A look back at the Armenian genocide of one hundred years ago, and other Turkish genocides again minorities such as Greeks, Assyrians and Kurds.
“Who, after all, speaks to-day of the annihilation of the Armenians?” Adolf Hitler, 1939
At its height the Ottoman Empire was generally more tolerant of its minorities than its European counterparts. Although polytheism was banned Christians and Jews were allowed to carry on worshipping so long as they recognised the supremacy of the Islamic state and did not proselytise outside their own communities. Each community had its own separate courts called millet (from the Arabic word “millah” which means nation). However, the rise of European nationalism in the 19th Century posed a threat to all the multilingual empires in Europe. The Russians faced the Poles, the Austrians the Czechs (and many others) whilst the Ottoman weakness lay mainly amongst the predominantly Christian peoples of the Balkans. The Serbian revolt of 1804-15 was followed by the establishment of Greek independence (by 1829) and the process of nationalism began to eat away at the decaying Empire. The answer of the “Sick Man of Europe” to the various revolts was to either grant de facto autonomy or suppress them violently with periodic massacres. Ironically the first attempts at genocide in the region came as the Russians drove the Circassians and others into the Ottoman Empire after the Crimean War. It was the beginning of an increasing spiral of violence and massacres which only got worse as the European imperialist powers travelled down the road to all out war. It was a war which would destroy all the polyglot empires in one way or another. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire was succeeded by the rise of a narrow Turkish nationalism which was to become even more intolerant than its Ottoman predecessor.
Thus today, in a year when the mainstream media and Western politicians of all stripes have been commemorating the Armenian genocide of one hundred years ago, the blood-letting continues across the Middle East. One aspect of this seems to be the beginning of the end for Christian communities within the Middle East. In Turkey, which was once a vibrant multi-cultural society, the number of Christians has dropped to an almost negligible 160,000, representing only 0.2% of the population compared to an earlier figure of 220,000 for Istanbul alone, with even bigger populations in Edirne, Aydin and Trabzon according to the 1914 census. At that time, 19% of the population of what is now Turkey was Christian. Across the rest of the former Ottoman Empire, and the Middle East as a whole, what were once vibrant communities have been shrinking dramatically. Over the past century the number of Christians in the Middle Eastern countries where they are still represented as a significant part of the population, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine dropped by about a half to 6.3% of the population or around twelve million people in 2010. The wars of the last decade have accelerated this process. Since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 about two thirds of Iraqi civilians, one million people, have fled the country, and nearly half a million Syrian Christians have been displaced during the Syrian civil war. Palestinian Christians continue to flee the region. As the Jordanian Prince Hassan bin Talal put it "there are today more Christians from Jerusalem … living in Sydney, Australia, than in Jerusalem itself."
Of course, the series of genocide, massacres and ethnic cleansing across the Middle East isn't something that has affected only Christians. Virtually all ethnic-religious groups have had, at times, massacres, pogroms and ethnic cleansing perpetrated against them with the current war in Syria and Iraq only accelerating this process. It is not a new phenomenon peculiar to this war.
Before the new rounds of ethnic cleansing that this war has brought about massacres were common enough across the region. Occasionally they jump off the pages of the international press into the world wide consciousness for a moment. Names like Sabra and Chatilla, Hama, and Halabja became infamous for a few days, but the general lack of concern about the region in the international media soon reasserts itself. Massacres become common place, and ethnic cleansing becomes routine. The Turkish state today, while continuing to deny its historical genocide against the Armenians, has been conducting a policy of terror and forced assimilation against the Kurdish population of Turkey over the past decades which many have described as genocidal itself. The degeneration of the Ottoman Empire led to the modern Republic of Turkey which took up the narrow nationalism of the imperialist epoch in which it arose. Instead of criticising the past massacres and genocides of the Ottomans they have not only defended them but have carried on with their own blood-soaked, murderous, and genocidal policies. In other countries of the region Kurds have also been subject to atrocities. The Anfal campaign and the use of poison gas against the civilian population in Saddam's Iraq during the late 1980s only the most well known of these massacres. The Anfal campaign itself wasn't limited to just Kurds with smaller minority groups such as Assyrians, Shabaks, Turkmens, Yazidis, Mandeans also being murdered and displaced. The campaign of Arabisation currently being waged by the Da'esh is merely a continuation of the campaigns conducted by the Ba'ath Parties in both Syria and Iraq over the past half century. Nor have Sunni Arabs themselves, the largest single group across the Middle East as a whole been spared ethnic cleansing. In both Northern and Southern Iraq Sunni Arabs have been massacred and burnt out of their homes by Shia militiamen and the peshmergan of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) respectively.
