The Ottoman Armenian Tragedy is a Genuine Historic Controversy
Jeremy Salt
Feroz Ahmad
Arend Jan Boekestijn
Brendon J. Cannon
Mary Schaeffer Conroy
Youssef Courbage
Paul Dumont
Bertil Duner
Gwynne Dyer
Edward J. Erickson
Philippe Fargues
Michael M. Gunter
Paul Henze
Eberhard Jäckel
Firuz Kazemzadeh
Yitzchak Kerem
William L. Langer
Bernard Lewis
Guenter Lewy
Heath W. Lowry
Andrew Mango
Robert Mantran
Justin McCarthy
Michael E. Meeker
Hikmet Ozdemir
Stephen Pope
Michael Radu
Jeremy Salt
Stanford Shaw
Norman Stone
Hew Strachan
Elizabeth-Anne Wheal
Brian G. Williams
Gilles Veinstein
Malcolm Yapp
Thierry Zarcone
Robert F. Zeidner

Visiting Associate Professor in Middle Eastern History and Politics, Bilkent University

Ph.D., Middle Eastern History, Melbourne University, 1980. Middle Eastern Studies.

relevant publications

  • Imperialism, Evangelism and the Ottoman Armenians, 1878-1896, Routledge Press, 1993
  • The Unmaking of the Middle East: A History of Western Disorder in Arab Lands, University of California Press, 2008.

Source: The Unmaking of the Middle East: A History of Western Disorder in Arab Lands, University of California Press, 2008.

"In 1909, agitated by “greatly exaggerated” stories of the activities of Armenian revolutionaries, Muslims turned on Armenians living in and around Adana. Perhaps eighteen thousand Armenians and two thousand Muslims died in this rekindling of the hatred and fanaticism that had torn the eastern provinces apart in 1894-96." P. 50

"Over almost a century the long Ottoman peace had been ruptured by ethno-religious nationalist uprisings, often backed by outside powers and often ending in war. In the two decades before 1914, Greece and the Ottoman state had gone to war over Crete (1897-98), where Muslims and Christians had massacred each other; in 1894-96 the Armenians were the chief victims of a complete breakdown of order across the eastern provinces of the empire and in Istanbul itself as the volatile “Armenian question” finally burst into flames; finally, in 1912-13, the attack on the Ottoman state by the four Christian Balkan states injected further toxins into the relationship between Christians and Muslims, just ahead of a great war in which battlefield defeats, uprisings, and the suspicion of disloyalty would lead to the dislocation of millions of people. Many were Muslims, fleeing or driven out of conquered territory, or in some cases moved away from the war zone (along with Jews) by the government for their own safety; a large number were Christians (Greeks and Armenians) “relocated” after acts of treachery and sabotage behind the lines.

The overriding aim of most Christian civilians was probably to keep out of harm’s way, but uprisings and rebellions by a minority threw a pall of suspicion over all. Of the numerous Armenian groups that took up arms against the state, the Tiflis-based Federation of Armenian Revolutionaries (the Dashnaks) was the best organized and most dangerous from an Ottoman point of view. Founded in 1890, the Dashnaks advocated extreme violence (against Armenian “traitors” as well as Turks and Kurds) with the aim of establishing an Armenian state that would stretch from the Caucasus into the eastern Ottoman lands. …

When the Ottoman Empire entered the war alongside the central powers at the end of October 1914, the Dashnaks and other Armenian political organizations were still operating freely in Istanbul and across the eastern provinces, but armed uprisings from behind the lines made their suppression in 1915 inevitable. Many young Armenians who had been drafted into the military deserted, joining insurgent bands engaged in general acts of sabotage or crossing a porous eastern border to join forces with Caucasian Armenians fighting in the Russian army or in the volunteer units formed alongside it for the specific purpose of “liberating” the “Armenian provinces” of the Ottoman Empire in the name of a common Christianity. Uprising, desertions, and reports of Armenian collusion with the Russians prompted the military command to issue orders in February 1915 that Armenian conscripts should be removed from the ranks of the military and paramilitary forces and formed into labor battalions instead. …

In the first half of 1915 the Armenian insurrection across the eastern provinces intensified. By April Van, Bitlis, Erzurum and Sivas provinces were sliding into complete chaos, confirmed daily in reports coming in from the military command and provincial authorities of pitched battles, attacks on jandarma (gendarmerie) posts, the ambush of supply convoys and convoys of wounded soldiers, and the cutting of telegraph lines. What was happening could no longer be described as disparate uprisings; it was rather a general rebellion, orchestrated principally by the Dashnaks and encouraged by Russia. The victims included not just soldiers or jandarma or officials but the Muslim and Christian villagers who were the victims of massacre and countermassacre. …

