From LRB Vol 23, No 3 | cover date 8 February 2001
The Treatment of Armenians in the Ottoman
Empire, 1915-16: Documents Presented to Viscount Grey of Falloden by
Viscount Bryce Uncensored Edition by James Bryce and Arnold Toynbee,
edited by Ara Sarafian.
Last October James Rogan, a Republican congressman from California, and manager of the impeachment campaign against Clinton, faced the prospect of a tight re-election battle. His district had been targeted by the Democrats. Crucial to the outcome was the largest concentration of Armenian Americans in the US. To garner their 23,000 votes, Rogan - whose only-ever excursion outside the country was a trip to Armenia - proposed a non-binding Congressional resolution condemning the genocide of 1915. The outcome was a minor international crisis. The Turkish Government was enraged and threatened terrible things if the motion was carried - among them, the closure of Nato bases, crippling Allied surveillance flights over Iraq; the blocking of billion-dollar oil and arms deals; a Turkish rapprochement with Iraq and Iran. Clinton was the heaviest of the hitters deployed to stop the resolution's progress through Congress. But by then the European Parliament had passed a similar motion and so had others. In Britain, a New Labour storm has recently blown up over the new Holocaust Day commemorations and whether the Armenians were to be included. After the usual 'consultation exercise' and under the auspices of a 'steering group', the Home Office first decided that for some mysterious reason only genocides which took place after 1940 were to be mentioned. Then Armenians in the UK protested and there was a sudden change of heart. The wish to affirm Britain's 'multi-ethnic' character - the avowed purpose of the new ceremony - has brought Whitehall, like Washington, face to face with the complexities of late Ottoman history.
By the summer of 1915, the Ottoman Empire was in its death-throes. It had been the most successful empire of modern times, lasting from the 14th century to the 20th. At its height it was the dominant power in Europe. But from the late 18th century onwards, other powers meddled in its internal affairs, helping its Christian subjects - Greeks, Serbs, Wallachians - to gain their freedom. Thanks to the active sponsorship of Russia and Britain, Austria and France, these groups won autonomy and then independence. By the end of the 19th century, Christendom had regained much of Ottoman Europe as well as the fringes of the Black Sea and the Caucasus. Muslims - Circassians, Tartars, Bosnians and Turks - fled southwards to the safety of the shrinking Empire. There, too, Christian activists hoped that what the Greeks had won might yet come to them. Reports of Ottoman atrocities against Slav peasants led in 1878 to the creation of Bulgaria. Macedonian terrorists tried to provoke the Turkish authorities into violence as a way of gaining independence for Macedonia.
Within the Empire, continual international humiliation led to demands for political reform and military revitalisation. In 1908 the revolt of the Young Turks brought to power a group of officers determined to halt the Empire's decline. Like the ideologies of similar groups elsewhere - there were coups in Greece, Serbia and Portugal around this time - theirs was a confused amalgam of liberal constitutionalism and national purification. Reform-minded Christians in the Ottoman Empire soon realised that in the minds of the Young Turks dreams of pan-Islamic and pan-Turkish dominion overshadowed the battle for equal rights and parliamentary sovereignty. The nationalist turn became even more prominent after the tremendous losses of two Balkan Wars virtually ended Ottoman power in Europe. It is true that Enver Pasha, perhaps the best-known of the new elite, won huge prestige when he held the city of Edirne for the Empire (Enver Hoxha and Anwar Sadat were two of the thousands of babies to be named after the hero of the hour), but this was small compensation for losing Libya, Macedonia, Epiros and Albania. By 1913, the Empire, ruled over by a puppet Sultan, had shrunk to Istanbul, Anatolia and the Arab lands as far as Suez.
For Enver Pasha, whose meteoric rise to power was facilitated by marriage into the Ottoman dynasty, the outbreak of the First World War was an opportunity to reverse these losses, with German support. Despite Britain's entry into the war - an unpleasant shock which he had not bargained for - he saw the chance for a bold thrust eastwards into the Caucasus, regaining land lost to the Russians in 1878. Buoyed by news of German victories against the Russians at Tannenberg, he took personal command of the Ottoman Third Army, overrode the objections of field commanders and led the attack against Tsarist forces which culminated at the town of Sarikamis in January 1915. The Russians lost 16,000 men, but Enver lost 75,000. Despite his efforts to present the result as a minor setback, Sarikamis was a catastrophe. The rank and file - including Armenian soldiers in the Ottoman ranks - had fought with astonishing resilience, but their leaders had let them down badly. In February, Djemal Pasha led an attack on the Suez Canal: this, too, ended in defeat. The fact that the Russians, under pressure at Sarikamis, had asked the British to come to their aid with a diversionary attack made matters worse by bringing the British within range of Constantinople. In March, as the Commander of the Aegean Squadron, Admiral de Robeck, prepared to force a passage through the Straits, which were all that lay between him and the city, most observers anticipated the Empire's collapse.
