To understand what exactly happened between Turks and Armenians in 1915 one has to examine what happened before 1915.
Ottoman Empire was a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society reflective of the Empires of the time.
Turks and Armenians have lived in peace in Anatolia for over eight centuries. Up to 19th century Armenians were called “loyal nation” (Millet-i sadıka) because of their success in integrating to the Ottoman community. As privileged subjects of the Ottoman Empire, Armenian community was to rise to prominence as ministers, ambassadors, mayors, industrialists and businessmen. They were not discriminated in any way because of their ethnic and religious roots.
In the Ottoman time:
- Twenty-nine Armenians achieved the highest governmental rank of civilian generals (pasha);
- There were twenty-two Armenian governmental ministers. Among the posts held were the Ministries of Agriculture, Mines and Forestry, Foreign Affairs, Finance, Trade, Public Works, Post and Telegraph Services;
- Gabriel Noradunkyan, the Minister of Foreign Affairs in 1912-1913, was Armenian;
- Numerous Armenians headed governmental departments concerned with a variety of functions, including agriculture, census, and economic development;
- In the post-1876 Ottoman Chamber of Deputies (Meclis-i Mebusan), there were thirty-three elected Armenian representatives;
- Seven Armenian Ambassadors and eleven Consul-Generals and Consuls served in the Ottoman diplomatic service;
- Eleven university professors of Armenian origin brought their valuable contributions to the Ottoman academic life.
Towards the end of the 19th century, the “Entente Powers” of those days began to regard the Armenians as an important tool which could be manipulated against the Ottomans. They promised the Armenians a state of their own in Eastern Anatolia where paradoxically they constituted only a minority.
With the Berlin Conference which was held after the 1877-1878 Ottoman-Russian War, Armenians gained great political acquisitions. With Article 61 which was accepted in the Conference (The Sublime Porte undertakes to carry out, without further delay, the amelioration and reforms demanded by local requirements in the provinces inhabited by the Armenians, and to guarantee their security against the Circassians and Kurds. It will periodically make known the steps taken to this effect to the Powers, who will superintend their application), “The Armenian Issue” was brought to the agenda in the international arena.
It was with the creation of two radical revolutionary Armenian committees, the Hinchag Committee formed in Geneva, Switzerland in 1887, and the Dashnag Committee, established in Tbilisi, Georgia in 1890, that Armenian national aspirations began to assume the more classical form which the Ottomans had come to know and worry in the previous half-century. After that with these Committees provocations and foreign subsidized rebellions were started in different cities of the Ottoman Empire. The first big Armenian rebellion was started in Van in 1896. After government’s quashing the rebellion Armenian organizations continued their activities and they made many rebellions in different cities.
The start of World War I and the entry of the Ottoman State into the war against the Allied Powers were seen as a great opportunity by these revolutionary groups. They revolted against the Ottoman Government, collaborated with the invading Russian Armies and other foreign forces, launching attacks on the Ottoman army and Muslim civilians from behind the front and engaging in acts of sabotage. In March 1915, the Russian forces began to move toward Van. After the failure of Sarıkamış Operation, on April 11, 1915, the Armenians of Van initiated a general revolt which is the second rebellion of Armenians in Van, massacring all the Turks in the vicinity to enable the city’s quick and easy conquest by the Russians. As a result, Ottoman Government enacted the Relocation Law on May 27, 1915. The Armenians who were living around strategic military locations were to be relocated to other areas far from the war zone.
When we analyze the 1915 Events in the historical context, the Ottoman Government which was facing enormous internal and external threats such as terrorist attacks, rebellions and cooperation with enemies resorted to a defensive measure and increased precautions. Accordingly, these precautions were not pre-planned and they have no political purpose based on a certain ideology. On the contrary, they are implemented because of military and security related needs.
Military historians say that Ottoman Government was forced to enact the Relocation Law of May 27, 1915 because of the military necessities and the threat of separatist movements.
