Turks and Armenians

Researching my post for Robert W. Chambers’ The Dark Star, I wanted to know, though it’s not germane to that novel, when the Ottomans decided on the Armenian Genocide.

I asked an academic acquaintance who specializes in genocide studies for some suggested reading, and he pointed me to McCarthy’s work.

Review: Turks and Armeninans: Nationalism and Conflict in the Ottoman Empire, Justin McCarthy, 2015.

So when did the Ottoman Empire decide to commit genocide against its Armenian citizens?

McCarthy’s convincing answer is that it didn’t. There was no genocide:

The actual history is one of repeated Armenian rebellion, culminating in the great rebellion of World War I. As far back as 1887 the Hunchak Party Program had declared, ‘The most appropriate time to realize the revolution will be when Turkey is at war.’ The actual history demonstrates that this is exactly what happened. The history of World War I shows rebellion, reaction to rebellion, forced migration of both Muslims and Armenians, and mutual massacre. It is a history of a war in which the requirements of life were denied to all, a war in which most those who died succumbed to starvation and disease. Neither side was completely innocent, neither side completely guilty. In no way, however, can the mayhem be called one-sided. It was not genocide, it was war.

McCarthy, a demographer, addresses the various historiographic problems of talking about Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. Ottoman census figures weren’t broken down by ethnic groups but by religious affiliations.

Another problem, addressed in a separate appendix, is the very inaccurate impression Europeans and Americans had of Turks. Most of their information about the Armenian minority in the Ottoman Empire came from missionaries. Even when they spoke Turkish, they were, understandably, more interested in their co-religionists among the Kurds and Armenians than Muslims. They got a distinctly one-sided view of life in the Ottoman Empire. Their reports of atrocities committed against the Armenians were sometimes so fantastic as to be demographically impossible or, sometimes, completely unsourced.

Diplomatic reports contradicted many of these claims, but they rarely became public. This was because, particularly in Britain, some powerful politicians were extreme partisans for the Armenians. Armenian Committees in Britain and America, where many of the Armenian diaspora settled before World War One, had their own agendas to pursue. This distorted picture was worsened, of course, by British propaganda during the war.

Finally, the archives of the Dashnak (Armenian Revolutionary Federation), the most important revolutionary group, are rarely opened to scholars.

McCarthy provides an introduction to the Kurds and Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, but most of his history is after the disastrous Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878. The Ottomans lost land to the Russians, and Armenians, many who had welcomed the Russians, were viewed with increasing suspicion by the Turkish population.

The idea of Armenian nationalism in the Ottoman Empire was always doomed demographically. Even if all the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire moved to the Six Vilâyets (administrative districts of the Ottoman Empire) envisioned as the basis for an Armenian nation, they would have made up about 40 percent of the population. There was no way the Kurdish and Turkish population of that area would stand for minority rule.

But there was the inspiration of Bulgaria which threw out the Ottoman Empire in 1876. Sure, a lot of innocent Muslims and Christians were killed, but that war showed, if you could get European powers to intervene on your behalf against the Ottomans, you could have your own country.

Armenian rebels did have several advantages. The Ottomans were greatly impoverished by the war with the Russian Empire. They couldn’t police the eastern zones of the empire well, particularly the Kurdish warlords who attacked rural Muslims and Armenians there. But that also meant the Ottomans couldn’t field the necessary troops to put down a rebellion. The Ottomans were much more concerned with revolts in the Balkans and Crete and defense against the Russian Empire. The great poverty of rural Armenians in eastern Anatolia disposed them, unlike their richer co-ethnics in the west, to revolt. And they had European sympathies.

But the Ottoman Empire had some powerful advantages. It had a real army. Muslims were the overwhelming majority in the Empire. The Armenian middle class, which now included members of government, bankers, and merchants, as well as rich Armenians were doing well. They weren’t interested in what the socialist revolutionaries of the Hunchak and Dashnak groups, both formed and headquartered outside of the Ottoman Empire, were selling. Those revolutionary parties didn’t cooperate with each other. They were also riddled with Ottoman and Russian agents.

The Hunchaks were similar to Marxist revolutionaries except they stressed nationalism and the creation of an independent Armenia. They were inspired by the Narodniks in Russia who had assassinated Czar Alexander II. They were not, however, under any illusions that such a state could be carved out of the Russian Empire. It was too strong. But, if they could attempt to do so in the Ottoman Empire, they might get Russian help. They were a blatantly terrorist organization that practiced violence against Muslims. The idea was that such actions would bring reprisals against Armenians which would gain European sympathy and intervention. They began to organize the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire in 1889.