Yet this year, on April 24, while the killing was still going on across the region, the majority of the world paused for a moment to commemorate the deportation of around two hundred and fifty Armenian intellectuals from Constantinople, which is considered to be the event which symbolises the start of the Armenian genocide. Meanwhile in Turkey, the state moved forward the 'Gallipoli Day' commemoration by a day in an attempt to distract attention from international talk of genocide.
Hitler was wrong. The world remembers the annihilation of the Armenians today, even if it is only for ten minutes as it turns its head to ignore the massacres currently being perpetrated across the region. The Pope makes a statement condemning the genocide. The American President once again refused to actually use the word 'genocide' to describe the mass murder of one and a half million people. Kim Kardashian turns up in Yerevan. Meanwhile, the wars and massacres across the region go on and the Turkish state, while still denying that any genocide happened, arms Islamicist gangs in Syria and Iraq who are intent on committing another genocide today.
“Thirty thousand Kurds have been killed here, and a million Armenians. And almost nobody dares to mention that. So I do.” Orhan Pamuk 2005
Pamuk was right to draw a parallel between the historic genocide of Armenians committed by the Turkish state, and its murderous actions today. The Armenian genocide is not an event that stands alone as an aberration in Turkish history. Rather it is merely the largest and most well known massacre within a history of state genocide. Nor was the Armenian genocide at the time of the First World War the first time that the state had massacred Armenians. Twenty years earlier in the mid-1890s up to three hundred thousand Armenians, along side twenty-five thousand Assyrians were murdered by the Ottoman state in what is know as the Hamidian massacres. While the extent of the massacres unleashed against the Armenian population was unprecedented, massacre itself, as a weapon against the civilian population was not. Twenty years previously the Başıbozuklar, a particularly indisciplined irregular section of the Ottoman army, had massacred over ten thousand Bulgarians in putting down the April uprising.
The next bout of anti-Christian massacres carried out in Turkey took place in Adana in April 1909 when pogroms against the Armenian minority killed 20,000 to 30,000. In addition to this about 1,300 Assyrians were killed in the massacres. The coming of war, however, would bring more horrors which would dwarf the massacres that came before.
On October 29th 1914, Turkey entered the First World War on the side of the central powers, Germany and the Hapsburg Empire. The state of Turkey at the time was disastrous. The Balkan Wars, and the Turkish-Italian war had drained the empire. During the Balkan wars, most of its territory in Europe was lost. With the opening of the First World War the situation got worse. The military campaign against the Russians in the Caucasus region opened with a major defeat at the battle of Sarikamish. Enver Paşa, the minister of war, who considered himself to be a great military genius, led the Ottoman troops personally. Von Sanders, the German military advisor, on the other hand considered Enver to be an incompetent. It seemed that Von Sanders was right, and the battle of Sarikamish was the worst defeat for the Ottomans in the entire war. On his return to Constantinople, in January 1915, Enver blamed his defeat on the Armenians.
The following month all ethnic Armenians within the Ottoman armies were removed from their military posts and transferred into unarmed labour battalions, and the Armenian Patriarchate was accused of passing state secrets to the Russians. Certainly the Ottoman state feared that the Armenians would collaborate with the Russians. This had been a long term fear of the state dating back to the aftermath of the military defeat to the Russians in the 1870s. This paranoia was then intensified by events in the South-Eastern city of Van, where armed Armenians defended themselves against attacks made by the Ottoman military. After holding out for nearly a month, they were eventually relieved by Russian forces. Before this happened though around 50,000 Armenians had been massacred by Ottoman forces.
The scene was set for massacre to turn into genocide. The expulsion of the two hundred and fifty or so prominent Armenians from Istanbul was shortly followed by general attacks against the whole population. The genocide had begun.
“Turkey is taking advantage of the war in order to thoroughly liquidate its internal foes, without being thereby disturbed by foreign intervention. What on earth do you want? The question is settled. There are no more Armenians.” Talat Paşa 1915
From 1915 onwards a total of somewhere between eight hundred thousand, and one and a half million Armenians were massacred. However, it was not just the Armenians alone that this horror was unleashed upon. Other Christian minorities were also massacred. Between one hundred and fifty thousand and three hundred thousand Assyrians were murdered during the same period, and between four hundred and fifty and nine hundred thousand Greeks suffered the same fate. In total during the war and the period immediately afterwards, somewhere over two and a half million people were murdered.