Had the British not retreated in March and turned instead to the ill-fated Gallipoli landings, the capital must surely have fallen. Indeed, the Young Turk leadership had planned for an emergency evacuation to continue the war from Anatolia - much as actually happened in 1919. But this in turn raised the question of the security of the Anatolian heartland, inhabited not only by Turks but also by Greeks, Armenians, Kurds and others. The Ottoman leadership was deeply uncertain of the loyalty of these groups, especially with a Russian offensive looming. It had already deported Greek civilians from the Anatolian shoreline into the interior (the Russians were doing much the same with Russian Jews in Tsarist Poland, the Habsburgs with their border Serbs). But these deportations were on a relatively small scale and do not appear to have been designed to end in their victims' deaths. What was to happen with the Armenians was of a different order.
There were one and a half million Armenians in the Empire, mostly in eastern Anatolia and in Cilicia, though there was also a substantial community in Constantinople. An integral component of the Ottoman system, they had traditionally been regarded as the most loyal of the Christians - as late as 1913 the Ottoman Foreign Minister was an Armenian. But the Russian advance southwards, the growth of nationalism, and disputes over land increased anti-Armenian sentiment. The Great Powers offered their scarcely disinterested support.
Between 1894 and 1896, at least a hundred thousand Armenians had died in massacres in eastern Anatolia. Armenian revolutionary nationalists had provoked the regime of the Sultan Abdul Hamid II in the hope of prompting a Russian intervention comparable to the one that had liberated the Balkans in 1878, but the Russians did not move. The massacres followed. The revolutionaries, their terror strategy discredited, retreated into exile, where they built up close links with the Sultan's main opponents, the Young Turks. In 1909, shortly after the Young Turk revolution, supporters of the Sultan carried out another massacre, this time in the town of Adana, in western Anatolia, in which perhaps twenty thousand Armenians died. The Young Turks spoke out against this, but the rift between them and the Armenian nationalists was growing wider. The war made it unbridgeable.
In the spring of 1914, Russian pressure obliged the Porte to place Armenian districts in eastern Anatolia under international supervision - exactly the kind of scheme which a few years earlier had led to eventual autonomy and independence in Macedonia. Had the party of war not prevailed in Istanbul, this arrangement might well have ensured a very different future for Turkish-Armenian relations. As it was, one of the Ottoman Government's first wartime acts was to revoke it. On 16 September, Tsar Nicholas told the Armenians that 'the hour of liberty' had 'finally sounded' for them. Several thousand Armenians from Ottoman provinces enlisted in the Russian Army. In the aftermath of the defeat at Sarikamis, offers of assistance came flooding in.
In this dangerous situation Ottoman Armenian leaders counselled absolute loyalty to the Porte. But Enver and his circle needed scapegoats for their recent military failures, and were committed to asserting the state's power over all potentially subversive groups. Even though Enver himself had congratulated the Armenian Patriarch on the courage of Armenian conscripts, the latter were consigned to labour battalions. Enver's brother-in-law, who had been appointed Governor of Van in February, shortly after Sarikamis, now embarked on the slaughter of the Armenian population of this border region. According to the inspector-general of the Ottoman forces in Anatolia, the Governor of Van had given an order 'to exterminate all Armenian males of 12 years and over'. On 20 April, the Armenians of Van rose in self-defence, and held on till a Russian advance reached them in May. Four days later, as British forces were about to land at Gallipoli, Armenian deputies and former ministers were arrested. In Anatolia, the killings and deportations spread, supposedly to clear sensitive combat zones of potential fifth-columnists. Reports of massacre were so widespread that the British, Russian and French Governments issued a joint declaration deploring 'these new crimes of Turkey against humanity and civilisation'. (The word 'humanity' replaced 'Christianity', which had appeared in an earlier draft.) The signatories warned that they would hold members of the Ottoman Government personally responsible. But the massacres continued. What ensued is described in the collection of documents under review. (The original, censored version withheld proper names and sources.) At the end of August, during a mass held in the Armenian church in Salonika, the bishop warned that 'the Armenians of Turkey are being exterminated: for four months, massacre, rape, deportation, hanging, exile, imprisonment, dispersion of families and many other barbaric procedures have been serving the systematic extermination of a people.'
