The Destruction of Ottoman Erzurum
By Professor Justin McCarthy
(First presented during a conference at the Atatürk University, Erzurum – September 2002)
I am very pleased to be in Erzurum today. I am especially glad to be among my colleagues, the professors of Atatürk Üniversitesi, who have done so much to investigate the massacres of the Turks of Erzurum and to teach us the story of the saddest period in Turkish history.
Life, Disorder, and Conflict in Erzurum Province
Before considering their history, it is essential to first identify the people of Ottoman Erzurum Vilâyeti.
Armenians often claimed Erzurum, but in 1914 no Armenian had ruled Erzurum for more than 900 years. More important, the population of Erzurum was solidly Muslim. There were five times as many Muslims as Armenians in the province. Early in the nineteenth century the percentage of Armenians had been somewhat larger and the percentage of Muslims somewhat smaller. But Erzurum had not had an Armenian majority for many centuries. In Ottoman times, Erzurum had always been at least two-thirds Muslim.
(I say “Muslim” rather than “Turk”, because the Ottomans kept all their population records by religion. Anyone who says he knows precisely the ethnicity or language of the inhabitants of the Ottoman Empire is inventing his statistics. All evidence indicates, however, that the majority of Erzurum’s Muslims were Turks.)
|Erzurum in 1912|
|* less than 1%|
Now to the Armenians of Erzurum. For many years, Americans and Europeans have been told that the Armenians were persecuted. Is this true? It is nor. Some Armenians did indeed suffer, but what they suffered was not persecution.
Life was indeed hard for the Armenians of Erzurum. They did not live as comfortably or as safely as the Armenians in Western Anatolia or Istanbul. They were often poor, making a living by farming land that could barely support their families. They were sometimes in danger, robbed by Kurdish tribes or bandits. The government could not protect them properly. Sometimes the government officials who should have protected them instead took advantage of them.
The life of the Armenians was indeed hard, but they were not alone. The life of Erzurum’s Muslims, including the Turks and the peaceful Kurds of villages and cities, was just as difficult. They too were poor. They too were robbed and killed. They too went unprotected.
The fact that all the people of Erzurum suffered alike is often hidden from the world. That is due to the reporting of missionaries and foreign diplomats. Most of the Europeans and Americans tended to report only the murders of Armenians, not the murders of Muslims. They sent reports of robberies of Armenians, not of robberies of Muslims. Luckily, some Europeans, especially certain British consuls, and the Ottomans themselves kept records of what was really happening in Eastern Anatolia.
There is little time here for examples of the difficulties of life in Erzurum, but one of the best examples is the career of Hüseyin Aga:
Charles Hampson, one of the many British consuls who served in Erzurum, was no friend of the Turks, but he occasionally simply reported what occurred. In 1891 he sent a report on the activities of Hüseyin Aga, a sub-chief of the Haydaranli Kurds in Eleskirt. Hüseyin had plundered another Kurdish village, carrying off all their sheep. He murdered the Muslim religious leader of Patnos, Seyh Nuri. Then he burned down nine villages, tortured and murdered the Muslim inhabitants, and carried off their sheep and other animals. He was accused of murder, robbery, extortion, and rape by Muslims and Christians alike. All, no matter their religion, suffered at his hands. Finally, with great difficulty, he was caught and held in Erzurum. While Hüseyin was being held, his brother and son took over the family’s work and robbed twenty-one more villages.
Hüseyin was reported to command 2,000 men. This may have been an exaggeration, but one can see why the government had great difficulty in controlling him.
Hüseyin was only one of the tribesmen who disrupted the life of the settled population of Erzurum. Erzurum Province was a place of insecurity: In 1893, the caravan from Erzurum to Bitlis was attacked by Kurds before it had gone five miles from the city. The inspector of the Tobacco Regie was robbed by Kurds in 1892. Both Armenian and Armenian merchants protested that they could not trade because of the actions of bandits. The Muslim merchants of Erzurum formerly complained to the government in Istanbul of the insecurity in the province. They said the Kurdish tribes were attacking Turks and Armenians alike.
Why was Erzurum unsafe for both Muslims and Christians? It was not the Ottoman administrators or the Ottoman system. Some valis were good, some bad. Most seem to have done as well as they could with the resources they had. Even the Europeans praised some governors as well-intentioned and energetic men. The problem was that they had so few resources. What was needed in Erzurum was money. The gendarmes were often not paid even their small salaries. Officials too went unpaid. Money was needed to hire more police, soldiers, and officials. Money was also needed for seed, fertilizer, better roads, and all the things that would have made Erzurum a better place. But there was no money.
