It is with great reluctance that I write about the Armenian genocide, as I know that what I say will infuriate both sides. But it is the hundredth anniversary of the catastrophe this month, and Pope Francis has just declared that the mass killing of Armenian citizens of the Ottoman Empire in 1915 was indeed a genocide. Turkey, predictably, has responded by withdrawing its ambassador from the Vatican.
Well, surprise! We’ve been listening to this argument for generations now, and it rarely gets much further than “Yes, you did!” “No, I didn’t!” Unfortunately, I know a lot more about it than that.
Ages ago, when I was a history graduate student doing research about Turkey’s role in World War, I got into the Turkish General Staff archives in Ankara and found the actual telegrams that went back and forth between Istanbul and eastern Anatolia in the spring of 1915. Later on I saw the British and Russian documents on their plans for joint action with Armenian revolutionaries in the spring of 1915, so I also know the context in which the Turks and Armenians were acting. And I can say with confidence that both sides are wrong.
There was an Armenian genocide. Of course there was. When up to 800,000 people from a single ethnic and religious community die from violence, hunger or exposure in a short time, and they are under guard by armed men from a different ethnicity and religion at the time, it’s an open-and-shut case. (Today’s Armenians say 1.5 million died in 1915, but that’s too high. It could be as few as half a million, but 800,000 is plausible.)
On the other hand, the Armenians desperately want their tragedy to be seen in the same light as the Nazi attempt to exterminate the European Jews, and won’t settle for anything less. But what happened to the Armenians was not pre-planned by the Turkish government, and there was provocation from the Armenian side. That doesn’t remotely begin to justify what happened, but it does put the Turks in a somewhat different light.
A group of junior officers called the Young Turks seized control of the Ottoman empire in 1908, and their leader, Enver Pasha, foolishly took the empire into World War I at Germany’s side in November 1914. He then led a Turkish army east to attack Russia, which was allied to Britain and France.
That army was destroyed in the deep snow around Kars — only 10 percent of it got back to base — and the Turks panicked. The Russians didn’t follow right away — poor generalship — but the Turks had almost nothing left to stop them if they did. The Turks scrambled to put some kind of defensive line together, but behind them in eastern Anatolia were Christian Armenians who had been agitating for independence from the empire for decades.
Various revolutionary Armenian groups had been in touch with Moscow, offering to stage uprisings behind the Turkish army when Russian troops arrived in Anatolia. Learning that the Turks had retreated in disarray, some groups assumed the Russians were on their way and jumped the gun.
Similarly the Armenian revolutionary groups further south, near the Mediterranean coast, were in contact with the British command in Egypt, and had promised an uprising to coincide with planned British landings on the Turkish south coast near Adana. Quite late in the day the British switched their planned invasion much further west to Gallipoli, but once again some of the Armenian revolutionaries didn’t get the message in time and rebelled anyway.
Enver Pasha and his colleagues in Istanbul simply panicked. If the Russians broke through in eastern Anatolia, all the Arab parts of the empire would be cut off. So they ordered the deportation of all the Armenians in the east to Syria — over the mountains, in winter, on foot. (There was no railway) And since there were no regular troops to spare, it was mostly Kurdish irregulars who guarded the Armenians on the way south.
The Kurds shared eastern Anatolia with the Armenians, but the neighbors had never been friendly. So many of the Kurdish escorts assumed they had free license to rape, steal and kill, and between that, the lack of food, and the weather, up to half the deportees died. To the extent that the Turkish government knew about it, it did nothing to stop it.
More Armenians died in the sweltering, disease-ridden camps they were confined in once they arrived in Syria. It was genocide through panic, incompetence and deliberate neglect, but it cannot be compared to what happened to the European Jews. Indeed the large Armenian community in Istanbul, far from the military operations in eastern Anatolia, survived the war virtually unharmed.
If the Turks had only had the sense to admit what really happened 50 or 75 years ago, there would be no controversy now. The only duty of the current generation is to acknowledge the past, not to fix it (as if they could). Instead there has been 100 years of blank denial, which is why the issue is still on the international agenda. It will stay there until the Turks finally come to terms with their past.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist and military historian based in London.