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The Events of 1915 and the Turkish-Armenian Controversy over History (Arabic, German, Spanish, Russian, Nederlands)​

Published: 11-18-2015

The Events of 1915 and the Turkish-Armenian Controversy over History


The First World War was a calamity of unprecedented proportions.  At least 16 million people lost their lives and another 20 million were wounded. Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires collapsed, boundaries changed dramatically and large scale human migrations occurred.

Even  before  the  War  the  Ottoman   Empire had begun to decline continuously as a result of the  penetration  of European  colonialism, nationalism    and    corresponding     warfare. The Russian expansionism and  the winds of nationalism that blew from the West resulted in the disintegration of the Western provinces of the Empire and led to the inevitable weakening of the ailing Ottoman  State structure. Nearly 4.5 million Ottoman  Muslims perished from 1864  to  1922  and   many  more   dead  were never  counted.  Moreover,  around  5  million Ottoman  citizens were driven  away from their  ancestral homes  in  the  Balkans and


Ottoman refugees from the Balkans entering to Istanbul (1913) the Caucasus during the period of the Empire’s disintegration and found shelter in Anatolia and Istanbul. Armenians, as all the other people that made up the Empire, also suffered immensely. The loss of so many innocent lives and departure from ancestral lands was a common fate.


Even today traumatic consequences of the 1915 events continue to distress Turks and Armenians. Competing and  hitherto  irreconcilable  narratives  on  the  1915 events  erode  the mutual  empathy  and  self-critical assessment that  is needed for reconciliation. What  is required  is to tr y to examine objectively how this tragedy happened and reveal its true historical context, including the dynamics of cause and effect, so as to reconcile Turkish and Armenians views of histor y.


From the second half of the nineteenth  centur y onwards, Czarist Russia aimed to weaken and divide the Ottoman  Empire  and  so supported  Armenian  separatist  activities and  revolts.   This led to  the  further radicalization and militarization of nationalistic Armenian groups in the territories where Ottoman Muslims constituted the majority. Consequently,  significant numbers  of armed Armenian groups joined forces with the invading Russian army to create an ethnically homogenous Armenian homeland.

In response, in 1915 the Ottoman Government ordered that the Armenian population residing in or near the war zone should be relocated to the  southern  Ottoman  provinces  away from the supply routes and army transport  lines on the way of the advancing Russian army. Some Armenian units fighting along with Russian army to capture the Turkish city of Van (1915)


Armenians living away from the front who were nevertheless reported  or suspected of being involved in collaboration, were also included in the compulsor y transfer.


While the Ottoman  Government  clearly planned  that  those who had  to  be moved should  be cared for, protected, and fed adequately, most of the Armenians suffered immensely. War-time conditions, exacerbated by internal strife; local groups seeking revenge; banditr y ; famine; epidemics and the general lawlessness of a collapsing state apparatus  all combined to produce a painful tragedy that was beyond any contingency expectation. There were also some unruly  Ottoman  officials who committed  offences against Armenian convoys. Yet, historical documents  prove that  the Ottoman  Government  not  only did not  intend   these outrages  to  take  place but  that  on  the  contrar y it  prosecuted  the  perpetrators.  Officials/civilians who disobeyed the instructions of the Government to carr y out the relocation in an orderly and secure way were court-martialed  and those found guilty were sentenced to capital punishment  by the Government in 1916, long before the end of the First World War.


Despite the  tragedy of 1915 and  the  wars between Turkish  and  Armenian  armies  between 1918-1920, relations between the two people continued without any significant problems until the 1960s. However, the dynamics of cold war politics exploited bitter memories and grievances on the Armenian side. This fuelled the radicalism of certain nationalist Armenian groups, resulting in violent anti-Turkish  activities. Painful for all Turks to remember, terrorism  became a tool to get the attention  of world public to the Armenian claims. Over 30 Turkish diplomats and their relatives were killed in terrorist attacks from 1975 onwards by Armenian militants.


