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The Anatolian Armenians, 1912-1922

The Anatolian Armenians, 1912-1922

By  Professor Justin McCarthy

The following text was presented by Justin McCarthy at the Bosphorus University’s Symposium on Armenians in the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey.

In discussing an issue as volatile as the status of the Ottoman Armenians, it is important to define terms. By “Armenian,” I mean those Ottoman citizens who were Armenian in religion – Gregorian, Catholic, or Protestant Armenians. Following modern usage, it would be more common to define Armenians as those who spoke Armenian as their mother tongue. However, a great number of the Anatolian Armenians, perhaps the majority, did not speak Armenian as their first language and, in any case, the Ottoman Empire kept population records by religion, not language. Given the sense of religious identification of the Ottoman peoples, religion is a very accurate criterion by which to label Ottoman population groups. By “Armenian,” I most definitely do not mean any standard of so-called race or “blood.” Such categories are, at best, undefinable and, at worst, racist.

The period is 1912 to 1922, a period of national disaster for both Armenians and Turks.

I. On Map One you see Ottoman Anatolia and the area traditionally called the six Vilayets -the provinces of Eastern Anatolia that made up the Armenian homeland- Sivas, Erzurum, Mamuretulaziz, Bitlis, Diyarbakir, and Van. One can also include as traditional areas of Armenian settlement Trabzon in the north and the two southern provinces which are often called Cilicia-Adana and Halep (Aleppo).

The generally accepted version of the history of the Anatolian Armenians from 1912 to 1922 has been little questioned. In fact, the story of the Anatolian Armenians is one of the few bits of Middle Eastern history that is widely “known” in Europe and America. Brought up on stories of starving Armenians, Westerners have taken as given that the Armenians were driven from Armenia -a land in which Armenians were the chief inhabitants- and accepted without proof that Armenians were slaughtered by Turks who, while not suffering themselves, got away with their crimes. Perhaps because so many people have previously accepted this story, few today have questioned its validity. However, when scholars actually investigate the history of Armenians, a different picture emerges. The actual events of 1912 to 1922 were very different than they have been portrayed.

In investigating the true history of the Anatolian Armenians, the questions asked by researchers should be on the subjects that have been longest accepted as unquestionably true – the existence of a land of Armenia and the fate of the Anatolian Armenians in World War I, i.e., was there an Armenia and what happened to the Armenians (and to the other Anatolians)? Research into the history of the population of Anatolia answers both questions.

It is a great temptation for demographers to offer stacks of numbers, pages of relatively undecipherable statistics.

Although I often find myself giving in to this temptation, I have resisted here. Instead of tables, I offer maps-pictures and illustrations-rather than numbers. I do not include demographic calculations, nor do I attempt to prove the correctness of my statistics. My book on the population of Ottoman Anatolia Muslims and Minorities [New York, 1983], contains proofs that the statistics are correct. I should mention, however, that the figures presented here are drawn from the population registration system of the Ottoman government. The figures have been corrected for the Ottoman undercount of women and children, a common phenomenon with the Ottomans, as it is with developing countries today.

II. Was there an Ottoman Armenia, that is, an area in which the majority of the population were Armenians? For the period before the nineteenth century there is no way to know for certain. No one took a census, no one registered the population. We know that places called Greater Armenia, Lesser Armenia, and various other names existed, but these were the names of kingdoms and kings. Were most of the people in these kingdoms Armenians? We will never know, but there is reason for doubt. For example, in areas of the Armenian kingdoms there were great numbers of Kurds at least as far back as Xenophon and probably earlier.

We do know that in the period of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Armenians were a distinct minority in every province of the Ottoman Empire. Map Two indicates the relative numbers of Armenians, Muslims, and others in the Anatolian provinces in the year 1912. 1 have chosen 1912 because the Ottoman statistics for that year were particularly good and because 1912 was the date given for the often quoted but grossly inaccurate “Armenian Patriarchate Statistics.” The year 1912 was also immediately before ten years of war descended on the Anatolians, thus statistics for that period provide an accurate picture of Anatolia before the disaster.

Looking at Map Two, you notice that in every province of Anatolia approximately two-thirds or more of the people were Muslims, In the eastern provinces there were large proportions of Armenians. In Bitlis 31% of the population were Armenians; in the province of Van 26% were Armenians. However, even in these two provinces, the Muslim population was twice that of the Armenians. Bitlis was 67% Muslim, Van 61%. In the Six Vilayets as a whole, Muslims outnumbered Armenians 4.5 to 1.

Part of the reason for the low numbers of Armenians in the East was the dispersion of the Armenian people. Armenians had been migrating for centuries, a movement that continued well into modern times. Of course, Armenians had moved into Russian Armenia. They had begun to leave Anatolia in large numbers in the time of the 1827-28 Turco-Russian War and had continued to move throughout the period of the 1877-78 war. In Russia, the Anatolian Armenians took the place of Turks and other Muslims who had been forced by the Russians to migrate into the Ottoman Empire.