At this critical juncture, between April 13 and 20, thousands of Armenians inside the walled city of Van rose up against the governor and the small number of regular and irregular forces garrisoned in the city. The extent to which the rebellion was coordinated with the Russians remains an open question, to which the answer must lie buried somewhere in the Russian state archives, but the effect was to weaken the Ottoman campaign in eastern Anatolia and Persia. …

The weapons in the hands of the rebels, including the latest machine pistols, rifles, bombs and large stocks ammunition, plus the digging of tunnels between houses, were the proof that preparations for conflict had been made over a long period of time and that the uprising was not simply a spontaneous defensive response to Ottoman “repression” (through the murder of two Dashnak leaders as the result of the governor’s “brutal and illegal” policy) or harassment of Armenian women, as claimed by the missionaries. Indeed, the Armenian charge of Ottoman repression and the Ottoman charge of Armenian rebellion (treachery, as the Ottoman government regarded it) were equally true. The government, the Armenian committees, and Muslim and Christian civilians sucked into the conflict as active participants or as innocent victims were now all fully caught up in a Darwinian struggle for the survival of a stricken empire on one hand and the birth of an Armenian state stretching from the Caucasus into eastern Anatolia on the other." Pp. 58-61

"Armenian bands consisting of local Armenians and armed Armenian “volunteers” from across the eastern borders were by now moving from one village to the next, slaughtering and destroying. The men of Zeve took up defensive positions to prevent the village from being overrun but after a morning of fighting were overwhelmed. A general massacre followed. Almost all the Muslims –men, women and children- were killed. The only survivors were six women and a boy of eleven who was saved by the intervention of an Armenian friend of his father’s. … No records were kept, but the evidence of survivors indicates that in all the villages attacked by the Armenians “the slaughter was nearly complete”.

The Ottomans managed to recapture Van in early August before being forced to retreat at the end of the month. Retribution and revenge killings followed, but this time the Armenians were the victims as their Russian protectors retreated. Tens of thousands of Russian and Armenian soldiers and Armenian civilians streaming out of the province in the direction of the Persian border were harassed by Kurdish tribes as they struggled over mountain passes. Thousands were killed. …

The uprising in Van precipitated a series of decisions taken by the government in Istanbul. The first was put into effect on April 24, when the offices of the Armenian political committees in the capital were closed down, documents were seized, and more than 230 Armenians were arrested. The second decision developed in stages. On May 2, as fighting continued in an around the city of Van, Enver Pasa proposed that “this nest of rebellion be broken up” by “relocating” the Armenian population across the border into the Caucasus (from which large numbers of Muslims had fled or had been driven out) or into other parts of Anatolia. On May 26 the military high command informed the Ministry of the Interior that it had started to remove Armenians from Van, Bitlis and Erzurum and a number of villages and towns in the southeast. They were to be resettled south of Diyarbakir, but only up to the point where they would constitute no more than 10 percent of the local population. The same day Talat Pasa, the minister of the interior, informed the grand vizier of the decision to move the Armenian population from the Van, Bitlis, and Erzurum vilayets (provinces) and from areas in the southeast corner of Anatolia around the cities of Maras, Mersin, Adana, Iskanderun, and Antakya.

The following day the cabinet adopted a Provisional Law Concerning the Measures to be Taken by the Military Authorities Against Those Who Oppose the Operations of the Government during Wartime. This law, ratified by the parliament when it reconvened on September 15, authorized the military to arrest Armenians suspected of treachery and to move populations. On May 30 the government issued a series of regulations dealing with the practicalities of the “resettlement”. It was to be organized by local authorities; the Armenians could take movable property and animals with them; they were to be protected en route and provided with food and medical care; on arrival they were to be housed in villages built with proper concern for local conditions but at a distance of at least twenty-five kilometers from railway lines, and only up to the point where they constituted no more than 10 percent of the local population.

It soon provided impossible to move the Armenians in accordance with these instructions. The army had first claim on food, medicine and all means of transport; it is doubtful whether the government would have been organizationally and administratively capable of shifting so many people in any circumstances, let alone at such short notice; and the Armenians would be passing through regions where Kurdish tribes and other ethno-religious groups badly affected by the war would not hesitate to take surrogate revenge for the crimes committed against Muslims. On the grounds of military necessity, however, a directive had come from the military command that the bulk of the Armenian population had to be moved. What could not be done had to be done. The outcome was calamitous. In the coming months hundreds of thousands of Armenian men, women and children were wrenched from their homes, from the Black Sea region and the western provinces as well as the eastern, and moved southwards toward Syria. Thousands died before they reached their destination, dropping dead by the roadside, succumbing to starvation, exposure and disease (typhoid and dysentery being two of the chief killers), or massacred in attacks on their convoys; the desperate scenes in and around the transit camps, of starving and dying people, of filth and stench, were described by American, German and Austrian officials.