Who was to blame for the poverty of Erzurum? Partly it was the Ottoman Government. The Ottomans were never good accountants. But the main cause of Ottoman weakness was beyond Ottoman control. The Russians had damaged the Ottoman Empire both militarily and economically in the 1877-78 war. In addition to the loss of manpower, supplies, and productive territory, the Ottomans had been forced to pay a crushing indemnity of 800 million francs. Then the Empire was forced to spend great amounts to defend against the next Russian attack. The Ottomans were forced to spend ten times as much on the military as on the police and gendarmery, and twenty times as much on the military as on education. The “friends” of the Ottomans only worsened the economic state by enforcing the capitulations. No wonder the gendarmes could not be paid.
The Ottomans did what they could to make Erzurum more secure for both Armenians and Muslims. 51 Armenians were actually enrolled as gendarmes in Erzurum Province in 1896, braving the opposition of the Armenian revolutionaries. The vali wanted 218, but no more could be found, because the pay was so irregular. Even the most loyal Armenian subject of the sultan had to feed his family.
It would be absurd to think that the Ottoman Government approved or fostered the state of unrest in Erzurum and elsewhere in Eastern Anatolia. There is no evidence that the Government held any animosity toward its Armenian subjects, but one need not assume governmental good will, only self-interest. The Government needed money. The only way to obtain the money was from taxes. The only way to increase taxes was to increase production, and that demanded improved security. Security for all, Muslims and Armenians, would have been good for the government.
The question of whom suffered more from attacks by tribes and bandits, the Muslims or the Armenians, cannot be answered. Neither can one say whether Muslim farmers or Christian farmers were better off. Both Armenians and Turks complained of Kurdish raids. Neither was doing very well.
It is known that in some respects the Armenians were in a much better position than the Muslims. In the cities and towns the Armenians were more wealthy and had more economic and social opportunity. This was true all over the Ottoman Empire.
Nowhere was the superior situation of the Armenians more evident than in education. In 1881 there was only one public secondary school for Muslims in the city of Erzurum, with 120 students. The students, all boys, had few textbooks and no maps. Sixty-five Muslims were enrolled in a better private school. Another 1,500 Muslim students were enrolled in one form of elementary school or another. Altogether, approximately ten per cent of the Muslim boys of Erzurum City attended school. 70% of the Armenian children, boys and girls, attended school. Each of the three Armenian millets–Gregorian, Catholic, and Protestant (American missionary), had its schools. They were well equipped, especially when compared to what was available for the Muslims. The primary cause for the difference between Muslim and Armenian education was obviously money. The Armenians could afford to pay for their education, and the American missionary schools were supported by donations from the United States.
Armenians, not Muslims, could expect help from Europeans. Armenians who were beset by Kurdish tribes or over-zealous tax collectors could rely on European consuls to advance their cause to local officials. This was a privilege seldom afforded to Muslims.
The Armenians also benefited because they could escape. Armenians were constantly leaving the Erzurum Province during the final Ottoman decades. Approximately 1,000 a year went to the Russian Empire. The Ottoman Administration frowned on this migration, but it could not stop it. Armenian men and sometimes families often traveled to Istanbul for work or as permanent migrants. Some went to America.
Did these migrants leave for political reasons? It is doubtful if that was ever a prime motivation. They left for understandable economic reasons. There were jobs and a better life in Istanbul, Erivan, and America. In each place, Armenians had support systems and charities that helped them get started in new lives.
Why did the Muslims, even more poor than the Armenians, not leave Erzurum as well? There were no such support systems for them. They were not welcome in America. The American Christian churches that sent missionaries to the Ottoman Empire also aided Armenians who went to America. They did not assist Muslims. Except for some skilled workers, Russia surely did not want more Muslim immigrants. And what would Erzurum’s Muslims do in Istanbul? Turks from Anatolia did routinely go to Istanbul for work, and had been doing so for quite some time. But those Turks, primarily from regions close to Istanbul and from the Black Sea provinces, had support groups–villagers who had gone before them and helped new migrants. Those support groups were not there for Erzurum Muslims.
What Drove the Armenian and Muslim Communities Apart?
All was not animosity between the Muslim and Armenian communities. The two communities had lived side by side for nearly 900 years. Merchants and craftsmen had natural business connections. In at least one incident, Muslim merchants contributed to a collection for destitute Armenians. Armenian leaders often had good relations with Ottoman officials. But many factors worked to drive the two communities apart. In times of famine in the 1870s and 1890s, for example, American missionaries distributed relief to the Armenians, but seldom or not at all to the Muslims. It was common for European consuls and American missionaries to write words such as, “Great distress is actually prevailing throughout the whole of Kurdistan. At Kharpout this almost amounts to famine. While at Bitlis, Van, and Erzeroum great poverty exists,” then to ask that aid be sent for the Christians alone! The famine and poverty of the Muslims were not their concern. All this cannot have helped inter-faith brotherhood.