The other point to be noted was that Armenians were not foreseen to be deported, but were relocated to the places outside the Ottoman war zones. Armenians living in Eastern Anatolia were transferred to places within other Ottoman regions, reserving their right to return back to their homes after the end of the war.
The transfer started after necessary preparations. Meanwhile, Armenians living in areas outside the military operations were not part of the resettlement process. Thus, the Armenians living in Istanbul, Kütahya and Aydın were not affected by this law. The decision made by the Ottoman Government was not an extension of any ideology.
In this law, every measure was foreseen to be taken to ensure the security of the Armenians subjected to relocation. The Ottoman Government instructed the local authorities to take the necessary security measures for the orderly relocation of the Armenians. Moreover, officials or civilians who disobeyed the instructions of the Government and committed offences against Armenian convoys were tried by the Military Courts (“Divan-i Harbi Örfi, 1915-1916). The Courts decided to take 1763 people into custody and passed death sentences for 67 individuals. The documents relating to the case are available in the Ottoman archives. Despite these measures, war conditions, local gangs, robbery, local feelings of hatred and vengeance have prompted attacks towards the convoys during the transfer process. The Government tried to prevent them. As a matter of fact, there were very limited attacks on the Armenian convoys in the regions where the state authority was relatively high. Insufficiency of food and other means in war days, heavy climatic conditions and outbreaks of epidemic diseases like typhus had also led to the increase of loss of human lives. In fact, the said time period was an era in which all Anatolian peoples shared the same fate. It should be noted that 3 million people, mostly civilian Muslims, died in Anatolia during World War I. Those who perished in the hands of Armenian bands reached 524, 000 between the years 1914 through 1922.
How did a state, willing to annihilate Armenians and targeting to massacre, try officials or civilians who committed offences against Armenian convoys? And why did this state adopt a special law to take the necessary security measures for the orderly relocation of the Armenians? The circles claiming the 1915 events as “genocide” cannot respond to these questions. Also, the answers for these questions prove that there was no intent on the part of Ottomans to destroy the Armenians.
In the Ottoman period, Armenians was fully integrated to the Ottoman society and bureaucracy. Even, it is well known fact that the Committee of Union and Progress who adopted the Relocation Law, cooperated with the Armenian groups during and after the advent to power. Many Armenians were elected as Parliamentarians in the general elections of 1908, 1912 and 1914 from the list of the Committee of Union and Progress. Among these Bedros Hallaçyan served as Minister of Trade and Public Works two times as well as a member of the Central Committee of the Committee of Union and Progress.
After World War I, the Armenian allegations were investigated between 1919 and 1922, as part of the legal process against the Ottoman officials. Subsequently, 144 Ottoman high officials were arrested and deported for trial by Great Britain to the island of Malta.
The information that led to these arrests was mainly provided by local Armenians and the Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul. So while the deportees were under detention in Malta, the British occupation forces in Istanbul, which had absolute power and authority in the Ottoman capital, looked frantically everywhere to find evidence in order to incriminate the deportees.
However, no evidence, demonstrating that the Ottoman Government, the members of the Committee of Union and Progress and the Ottoman officials deported to Malta either sanctioned or encouraged the killings of the Armenians, was found.
Moreover, no evidence could be found to this effect in the American and French archives. After two years and four months of detention in Malta, all the deportees were set free without trial.
Within the framework of the efforts to equate the events of 1915 with the Holocaust, various Armenian groups recently claim that the ruling the Committee of Union and Progress during the period of World War I, with a Social Darwinist ideology, tried to apply a repressive “Turkification” policy and aimed to annihilate Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.
In this framework, one of the concepts is formed as a racism targeting to collective identity instead of a racism rejecting in terms of biology. Numerous historians who are experts of the Committee of Union and Progress disclosed that this argument was thoroughly baseless, since the Committee of Union and Progress did not have a monolithic ideology. The Holocaust was a horrific outcome of centuries-long racist ideology penetrated into the European society. In the Ottoman Empire, such a racist ideology against the Armenian subjects of the Empire never existed. There was, in no way, Turkish-Armenian discrimination in terms of administration.