The survivors of the relocation reached the Arab provinces in a state of complete distress. They were resettled in various parts of Syria. Large numbers were moved to camps set up near Ras al Ain, to the northeast of Aleppo, or along the Euphrates River valley to the southeast. The famine that killed hundreds of thousands of Syrians during the war was at its height when they arrived. By the summer of 1916, between fifty-five thousand and sixty thousand people were said (by a German consul and an American oil company employee distributing relief) to have been buried around the camp at Meskene after being “carried off by hunger, by privations of all sorts, by intestinal diseases and typhus which is the result”. Thousands more were massacred. How many it is not possible to say with any precision: even if the estimates of foreign aid workers, consuls, missionaries, survivors, and local people were not blown up for propaganda purposes, they are not reliable enough for historians to be able to arrive at anything like firm figures. Many were reported killed by Circassians or Kurdish jandarma at the Ras al Ain camp, in the desert northeast of Aleppo, in the spring of 1916. A German missionary visiting the region the following year thought the motive was greed.

In 1916 a large number of Armenians who were being moved onward to Mosul from Deir al Zor because they had reached the 10 percent limit of the local population set by the central government died from heat and exposure or were murdered near the River Khabur. Survivors said the killers were Kurdish jandarma, Circassians, Chechens, and Arabs. Whether the local governor was complicit in these killings or whether the Circassians and Chechens living along the Khabur River, who had a reputation for religious intolerance and no doubt had bitter memories of Christian mistreatment of Muslims in the Caucasus, had acted “on their initiative” is something that has never been resolved. …

More than one hundred thousand other Armenians were moved southwards through central Syria to Damascus and points farther south in the Hawran region. Many settled in the towns. Some (even at Meskene) found work as agricultural laborers or artisans or with the railway. At Raqqa (along the Euphrates) thousands of Armenians were living in houses “which the kindness of the governor has procured for the most poor”, while others squatted in a camp on the opposite bank of the river. Within months the situation had worsened because of lack of food and the outbreak of a typhus epidemic. …

Of the numbers of Armenians who were moved southwards through central Syria, an estimated 20,000 out of 132,000 still died, but there were no massacres. Overall, it is impossible to separate the numbers of Armenians who were massacred from those who died of other causes, but on the accumulated evidence of foreign consuls and aid workers there is no doubt that the death toll from starvation and disease was enormous. Given that the Armenians were in a much worse situation than the large number of Syrians who were already dying from the famine gripping the entire region, this was inevitable.

As news reached Istanbul that Armenians were being massacred on the way south, the government ordered the provincial authorities to catch and punish those responsible, “but the fact that these orders were repeated on numerous occasions would seem to indicate that they had little effect on the killing.” On September 28, 1915, continuing reports of attacks on the convoys by Kurdish tribesmen, along with shortages of medicine and food and transport problems, compelled Talat Pasa to seek a full government inquiry. The following day the Council of Ministers set up a special investigative council, involving the Ministries of the Interior, Justice and War, which it directed to work together in investigating the crimes that had been committed. The Finance Ministry was ordered to fund their work. Hearings were held across the eastern provinces, followed by court-martials, at which more than one thousand civilian officials or military personnel were found guilty “of organizing or failing to prevent the attacks” on the Armenians or of stealing their property. Muslims were also put on trial for crimes against Muslims. The sentences included imprisonment and some executions.

Estimates of the numbers of Armenians who were “relocated” between May 1915 and February 1916 range from just under half a million (the figure counted from Ottoman archival statistics) to just over seven hundred thousand. Estimates of the number who died during the entire war (not just in 1915-16) that were made when it was over, even by sources hostile to the Turks and the Ottoman government, ranged from six hundred thousand to eight hundred thousand. In recent decades, Armenian writers have based their arguments on figures of one million or 1.5 million dead. The differences in estimates illustrate a general problem with statistics dating back to the late nineteenth century, when the number of Armenians who lived in the Ottoman Empire (or who died there) were often exaggerated for political purposes. Muslims were undercounted for the same reason. Only the Ottoman government actually counted the population, but even its figures stand in need of adjustment. Justin McCarthy, a specialist in Ottoman demographics, has put the Armenian population of the whole empire in 1912 at 1,698,301 of which number 1,465,000 lived in Anatolia. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians survived the war. Herbert Hoover’s estimate of 450,000 to 500,000 Armenians fleeing from “Turkish Armenia” into “Russian Armenia” is consistent with other figures. Many settled in Syria, and others managed to leave the region altogether, emigrating to the United States and many other countries. Taking all of these factors into account, McCarthy has arrived at a total wartime Ottoman Armenian death toll from all causes of 584,000 or 41 percent of the Ottoman Armenian population. If the Armenian patriarchate population estimate of about two million is to be accepted over the official census figures, the number of dead would be increased by about 250,000, on McCarthy’s calculations, bringing the total Ottoman Armenian death toll from all causes for the entire war to a maximum of slightly more than 800,000. It will be noted that these figures are in line with the estimates made at the end of the war. Other computations put the number of Armenian dead at no more than 300,000, but the fluctuations remain enormous, even between historians who share the same basic point of view about what happened.