During  this  period,  the  Armenian  view and  the  genocide thesis started  to  be widely disseminated,  at times using forged documents/photographs.  Significant parts of the pro-Armenian  literature rested upon a highly questionable methodolog y for explaining population  figures. Some dubious memoirs were used and repeatedly cross-referenced in order to build up a case for genocide recognition. On the other hand, pointing to the serious shortcomings of the genocide claim does not mean that the Armenians did not suffer terribly and in great numbers.  In fact, numbers are not the primar y issue; even smallest number of innocent deaths is tragic. Nor does the death of millions of Ottoman  Muslims in the same era, so often ignored in Western historiography, constitute  a reason for condoning or belittling the deaths of so many Armenians. But insisting on genocide as the only way  to describe the Armenian experience, while ignoring Turkish losses, is not a proper way to honour the memor y of those who lost their lives, nor does it correctly reflect the historical record.


No political, scientific or legal consensus to describe the events of 1915 the fact remains that  the issu e is a matter of l eg itimate s chol arly d eb ate, with reputable historians on both sides. Giving absolute priority to uncompromising  Armenian anti-Turkish  views, even when reflecting well-intended  attitudes  to  show solidarity with  a  group  that  has  experienced past  suffering, does not do justice to the grievances that were experienced by so many different populations. Compassion becomes problematic if it is selective.


Armenian  communities  living in  Western  countries  are often  represented  by well-organized nationalist associations that have chosen to build Armenian identity fixated on having the events of 1915 internationally recognized as genocide. Consequently, the Armenian national narrative has been widely circulated in series of aggressive public relations campaigns, creating the impression that there is widespread acceptance and even a consensus on the Armenian view of histor y. It is misl e ading to b elie ve that there is a “p oliti c a l consensus” on this issu e. In fact, in a limited number of countries, only around 20 out of 200 countries, have parliaments made declarations, mostly of a non-binding  nature, supporting the Armenian view of histor y. Not surprisingly,  these are all countries where the Armenian diaspora is ver y active. And there were always numerous parliamentarians who voted against these pro-Armenian bills.


There cer tainly is no “s chol arly consensus” either. Alongside many scholars who lean towards the Armenian view, there are quite a few non-Turkish  historians who disagree with the genocide thesis. They do not deny the Armenian suffering. But they just do not think genocide is a correct description of the events of 1915.


It is often forgotten that genocide is a specific crime which is defined by the international  law. The 1948 Convention specifies what genocide is and how it may be ascertained: a competent international  tribunal can determine if an event is genocide. Such a court decision exists for the Holocaust, for Rwanda and for Srebrenica. But no such decision exists for 1915. So  nothing close to a l eg a l consensus exists on the issu e.


Rebuilding historical friendship and cooperation urks and Armenians should work to rebuild their historical friendship without forgetting the difficult periods  in  their  common  past.  It  needs  to  be remembered that, despite the events of World War I, until the Armenian  assassination and PR campaigns began  in  the  early  1970s,  Armenians   and   Turks were very close to each other at the social level and that  indeed  they  still are  today  in  some  expatriate communities. Individual Turks and Armenians share a common Anatolian and Ottoman heritage and most aspects of its culture, even language. This may be the reason  why today’s  Armenian  radical opponents  of Turkey insist on not having contacts of any sort with Turks or Turkey : they are tr ying to sever this heritage of mutual acceptance and shared heritage.


But in the endeavor to overcome historical and political bitterness, all sides must be honest and open-minded. A process of true dialogue, learning to respect the other side’s  truths,  gradually building  up  respect  through familiarity and empathy may well be possible. Could that not help Turkish and Armenian narratives to come closer together around a “just memor y”? Believing that this is possible, Turkey proposed the establishment of a joint commission composed of Turkish and Armenian historians, and other international experts, to study the events of 1915 in the archives of Turkey, Armenia and third countries. The findings of the commission might bring about a fuller and fairer understanding  of this tragic period on both sides and hopefully contribute to normalization between Turks and Armenians.