On the other hand, Ottoman Empire sent Notes to the Governments of Spain, The Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden on February 1919 and asked them to assign two legal experts and form an enquiry commission to investigate the claims of Armenian massacres. Unfortunately, this initiative has remained inconclusive due to the British intervention.
The ones who support the Armenian allegations overestimate the number of the Armenian losses during the relocation, above the historical facts.
According to the latest Ottoman census figures, which was taken in 1914, total number of the Armenian population within the Ottoman territory was 1.295.000, during the time of the census.
It is estimated that the total number of the Armenians, whom were relocated within the context of a military necessity on a temporary basis were around 702,900.
The allegation towards all the Armenian relocatees were massacred and annihilated is far from truth as well as historical facts and objectivity.
It is a fact that some Armenians lost their lives during the relocation. However, the radical factions of the Armenian diaspora began to argue that the death toll of the Armenian relocatees were 600.000 just after the WWI. Later on, this number has been increased up to first 800,000 and then to 1,5 -2 millions.
It is not possible to determine the exact number of Armenians who lost their lives during WWI. In fact, this is not the case solely for the Armenians, but all the citizens of the Empire whom lost their lives during WWI. Due to the reason that the Ottoman Administration did not keep the records of the deaths during the wars, it is not possible to estimate the definite death toll during the war.
In this regard, the best possible guess is to try to estimate the total number of citizens of Armenian origin of the Empire. Accordingly, some statistical estimation can be made from this.
Set aside the inflated and fabricated statistical figures, which have been produced in order to make contribution to the radical Armenian propaganda, the statistical figures of the reliable sources with regard to the total number of Armenians within the Ottoman territory differ between 1.056,000 and 1.555,000 This is in parallelism with the figures of the latest Ottoman census, which is around 1.295,000.
Talat Pasha, in his speech delivered during the last congress of the Committee of Union and Progress which was in Nov. 1st, 1918, argued that the total number of the Armenian deaths were around 300,000.
Boghos Nubar Pasha, who was one of the prominent figures of the Armenian independence movement, in his speech at the Paris Peace Conference (1918), stated that 280,000 Armenians had stayed after the WWI and 700,000 Armenians had fled to the other countries.
This number overlaps with the estimate towards 300,000 Armenians had lost their lives during WWI.
There is a conflict of memories between the Turkish and Armenian nations with regard to the events of 1915. Turkey does not have any intentions towards imposing her own memory records over the others. However, no one has the right to impose its own memory records on Turkey either.
Republic of Turkey, has supported the idea of the events of 1915 should be evaluated by historians.
Prime Minister of the Republic of Turkey, HE. Mr. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has sent a letter to the President of Armenia then H.E. Mr. Kocharian in April 10th, 2005 and proposed to establish a commission of historians and scholars of the relevant fields in order to conduct a scientific research and announce its results. The commission that was envisaged to be established, had been proposed to conduct its research not only in the Turkish and Armenian archives, but also within the relevant archives of the third countries. Additionally, the Turkish Grand National Assembly, in its declaration dated 13th April 2005 with regard to the Armenian allegations, indicated its full support to this historical proposal of the Prime Minister. However, it has not been possible to attain an official reply to the letter of 10th of April.
The sub-commission on the historical dimension, foreseen in the Protocols signed in October 2009 between Turkey and Armenia, aimed at overcoming the differences in memories between Turkish and Armenian peoples on the events of 1915. This would have allowed both people to rekindle the friendship and reach a just memory.
Turkey believes that a peaceful common future between Turks and Armenians can only be built on a solid basis through dialog. April 23rd message delivered in 2014 by President Erdoğan, April 20th message delivered in 2015 by Prime Minister Davutoğlu on the events of 1915 and the messages every year sent to the liturgy held by Armenian Patriarchate mirror Turkey’s understanding. These messages were followed by other important steps forward representing our conscientious stance and humane perspective.
