Ottoman genocide remembered
Last week saw the 99th anniversary of the first detentions which led to the Meds Yeghern slaughter. Esen Uslu explains how a ‘Turkish’ state was created out of the Ottoman empire
On April 24 1915, the creaking state machinery of the Ottoman empire was set in motion to round up and detain 250 prominent Armenian intellectuals in Istanbul. It was the signal for the start of what is known in Armenian as the Meds Yaghern (Great Calamity).
The slaughter sparked by those arrests was actually just one of many atrocities committed against the Armenian population of the Ottoman empire, perpetrated under the approving gaze of the state. However, what was unprecedented about these particular events was that they were based on a high degree of planning and organisation following a quarter of a century of ‘theoretical’ preparation. Mass detentions and the ransacking of Armenian property were the prelude to the forced expulsion of the Armenian population from where they had lived for centuries, and it was accompanied by mass killings before and during the vicious ‘death marches’.
Every year on April 24 Armenians around the world commemorate the victims of the genocide, and 2014 is no exception. Yet Turkey refuses to accept that any such atrocities were even committed, and its co-conspirators in the west seem happy to provide the necessary fig leaves to cover up this denial. This year, prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan issued a statement through the government’s website, catching many people by surprise. The statement has the usual denials of genocide, and refuses to accept the responsibility of the Turkish state, but also makes some liberal noises about shared grief, directed at international public opinion. I expect there will be more words of sympathy over the coming months.
The 19th century was a century of national uprisings and defeat after defeat for the Ottoman empire - especially at the hands of the armies of the Russian empire. Lost territories frequently meant the expulsion of populations, and, following the occupation of Crimea in 1783, thousands of Muslims in the Balkan countries and the territories on the northern shores of the Black Sea and Caucasus migrated to Istanbul and Anatolia.
In the first half of the century Greece had been lost and the Russian empire had reached the present-day north-eastern borders of Turkey. Further losses of territories in the Balkans and the Arab lands seemed unstoppable. Wave after wave of Balkan Muslims, Crimean Tatars and Caucasian peoples were forced to migrate, continually altering the population distribution of the Ottoman empire. The Ottoman administration deliberately settled them in areas where large sections of the population were non-Muslim.
In the late 1820s the Armenian population of the eastern borders of the Ottoman empire, having been pushed out by the Ottomans and pulled in by the Russians, emigrated en masse. In the second half of the century a massive migration of Caucasian peoples took place. In an agreement signed in 1860, Russia agreed to allow Caucasian Muslims to emigrate to Ottoman lands, provided they did not settle near the border regions. It is often said that the Russo-Ottoman wars of the century were also ‘population wars’. As a result of the emigration of non-Muslims and immigration of Muslims, the proportion of Muslims in the Ottoman empire rose from 60% in 1820 to 76% in 1890, according to official figures.
However, the population movements of the 19th century were just the prelude. The changing mix was accompanied by the compulsory settlement of nomadic tribes - some Turkmens, but mainly Kurdish. Consequently the population in some parts of the core of the Ottoman empire was of a variegated type that had not been seen before - and there was no ‘melting pot’ to assimilate them.
What was to become the mainstay of Turkish nationalism in the early 20th century was the Committee of Union and Progress. CUP could be traced back to the Ottoman Unity Association, established mainly by young professional soldiers in 1889 on the foundations laid by liberal intellectuals known as the ‘Young Turks’ in the mid-19th century. But CUP quickly became notorious for its rabid nationalism and ruthless methods.
However, the ideological groundwork for Turkish nationalism can also be traced to a different source. In 1883, during the aftermath of the Ottoman defeat in the Russo-Ottoman war of 1877-78, a German Junker, Colmar Freiherr von der Goltz, was appointed to oversee the officers’ school of the Ottoman army, following a request from the government. His remit was to make the Ottoman military a force capable of resisting the Russians and he remained in that post for 15 years. Eventually he was given the title of general and was known in the Ottoman army as ‘Goltz Pasha’.
