The Events of 1915

The Events of 1915: An Overview

The final years of the Ottoman Empire was a tragic period for the people that made up the Empire. Be it Muslim or Christian, Turk, Kurd, Arab or Armenian, all subjects of the Empire suffered immensely. There were times of “great calamity” for all the nations of the dissolving Empire. The upheavals, inter-communal warfare and the interventions of the big powers shaped the events of the period. More than 5 Million Muslims perished during the forced deportation from their lands in the Balkans and the Caucasus due to massive illnesses and starvation.  This period needs to be understood in its entirety and the memory of so many lives lost has to be properly respected. Such an exercise requires a reliable factual basis, an open approach, and empathy.

Fire burns the place where it falls. It is a duty of humanity to acknowledge that Armenians remember the suffering experienced in that period, like every other constituent nation of the Ottoman Empire

The Armenian narrative, however, selects only the Armenian suffering, devoid it from its context and presents it as a genocide – a crime that can only be denoted in accordance to international law – perpetrated by Turks against Armenians. The acceptance of this one-sided narrative by others without any critical discussion has become the national objective for Armenia and the radical groups within the Armenian Diaspora. Legitimate challenges, to the Armenian narrative, despite being based on scholarly research or personal histories, are brushed aside, suppressed or attacked as “denial.” This is often accompanied by anti-Turkish rhetoric and vilification of Turkish identity and ancestry. During the 1970s and onwards, such nationalistic zeal led to a terror campaign that took the lives of 31 Turkish diplomats and their family members, over 70 people in total from Turkish and other nationalities, and wounded many.

As a consequence, eight centuries of Turkish-Armenian relationship, which was predominantly about friendship, tolerance and peaceful coexistence, is forgotten. Instead, only an incriminating version of the tragic events of 1915 is taken to represent this relationship. Such an atmosphere makes it difficult for the two nations to come to terms openly with what happened during the First World War, draw the right lessons – instead of animosity – from their common history and renew their friendship. That is why Turkey supports an open dialogue with Armenia.

Turkey does not deny the suffering of Armenians, including the loss of many innocent lives, during the First World War. However, greater numbers of Turks died or were killed in the years leading to and during the War. Without belittling the tragic consequences for any group, Turkey objects to the one-sided presentation of this tragedy as a genocide by one group against another.

The first Prime Minister of Armenian Democratic Republic Hovhannes Katchaznouni : “In the fall of 1914 Armenian volunteer units organized themselves and fought against the Turks…We had no doubt that the war would end with the complete victory of the Allies; Turkey would be defeated and dismembered…” (1923)

Turkey’s views are based on archival documents, academic research, oral history, knowledge of late 19th and early 20th century dynamics of major power rivalries in Europe, the recognition of the effects of nationalistic fervor among ethnic groups that formed the multi-national fabric of the Empire, as well as Turkey’s own collective national memory including family histories of many Turks. These documental facts point to an empire at the verge of collapse fighting for survival on various fronts, major European powers strategizing, at least since the 1870s, to exploit the spoils, including the manipulation of ethnic groups like the Ottoman Armenians, politically-motivated missionary activities within Ottoman Turkey, radicalization and militarization of nationalistic Armenian groups, some of whom joined forces with the invading Russian army in the hope of creating an ethnically homogenous Armenian homeland. The then leader of the Dashnak Party, Hovhannes Katchaznouni, who became the first Prime Minister of the short lived independent Armenian Democratic Republic stated the following at the official Dashnagzoutiun Convention held in Bucharest in 1923: “In the fall of 1914 Armenian volunteer units organized themselves and fought against the Turks…We had no doubt that the war would end with the complete victory of the Allies; Turkey would be defeated and dismembered…”

In response to the activities of Armenian militias, advancing with the invading Russian army the Ottoman Government ordered in 1915 the Armenian population residing in or near the war zone to be relocated to the southern Ottoman provinces away from the supply routes and army transport lines on the way of the Russian army.