The schools provided to the Christians by the Armenian Church and the Americans gradually led to an Armenian populace that was better educated and more able to cope with the modern world. This caused both Muslim resentment and a sense of superiority among the Armenians.
The psychological climate engendered by the relative educational superiority of the Armenians, by the favoritism showed them by Westerners, and by the promises of revolutionaries that Armenians would soon rule cannot be quantified. One British observer, the consul at Erzurum, made an attempt at a description. (It must be remembered that the British did not easily criticize Armenians.)
The Armenians seem to possess in an eminent degree the art of making enemies, and competent observers are of opinion that a notable demoralization of the national character in these regions was produced by the lavish distribution of relief after the massacres of 1896. This decadence has been still further accentuated since the restoration of the Constitution and mainly by the pernicious influence of the Tashnakists and the Armenian refugees from the Caucasus. Immorality and drunkenness prevail among the Armenians of this district to an extent which would surprise the readers of British pro-Armenian literature, and even in the principal Armenian school of Erzurum, which is under the chairmanship of the Bishop, the doctrines of socialism and “free-love” are openly taught. The outcome of this state of things is a growing insolence on the part of the Armenians which is remarked on by all travellers and is assuredly not unnoticed by the Moslems, irritated as the latter already are by the efforts of the Tashnakists to acclimatize the tenets and outward manifestations of Western socialism; . . .
What had led to such a state? It was not acts of the Ottoman Government that drove the Muslims and Armenians apart. Despite all the problems of Erzurum Province, the Muslims and Armenians had lived together under that government and under the same basic social and economic system for nearly 400 years. It was acts of the Russians and the Armenian Revolutionaries that finally split the communities and ultimately destroyed Ottoman Erzurum.
The Russians R.CONQ The Russians began to suborn the loyalties of Armenians in the 1790s. They depended on Armenians as spies and even troops when they conquered Azerbaijan and Erivan. They encouraged the Armenians to move to territory the Russians had conquered, offering them incentives to do so.
In 1878, 25,000 Anatolian Armenians migrated to Russia, replacing 60,000 Turks evicted by the Russians. Why did the Armenians move? Undoubtedly one of the causes was fear of revenge. We know that the Armenians of the Eleskirt Valley had welcomed the Russians and given them assistance. Armenians had persecuted the Muslims of Erzurum City when the Russians ruled and expected trouble once the Russians left. It is one thing to mistreat Turks when the Russian Army is protecting you, quite another to stand up to the Turks on your own.
The Russians offered free farms and homes to Armenians who would come into their Empire. The homes and farms of evicted Turks were empty, waiting for new dwellers. The Russians at least promised not to tax immigrants. For poor Armenians, it was a very tempting offer.
The Armenian support for Russian imperialism and the exchange of populations naturally caused fear and distrust between Muslims and Armenians. It was to the benefit of the Russians to foster that distrust. ROADS The Russians had a very important strategic interest in the Erzurum Vilâyeti. Erzurum, as I am sure you know, was the keystone of Ottoman control of all of Anatolia. As shown on the map, impassible mountains meant that Russian invaders had very few possible paths to Central Anatolia. Ottoman forces in Northeastern Anatolia might have poor communications and limited supplies and manpower, but they did have good defensive terrain, exactly the sort of terrain that could be held by the Turkish askers, among the best defensive fighters in the world. The Russians knew this. They knew from the bloody battles of the War of 1877-78 that taking Eastern Anatolia would be a horrible task. They also knew that their invasion would be aided by an internal enemy that would disrupt supplies, hamper communications, and draw troops from the front to battle a rebellion behind the lines. That was to be the task of the Armenians.
Unlike the Ottomans, the Russians had good reason to want disorder in the Ottoman East. A weakened Ottoman Empire was good for the Russians, who hoped to conquer it. Troubles in Erzurum were also propaganda victories for the Russians. The Russians could depend on the fact that the sufferings of the Armenians would appear in the European press. They could count on American missionaries to send reports of real and imagined misery among the Armenians. No reports of the equal suffering of the Muslims would be sent, nor would they appear in European newspapers. Each report of suffering Armenians made it more difficult for European politicians to take the side of the Ottomans.
After the war of 1877-78 the Russians made it their business to foment unrest in the eastern provinces. They even aided Kurdish rebels against the Ottoman state, supporting them through their consuls in Anatolia and granting asylum when the revolts failed. However, Russian activities had little success with the Kurdish tribes, perhaps, as will be seen, because the Russians were at the same time supporting the Armenian revolutionaries who were attacking the same Kurdish tribes.
