The Armenian massacres

Published September 19, 2016

AS the great battles of the First World War at Verdun and the Somme are commemorated a century after hundreds of thousands died in these killing fields, we tend to overlook other theatres further to the east. The British-led attempt to outflank the Central powers — the alliance between Germany, Turkey and the Austro-Hungarian Empire — by landing an army on the Asian coast of Turkey at Gallipoli ended in defeat and an inglorious retreat.

The casualties on both sides were horrendous, but the Turks, with German help, prevailed. They were not so fortunate further east where they faced the Russians. Here, Halil Pasha, the Turkish war minister’s uncle, overextended his forces in winter, and was responsible for terrible losses. On his return to Constantinople, he blamed Armenian subjects of the Ottoman Empire of being a fifth column.

While there was an element of truth in the charge, it is likely that the Turks would have been defeated anyway. But according to Sean McMeekin, author of The Ottoman Endgame, Armenians did receive arms and money from Russia and Great Britain, and fought bravely against their Turkish masters. The government of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), led by a triumvirate known as the Young Turks, ordered the expulsion — called ‘relocation’ — of all Armenians from Anatolia and ancient Armenia to the Syrian desert where hundreds of thousands perished.

This set the scene in 1915 for what has come to be known as the Armenian Genocide, one of the bloodiest acts of a very bloody war. To this day, members of the Armenian diaspora continue to lobby states around the world to officially acknowledge the Turkish policy as genocide. Turkey has been fighting these charges that would place it in the same category as Nazi Germany.

Exactly how many died is still a subject of intense and heated debate. Some put the figure as high as one million. Even when the Turkish government issued orders to relax the expulsion policy, overzealous local officials continued to execute it, according to McKeekin. Whatever the exact number, Armenians were robbed of all their goods and could only leave their homes with what they could carry. On the long, hard road to Syria, many died of hunger, thirst and exhaustion. Most of those who did survive the journey perished in the heat.

Understandably, Armenians have an abiding collective memory of these horrors, and until relatively recently, their Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA) carried out attacks against Turkish diplomatic missions abroad. Between the mid 70s and the early 90s, it killed 42 Turkish diplomats in 38 cities in 21 countries.

So why should a word, laden with evil intent though it is, cause such deep wounds? Genocide is widely defined as the organised killing of people for the express purpose of putting to an end of their collective existence. More recently, the militant Islamic State group tried to commit genocide against the Yazidis in Iraq. They might have succeeded in eradicating this small nation had it not been for American air support and Kurdish intervention.

But while the Yazidis are too weak to seek vengeance, Armenians scattered in many Western countries constitute an educated and well-placed minority. Thus, they are in a position to lobby effectively with lawmakers to brand Turkey as a criminal state that initiated the last century’s first genocide.

However, it should be remembered that the Ottoman Empire was in the midst of a world war that would seal its fate if it lost. In the event, it was defeated and dismembered. The world is still living with the consequences of those distant events: in the Balkans and the Middle East, borders were redrawn, and have caused much animosity and bloodshed since then. Against this backdrop, the harsh Turkish policy of the period can be understood if not condoned.

Many today hold up the tolerance shown by the Ottomans towards their non-Muslim subjects as an example. Yet, when examined more closely, we see that Greek and Armenian subjects were barely tolerated as second-class citizens at best. Although Armenia was conquered by the Turks in 1555, the people never assimilated fully, retaining their own language and culture, while remaining members of the Greek Orthodox Church. Contemptuously called ‘gayours’, a pejorative term for non-believers, most lived in poor, backward communities, apart from a small minority of city-dwelling elite.

After centuries of oppression, it should not surprise us that Armenians living in eastern Turkey should seize on the opportunity offered by large-scale hostilities between the Russians and the Ottomans. Henry Morgenthau, US ambassador in Constantinople, wrote to Washington in May 2015:

“It would seem as if an Armenian insurrection to help the Russians had broken out at Van [a district in eastern Turkey] … These insurgents are said to be in possession of a part of Van and to be conducting guerrilla warfare in a country where regular military operations are extremely difficult… their numbers have been variously estimated but none put them at less than 10,000 and 25,000 is probably closer to the truth.”

Morgenthau further reported that “because Armenian volunteers, many of them Russian subjects, have joined the Russian Army in the Caucasus and because some have been implicated in armed revolutionary movements and others have been helpful to the Russians in their invasion of Van district, terrible vengeance is being taken”.

As Turkey struggles to cope with the multiple challenges it faces today, we forget how many of them are rooted in its imperial past. The Kurdish problem, for example, is an example of a modern state trying to retain a part of its erstwhile empire against the will of the people living there.

As for the Armenians, they will never forgive and never forget.

irfan.husain@gmail.com

Published in Dawn September 19th, 2016

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