Although the Ottoman authorities referred to all these acts as 'deportations' and justified them on the grounds of national security, the numbers of those killed soon dwarfed the massacres of the late 19th century. In June, the Armenian Patriarch in Constantinople told the German Ambassador Baron von Wangenheim that the policy was no longer 'temporary neutralisation' of the Armenian population, but extermination. Wangenheim, who could scarcely be accused of anti-Ottoman sentiments, came to the same conclusion in early July, noting that the deportations had reached provinces well removed from the fighting. It is the systematic nature, as well as the scale, of this mass killing which distinguishes it from such precursors as the Tsarist pogroms against the Jews, and earlier Armenian massacres, and also from the many killings of Turks and others in what was, effectively, an ethnic civil war unfolding in eastern Anatolia and the southern Caucasus. Deportation - a traditional instrument of imperial rule - had little to do with it: the old-fashioned version, which valued subject populations for economic reasons, aimed to relocate rather than destroy them. By the time the killing wound down, perhaps as many as one million Armenians were dead; most of the survivors had fled.
Who had been in charge? The Sultan was a mere figurehead, the Parliament irrelevant; even senior Army commanders were powerless against men who were nominally their juniors in rank. The shadowy Committee of Union and Progress had no opposition: its triumvirs - Enver Pasha (Minister of War and effective Commander-in-Chief), Talaat Pasha (Grand Vizier and Minister of the Interior) and Djemal Pasha - reigned supreme. The Committee itself was an unstable amalgam of many factions which feuded incessantly; its members were activists, many were military men or rough types who had resorted more than once to assassination. Mustafa Kemal, the future architect of the Turkish Republic, was a member, though not a leading one. As in all combatant states, the war had militarised every aspect of government, and power lay chiefly in the hands of hardline nationalists.
Working through the military, the regional bureaucrats and Enver's own secret service, the Teskilat-i Mahsusa, which carried out his dirty work throughout the Empire, the new leadership had begun preparations for the killings perhaps as early as February 1915. Other members of the Ottoman elite were kept in the dark. A few tried to denounce or obstruct the atrocities and were replaced. Via Armenian intermediaries, Djemal, third of the triumvirs, made an astonishing secret offer to the Entente: he would bring the killing to an end if they would support his bid to become Sultan. As for public sentiment, the evidence indicates both popular participation - massacre is always a quick means of enrichment - and opposition. From Erzerum, for instance, comes a report of July 1915 that 'the Turkish people itself is absolutely not in agreement with this solution and feels already the economic decline which has affected the province since the Armenians were chased out.' Yet opposition remained ineffectual.
In the eyes of the West, the supposed Turkish propensity for atrocity had long been a strong argument for ending Ottoman rule over Christians. No doubt this is why in 1916 the Entente was not content simply to issue a warning to the perpetrators of crimes against the Armenians, but collected and published evidence of their wrong-doing. James Bryce, who together with the young historian Arnold Toynbee was responsible for the dossier submitted to Edward Grey, was a Gladstonian Liberal with an interest in the Armenians - and a contempt for Turkish rule - which stretched back forty years. Bryce and Toynbee's research (see extracts below) exemplified a crucial stage in the evolution of Western attitudes towards crimes against humanity, a midpoint, so to speak, between the paternalist interventions of the 19th-century Concert of Europe and the post-World War Two creation of the United Nations and international instruments such as the Genocide Convention.