The legal tool for these massacres was the 'Temporary Law of Deportation', which had been passed in May 1915. Under this law the state was entitled to deport those that were perceived to be a threat to national security. From the passing of this law onwards the slaughter of minorities continued unabated. The reports of the horrors of the genocide could, and do, take up many books. The mass deportations were turned into death marches where the state made no attempt whatsoever to provide the food and supplies that would have been necessary to support so many people. Starvation was common. Those who survived this were often massacred by local tribesmen. Children were enslaved, and women suffered from being both raped and enslaved, with the price in Mardin for an adult Christian woman falling as low as one Lira. Mass burnings and mass drownings were used to dispose of the victims, and those who survived all this were interned in a network of twenty five concentration camps.
“There are Turks who don't admit that their ancestors committed genocide. If you look at it though, they seem to be nice people… So why don't they admit it? Because they think that genocide is a bad thing which they would never want to commit, and because they can't believe their ancestors would do such a thing either.” Hrant Dink 2005
The evidence for all of this is so large as to be undeniable. Yet in Turkey to say that this genocide actually happened is actually a crime itself, covered under Article 301of the Turkish penal code, which prohibits “insulting Turkishness”, and is punishable by up to three years in prison, which can be increased by a third if the 'crime' is committed by a Turkish citizen in a foreign country. Twenty years ago it was completely denied that this genocide had happened at all. Nowadays, the standard approach in Turkey is to admit that some Armenians died, but to counter that it was a time of war, and people died on both sides and that Armenians killed Turks too. Some Turkish 'historians' even come to the conclusion that Armenians killed more Turks than vice versa. The state’s old official formula 'the so-called Armenian genocide' has been replaced by the newer phrase 'the events of 1915'.
With the end of the war and the allied occupation of Constantinople, courts-martial were set up to sentence those responsible for the genocides to death. The three 'Young Turk' paşas who ruled the Ottoman Empire during the war, Enver, Cemel, and Talat, Minister of War, the Navy Minister, and Grand Vizier respectively were all found guilty and sentenced to death. However, they had already fled the country and so temporarily escaped the sentence. The latter two were killed by members of the Dashnaktsutyun, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation in the early 1920s. Enver himself managed to avoid assassination by dying fighting in Russia in 1922. Beyond this the courts had no intention of convicting anybody. The British tried to take over the process, moving the trials to Malta. The new Turkish government under Mustafa Kemal, which was to assist with researching the details of the crimes, just happened to lose all of the evidence including the documentation of the previous trials.
One of the narratives of Turkish history since the end of the First World War and the establishment of the Republic has been to distance Mustafa Kemal from the ruling Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), the official name for what was more commonly known in the West as the 'Young Turks'. The CUP was responsible for the genocides, and so the aim is to distance him from the genocide itself. The story goes that there was a major rivalry between Kemal and Enver Paşa and that there was nothing that tied Mustafa Kemal closely to the genocide. He was a senior army officer and served in Syria during the war. He was also a member of the CUP and had been since 1908 being the 232nd member to join. Despite not being a member of the inner circle it seems fanciful to presume that even if not playing an active role in the planning of the genocide that he would have been unaware of what was going on. For the Turkish state to lose the documents that might have implicated him more deeply is thus very convenient. Even without involvement in the atrocities in the East, Kemal's army's involvement in the burning of Izmir, which killed unknown thousands, and is referred to in Turkish as the 'Liberation of Izmir', would be enough for the International Criminal Court to consider him a “war criminal” today.
“In Turkey, we annihilated people who speak "Zo" (Armenian), I'm going to clean up people who speak "Lo" (Kurdish) by their roots.” Nurettin Paşa *1921*
Following the establishment of the national movement, and the Grand National Assembly (parliament of the republic) in Ankara, a new enemy with was discovered. This time the threat to the nation was from the Kurds. The ideology of the new Republic, which was founded in 1923 was nationalist to the core. The state stood for “the domination of Turkish ethnic identity in every aspect of social life”. Kurds, who have been referred to at various times by Turkish nationalist politicians as 'Eastern Turks', and 'Mountain Turks who had forgotten their own language' stood in the way of the aforementioned aim. The repression was bloody. Between 1921 and 1938, the Turkish state, finding that there were few Christians left to massacre, turned its bloody visage to face the Kurds.
Following the massacres in putting down the Koçgiri rebellion in 1921, the commanding officer of the Turkish forces involved, Nurettin Paşa, was recalled to Ankara, where the Grand National Assembly had decided to put him on trial. Mustafa Kemal intervened to prevent the trial from happening. In 1925 the 'Sheikh Said rebellion', which was an attempt by Zaza tribes mainly in Diyarbakir and Mardin to revive the Caliphate was drowned in blood. Again figures for this massacres are hard to ascertain though the highest figures put the civilian death rate at a quarter of a million. Everybody agrees though that at least tens of thousands were murdered. Between 1927 and 1931, the state fought another war against the Kurmanci speaking tribes of the Ağri, who had set up an independent Kurdish republic. During this campaign terrible massacres of the civilian population took place, where perhaps nearly fifty thousand civilians were murdered. Again figures are disputed, but Cumuhriyet, a Kemalist newspaper, and the most popular Turkish newspaper of the time claimed that fifteen thousand were killed in the Zilan valley alone, and that the river was filled with corpses up to its mouth. The final massacres of the period took place in the late 1930s in Dersim, now known as Tunceli.