In July 1890, they organized a demonstration in Istanbul. Armed Armenian demonstrators fired on soldiers. They police fired back with two dead on each side. A more significant incident occurred in the capital in September 1896. During a demonstration, an Armenian killed the chief of police. In the ensuing battle, 15 policemen and 60 Armenians died. In Bitlis in October 1895 and in Diyarbikar in November 1895, Hunchaks fired on mosques on a Friday. In the resulting riots, much Muslim and Armenian blood was shed. In October 1895, Hunchaks fired from the windows of stores and houses into a marketplace crowd.

The years from 1894-1896 saw much violence perpetrated by the Hunchaks. They carried out bombings and assassination of government officials. In 1893, the Hunchaks used local grievances in Sasun to start a rebellion in the city. They promised outside aid to the embattled local Armenians, but no help was dispatched. The city was to serve as propaganda when the inevitable Turkish retaliations occurred. The region of Zeytun went into revolt in 1895. The region had seen previous revolts by Kurds which the Ottomans had firmly suppressed. But, by this time, the Ottomans were not complete sovereigns of their empire. Various “Concessions” had been forced on them by Europeans, and the release of the captured Armenian rebels was ordered by the Europeans and well as a tax amnesty for them. As McCarthy notes, the Ottomans often acted less harshly in putting down revolts than the Europeans did in their own colonies. The takeover of the city of Van in June 1896 was the most significant revolt. It was to be fortified by Armenians organized and armed in Iran. However, the relieving force got distracted when they attacked Kurdish villages on the way to Van, and it never arrived.

For their part, the Dashnaks were avowed Marxists and members of the Socialist International though their ideological concerns were also nationalistic. They organized into armed bands and proceeded on a revolutionary campaign much like Mao, Giap, and Castro would later wage.

In August 1896, the Dashnaks attacked the Ottoman Bank in Istanbul, took hostages (including Europeans), and did some bombings in the city. European pressure resulted in them leaving the city on the yacht of the bank’s director. Still, the Dashnaks were disappointed that no European Empire or nation talked about invading the Ottoman Empire.

The Dashnaks were better organized than their Hunchak rivals. They got money overseas from donations and extorted money from Armenians in and out of the Ottoman lands. Armenians were terrorized by assassinations, including of Armenian clergy, into supporting them. The Dashnaks almost never assassinated Ottoman officials who were Turkish. They targeted Armenian officials. Russia was willing to aid them with guns which were smuggled by Armenians into the Ottoman Empire. Many were cached to be discovered by the Ottomans after the outbreak of the Great War. Some of the arms were, no doubt, to protect Armenians from Kurdish depredations.

The Russian were happy to use the Armenians to cause trouble in the Ottoman Empire. It was not at all supportive of an Armenian homeland in the lands of the Russian Empire.

In the 1908 revolution that saw the restoration of the Ottoman constitution of 1876, the Committee of Unity and Progress (CUP) that led the revolution sought out the Dashnaks. Partly this was to get Europeans off their back, part to peel away Armenian supporters of the old regime. The CUP didn’t trust the Dashnaks because of their Armenian nationalism, but there is a debate as to how serious the Dashnaks supported the new government. On the one hand, they supported the Ottomans in the Balkan Wars, and Armenians served in the Ottoman army in those wars. On the other hand, the Dashnaks raised units that fought with the Bulgarians. And, most indicative of Dashnak loyalties, says McCarthy, is that the never abandoned planning for a revolt in eastern Anatolia.

The Dashnak-CUP alliance was tested in 1909 in the city of Adana. In an argument over a woman, an Armenian man killed two Muslim men. Rumors flew around the city about other Muslims killed. Soon Muslims mobs attacked Armenians. After 11 days, a truce, to be enforced by Ottoman troops, was arranged. But the truce wasn’t really enforced, and the violence resumed. Official Ottoman figures broke the city’s dead down as: 2,036 Armenians, 782 Muslims, 613 Assyrian Christians, and 33 Greeks. Including figures from the surrounding area showed 5,243 Christians dead to 1,186 Muslims. It was a bloodbath, says McCarthy, that was unplanned by either side.

The 1890s saw the Ottoman Empire, desperate for money, put more effort into tax collection in Anatolia. The CUP-Anatolia coalition also discussed land reform, and McCarthy addresses the intricacies and duplicity of those efforts.

Throughout the years of their alliance with the CUP, the Dashnaks continued their arming of the Armenian population and setting up caches of guns and explosives and made plans to attack villages.