The term 'genocide' was not coined until the Second World War - it came from Raphael Lemkin, an assiduous chronicler of Nazi occupation policies, who shared Bryce's belief that scholarship could serve the cause of justice. But the parallels between what happened to the Jews and t0 the Armenians are striking. In both cases, a murderous policy was shaped in wartime by high officials of state with far more single-minded objectives than those of their populations at large. They prevailed thanks to their control of the machinery of violence, both formal and informal, and to the resources that accrued to them from sudden large-scale dispossession. The killing in 1915 was not industrialised, as it would become in the later stages of the Holocaust: the murderers of the late Ottoman state relied on the harsh weather and arid terrain, as well as compliant nomads and military units. There were a few loopholes which did not exist for the Jews - conversion to Islam, escape to neighbouring provinces. The goal was not total racial annihilation - Armenians survived in Istanbul, Izmir and elsewhere - so much as the elimination of Armenians as a factor of any consequence in the life of the country. Though both reg-imes felt themselves to be beleaguered, there was a world of difference between the Nazis, who dominated the continent of Europe in the early 1940s, and the Ottomans, who faced the very real prospect of defeat and partition in 1915. But there is enough similarity between the crimes of 1915-16 and the Final Solution for the earlier events to qualify as genocide.
There is room, of course, for disagreement and a need to clarify terms. In the universities, a new sub-field of genocide studies has developed over the last few years and scholarly journals are devoted to the study of massacres and atrocities. What is astonishing is how far an academic dispute about terminology has pushed itself into the public domain. The question of whether they were victims of genocide now matters intensely to the Armenians, whose lobbying has brought this issue to the fore again and again in the past few years; and it matters equally to the Turkish authorities, who do not seem to blanch at the term 'massacre' but are beside themselves when the G-word is mentioned.
In 1918, following the Armistice, the new Imperial Government in Constantinople began its own investigation into the massacres and indicted Enver, Talaat and 20 other defendants before a military court. The Armenian issue had entered Ottoman politics, and there were Turkish denunciations of 'the immense wrong done to the Armenian people'. On the other hand, the nationalist opposition, which believed that, by fighting on, Turkey could be saved, regarded such apologies as abject and intended merely to curry favour with the West. The French, Italians, Greeks and British were all advancing claims to Ottoman territory. The Armenians themselves declared a Republic, which was recognised in 1920 by the Allies and accepted in the Treaty of Sèvres. If the nationalists - among whom Mustafa Kemal was now the rising star - repudiated Enver and his legacy, it was not because of his crimes but because he had failed. Enver, Talaat and Djemal escaped abroad; all died within a few years - the last two at the hands of Armenian gunmen.
Against the odds, the nationalists prevailed, and out of the rubble of war arose the Republic of Turkey. The Armenians were deserted by their supposed friends. Republics and mandates evaporated; the eastern provinces of Turkey were retained. A Greek invasion was beaten back, and Anatolia's Greek population sent with it: the Greco-Turkish population exchange of 1923 saw the compulsory transfer of two million people. The Treaty of Sèvres was superseded by that of Lausanne, which made no mention of 'Armenia' at all. Two major Kurdish uprisings were crushed at a cost of between 40,000 and 100,000 lives. In fact and in law, the Republic of Ataturk was coming closer to its ruler's ideal of a predominantly Turkish Anatolian homeland. The Armenians scattered, some to the USSR, the remainder to camps and shanty towns in Europe and the United States. It took the best part of half a century to turn Erevan into a modern city and to see the Armenian American diaspora become a wealthy, largely professional community more than half a million strong. Between the wars, their problems were overshadowed by others'. When it appeared in 1933 Franz Werfel's novel The Forty Days of Musa Dagh annoyed both the Turkish and the German authorities by its use of the Armenian tragedy to warn the world against Nazism. But in general there was little discussion of what had happened, and little controversy in the decades before and immediately after the Second World War.
Although American Armenian organisations have supported the ratification of the Genocide Convention since 1950, it was not until 1965 that the Armenian issue returned to grab the world's headlines - and it has done so with increasing regularity since the early 1980s. The 50th anniversary of the killings was commemorated by Armenians around the world, and not long afterwards a wave of terrorism, distinct from that of the early 1920s, led to the assassination of more than twenty Turkish diplomats. From bases in Lebanon, Armenian groups struck in the US, France and elsewhere. In the 1980s, activists turned to public lobbying, especially in the US, where they have been helped by the national obsession with the Holocaust and by a growing interest in genocide as a historical phenomenon. The Armenian Assembly of America, founded in 1972, today has seven thousand individual and organisational members and a budget of $2.5 million. It grades members of Congress according to which way they cast their votes on Armenian issues and has focused lately on trying to get the 1915 massacres officially recognised as a genocide. The Turkish Government has retaliated, paying millions of dollars to diplomats, academics and lobbyists to counter the Armenian effort.
