A WHISPER IN THE CORNER
Map of massacre locations and deportation and extermination centers - click here to enlarge.
Wishing to swat up on Kemal Mustafa Ataturk, the man around whose personality Turkey continues to build a cult, I bought a book about him while I was in Istanbul. Given that it is published by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, it is no surprise that this pamphlet – entitled Ataturk’s Legacy – is a hagiography. Nevertheless, I was struck by the economy of this description of Turkey’s participation in World War One:
The CUP committed many errors ... In 1915, the CUP government opened a front in the Caucasus against Russia late in the fall season. They hastily moved troops from the Palestine front to the Caucasus without proper provisions. Logistical support to the troops in the front was either too late in coming, or was consistently intercepted by Armenian militia who were in open revolt against the empire amidst war. The Ottoman General Staff, aiming to prevent these assaults, decided to relocate the Armenian population that resided along the only railroad available. What began as a military contingency turned out to be a tragedy, with reprisals or just for the sake of marauding conducted by local tribes against the Armenians, coupled with deaths due to starvation and disease. The other side of the tragedy was that close to 60,000 Turkish soldiers starved or froze to death in Sarikamis, north of Erzurum, in addition to numerous Turkish civilians killed by the Dashnak (a communist revolutionary party) Armenian militia.
The gist of this is that the CUP made a strategic error in the Caucasus which led to “reprisals” against Armenians, and which led to the murder of thousands of Turks – a peculiar way of describing the deliberate murder of up to a million and a half Armenians by the Turkish military. It is rather like describing the Holocaust as something which got a bit out of hand and caused distress to lots of German gentiles. Just what is it that makes Turkey so incapable of facing up to the Armenian genocide of 1915?
The story of the Ottoman Empire’s decline and eventual extinction in the bloodbath of the 1914-18 war is well-known. The Empire had been nibbled at by its rivals – mainly France and Russia – throughout the 19th century. In 1878, it lost its Balkan states of Serbia, Montenegro, Romania and Bulgaria to independence movement. Thirty years later, a group of young soldiers caught wind of British and Russian plans to carve up the old Byzantine lands of Rumelia and launched a coup against the Sultan. The coup of the Young Turks / CUP, whose main objective was to preserve and rebuild imperial power, won widespread support, but the CUP lacked a nucleus around which it could unite the ethnically and religiously disparate peoples of the Empire.
By 1912, the last Ottoman province in North Africa (Libya) was lost to Italy. Istanbul, Anatolia and the Arab lands as far as Suez were all that was left of the Empire. Yet even though the Empire was now 85% Muslim, when the predominantly Muslim state of Albania defected, ethnicity replaced religion as the core of the CUP’s ideology. Although Islam remained a useful rallying point, Turkishness was now what divided and ruled the Ottoman people.
In 1914, the Empire joined the war on the side of the Central Powers – an opportunity to regain much of the land it had lost to Russia in 1878. In the harsh winter of 1915, the Minister of War, Ismail Enver, led an ill-fated attack on the Russian border in the Caucasus from which few troops returned. The Armenian people were strategically important to both the Russian and Ottoman empires, split as they were across the borders of each. As Christians, they had been the subject of pogroms by Sultan Abdulhamid in the 1890s; as an Armenian nationalism emerged and thousands of Armenians enlisted into the Russian army, they became targeted by the CUP too. In March 1915, seeking a scapegoat for the Caucasian whitewash and fearing that the Armenians might defect wholesale to the Russians, the CUP passed a motion that the entire Armenian population in eastern Turkey be deported to Syria.
In fact, deportation was a cover for genocide. Enver’s brother-in-law – the governor of Van – ordered that all Armenian males over the age of 12 be exterminated. “By early June,” writes Perry Anderson in an authoritative piece on Kemal, “centrally directed and coordinated destruction of the Armenian population was in full swing. As the leading comparative authority on modern ethnic cleansing, Michael Mann writes, ‘the escalation from the first incidents to genocide occurred within three months, a much more rapid escalation than Hitler’s later attack on the Jews.’” Two thirds of the Armenian population – up to a million and half people – are thought to have died. The genocide was systematic, but its purpose arose not so much from any racial ideology (despite the CUP’s pragmatic nationalism) as from a need to remove the perceived Armenian treachery which might lead to the final dissolution of the Empire.