The representation of the Turkish Government at the liturgy held by the Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul on 24 April 2015, for the commemoration of losses in 1915 has also been a historical breakthrough. Our President sent a message addressed to all the Ottoman Armenians during the ceremony.
Furthermore, the due recognition and restoration of the Armenian cultural heritage and honouring of Armenian personalities who made valuable contributions to Ottoman/Turkish culture continues with resolve.
The Ottoman archive system, which is even today given as an example in the fields of scientific historical research and archive researches, has been conducted on the basis of systematic record taking since the establishment of the Ottoman State. Ottoman Administration has always acted with sensitivity and delicateness about recording all the administrative decisions as well as archiving them within the state apparatus.
Within this context, all the archives that have been inherited from the Ottoman Era, are today in İstanbul, held under the auspices of the “Presidency of the State Archives” which is functioning under the Presidency of the Republic of Turkey. The archives are open to all researchers.
It should be underlined that allegations towards the Ottoman archives such as it is “not open or research permissions are granted on a selective basis” are fabricated. One can get a glimpse about the correctness of these allegations by noting that Armenian propagandists have free access to these archives and conduct their researches.
Ones who would like to conduct a study within the Directorate General of the State Archive and Turkish General Staff Military History and Strategic Studies Archive, which have a developed catalogue and archive record system, can learn the application procedure as well as obtaining application documents from the following web sites: www.devletarsivleri.gov.tr and www.tsk.tr/Sayfalar?viewName=AtaseDaireBaskanligi
State Archives of Armenia, which is of significance for conducting a thorough research in terms of the allegations and ongoing debate with regard to the events of 1915, is following selective method in granting permission to the researchers. As far as it is noted from the press, all parts of the Armenian State Archives is not open on the grounds that “the classification has not been concluded yet”.
On the other hand, the Armenian archives in the third countries such as “the Dashnak Archives in the US” and “Archives in Jerusalem”, which are thought to include significant correspondence, information and documents, are open only to Armenian researchers on a limited basis.
It is not possible for a scholar, regardless of his / her nationality, who argues that the events of 1915 cannot be described as “genocide” to conduct a research in the aforementioned archives.
Genocide is a very narrow legal term and an international crime which is clearly defined in the 1948 United Nations (UN) Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (the 1948 Genocide Convention). Turkey is a party to this Convention.
According to the 1948 Genocide Convention, genocide means any of the prescribed acts in the said Convention, committed with a specific intent (dolus specialis), to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.
Under the 1948 Genocide Convention, in order to incriminate a person with the crime of genocide, a competent court must ascertain that the crime has been committed as defined in this Convention. According to the 1948 Genocide Convention, a competent tribunal can be either a national court of the State in the territory of which the act was committed, or an international penal tribunal of which the Contracting Parties accepted the jurisdiction have the authority to call an act as “genocide”.
Likewise, in the case of Holocaust which is the most widely known example of genocide around the world, crimes perpetrated against Jews and Romans had been concluded by the judgement of the Nuremberg Trials which had been specifically constituted for the alleged crime.
Similarly, according to the court decisions which is in charge of judging such criminals Srebrenica and Ruanda Trials enacted as genocide.
Accordingly, without the existence of a competent tribunal’s decision, the claim of genocide cannot be put forward or defended on legal grounds. In this regard, “genocide allegations” which do not rely on competent tribunal decisions cannot go beyond baseless claims lacking legal validity.
In this context, in its judgement of 3 February 2015 in the Croatia v. Serbia case, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) revealed the criteria regarding the application of the 1948 Genocide Convention:
• The 1948 Genocide Convention cannot be retroactively applied to the events took place before the date of its entry into force.
• With reference to the ICJ’s judgment of 2007 on Bosnia and Herzegovina v. Serbia case,
→If a State is to be responsible because it has breached its obligation not to commit genocide, it must be shown that genocide as defined in the Genocide Convention has been committed. It is for the party alleging a fact to demonstrate its existence.