Ottoman Government took a number of measures for safe transfer during the relocation. However, under war-time conditions exacerbated by internal strife, local groups seeking revenge, banditry, famine, epidemics, and a failing state apparatus (including unruly officials who were court-martialed and sentenced to capital punishment by the Ottoman Government in 1916, much before the end of the War) all combined to produce what became a tragedy.

The three pillars of the Armenian claim to classify World War I deaths as genocide fail to substantiate the charge that the Young Turk regime intentionally organized the massacres.

Guenter Lewy, Revisiting the Armenian Genocide, Middle East Quarterly, Fall 2005, pp. 3-12

 Nevertheless, no authentic evidence exists to support the claim that there was a premeditated plan by the Ottoman Government to kill off Armenians. Moreover, the Ottoman socio-cultural fabric did not harbor racist attitudes that would facilitate such a horrific crime. Loss of life, regardless of numbers and regardless of possible guilt on the part of the victims, is tragic and must be remembered. However, it is factually problematic, morally unsound and legally unfounded to call this episode a “genocide.” 

The fact remains that the events of 1915 is a matter of legitimate scholarly debate, with reputable historians on both sides.

National memories are important, but do not constitute reality by themselves. The national memories of Turks and Armenians do not support each other. Therefore the need to build trust and to reach a common and reliable basis of information becomes all the more important. In 2005, Turkey proposed to the Armenian side to establish a Joint Historical Commission to study the events of 1915 in the archives of Turkey, Armenia and in the third countries. The Joint Commission was to be composed of Turkish and Armenian, historians, scholars and researchers who would share their findings with the international public. In the same spirit, the Protocols signed in October 2009 between Turkey and Armenia included a stipulation for the “implementation of a dialogue on the historical dimension with the aim to restore mutual confidence between the two nations, including an impartial scientific examination of the historical records and archives to define existing problems and formulate recommendations.” It was hoped that the work of the Joint Historical Commission could present an opportunity for replacing the biased national narratives with the language of objective historical research. However, yielding to pressures from its diaspora and radical nationalists at home, the Armenian side did not ratify the Protocols and turned down the offer for the Joint Historical Commission. Turkey hopes that the Armenian side might eventually shed its aversion to dispassionate studies of history and, instead, aim at a scientifically reliable, mutually compatible understanding of our common painful past. Therefore, Turkey’s proposal for the joint study of history remains a valuable tool for the day when Armenia decides to take steps to resolve its continuing conflict with Azerbaijan and concomitantly creates a basis for revitalizing all aspects of its relations with Turkey.

The fact remains that the issue is a matter of legitimate scholarly debate, as underlined by the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights, with reputable historians on both sides. Privileging the Armenian views, even when reflecting well-intended attitudes to show solidarity with a group that has a painful past, does not do justice to the grievances experienced by so many. Compassion becomes problematic when it is selective.

[Doğu Perinçek on his statements in dispute], that the Court has, already accepted as relating to an issue of public concern (...), and described as a “heated debate, not only within Turkey but also in the international arena

European Court of Human Rights, Case of Perinçek vs. Switzerland Grand Chamber Judgment, 15.10.2015, para.231.

Turks and Armenians should work to rebuild their historical friendship without forgetting the difficult periods in their common past.

Although the matter has an overbearing humanitarian dimension, its legal dimension is also central to the debate. Genocide is a clearly defined crime. Genocide is not a generic word to be used loosely to describe some grave atrocity. It is the worst of crimes. Passing judgment on such an accusation should not be left to the mercy of political considerations. In this sense, Parliaments should not take the place of courts and deliver verdicts on it. In the same vein, Parliaments and other political institutions should not legislate and thereby politicize history. Such legislation is especially problematic when historians are debating the substance of the issue.

Turks and Armenians should work together to rebuild their historical friendship without forgetting the difficult periods in their common past. But in this endeavor, all sides must be honest and open-minded. Third countries can help such dialogue by supporting the normalization process between Turkey and Armenia and by resisting those who want their version of history be adopted as uncontested truth.