The Russians must have been deeply involved with the activities of the Armenian revolutionaries. Until someone studies this period in Russian archives there is little direct evidence. It is known that the Russians promised the Armenians independence in Anatolia in World War I, a promise they cannot have meant to keep. Circumstantial evidence for Russian collusion with the Armenian societies is compelling. The societies held their meetings in Russian territory. Dashnak rebels repeatedly crossed the border from the Russian border with impunity, attacked Kurdish villages or Ottoman officials, then escaped across that same border. Russian rifles appeared in Armenian hands all across Eastern Anatolia. Armenian terrorists had agents within the Russian imperial armory at Tula who provided them with guns. Can anyone believe that the Russians were such fools that they had no idea what was happening. Did the Russian police or spies not notice that the Dashnaks were meeting in Tiflis? Did they not notice that guns were missing?
The Armenian Societies–Dashnaks and Hunchaks
Neither “revolutionaries” nor “rebels” is the best word for the Armenian terrorist groups, because it implies that the Armenian societies, the Dashnaks and Hunchaks, wished to overthrow their own government. The Hunchaks were founded in Switzerland by Russian Armenians. The society most involved in Erzurum, the Dashnaks, was founded and organized in the Russian Empire. Its most active members were in Russia. Yet the Dashnaks did not act to overthrow Russian rule in Erivan Province (today the Armenian Republic). They directed their attention to the Ottoman Empire.
The Armenian societies espoused the philosophies of revolutionary Europe. They were socialist, sometimes radically socialist, and surely nationalistic. They adapted the methods of revolutionary Europe to Anatolia. They developed cadres of supporters in Ottoman Anatolia, preparing for their ultimate revolt, but the Hunchaks and especially the Dashnaks were in no way indigenous to Anatolia. They were revolutionary organizations born in the soup of Russian revolution. From the Russian Empire they spread their message to Anatolia. Ottoman gendarmes arrested groups of Armenian rebels every year. These were usually crossing over from Russia. They carried Russian rifles and revolutionary propaganda printed in the Russian Empire.
Like their European counterparts, the Dashnaks and Hunchaks spent much of their energy on their own people, spreading their doctrine, arming supporters, and preparing for ultimate revolution. Closely following Marxist doctrine, they adopted violence as the necessary element of change.
In their first phase of activities, before World War I, Armenian revolutionaries seldom engaged in assassination of Ottoman officials. The first ones whom the revolutionaries intended to murder were members of Kurdish tribes. The intent of the Armenian revolutionaries was to foment reprisals, especially reprisals from Kurds. This was set out in the now famous report of the missionary educator, Cyrus Hamlin. He reported a meeting with an Armenian rebel. The Armenian stated that the rebels would attack Kurds, causing massacres of Armenians in retaliation. This, the Armenians assumed, would bring European intervention, as it had in Bulgaria, and lead to the creation of an independent Armenia. FO SOURCE?? A naive belief, but one the Armenian revolutionary societies put into practice.
Reports of Armenian rebel actions were numerous: 200 revolutionaries killing 30 Kurds, wounding 11, and burning 25 houses in the village of Shato. There were pitched battles between rebels and Kurds in Hinis. One large group of revolutionaries even tried, unsuccessfully, to enter the Ottoman Empire by attacking frontier outposts of the Ottoman military, through which they were forced to pass.
On the eighth of November, 1899, A band of Armenian revolutionaries, armed with Russian rifles, crossed from Russia near Eleskirt and entered the largely Armenian village of Hanzar, killing a number of Kurds. The kaymakam of Toprakkale marched on the village with a force of gendarmes. In the ensuing battle, an estimated 15 rebels, 30 villagers, and 14 gendarmes and officials were killed. The rebels escaped across the Russian border. It was rumored, although not substantiated, that Kurds from the surrounding area took revenge on the Armenians of Hanzar.
The Armenians who carried out the raids on Kurds almost always came from Russian territory, occasionally passing through Iran on their way to Anatolia.
The neighboring provinces of Van, Bitlis, and Haleb experienced the same level of violence from the Armenian rebels. The modus operandi of the rebels was the same. Kurds were attacked in the hope of retaliation, which sometimes came. In some cases the rebels were killed or apprehended, but it was usually villagers–Muslim and Armenian, innocent and guilty alike–who suffered most.
