young Turks, who had come to power just before the First World War and in the wake of war in the Balkans that had displaced many Muslims, engaged in what has recently been termed ‘ethnic cleansing’, in an effort to stabilize their domain. Hundreds of thousands of Greek Christians were expelled from Ottoman territories before and during the First World War. This was to climax in the Greek war against Turkey the downfall of the Ottoman Empire and the expulsion of the Greeks from Smyrna in 1922.
The expulsion of the Greeks was ethnic cleansing, but it wasn’t genocide. What happened to the Armenians and Assyrians in 1915-16 is another matter. They were deported wholesale from within their homelands and, in the process, either starved or slaughtered in very large numbers. The lowest estimates for Armenian dead are in the order of 800,000 and run as high as 1.5 million; while an estimated 250,000 Assyrians were also massacred. Pope Francis drew attention to this in the current ISIL context.
The Ottoman Empire, in 1915, was threatened on three fronts by enemy assault. The Russians were pressing an attack from the Caucasus, the British were thrusting northward from Basra in Mesopotamia and Anglo-French naval and land forces were striking at the Dardanelles and threatening Constantinople. Many Armenians openly hoped the Allies would bring down the Ottoman Empire, so that they could be released from bondage and have their own country.
Clearly, these circumstances exacerbated longstanding ethnic and religious tensions between Muslim Turks and their Armenian and other Christian subjects. The Young Turks viewed the Armenians as a bigger threat than the Greeks largely because an Armenian nation state would have to be carved out of core Turkish territory, where Greece existed as an entirely separate nation (which had won its independence from the Ottomans a century before). The genocidal response, however, was shocking and cannot be glossed over any longer merely because the contemporary Turkish authorities object to it being pointed out.
Two key events precipitated the genocide: an uprising in the eastern Anatolian city of Van (in the heart of ancient Armenia) beginning on 20 April 1915 and the decision by the Turkish authorities on 24 April to ‘decapitate’ the ethnic Armenian leadership. More than two hundred Armenian political, intellectual and religious figures were arrested in Constantinople. Van was strategically located close to the borders with both Russia and Persia and its Armenian population, having suffered pogroms at Turkish and Kurdish hands for many years, actively sought Russian support. The Turkish government, for its part, feared that the large Armenian population in the capital would side with the Allies if things went badly on the Dardanelles.
The response to the Armenian uprising by the Turkish governor of Van, Cevdet Pasha, was to order the killing of all Armenian males over the age of twelve. That was the beginning of the murderous policy which, over the following twelve months was to generate wholesale deportations and killings. Mehmed Talat Pasha, one of the ruling triumvirate of Young Turks, submitted a bill to the Ottoman Council of Ministers on 26 May 1915 called the Deportation Law, calling for the wholesale deportation of the Armenian population from eastern Anatolia, with only three to five days’ notice.
Alongside the public law, the Young Turks issued secret orders to the governors of the provinces of Anatolia that the Armenians were to be exterminated. Governors who demanded written instructions or who dissented were dismissed or even assassinated. Enver Pasha’s secret intelligence service mobilized killing squads. Armenian villages were surrounded, the men separated from the women and children and then executed, while the women and children were sent on forced death marches. To all this there is abundant first hand testimony, Turkish, Armenian and foreign.
There is nothing peculiarly Turkish or Muslim about the horrors that were perpetrated. But the killing of well over one million Armenian and Assyrian Christians in 1915-16 was perpetrated by the Muslim Turkish government. Good relations with the current Muslim Turkish government cannot be based on pretending that none of this happened, but must be based on honesty about the horrors committed in the name of empire and religion, with a view to preventing or at least prosecuting such crimes in future.
Let’s be clear that setting this record straight is not a matter of launching accusations against the state of Turkey in 2015, any more than setting the record straight about the atrocities of the Second World War is a case of making accusations against the current governments or citizens of Germany and Japan. Admission, at long last, that these terrible things happened would not make the present Turkish nation or government look bad.
What makes them look bad is their refusal to confess that the Young Turks presided over that genocidal ethnic cleansing. Dealing with the authoritarian government of Recip Tayyip Erdogan on such a matter is unlikely to be rewarding. What we could do, in this country, however, which has numerous citizens of both Turkish and Armenian (as well as Greek) ethnic origin is to orchestrate a truth and reconciliation process in which realities can at last be acknowledged and a better future created – here, if not over there.