By Professor Justin McCarthy
Committee on International Relations, House of Representatives. 104 Congress, 2nd Session May 15, 1996
The history of the Armenian Turkish conflict is complicated and contentious, impossible to describe accurately in statements of one-sided guilt such as the one presently before Congress.
Ethnic conflict between Turks and Armenians actually began more than 100 years before World War I. Actions of the Russian Empire precipitated the conflict. In 1800, Armenians were scattered within and beyond a region that now encompasses Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Eastern Turkey. In all but small districts, Armenians were a minority which had been under Muslim, primarily Turkish, rule for 700 years. The Russian Empire had begun the imperial conquests of the Muslim lands south of the Caucasus Mountains. One of their main weapons was the transfer of populations – deportation. They ruthlessly expelled whole Muslim populations, replacing them with Christians whom they felt would be loyal to a Christian government. Armenians were a major instrument of this policy. Like others in the Middle East, the primary loyalty of Armenians was religious. Many Armenians resented being under Muslim rule, and they were drawn to a Christian State and to offers of free land (land which had been seized from Turks and other Muslims). A major population exchange began. In Erivan Province (today the Armenian Republic) a Turkish majority was replaced by Armenians. In other regions such as coastal Georgia, Circassia, and the Crimea, other Christian groups were brought in to replace expelled Muslims. There was massive Muslim mortality in some cases up to one third of the Muslims died.
The Russians expelled 1.3 million Muslims from 1827 to 1878. One result of this migration, serving the purposes of the Russians, was the development of ethnic hatred and ethnic conflict between Armenians and Muslims. Evicted Muslims who had seen their families die in the Russian Wars felt animosity toward Armenians. Armenians who hated Muslim rule looked to the Russians as liberators. Armenians cooperated with Russian invaders of Eastern Anatolia in wars in 1828, 1854, and 1877. When the Russians retreated, Armenians feared Muslim retaliation and fled. Hatred grew on both sides.
The situation was exacerbated by rebellions of Armenian revolutionaries in the 1890s in which cities in Eastern Anatolia were seized and many Muslims and Armenians were killed. Intercommunal warfare between Turks and Armenians in Azerbaijan during the Russian Revolution of 1905 added to the peoples’ distrust of each other. Muslims and Armenians were now divided into sides, antagonists. Each group believed that in a war they would be killed if they did not kill first, a classic self-fulfilling prophecy. Most Muslims and most Armenians had no wish to be a part of this, but they were caught in the awful consequences of their expectations and their history.
Intercommunal war erupted when the Ottoman Empire entered World War I. Armenian revolutionaries, many trained in Russia attempted to seize main Ottoman cities in Eastern Anatolia. They took the city of Van and held it until Russia invaders arrived, killing all but a few of the Muslims of the city and surrounding villages. In the countryside, Muslim tribesmen killed the Armenians who fell into their hands. Armenian and Kurdish bands killed throughout the East, and massacre was the rule of the time. Russian and Ottoman regular troops were less murderous, but they too gave little quarter to those viewed as the enemy. Some of the worst civilian deaths of Turks and Armenians came at the end of the war. The killing went on until 1920. Many more died of starvation and disease than from bullets.
The results were among the worst seen in warfare. More than forty per cent of the Anatolian Armenians died; similar mortality was the fate of the Muslims of the war zone. In the province of Van, for example, 60% of the Muslims were lost by war’s end.
During the war, each side engaged in de facto deportations of the other. When the Russians and Armenians triumphed, all the Muslims were exiled, as were all the Armenians when the Ottomans triumphed. The Ottoman government also organized an official deportation of Armenians in areas under their control. None of these deportations was wholly justified by wartime necessity, but the deportations were not acts of one-sided genocide on the part of either Turks or Armenians.
It is the Muslim actions against Armenians that have been called genocide, an accusation that is primarily based on counting only the Armenian dead, not the Muslim dead. I do not believe the Ottoman government ever intended a genocide of Armenians. This conclusion is based on both evidence and logic:
Of the masses of secret deportation orders seen to date not one orders murder. Instead, they order Ottoman officials to protect deported Armenians. It has been argued that the Ottomans must have sent out another set of secret orders, contradicting the first set of secret orders, which were a subterfuge. This assumes that the Ottomans deliberately confused their own officials in wartime so that future historians would be fooled a more than unlikely proposition.
Large Armenian populations, such as those of Istanbul and other major cities, remained throughout the war. These were areas where Ottoman power was greatest and genocide would have been easiest. To decide whether genocide was intended, it is instructive to compare this to the Nazi genocide of the Jews. The Jews of Berlin were killed, their synagogues defiled. The Armenians of Istanbul lived through the war, their churches open.
Another telling argument against genocide is that hundreds of thousands of Armenians survived deportation to the Arab World. If genocide were intended, it must be believed that the Ottomans could not manage to kill them, even though these Armenians were completely under Ottoman control for three years. This is not believable.
It was in fact in the regions where Ottoman control was weakest that columns of Armenian deportees suffered most. The stories of the time give many examples of columns of hundreds of Armenians guarded by perhaps two government guards. When the columns were attacked by tribesmen or bandits, Armenians were robbed and killed. It must be remembered that these tribes were those who had themselves suffered greatly at the hands of Armenians and Russians. Were the Ottomans guilty? They were guilty of not properly protecting their citizens. Given the situation of the time, with Turks and Kurds fighting for their lives against Russians and Armenians, this is understandable, although it is never excusable for a government not to protect its people. Conditions are best illustrated in the Van province, where Muslim mortality was greatest. The central government ordered the Van governor to send gendarmes, rural policemen, to guard columns of Armenian deportees. He responded that he had forty gendarmes at his disposal all the others were fighting at the Russian Front The 40 gendarmes were protecting Muslim villages against Armenian attacks. He refused to let the Muslims be killed by Armenians so that Armenians could be protected from Muslims.