In the aftermath of World War One, and during the war of independence, Turkish nationalists placed a great deal of importance on the 1915 massacre. They believed it had saved the Empire, and Kemal’s hostility towards Enver arose not from a belief that he had gone too far, but because Enver had not done enough, allowing an Armenian Republic to be created and recognised by the Allies. Turkey was the only defeated power whose ruling powers were not overthrown by revolutionary forces, and a mixture of good intelligence, Soviet solidarity and Allied divisions meant that Turkey was able to emerge from the 1922 Treaty of Lausanne as an independent republic with internationally accepted borders. Meanwhile, the Armenian Revolutionary Party took it upon themselves to bring rough justice to the perpetrators of the genocide, searching them out from Germany to Tajikistan and killing them. The few survivors were offered positions in Kemal’s government.
Ninety years later, the denial of the 1915 genocide and the continued existence of statues and streets celebrating its executioners (“as if in Germany” writes Anderson, “squares, streets and kindergarten were called after Himmler, Heydrich, Eichmann, without anyone raising an eyebrow”) is an obstacle to Turkey’s biggest prize: EU membership. The similarities between 1915 and the Final Solution are striking – both conducted in wartime by people working in secret who knew their activities were criminal, and who worked systematically under the guide of deportation – so why is the latter multilaterally and internationally abhorred and commemorated, while the former is disputed and largely neglected? Why is it that, even today, the Turkish government “do not seem to blanch at the term ‘massacre’ but are besides themselves when the G-word is mentioned?”
Partly, because Turkish writers and historians are hounded for asking difficult questions; partly because foreign historians are denied access to key primary sources; partly because the West, well aware of Turkey’s strategic importance in the Cold War and the War on Terror, is loathe to offend its partner (Madeleine Albright’s dismissal of Nancy Pelosi’s resolution to discuss the genocide in 2007 is a case in point).
But partly because of differences between the two genocides: differences in their causes, and in what they reaped. Whereas the Nazis were ideologically driven (the Jews presented no strategic threat to the Reich; indeed, the exterminations distracted it from its war effort), the CUP’s genocide was a necessary strategy in maintaining the Empire. The Armenians, proportionally more significant than the Jews in Germany, were scapegoated because of their position on the border of a rival Empire – and, as we have seen above, their extermination was a major factor in the Turkish victories of the 1920s. As Perry Anderson says, “one genocide was the dementia of an order that has disappeared. The other was a founding moment of a state that has endured.”
The legacies of these genocides provide a clue to how they are seen today. “One has become the object of official and popular remembrance, on a monumental scale,” writes Anderson. “The other is a whisper in the corner, that no diplomat in the Union abides.” Both have as their inheritance a state, each a key ally to the West. “Israel, a pivotal ally in the Middle East, requires recognition of the Judeocide, and has secured massive reparations for it. Turkey, a vital ally in the Near East, denies that genocide of the Armenians ever occurred, and insists no mention ever be made of it.” While it is practically unlikely that any admission would lead to a redrawing of Turkish borders, or even compensation to the Armenians, strategically if Turkey were to concede that one and a half million Armenians were systematically killed in 1915, what then of other massacres – of the Greeks in Istanbul in 1955, of Cypriots in 1974, of Kurds throughout modern Turkish history – which have consolidated the unity of the Turkish nation? It might also be added, pace Edith Durham, that “no connection is made between the genocide of the Armenians and Muslim civilian losses: the millions of Muslims expelled from the Balkans and the Russian Empire through the long 19th century remain part of Europe’s own forgotten past.” No clearer illustration can be found of the ideology of “human rights,” recognition of which is claimed to be universal, but which in reality depends on shady geopolitics.