When the dalliances of the Ottoman Empire finally ended and it sided with the Central Powers in World War One, the Dashnaks openly sided with the Russians. More than 12,000 Ottoman Armenians joined the Russian army. Even before the Ottomans declared war, Armenians attacked Ottoman troops and increased those attacks after November 12, 1914.

The Armenians coordinated with the Russian Empire to support its advance into the eastern lands of the Ottoman Empire. That included attacking Ottoman troops and cutting telegraph lines. (The Russians also gave guns and money to Kurds in Iran.) Armenians deserted the Ottoman forces and went over to Russia.

Rebellion flared up again in Van even before November 12th. A miniature civil war lasted in the city until May 17, 1915 when the Ottomans finally left. Russia took the city on May 20th.

The best chance the Armenians revolt had was proposed by the Armenian National Defense Committee to the British. They proposed to land in Cilicia, attack the many strategic rail lines in the area, and join up in guerilla forces. It was a good plan targeted at a strategic area that was lightly defended. But nothing came of it.

On June 1,1915, the Ottoman Empire had officially had enough of a population that had long expressed secessionist tendencies, had undertaken armed revolts, and openly sided with an invading force which had armed them. The Armenians were to be forcibly located to areas in Syria and Iraq.

But it wasn’t all Armenians, just those in the troublesome eastern vilâyets. Of the estimated 1,137,000 Armenians in the Empire at the time, 556,000 were forced to relocate. Some were drafted as engineers or doctors or laborers into the Ottoman army. More than half of the Armenians in the empire were not forced to move That included Armenian populations in large cities like Istanbul.

The Ottomans were pursuing, by this time, something like a modern counter-insurgency program. That included populations sympathetic to guerillas in the most troubled areas. The Ottomans were draining the sea the Armenian revolutionaries swam in.

Did Armenians forced to move die? Most definitely. McCarthy talks in detail about the problems of estimating Armenian mortality. Only figures from Anatolia from a 1912 census provide a reliable starting point. It listed a population of 1,465,00. Seemingly by 1922, when the Ottoman Empire was no more, Armenians worldwide (including 70,000 in Turkey) numbered 880.000.

The forcible migration of the Armenians was marked by government incompetence (especially the notion that families could take their farm animals along) and a lack of resources. Disease and starvation killed the most. But they also killed the majority of Muslims forced out of their lands by Russians and Armenians. Deaths from disease were also quite prevalent in the Ottoman army.

Corrupt officials were a factor. Muslim and Kurd bands extorted from Armenians in transit and killed some though most of the murderers seem to have been by Muslims probably as revenge for their own problems. The Kurds seemed to mostly content themselves with shakedowns, but a lack of money for supplies could be a death sentence for an Armenian.

McCarthy takes some time tackling the inflated death numbers the proponents of an Armenian Genocide come up with. He also addresses the many dubious definitions of genocide, some so broad as to be useless.

The better ones address the idea of intentionality, and it is on this basis McCarthy says the Armenian Genocide didn’t occur. In resettlement camps and in columns on the way to them, the Armenians were under the power of the Ottomans. Why not kill them then? Why did the Ottomans allow American aid to the Armenians if they wanted them all dead? Why weren’t the Armenians inhabiting their very biggest cities and most vulnerable to control, allowed to still exist? Unlike the Armenians and Russians, the Ottoman Empire actually heard war crime charges against members of its government and army. About ten percent of those accused were executed.

McCarthy continues his story of Armenian and Turkish relations up through the end of the Ottoman Empire. That account includes atrocities committed by Armenians.

McCarthy’s book includes an index, many valuable maps and charts, and is written in a concise manner suited to its purpose as an introductory primer for this complicated subject. It succeeds in being quite readable and informative.

3 thoughts on “Turks and Armenians

  1. Edward January 9, 2023 / 6:14 pm

    Well, this will be a firm whack of a hornets nest with a big stick. While standing directly underneath it. I suppose I shall have to read the book rather than wait for film version. All history is slippery, Europe’s relations with “the sick man of Europe” is slipperier than most.

    • marzaat January 9, 2023 / 6:47 pm

      We’ll see. The rare controversial review I do isn’t intended to provoke. But I don’t steer clear of provocation either.

      Turkish-European relations will show up again when I review Sean McMeekin’s The Ottoman Endgame.

  2. Carl Rosenberg January 9, 2023 / 6:41 pm

    I haven’t read this book, but I’m leery of flat-out denials of the genocide perpetrated against the Armenians, just as I am of similar denials of the Holocaust, etc.

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