The rebellion in Dersim started as a result of the Turkification campaign. It was considered by many to be a clear provocation. By the end of the campaign, according to official reports, 13,160 civilians had been killed by the Turkish Army and 11,818 people and been displaced. Contemporary British reports put the number of civilian dead at 40,000, and local reports put it higher. Mustafa Kemal himself, now restyled as Atatürk (father of the Turks) gave the operational orders himself, and his adopted daughter, a pilot, was involved in bombing 'bandits' during the revolt. It is also alleged that chemical weapons were dropped by the Turkish air force during the campaign.
“You are all Armenians. You are all bastards” Current Turkish nationalist slogan
Since the Second World War the policies of the Turkish state have remained racist and genocidal to the core. Pogrom and massacre are still a part of its arsenal. Of course the most famous of these events is the war against the PKK that the Turkish state has been waging in the South-East for over thirty years. This has resulted in a total of approximately forty five thousand deaths, and the displacement of perhaps three million civilians. That is not to say that other minorities have been forgotten during this period. In 1955, the National Security service incited pogroms against the remaining Greek citizens in Istanbul. The pogroms were sparked off by the false news story that Greeks had bombed the Turkish consulate in Salonika, which is situated in the house where Atatürk was born. Although a Turkish worker at the consulate was later arrested and confessed to planting the bomb that didn't stop the resulting anti-Greek rioting. While the police stood by Greek businesses and houses were burned, and dozens of Greeks, and one Armenian murdered. Before these events there were sixty five thousand Greeks living in Istanbul. Within five years nearly a quarter had left the country, and today there are only about two and a half thousand left in the whole country.
The Alevi religious minority has also been the victim of pogrom and massacre. Pogroms and attacks in Çorum, Maraş, Sivas, and Gazi Mah were committed by the Turkish far right, and in the case of Sivas by Islamicists, but where the state was not directly involved in these sort of events it was at least complicit.
Finally during all of this bloodshed, the Armenians have not been forgotten. In 2007 a seventeen year old Turkish boy shot Armenian journalist, Hrant Dink dead outside his office in Istanbul. Dink was the editor of an Armenian newspaper in Istanbul. He had been critical of Turkey's stance in denying the Armenian genocide and had been tried three times for 'insulting Turkishness'. After the arrest of Ogün Samast, his killer, police and Jandarma, posed with him smiling in front of a Turkish flag. The killer was associated with the far right Greater Turkey Party, but there have also been allegations of a cover up and of state involvement in the killing.
Following the demonstrations one hundred thousand people marched at his funeral under the slogan 'We are all Hrant Dink. We are all Armenians”. Turkish nationalists responded with demonstrations under the slogan “You are all Armenians. You are all bastards”.
“Like the genocide of the Armenians before it, and the genocide of the Cambodians which followed it, . . . the lessons of the Holocaust must never be forgotten.” Ronald Reagan 1981
The purpose of this article is two fold. First we try to demonstrate that the Armenian genocide was not some sort of aberration, but it fact was a logical party of a genocidal policy that was undertaken by the decaying Ottoman Empire, but which was then continued by the Turkish Republic. Turkey though does not stand alone as being the author of genocides. Ronald Reagan statement about not forgetting the lessons of the Holocaust completely misses the point. He was right in that the Holocaust was not a unique moment that stands out in history. There are numerous other acts of genocide that one could add to the list that have been played out since 1981. Acts of genocide and “ethnic cleansing” have been committed in Darfur, in Bosnia, in Rwanda, and Iraqi Kurdistan just to mention a few. The ongoing terror of the Israeli state committed against the Palestinians, and the attempts by the Da'esh to destroy the Yazidi people are just two examples from the region.
The slogan raised after the Jewish Holocaust of 'Never again', seems almost tragic today, as genocide has been repeated again and again across the globe. Genocide was not committed by the Ottoman and Turkish states because the Turks are somehow 'bad people'. Nationalism in an age of imperialism is itself genocidal. Genocide is not something committed by 'evil men', but is a logical consequence of imperialism, and the nation state. It is not something that we can learn the lessons of and somehow avoid in the future, but is something that will persist as long as there are nation states. It is not something perpetrated by mad men or criminals, but is something that is intrinsic to the system itself.
9 July 2015