The other group targeted for murder by the Armenian revolutionaries were Armenians themselves. The revolutionaries knew that elements of the Armenian Community were supporters of the Government. Merchants, many Community officials, and government officials (including Armenian policemen) depended on good relations with the state for their own advancement. Even ordinary members of the Armenian populace should have been willing to come forward with information on the rebels, if only for a monetary reward. One of the purposes of the Dashnak revolutionaries was to silence such men. The weapons were intimidation and murder.
Armenians were also murdered by Armenians in the quest for “national solidarity.” Those who opposed the revolutionaries were to be silenced, by murder if necessary. This is a form of terrorism seen in all later terrorist groups. They enforce their “revolution” by demanding money and support from everyone, especially those who want to oppose them. They silence those who stand in their way.
The police could not protect Armenian informers or businessmen who took the Ottoman side. “For the informers would have in the first place to fear the vengeance of the revolutionaries, against which the unpaid and inefficient police force are themselves powerless to protect them.”
Records abound of Attacks upon Armenians by Armenian revolutionaries, such as the assassination of an Armenian who dared to serve on the government Administrative Council in Malatya. Radical nationalists who demanded independence murdered less radical Armenians who wished reform within the Ottoman Empire. Even the Armenian Patriarch in Istanbul was the subject of an assassination attempt by another Armenian.
The methods of the rebels are illustrated in a letter from the British consul Cumberbatch in Erzurum:
I have the honor to report that the emissaries of the revolutionary or ‘Hunchakist’ party are credited with the murder on the 5th instant of two Armenians of some position in this town, named Artin Effendi Serkissian, a lawyer, and Simon Agha Bosoyan, a merchant. They were stabbed in a most daring manner in a crowded thoroughfare and both died instantly afterwards. One man, a Russian Armenian of this place, has been arrested on suspicion.
It is generally thought that Artin Effendi was killed because he was suspected of having acted as an ‘informer’ and because he had quite recently refused to join the secret committee being formed here. It was not intended to injure Simon Agha but he must have got mortally wounded in defending his friend.
At Erzinghan, some ten days ago, another Armenian called Garabet Der Garabet was also murdered. He was considered a spy of Zekki Pasha and the same agency is credited with his death.
In addition to forbidding any Armenian to retain any post of Administrative employ, these even try to extort money from the richer Armenians, one man having, three days ago, been summoned to hand over three hundred pounds to their funds.
Even an Armenian youth of twenty, the only Christian student at the ‘Idadieh’ College here has, this week, had an anonymous letter put into his hand when he was standing alone at the door of the establishment, threatening him with death from the same hands which had recently killed Artin Effendi if he did not leave the school at once.
These cases will suffice to show the audacity and determination of the dangerous faction the authorities have now to deal with.”
The one activity that most indicated the future plans of the Armenian revolutionaries was the arming of their supporters in Eastern Anatolia. The Russian Armenians began to smuggle arms into Erzurum and other Ottoman provinces almost immediately after the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78. In some areas they had occupied during the war, especially in Beyazit, the Russians had armed the Armenians before they left. By 1880 bands of Armenians were crossing the border, leaving behind weapons when they returned to Russian territory. It was common knowledge that this transportation of weapons was taking place.
One example was the distribution of Russian Berdan military rifles in Igdir, across the Russian border. The rifles were distributed to Ottoman subjects who produced papers proving they were Armenians. The guns were then smuggled into Erzurum by the purchasers. This was a public sale. The Russian police did nothing to interfere. Erzurum was alive with rumors, and often exaggerations, that the Armenians were arming themselves. It is certain, however, that the rural Armenians, as well as many in the city, were armed with Russian weapons. As mentioned above, the Armenian revolutionaries captured by Ottoman forces were usually armed with Russian rifles. Armenian revolutionaries were even captured in Erzurum, itself, with rifles . The rifles had been stamped with the name of the main Armenian revolutionary party, “Dashnaktsuthiun.”
Why did Armenian villages need to be so well armed?
Contemporary observers were of two definite and differing schools of thought. Some, perhaps naive, commentators felt that the villagers were defending themselves from Kurdish depredations. They were only being assisted by the Armenian Revolutionary parties. Others felt that Armenians were being armed from Russia by the Dashnaks and Hunchaks in order to prepare for revolution, activities fostered by the Russians.
The British reported on such instances: In one, Ottoman forces found 34 Mauser rifles and 1,000 cartridges in “the village of Sitaouk, about ten miles distant from Erzeroum.” It was alleged the weapons were needed for defense, but all the rifles had “recently been smuggled from the Russian frontier, and they are all without stocks, apparently for convenience of transport and concealment.” They were being hidden in one Armenian house. The villagers, according to the British consul, had always been individually armed. This appears to have been a cache of arms, waiting for later use, not self-defense.