Why does it matter whether or not the massacres are 'officially' a genocide? Does it have something to do with claims to land, money, property? This is not clear. For many Armenian activists, restitution or compensation remain desirable goals - especially given the example set by the Germans - while some nationalists still regard the borders as an open issue. Others, following the cultural dictates of the day, just want some form of public apology from the Turkish state, an indication of goodwill and a notification of regret or, better, remorse. In a world where victimhood has become a desirable status, the Armenians insist on what is rightfully theirs. Meanwhile, preserving the memory of catastrophe has become a means of keeping a diaspora identity alive, rather as the memory of the Holocaust has done for American Jewry.
Perhaps more baffling than the Armenians' demand for acknowledgment of what they suffered is the continued Turkish refusal to supply it. Continuities of personnel and ideology carried over from Enver's reign into the Republic of Ataturk: men who subsequently enjoyed prestige and wealth in interwar Turkey were deeply complicit in the crimes of 1915. Ataturk did not rescue Turkey singlehandedly - except in the myth - and Enver's Teskilat organisation was helpful even after Enver had gone. Thus far, the Kemalist legacy may be said to entail an equivocal attitude towards the massacres. But if Ataturk's Republic was emphatic in repudiating the Ottoman past in most other areas, why has it not been able to do so in this case? Do Turkish politicians fear the thin end of the wedge? Can Ankara believe that a major power would today try to have Turkey's eastern boundaries redrawn, or back the claims of the Armenians for monetary compensation? Turkey's overwhelming importance in Eurasia makes this unlikely, while the Republic of Armenia itself has too many pressing internal and external problems to pose any kind of threat.
It seems to me that there is something else at stake, less materialistic and more intimately bound up with official Turkish self-perceptions. If today's authorities find an expression of regret beyond them it is not so much because they wish to protect the reputation of their forefathers, but more generally because they are highly sensitive to their country's image in the world, and recognise, in a way most Europeans do not, just how anti-Turkish sentiment in the West has been for centuries. The redoubtable traveller Edith Durham once remarked that Europe was quick to condemn Muslim violence towards Christians but remained indifferent when the tables were turned. Even today, 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. Indeed, the official Turkish response is invariably to remind critics of this fact - an unconvincing justification for genocide, to be sure, but an expression of underlying resentment. To acknowledge the mass murder of the Armenians may run the risk of confirming the one-sided European stereotype of the 'barbarous Turk'. Turkey's prestige, on this line of argument, is best served by resolute denial, even though the consequence is that the genocide has a significance for the modern Republic that acceptance would help to efface.
And yet of course there are many Turks - some in public, more in private: businessmen, intellectuals and political liberalisers - who agree that a change of position is overdue. Unfortunately for them, the legacy of the generals' coup in 1980 has been a renewed militarisation of Turkish politics and an obsession with national security and territorial integrity. Turgut Ozal and his successors have tried gradually to erode the Army's power, but its domination of civilian politics remains enshrined in the Constitution. Globalisation, the ending of the Cold War, and, not least, the prospect of entry into the European Union may one day soon encroach on the neo-Kemalist values of the military, but for the moment, they remain supreme. These values are not checked, as they are elsewhere, by the forces of institutionalised religion or dynastic authority - they were smashed in the revolution that created the Republic. Nor has modern Turkey suffered the profound humiliation of defeat, as happened in Greece. Continued instability in the post-Soviet Caucasus preserves its influence internationally. What would it mean, given this balance of forces, for the Turkish Government to express public regret for what the Ottoman state did to the Armenians? It would imply facing up to the murderous consequences of military dominance in Turkey after 1913. It would mean accepting that modern Turkey was born not only out of heroic resistance to the Allies and the glorious war against the Greeks, but also from the more shameful war against largely unarmed Armenians. It would mean a dramatic shift in the civil-military power struggle within Turkey, and signal the beginnings of a new or at any rate modified foundation myth for the Republic itself. It would also be a sign of vitality and resilience in Turkish society, an indication that Ataturk's work had been done, and that the country could now move on. But before this happens, it is likely that Armenians and Turks will be locked in the struggle of memory for some time to come.
Mark Mazower has been elected Anniversary Professor of History at Birkbeck College, London.