By the time he had returned to Germany, almost one third of the officer corps of the Ottoman army had been trained under a Germanised military education system. And Goltz Pasha continued to exert an influence over the young officers of the Ottoman army through the books he published in Germany. Eventually he was made a field marshal and actually died while commanding Ottoman troops resisting British advances in Iraq.
While Goltz modernised the curriculum of the cadet school, he also published articles about the political future of the Ottomans. One of his articles - written in 1897, translated into Turkish and published in Cairo - was ‘Strengths and weaknesses of the grand state’ (ie, the Ottoman empire). The article advocated a more compact and powerful state machine to replace the existing cumbersome formation.
Referring to the plight of the new immigrant population, the article advised more ‘efficient’ measures to be adopted in relation to the settlement of migrants, including compulsory military service for the male youth of Caucasian immigrants. Goltz directed attention to the desirability of further conquests in the periphery of a compact Ottoman state: upper Albania, the Druze Mountains, the Dersim and Hakkari regions of Kurdistan, and the environs of Mosul, Kirkuk, Baghdad and Basra. This list makes for sobering reading, since sovereignty over those areas is still being contested by various powers.
Goltz Pasha also published an influential a book: Der Volk in Waffen (The nation in arms,1883), which was translated into Turkish in 1884. It became something of a handbook for every Turkish officer cadet and intellectual, its main theme being the notion of a ‘modern army’. The book provided an outline of the new, ultra-nationalistic, Turkish militarism. The titles of journals published by CUP during this period are quite revealing: Bayonet, Arms, Cannon, Rifle and Dagger. Militarist youth associations and even a children’s army were founded by CUP.
While the state started to improve military capability in Anatolia through drawing up modernised maps, improving the telegraphy network, building bridges, roads, railroads and fortified strongholds, etc, the ideological outline of the action that would ensue against the ‘internal enemies’ - ie, the non-Muslim population - was also laid.
In an influential pamphlet published by Ahmet Rıza, a leading member of CUP, the Christian subjects of the Ottoman empire were clearly targeted. The pamphlet, entitled Duty and responsibility: the soldier, was written in the spirit of Goltz Pasha, even if he would not have agreed with its Islamism. It alleged that in previous wars Christian subjects of the Ottoman empire had served as foreign agents - providing grain for external forces, destroying bridges, setting alight depots, etc. They had proved to be the ‘enemy within’.
A reference to two well-known figures of the early 20th century would be sufficient to establish the militaristic and rabid nature of Turkish nationalism in that era. In 1904 Yusuf Akçura published an article entitled ‘Three modes of politics’, in which he described Turkism, Islamism and Ottomanism as the three available ideological options for Turkish intellectuals and concluded that only Turkism represented a real opportunity to sustain the Ottoman state, albeit in a new form. The assimilation of non-Turkish Muslims would drive forward the process.
There was, of course, vocal opposition from the establishment, which saw Turkification as a grave danger and tried to uphold the principle of a multi-nation state under the constitutional dominance of the sultan. This opposition remained strong until the 1912 defeat in the Balkan wars. That was when Ziya Gökalp, a Kurd from Diyarbakır, published an article entitled ‘Becoming Turkish, Islamic and modern’, which would breach the walls of the opposition through its defence of a pseudo-national Ottoman state and calls for the establishment of a “contemporary Islamic Turkishness” as a vehicle for survival.
Leading members of CUP attacked the ‘Sublime Porte’, the seat of government in Istanbul, in early 1913, killing the minister of war and forcing the grand vizier to resign. The coup opened up a period of unstable governments and ineffectual parliaments, while CUP wielded the real power.
Gone were the days of the 1908 reforms, when CUP cooperated with Armenian and Greek representatives in parliament. The promise of a liberal constitution was also forgotten. A new era of militarism and warmongering was accompanied by dictatorial rule. CUP remained the only legal political organisation.
A rebellion against the CUP by Islamists in the army, who favoured the absolute rule of the sultan, had acted as a trigger for the massacre of Armenians and Assyrians in the Adana region in 1909. CUP did nothing to stop the massacre - indeed afterwards it hanged 124 Muslims and seven Armenians following the court martial of government and military officers.