The outbreak of the world war proved that Armenian arms caches had been secreted all over Eastern Anatolia, waiting for the moment of rebellion. Ottoman investigators found a great deal of arms hidden in basements, churches, and on farms, but these can only have been a small proportion of what was hidden. The proof lies in the tens of thousands of armed Armenians who rebelled in the Ottoman East. They were armed.
In the end it made no difference if the Armenians armed themselves out of revolutionary fervor or out of the desire for self-defense.. When World War I began the Armenians were armed and ready to rebel. They proved willing to use their guns against the Ottoman Government and against local Muslims.
The Erzurum Armenians in World War I
Despite all the research that has been done recently, many questions remain on the history of the Turks and Armenians of Erzurum Province. First among these is the question of the relocation of Erzurum’s Armenians: How many were deported; how many were refugees?
It is known that some Erzurum Armenians were deported. They were among the first to be ordered relocated by the Ottoman Government. The Government ordered their relocation because they were close to the Russian border and thus were a grave danger. However. the number that were actually deported is unknown. Unreliable accounts by missionaries and Armenians in Russia gave figures such as “10,000”, a suspiciously round and unreliable number. The deportees were mainly Armenians from the largest cities–Erzurum, Erzincan, and Bayburt. Many of those who were in fact deported died in Dersim. (It is worth noting that many Ottoman soldiers also died in Dersim. While retreating from advancing Russian armies they were attacked by the same Kurdish tribes and bandits who killed Armenians. The Dersim bandits did not only kill Armenians. They killed anyone whom they could rob.) The actual number must have been far fewer than 10,000.
The detailed analysis of Ottoman records made by Professor Halaçoglu has yielded few records of those deported from Erzurum, even though very detailed figures were kept of deportees from neighboring provinces such as Sivas and Mamuretülaziz.
One thing is sure: Armenian statements that almost all of the Erzurum Armenians were deported and killed are ridiculous. This is demonstrated by the fact that so many Armenians lived in Erzurum during the Russian occupation. When the Russians departed there were enough Armenians remaining in Erzurum or returning from Russian Armenia to create an army and attempt to run a government. If all the Erzurum Armenians were dead, where did those Armenians come from? It is absurd to think, and no one then or now has asserted, that these were Russian Armenians who had first come to Anatolia in 1916.
Some Armenians must have remained in the villages, some ostensibly converting to Islam, some not. Most fled to Russia, then returned when the Russians invaded Erzurum. It was the Armenians who remained and those who returned that formed the Armenian population of Erzurum Vilâyeti in 1918. Along with Armenian soldiers from Erivan, it was these Armenians who slaughtered the Muslims of Erzurum in 1918. TABLE The strongest evidence for the survival of the Erzurum Armenians is demographic. The 1897 Russian Census recorded 1,161,909 Armenians in the Caucasus Region, an area that included Azerbaijan, Erivan, Georgia, Kars-Ardahan, and nearby regions. This population would have increased naturally to 1,444,000 by 1914. The Armenian population could not have increased during wartime; the men were gone, so the native Armenian population in the Caucasus in 1917 can be assumed to have been the same 1,444,000. Richard Hovannisian has quoted figures from “an official Russian source” for the Armenian population of the Caucasus in 1917: 1,783,000. Subtracting the 1,444,000 natives from the 1,783,000 leaves 339,000. Those 339,000 came from somewhere.
The “extra” Armenians can only have been refugees from the Ottoman Empire. In the 339,000 would have been some refugees from Iran, and a small number of Armenians who returned from the United States and elsewhere to fight on the Russian side, but these small numbers would have had little effect. Hovannisian estimates: “By the end of 1916, nearly three hundred thousand Ottoman Armenians had sought safety in Transcaucasia, where nearly half were destined to die from famine and disease.”
|Armenians in the Russian Caucasus, 1917|
|Armenians in Ottoman Anatolia, 1912*|
The refugees from Ottoman Anatolia can only have come from three provinces–Erzurum, Van, and Bitlis, which together held 485,000 Armenians. It is unthinkable that many might have successfully have made the journey from farther afield. If Hovannisian’s figures for 1917 are correct, then 70 per cent of the Armenians from Erzurum, Van, and Bitlis must have fled to the Russian Empire. Of course, his figures for 1917 are probably overestimates of the Armenian population. However, if half the refugees had died, lower estimates of the 1917 population would still have yielded a figure near 339,000.
It should also be noted that Ottoman officials recorded that “those in towns and villages east of the Hopa-Erzurum-Hinis-Van line did not comply with the call to enlist but have proceeded East to the border to join the [military] organisation in Russia.” Given the number of Armenian refugees in Russia, these deserters cannot have left their families behind.
