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The Events of 1915 and the Turkish-Armenian Controversy over History: An Overview

The final years of the Ottoman Empire was a tragic period for the people that made up the Empire. Turks, Armenians, and many others suffered immensely. 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.

The Armenian view of history, however, selects the Armenian suffering, embellishes it in several ways and presents it as a genocide – a crime defined in international law – perpetrated by Turks against Armenians. The acceptance of this version by others has become the national objective for Armenia and the radical groups within the Armenian Diaspora. Legitimate challenges to the Armenian narrative, even when based on scholarly research or personal histories, are brushed aside as propaganda, suppressed or attacked as “denial.” This is often accompanied by anti-Turkish rhetoric and vilification of Turkish history 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, as well as 43 people 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 has initiated a process aimed at an honest and open dialogue with Armenia. Successful conclusion of this process will not only benefit the two peoples, but will also contribute to regional peace, stability and reconciliation.

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.

Turkey’s views are based on available 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 do not support the Armenian narrative. Rather, they 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. An Armenian leader of that time, Katchaznouni, who became the first Prime Minister of the short lived independent Armenian Democratic Republic stated the following 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, 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 advancing Russian army. Some Armenians living away from the front, yet were reported or suspected to be involved in collaboration, were also included in mandatory transfer.

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. 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.”

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 reach a common, reliable basis of information becomes all the more important. It was Turkey who proposed to Armenia the establishment of a joint commission composed of Turkish and Armenian historians to study the events of 1915, in the archives of Turkey and Armenia and all other relevant archives in the third countries and to share their findings with the international public. Moreover the Protocols signed in October 2009 between Turkey and Armenia stipulates to “implement 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.” This represents an opportunity for replacing the language of national conviction with the language of impartial knowledge. Once the relevant protocols are ratified both in Turkey and Armenia, this joint exercise will hopefully benefit from some of the critical Armenian archives that remain – unlike those in Turkey – closed to foreign researchers. The strong resistance shown by the Armenian Diaspora to the implementation of this process and to the idea of a joint/international study is both telling and worrying.

The fact remains that the issue is a matter of legitimate scholarly debate, 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 if it is selective.

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 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 this by supporting the normalization process between Turkey and Armenia and by resisting those who want their version of history be adopted as uncontested truth.