… Captain C. L. Wooley, a British officer traveling through “Kurdistan” after the war, was told by tribal leaders that four hundred thousand Kurds had been massacred by Armenians in the Van-Bitlis region alone. Two volumes of recently published Ottoman documents –mostly the reports of refugees, police, jandarma, and provincial officials- covering the period from 1914 to 1921 indicate that this Kurdish estimate of Kurdish dead through massacre by the Russians and/or their Armenian protégées is probably fairly accurate. Counted on a village-by-village or town-by-town basis, with the names of the killers often being given, the number of Muslims who were massacred across the region is put at 518,105. Hundreds of thousands of others died from the same starvation, disease and exposure that were killing the Armenians. The killing of civilians began well before the “relocation” was ordered and clearly had a powerful influence on the decisions that were taken by the government in Istanbul. In November 1914, Armenian bands operating in the Saray and Baskale regions near the Persian border raped, slaughtered and plundered and in at least one village drove the villagers into a mosque and burnt them alive. This individual episode is fully consistent with the documentary evidence of atrocities committed by Armenians over a period of years and recorded in gruesome detail in the documents coming out of the Ottoman archives. Even allowing for the possibility of lies or exaggeration, the evidence is both consistent and overwhelming. There is too much of it, coming from too many places over too long a period of time, to be credibly denied. …

The suffering of the Muslims was “special” in its own terrible way: there certainly was a holocaust in the eastern Ottoman lands, but it devoured Muslim Kurds and Turks just as greedily and cruelly as Christian Armenians.    

The Muslims suffered tremendous loss of life (the Muslim population of Van province fell by 62 percent, of Bitlis by 42 percent, and Erzurum by 31 percent) but could survive the ravages of war because they were an overwhelming majority (more than 80 percent of overall) in the territory that the Armenian national committees wanted to incorporate into an independent Armenian state. The Ottoman Armenians were a small minority and could not survive losses of such magnitude. The wartime suffering of the Muslims in this region, against the historical background of Russian expulsion of Muslims from the Caucasus since early in the nineteenth century, suggests that had Russia stayed in the war their future would have been bleak in the extreme. The entire region and its civilian population were devastated by the big war and the secondary ethno-religious conflicts fought out across the length and breadth of eastern Anatolia, from the Black Sea down to the Mediterranean, spilling over into northwest Persia and the Caucasus across to Baku and continuing for years after 1918. …

The withdrawal of Russia from the war and the renunciation by the Bolsheviks of all territorial claims abruptly ended Armenian hopes for a state that would include the eastern lands of the Ottoman Empire. The Dashnak gamble on a Tsarist victory had failed. The withdrawal of Russian troops and the return of the Ottomans precipitated the flight of thousands of Armenians into the Caucasus, where fighting between Turks and Armenians was to continue for two more years. By the end of the war the ancient Armenian presence in eastern Ottoman lands had virtually come to an end.

The numbers of Armenians who died during and after the relocation, the causes of death, the identity of those who killed them (bandit gangs, tribal Kurds or Circassian refugees out for revenge, and the jandarma or soldiers who were supposed to be protecting them) or plundered the convoys as they moved south into Syria and Mosul, the culpability of senior officials, the role of the special operations force known as Teskilat-i Mahsusa, and the intentions of the Ottoman government remain subjects of acrimonious debate to this day. A few months before the end of the war, and his flight to Berlin, where in 1921 he was assassinated by a young Armenian, Talat admitted to a friend that the relocation had turned into a complete disaster. Given that he remains at the center of continuing accusations by Armenian historians and propagandists and those who support their case that the Ottoman government met at some point in 1915 and decided not just to relocate the Armenians but to wipe them out, his voice should perhaps be given a posthumous hearing:

… At a time when our armies were in a life or death struggle with enemies who were vastly superior in both numbers and equipment the Armenians, who were our fellow countrymen, had armed themselves and revolted all over the country and were cooperating with the enemy for the purpose of striking us in the rear. What other choice was there but to remove this race away from the war zones? There was absolutely no other solution. This was not at all an easy task. For that reason, therefore, while this policy was being carried out, some instances of bad management and evil deeds took place. But one cannot blame members of the government like myself for such instances which took place in far away provinces and of which we had no knowledge." Pp. 62-69



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