→The threshold in order to prove the specific intent (dolus specialis; ‘to destroy, in whole or in part’ a particular group), which, in order for genocide to be established is very high.
→Deportation or displacement of the members of a group is not necessarily equivalent to destruction of that group, nor is such destruction an automatic consequence of the displacement.
The decisions taken by non-competent institutions especially parliaments bear the risk of diluting the specific definition of the crime of genocide and, consequently, the exploitation of the concept of genocide. More importantly, such practical acts constitute the violation of the freedom of expression and of scientific research.
Turkey’s position and policy on the issue of “genocide” is apparent. Turkey is one of the signatory states which ratified the 1948 Genocide Convention in her National Parliament and introduced genocide as a crime in her national legal system. Turkey contributes to the endeavours on investigation and penalization of the criminals who have perpetuated and/or played a role in these.
Turkey, as a respected member of international community contributes to this issue in all relevant platforms, first and foremost in the UN.
With this understanding, Turkey is one of the co-sponsors of the UN resolution (69/323), in which it proclaimed 9 December as “the International Day of Commemoration and Dignity of the Victims of the Crime of Genocide and of the Prevention of this Crime”, adopted unanimously by General Assembly on 11 September 2015.
Furthermore, Turkey is one of the co-sponsors of the resolution of the UN General Assembly in 2005 designates January 27 which marks the anniversary of the liberation of the largest Nazi death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Turkey has also been actively contributing, as an observer country since 2008, to the activities of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), an intergovernmental body whose purpose is to encourage Holocaust education, remembrance and research both nationally and internationally.
Turks and Armenians have different narratives and personal memories as to the background of this prolonged controversy concerning the 1915 events. Turkey does not describe the 1915 events as a “genocide” and rejects this term while referring to these tragic events. Having said that, the issue of the 1915 events is not a taboo in Turkey. Defending diverging narratives is legal in the context of freedom of the expression. Books, debates, newspaper columns giving support to the Armenian view are not uncommon in Turkey. This is a fact clearly stated in the Turkey’s Progress Reports drawn by the European Union in recent years.
On the contrary, in a number of European countries, some of which are EU members, laws are enacted punishing the denial of “genocide” and implementing them to the events of 1915, regardless of international law and historical truth. Such efforts in these countries seeking political gains constitute serious threat to the right to freedom of expression which is rightfully considered to be one of the main foundations of democratic societies.
At this point, the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in the Perinçek v. Switzerland case should be recalled (The Grand Chamber’s judgment, 15 October 2015; The Second Section’s judgment, 17 December 2013). This case-law is of historic nature, not only because it endorsed the Turkish perspective as to labelling the events of 1915, but also because it reaffirmed commitment to upholding freedom of expression as the fundamental pillar of democracy.
In this case-law, the ECtHR held that Swiss Government violated Mr Perinçek’s right to freedom of expression because of his conviction for rejecting the legal characterization of the 1915 events as “genocide”.
The case-law of the ECtHR confirms that the legal characterization of the events of 1915 is a matter of legitimate debate of public interest. Accordingly, everybody should be allowed to enjoy the right to express himself/herself freely about Ottoman history and characterize the Armenian sufferings in ways other than “genocide”.
As emphasized by the ECtHR, the rejection of the legal characterization of the events of 1915 was not in itself sufficient to amount to incitement of hatred towards the Armenian people. Challenging the legal characterization of the events of 1915 as genocide does not have the same effect as denials of the Holocaust. While Holocaust denial is nowadays one of the main vehicles of anti-Semitism in many countries, there is no comparable “anti-Armenianism” in the world today.
On 8 January 2016, the Constitutional Council of France delivered a decision following and based on the ECtHR’s case-law in the Perinçek case. In this decision, it is once again affirmed that the events of 1915 cannot be equated with the crimes of genocide established by a competent court, like the Holocaust.