The conclusion can only be that most of the Armenians of Erzurum were not killed by the Turks and other Muslims, unless they were killed in battle as they fought Ottoman forces. Nor were many Erzurum Armenians deported. They went to the Russian Empire, where they did die of starvation and disease in great numbers. In other words, they died just as Muslim refugees died. They were the victims of war, just as the Muslims of Anatolia, who also died of starvation and disease, were the victims of war.
Erzurum’s Muslims During and After World War I
Finally, what the Armenians did to Erzurum’s Muslims. I will not say much on this. You know the sad history of your ancestors.
At the beginning of the World War, it seemed as if Erzurum’s Muslims might escape the fate of their neighbors who were killed in Van and Bitlis. In those provinces a large proportion of the Muslim population had been slaughtered by Armenians, both local and from Russia. However, with the exception of Beyazit Sancagi in the east of the province, Erzurum was firmly under the control of the Ottoman Army until it was quickly occupied by the Russians in 1916. The strong Ottoman military presence undoubtedly protected the province’s Muslims from the Armenian bands that were killing Muslims elsewhere.
At least 300,000 Muslims fled Erzurum when the Russians advanced in 1916. However, even the Muslims who remained behind were far less likely to be killed than those of Van or Bitlis. Most of the mortality of Erzurum’s Muslims does not seem to have been at the hands of the Russians. The Russians actually seem to have been more solicitous of the welfare of the Muslims of the Muslims of Erzurum during World War I than they had been in earlier wars. This does not mean that Turks did not suffer massacre during 1916 and 1917. These massacres seem to have been almost entirely at the hands of Armenian bands. It is doubtful if the Russians had control over them. They had made a devil’s bargain with the Armenians. In return for spying, destroying communications, and activities that hindered the Ottoman army, the Russians tolerated the actions of Armenians.
Judging by their history in Erivan, the Russians probably felt they could contain the Armenians after the war.
The Russians were always practical. Their soldiers raped and plundered, killing the Muslims who stood in their way, but their leaders were practical men. They showed no special hatred of Turks or other Muslims. Instead they acted out of self-interest. Their history shows this: In 1829 and 1878 they welcomed Armenians into the Russian Empire, giving them the Turks’ homes and farms and forgiving taxes. Why? They did it to insure a loyal population on their border. They knew that the Armenians would be their allies against the Turks. It was a practical decision.
The Russians had evicted Crimean Tatars, Abhazians, Circassians, and Laz for strategic reasons or because they wanted their territories for themselves. They replaced the evicted Muslims with Russians, other Slavs, and Georgians. Once again, a practical, although evil, decision.
The Russians did not attempt to exterminate the Muslims from regions where extermination would be very difficult or where they felt they could control the populace. In conquering Daghestan and Azerbaijan they were cruel. They slaughtered the women and children and burned the villages of the Muslims who opposed them. But the Russians did not evict the Muslim populations. They ruled them, but they did not destroy them.
One can theorize that the same principle applied in Northeastern Anatolia. The Russians expected to win World War I. In 1856 and 1878, the Russians had been forced to relinquish Erzurum by the British, the Germans, and the French. They knew that this time they would be allowed to keep it. They felt the Germans would be defeated, and the British and French were their allies. Indeed, the British promised the region to the Russians in the Sykes-Picot Agreement. SYKES The Russians knew that they could not evict the entire Muslim population of Erzurum and the rest of the Ottoman East, unless they wanted to rule over a lifeless desert. They also knew that the region would never attract large numbers of Russian immigrants. The Russian people would not travel to the harsh climate and dangers of the Ottoman East. If the Russians wanted a Christian population in Eastern Anatolia, they would have to rely on the Armenians. It is doubtful if they wished to do so. No, the Russians wanted both Muslims and Armenians in Erzurum. They could more easily control two groups that hated each other than they could control only one group that hated the Russians.
It should also be added that there were never enough Armenians in Erzurum Province to create an economically viable land. Before the war, the Armenians had been only 17% of the population of Erzurum Province. The Russians knew they needed the Muslim farmers and merchants of Erzurum. The Armenians never made such rational calculations.
The worst suffering of Erzurum’s Muslims only came once the Russians had left. During the Russian Revolution the Russian soldiers simply left Anatolia and walked home. They left behind a small group of officers and a large number of Armenian soldiers. The Armenians wished to make Erzurum a part of the Greater Armenian they had always dreamed of. They could not do so if Erzurum was more than three-fourths Muslim. They therefore began a policy of murder and forced migration of the Muslims of Erzurum, just as they were doing to the Azeri Turks in Erivan.