After the Adana massacre, the Dashnaktsutyun (Armenian Revolutionary Federation) decided to cooperate with CUP. An agreement was signed whereby the two would work together for a unity constitution in opposition to any talk of Armenian independence. Even an Armenian minister was appointed.
However, the CUP coup put an end to all hopes for cooperation between Turkish nationalists and non-Muslim minorities. Consequently the nationalists established the secret Special Organisation, which began to plan the elimination of the non-Muslim population of Anatolia through forced deportation and massacre.
At the start of World War I CUP asked the Armenians of Turkey to assist them in capturing Transcaucasia by rebelling against the Russian empire. And one of the opening acts of the war in the east was the Ottoman attack on Russia. The struggle ended at Sarikamishin in utter defeat at the hands of the Russian army, amongst whose ranks were Armenian volunteers. Alarm bells were ringing.
In April 1914, when the Ottoman army tried to conscript solders from the Armenian town of Van, an uprising took place. The resisting Armenians maintained their defences until May 31, when the Russian army entered the region and Ottoman troops retreated.
Armenians serving in the Ottoman army were disarmed. So-called labour battalions were formed in early 1915 and all non-Muslim troops were transferred to them - shortly afterwards those ‘battalions’ were to be devastated by mass executions.
After the first wave of arrests, an influential Armenian politician, Krikor Zohrab, was still working to stop further atrocities. He was quite well acquainted with Talat Pasha, a member of CUP’s leading triumvirate, and they occasionally met to play contract bridge at the Cercle d’Orient, the famous Ottoman club for establishment figures and the wealthy.
On May 20 he played bridge with Talat Pasha for the last time. As he was leaving the club, Pasha came up to him and kissed his cheeks. It was to be Talat’s farewell, since he had signed the arrest warrant and Zohrab was apprehended in the early hours of the following morning. He was killed on route to Diyarbakır by members of the Special Organisation.
The main target of the massacre that began in April 1915 was the Armenian population all over Anatolia. More than a million were slaughtered. Their confiscated wealth formed the basis of primitive capital accumulation on the part of the new Anatolian Turkish bourgeoisie. Many thousands, including children and women, were force-marched to Deyr Zor, a desert city in Syria - the weak, sick and young were abandoned to their death on the route. From amongst those who survived the present-day diaspora was formed.
During the initial stages of the liberation war, the Kemalists denounced these atrocities in order to gain the west’s approval. However, as the outcome of war became apparent, all pretence was set aside. The Kemalist regime was unambiguously following the path laid out by CUP nationalists: a unified Turkish nation and a unified state Islam.
That path led to further massacres committed against the remaining Armenians, Greek Orthodox Christians, Jews and Kurds. Their slaughter underlies the creation and development of modern Turkey. The continuing process saw the expulsion of the Greek Orthodox population from Istanbul in 1964, while the recent Kurdish massacres and deportations are quite well documented.
The denial of the Armenian genocide became the mainstay of the Turkish state’s foreign policy. Until, that is, the actions of the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia in the late 1970s and early 80s helped bring the issue to the fore once more. Meanwhile Turkey was busy fighting off the Kurdish rebellion, occupying northern Cyprus, where it also engaged in population transfers, and crushing the first wave of proletarian revolt. As the centenary of the genocide approaches, nothing much has changed in official policy despite the liberal rhetoric.
However, the mood of Turkish progressives is changing. During recent years, the genocide has been commemorated in Taksim Square, in front of the Ibrahim Pasha Palace at Sultanahmet, where Armenian progressives were detained on April 24 1915, and at Beyazit Square before the gates of Istanbul University, where 15 members of Social Democrat Hunchakian Party, led by Matteos Sarkissian (‘comrade Paramaz’), were hanged on June 15 1915.
A democracy programme where citizenship is not defined by nationality or religion is now becoming more and more attractive in Turkey. Today every progressive bows before the victims of the genocide, and pledges to resist any further atrocity committed in their name.