The Armenians who remained in the Ottoman Empire dispersed themselves throughout the Ottoman lands. On Map Three you see an Armenian population that, while surely strongest in the East, was spread across Anatolia. Had lstanbul’and Ottoman Europe been included in the map, they, too, would have shown sizeable Armenian Populations. There were more Armenians in the province of Ankara, in the center of Anatolia, than in Mamuretulaziz or Diyarbakir in the East. The Western Anatolian province of Hudavendigar (Bursa), far from the Armenian homeland, contained more Armenoians than Diyarbakir in the East and more than either Adana or Halep in Cilicia. Istanbul and Edirne provinces, not on the map, had approximately 125,000 Armenians; of the “Armenian Provinces” only Erzurum, Van, and Bitlis had more.

Another, perhaps better, way to view the Armenian dispersion across Anatolia is simply to calculate the density of settlement Of Ottoman Armenians. Province sizes varied, so statistics on the absolute numbers of Armenians in provinces can be slightly deceptive. Density, on the other hand, indicates “how thick they were on the ground” and says much on the relative strength of the various Anatolian Armenian communities. An area with one million Armenians spread over 100,000 square kilometers would be much less “Armenian” than an area with only 200,000 Armenians in 10,000 square kilometers. You will notice on Map Four that the thickest regional settlement of Armenians was indeed in the southeast of Anatolia-in Bitlis Vilayeti (5.9 per square kilometer), in Mamuretulaziz (3.8 per square kilometer), in Van (3.5 per square kilometer). You will also notice, once again, that Armenians were spread across Anatolia. Most interestingly, it was in the province of Izmit, in far northwestern Anatolia, not in historic Armenia, that the Armenian population was most dense. Armenians in Izmit were 8.2 per square kilometer, more than twice as dense as the average density in the Six Vilayets.

The implications of the Armenian dispersion to aspirations for an Armenian homeland in Anatolia are significant. On the basis of self-determination, there was no Armenia. Armenians, like the other millets, were spread throughout the Ottoman Empire. It can be asserted, of course, that had an Armenian state been granted in the Six Vilayets, Armenians would have returned there from other parts of the Empire, but I find this doubtful. Istanbul, lzmit, and Bursa were more comfortable places to live than Van, Bitlis, and Mamuretujlaziz, and I doubt if great numbers of Armenians would have gone east. Nevertheless, if all the Anatolian Armenians had migrated to the Six Vilayets, Muslims in the Six Vilayets would have outnumbered Armenians by more than 2.5 to 1. If all the Armenians in the world had moved to the Six Vilayets, Muslims would still have been a majority. There were simply too few Armenians for a viable state.

III. To understand the end of the Armenian presence in Anatolia, one must remember that the Armenian disaster came in time of war – World War I and the Turkish War of Independence. The numbers used by demographers are of limited use in describing war. They will not tell us who fired the first shot, or label those responsible for the bloodshed. They only count the dead. Yet, much can be learned from the numbers of the dead. We now know from reliable statistics that slightly less than 600,000 Anatolian Armenians died in the wars of 1912-22, not 1.5 or 2 million, as is often claimed. Not that 600,000 is a small number. The Armenians suffered a terrible mortality. But when considering the numbers of dead Armenians, one must also consider the numbers of dead Muslims. The statistics tell us that 2.5 million Anatolian Muslims died as well, most of them Turks. In the Six Vilayets, the Armenian homeland, more than one million Muslims died. These Muslims, no less than the Armenians, suffered a terrible mortality.

The numbers do not tell us the exact manner of death of the citizens of Anatolia. Civil war, forced migration of both Muslims and Armenians, inter-communal warfare, disease, and, specially starvation are listed in the documents of the time as causes of death. The Anatolian mortality was not simply the deaths of soldiers in wartime, but deaths of men, women, and children-Armenian and Muslim-who were caught up in international war between Russians and Ottomans and intercommunal war between Armenians and Muslims. We know from both documentary evidence and statistics that intercommunal warfare between Christians and Muslims was a major cause of death. The province of Sivas, for example, was not in the war zone; the Russian army never reached that far. Yet, 180,000 of the Muslims of Sivas died. The same was true of the rest of Anatolia. In the end, statistics of mortality show that Armenians suffered greatly, but not that they suffered alone. The statistics indicate that the years 1912-22 were a horrible time for humanity, not simply for Armenians.

The conventional wisdom that ‘knows’ that Anatolian Armenians died has always neglected to consider that Muslims died as well. As with the supposed existence of an Armenia, the commonly accepted history of what happened to the Armenians has not been correct. The lesson to be learned is an old one: History should not be partisan. I believe that it is time that we consider the events of 1912-22 for what they were, a human disaster. It is time to stop labeling them as a sectarian suffering that demands revenge.

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