The Ottoman Army stepped in to retake Erzurum and to stop the slaughter of the Turks. The Armenians could not stand against them. They retreated, and in their retreat killed all the Muslims they could find. You surely know the details: In Beyazit Sancagi, half the villages were destroyed, half the population of Beyazit City dead. In the cities of Erzincan, Bayburt, and Tercan, all the Muslims who could not escape to the mountains were killed. Each of those cities was destroyed. All the villages in the path of the retreating Armenians were likewise ruined, their people killed. Ottoman soldiers retaking the cities found hideous sites–streets littered with thousands of bodies, wells filled with corpses. The city of Erzurum itself was described by the Ottoman captain who entered it, Ahmet Refik, as a “city of ruins.” In the first week after capturing the city, Ottoman burial details counted more than 2,000 bodies, and many had not yet been included. Ottoman forces overtook the Armenians so quickly that the majority of the inhabitants of Erzurum were saved. Nevertheless, 20% of the Muslims of Erzurum City had been killed.
An Austrian journalist on the scene reported:
All the villages from Trabzon to Erzincan and from Erzincan to Erzurum are destroyed. Corpses of Turks brutally and cruelly slain are everywhere. I am now in Erzurum, and what I see is terrible. Almost the whole city is destroyed. The smell of corpses still fills the air. The Armenians were retreating before the Ottoman Army. They were in danger. Yet they stopped whenever they could to kill the innocent Muslims of Erzurum, despite the risk to their own safety. This kind of hatred and madness cannot be explained. It is often falsely claimed that the Turks committed a genocide of the Armenians. Yet this was the real genocide, a genocide of the Turks.
At the end of the war, one-third of the Muslims of Erzurum Province were dead.
Much can be learned from the history of Erzurum. Armenians were a part of the Ottoman Empire, like the other subjects of the sultan. They had problems. They had complaints. So did the other Ottoman subjects. But were the Armenians persecuted? No. In fact, in many ways the Armenians of Ottoman Erzurum had a better life than the Muslims.
Did the Ottomans select the Armenians for ill-treatment?. No. The Ottomans wanted Erzurum to be quiet, peaceful, and productive. They Ottomans did not always succeed. In the world in which they lived, with so many powerful enemies and so little money, the Ottomans could not insure a peaceful and productive Erzurum, but they tried. That was only rational; a peaceful and prosperous Erzurum meant a better Ottoman Empire. And the Ottomans were rational men who knew what was good for their Empire.
Why, then, did Erzurum become such a disaster in the time of World War I? To find the guilty parties, one must look to the Armenian Nationalists and the Russians.
Like the Ottomans, the Russians were rational. The Tsar wanted to expand his Empire. To do so, he had to disrupt the Ottoman Empire. The Russians did not care about the fate of the Muslims of Erzurum. They only cared about their own plans. They therefore supported the Armenian rebels. They supported the Armenians because the Armenians would give the Russians what they wanted–a weakened Ottoman Empire that would more easily defeated. The Russian policy was cold, calculating, and immoral, but rational.
The policy of the Armenian Nationalists was not rational, and thus it was much more dangerous for the Muslims of Erzurum.
The Armenians were people who had lived among the Turks for 800 years. They were a minority that lived alongside a very powerful majority. The majority, the Muslims, could have squashed the Armenians at any time. They did not do so. Instead, they allowed the Armenians to keep their religion and their customs. They even allowed the Armenians to become richer than the Muslims and to have better schools. They allowed foreigners to feed only the Armenians in time of starvation, but not the Muslims, and to provide a good education to the Armenians, but not the Muslims. The Ottomans took the Armenians into the political process in which Armenians became policemen, officials, and even ministers of state and members of parliament. Yet the Armenian minority rebelled and ultimately lost everything. This was madness–the madness of nationalism.
The Armenian nationalists declared that they had special rights–not only the right to vote, not only the right to become an important part of the Government, not only the right to become educated and even wealthy. No, they demanded the counterfeit right of their 17% to rule over the other 83% of the people of Erzurum. They demanded the right to deny religious and cultural freedom to the Turks who had allowed those freedoms to the Armenians. Ultimately, they demanded the right to force out the Muslim majority and to make Erzurum into Armenia.
These were not rights. They were crimes. As crimes often do, they led to the destruction of the criminals. They also led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent Muslims and Armenians.
It was not the failings of the Ottoman Government that destroyed Ottoman Erzurum. It was not war alone that destroyed Ottoman Erzurum. It was the crimes of the Armenian Nationalists and their friends, the Russian imperialists, that destroyed Erzurum.