While Ottoman weakness should be censured. should we not also ask how well Armenians and Russians protected the Turks and Kurds who fell under their control? The answer is that in provinces such as Van, where intercommunal fighting was fiercest, Muslims who could not escape from Armenian bands were killed. Virtually the entire Muslim population of southeast and far eastern Anatolia either became refugees or died. Like the deportation of Armenians, this too was a deportation with great mortality. It should also be recorded when the evils of deportation are considered.
Few of the historical questions raised by the Muslim Armenian conflict can be answered in a short description such as the above, nor can they be answered by Congressional votes. Why then has the Congress sometimes in the past voted condemnation of one side in the conflict?
One reason is that we have all been conditioned to expect a world of heroes and villains, or victims and villains. This feeling has sometimes caused Americans to misinterpret events, particularly in the Middle East. However, it is the Holocaust of the Jews that has most deeply and properly affected us. Our remembrance of the evils of Nazi Germany has unfortunately caused us to see other events of history through the glass of the Holocaust. In the Holocaust, an innocent people was persecuted and annihilated. There was no Jewish threat to the German State. Yet the full force of a modern state was mobilized to slaughter the innocent. We naturally think of the Holocaust when we evaluate other examples of inhumanity. But no event of history can compare to the Holocaust. Indeed, in history most loss of civilian life has taken place in wars in which both sides were armed, both sides fought, and both sides were victims. World War I in Anatolia was such a war.
Assuming one-sided evil has led to an unfortunate approach to the history of the Armenians and the Turks. Instead of investigating the history of the time without prejudice, all the guilt has been attached to one side. Once the Turks were assumed to be guilty, the search was on to find proof. The process has been one of assertion and refutation. It was asserted that Talat Pasha, the Ottoman Interior Minister, had written telegrams ordering the murder of Armenians, but these proved to be forgeries. It was asserted that statistics supposedly “from the Armenian Patriarchate” proved that Armenians were a majority in Eastern Anatolia, but these statistics were found to have been created, without reference to any actual records, by a writer in Paris. It was asserted that letters published during World War I by the British Propaganda Office showed Turkish guilt, but these have proven to have been sent by missionaries and Armenian revolutionaries, both of whom were less than neutral sources. It was asserted that courts martial by a post war Turkish government proved that Turks had engaged in genocide, although careful examination of the records shows that the charges were included among long lists of crimes brought by a government under control of British occupiers lists that include all sorts of actions that are demonstrably false and include anything that would please the conquerors.
The problem with these assertions is that the accusations have been given wide distribution, while the refutations have been generally know only to historians. For example, so few have seen actual population statistics that it is commonly believed that Armenians were a majority in what is still called Armenia, even though Muslims actually outnumbered Armenians three to one. The British propaganda descriptions of Armenian deaths, all of them from anonymous sources, has often been reprinted, with no mention that the Armenian revolutionary parties were a source. Nor is it mentioned that historians have proven that the British propagandists routinely invented their “evidence.” Those who speak of supposed evidence from the period when the British occupied Istanbul neglect to mention that the British themselves, who had complete control over all Ottoman official records, were forced at the time to admit that they could find no evidence of an organized genocide against Armenians.
There is no time in this short statement to consider all the effects of prejudice and the power of ethnic groups in America. It can simply be said that few wished to consider any but anti Turkish statements. The Turks themselves, busy for decades with reconstruction of a war torn country, long paid little attention to what was being said of them in America. Only recently have studies questioning conventional beliefs begun to appear. Generations of Americans had been raised with one set of beliefs, and those who have brought up opposing views have been vilified, their arguments unconsidered. Sadly for those of us who firmly believe that the Holocaust took place, some scholars of the Genocide of the Jews have attacked any reconsideration of Armenian Turkish relations out of a fear that this will somehow give comfort to those who, against all evidence, disavow the Holocaust. It must also be admitted that we academics have been unwilling to undertake studies of Armenian Turkish relations, because of problems with career advancement and even physical dangers.
Should what I say here prove to the United States Congress that Turks were not guilty of one-sided genocide against Armenians? No. Nor should the statements of those with opposing views convince the Congress that their views are correct. The historical questions are too involved for easy answers or quick condemnations. History should be determined by the normal procedures of historians. We should write our books and engage in debates until we gradually come to accepted conclusions. Turkish scholars, Armenian scholars, and those of us who are neither Turks nor Armenians should not feel that Congress has decided that the issue is resolved, when we know that this is not the case. Such action can only hinder real investigation of the historical question. There is a very real threat to scholarship when one group of scholars must face the awful and undeserved title of Genocide deniers when they do their proper work.
There is a statement on the Turkish Armenian conflict that Congress can justifiably pass, but it is a general humanitarian statement. The lesson to be learned from the World War I experience or the Turks and the Armenians is not that one group was evil, one good. The lesson is that good people, whatever their ethnic group or religion, can be driven by events, their environment, and their history to do evil, because they believe they have no choice. In the history of war, that is all too often the case. The moral to be drawn is not that one side, one ethnic group, should be blamed. That is an historical error and a wrong that perpetuates the ethnic hatred that caused the disaster of the Armenians, as well as the disaster of the Turks. The events of World War I should be honored and mourned as a human, not an ethnic tragedy. If the Congress is to make a statement on the events of World War I, I would hope it would be a statement of pity for all those who suffered that terrible history.