To The Editors:
Thanks for your outstanding and timely issue, “State Terror in Turkey,” (MERIP Reports, #121, February 1984). We would like to clarify a few issues about Armenians that were raised in the article, “The Kurds in Turkey.” Martin van Bruinessen states there that “fears that the Armenians would prove to be a fifth column in an armed conflict with Russia led to their deportation and the massacre of hundreds of thousands of them.” Such a viewpoint is a tragic distortion of historical reality and closely resembles the official line of successive Turkish regimes to justify the pre-meditated genocide and mass expulsion of the Armenian people from their native homeland in eastern Anatolia.
Despite centuries of exploitation and oppression which Armenians, as second- class subjects of the Ottoman Empire, experienced, they nevertheless remained one of the most loyal millets of the Empire. However, by the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, the situation of the Armenian people grew increasingly unbearable.
As the Empire lost land and revenue bases in the Balkans and Africa, the burden of keeping an ailing, despotic Ottoman bureaucracy going fell mainly on the Armenian peasant and artisan segments, the majority of the Armenian populace. Armenians were accountable to both local Kurdish tribal chieftains and feudal lords as well as to the central Ottoman administration. Also, Armenians were denied the right to bear arms, to legal protection of life and property under the law of the land, and were the convenient scapegoat for many of the Empire’s ills. Given such a tenuous plight, many Armenians began to emigrate to Russia and beyond.
The Armenians constituted the largest single majority in the eastern vilayets, the heartland of the Ottoman Empire. That such a persecuted people might one day seek an amelioration of their condition is logical. Despite the advent of Armenian nationalism in the late 19th century, Armenian demands sought reforms in the context of an integral Ottoman state. There was no talk of anything resembling political independence.
The massacres of some 250,000-300,000 Armenians in 1894-1896 proved to be the prelude to the genocide of 1915, during which 1.5 million of the empire’s 2.2 million Armenian subjects were murdered outright or died during the deportations. The idea of an “Armenian fifth column” threatening Ottoman political and territorial integrity is quite baseless. With the advent of World War I, Armenians in the empire were drafted into the army to prevent the near total collapse of the Turkish forces during their ill-fated Caucasian campaign in 1914. These Armenian soldiers were soon disarmed, organized into labor battalions and later murdered. Turkish apologists and official propagandists argue that Armenian nationalist “elements” had to be neutralized and the general Armenian populace removed from the war front for their own safety. Such “elements” turned out to be defenseless old men, women and children who were murdered or deported — the young male segment already having been dealt with. The 1915 massacres and deportations occurred throughout the Empire, in towns, villages and cities far removed from the war front.
Pan-Turkism mixed elements of national chauvinism, state militarism and racial purity, fueled with religious fanaticism. A new generation of Ottoman leaders, the Young Turk movement, egged on by German imperialist support and the tacit approval of Western capitalist interests, sought to expand its domain and influence over all Turkic peoples of the East. The Armenians stood in the way and had to be removed. The outbreak of the war provided convenient cover for their genocidal scheme.
Despite the historical animosity and rivalry between Kurds and Armenians, the two have, on occasion, joined forces to resist the common adversary. Today, revolutionary and progressive Armenians and their organizations view the oppressed Kurdish masses and their progressive political forces as the logical and natural allies of the present Armenian liberation movement. The Turkish left has continued to fail to come to grips with the Armenian national question by conveniently ignoring the historical reality that led to the depopulation of Western Armenia of Armenians. Many Turkish leftists fear that their support of a just resolution of the Armenian question would only serve to alienate their rank and file and that it would be used as a propaganda tool by the Turkish regime. While such views are understandable, the Turkish left cannot continue to ignore the growing Armenian liberation movement.
Armenian progressives link their national question with both the struggle of the Kurdish people and the general class struggle in Turkey. May we suggest that the Aremenian question in general and the present Armenian liberation movement in particular be devoted some coverage in a future MERIP issue. If the present military regime in Turkey and its US and NATO sponsors have seen fit to label this movement as a potential threat to Turkey’s security and have branded it a Soviet- sponsored scheme to disrupt NATO’s southeastern flank, then surely it should warrant more detailed analysis and historical objectivity.
RAMIG Armenian Information Collective New York City
Martin van Bruinessen responds:
The RAMIG collective’s letter puts forward several claims that for many decades have been uncritically repeated and have become almost tenets of faith in Armenian circles, no longer needing independent confirmation. The Turkish view on these events is nearly diametrically opposed, and is held with equal vigor. Neither party seems inclined to enter a serious discussion with the other; both are quick to take offense when others do not conform to their dogmatized versions of what happened.
RAMIG, moreover, quotes me out of context. I spoke of the Turkish elite’s longstanding obsession with territorial integrity and foreign intervention, and mentioned the Armenian deportations and massacres as one early instance where this obsession led to terrible consequences. This is rather different from the official Turkish position, which holds that massacres, except for a few local excesses, did not take place. The Turkish position tends to stress acts of violence by Armenians, both before and after the massacres (these are abundantly documented, but the Armenians usually remain silent about them) and actual or planned acts of high treason.
Historical scholarship, unfortunately, tends to align itself with one of the two sides’ parti pris. (For a survey, see: Gwynne Dyer, “Turkish ‘Falsifiers’ and Armenian ‘Deceivers’: Historiography and the Armenian Massacres,” Middle Eastern Studies 12 (1977), pp. 99-107.) Even important recent studies by others tend to adhere to either of these “schools.” Stanford J. Shaw and Ezel Kural Shaw, in their History of the Ottoman Empire and of Modern Turkey, vol. II (Cambridge University Press, 1977), offer basically an enlightened version of the Turkish view, while Christopher J. Walker’s Armenia: The Survival of a Nation (Croom Helm, London, 1980) is highly dependent on Armenian publications. Probably the most balanced account to date is to be found in Richard G. Hovannisian’s Armenia on the Road to Independence (University of California Press, 1967). The collective will find there little support for its claims.
The deportations started after, and, as Hovannisian’s evidence strongly suggests, because of, minor Armenian rebellions in the east during the first months of the war. Many of those deported perished on the way, many others were murdered by the local Muslim population, others again were massacred by Turkish soldiers. There is insufficient evidence to determine to what extent these massacres had actually been planned by the central authorities (on some, probably forged, “evidence,” see Dyer, p. 101). In fact, in both Turkish and British archives one finds Turkish official instructions to prevent deliberate killings (Dyer, p. 100; Shaw & Shaw, p. 315). Many of those in power, it is true, subscribed to racist, Pan-Turk ideas. Pan-Turkism, however, called for expansion and eventually the subjugation of other “races” but not their elimination. Appeals for an Armenian, or other, Endlösung are not on record.
RAMIG also seems annoyed that I mention a lower number of victims that its own (rather inflated) 1.5 million. Although it is almost obscene to wrangle about precise numbers in the case of genocide, I feel obliged to justify my own estimate. The pre-war Armenian population of the Empire, as estimated by the Armenian Patriarchate, was some 1.85 million (and not 2.2 million, as RAMIG claims; see Walker, p. 230). The most reliable statistics available, those of the 1914 Ottoman census, give the lower figure of 1.3 million (Shaw & Shaw, p. 241). The total number of survivors after the war is usually estimated as around 850,000. Since famine and actual warfare also exacted a high, but unknown, death toll among the Armenians, the number of those actually massacred cannot be determined more precisely than the “hundreds of thousands” that I mentioned.