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What happened to Armenians in 1915?

The Armenian genocide is the scarlet letter of Ottoman-Turkish history that forced Armenians, the archaic community of Anatolia, to confront mass extinction and lose their motherland. Into the bargain, it also rendered the irreparable perishment of the plurinational structure of the Ottoman Empire into a very bloody and bitter phase. Turks measured the downfall of the empire by only focusing on the loss of territory. However, the real loss was the destruction of the Ottoman’s political, executive, institutional, discursive, and identity-ideological structure. This kind of disappearance triggered a vacuum and the terrifying vacancy was filled with nationalism. The process of building an identity, aside from the natural difficulties faced when building a new one, became ten or even twenty times more difficult by changing the already existing identity into a completely new one.   

The vast majority of the ancestors of the elites who led the Ottoman Empire were the Balkans who also formed the main population and upheld the empire’s political, military, and economical burdens. Ottomans drifted to Europe throughout their entire history and although this drift was often antagonistic as a competitive relationship, Europe was the plummet and fundamental body of the state. As stated by Udo Steinbach, a German social scientist and an expert on Turkey, the Ottoman cities such as Thessaloniki, Budapest, Belgrade, and Sarajevo were always more significant than Baghdad, Cairo, or Yemen. This significance was the same in terms of the seats occupied by the Ottoman administrative elites. The Balkans, namely southeast Europe, was the principal cradle of the human capital of the Empire.

Among the great-grandparents, who were familiar with the infamous history in question, knew as much as the Ottoman why the grandchildren of the names such as Kosta, Goran, Yorgo, Vasilli, Vlad, Darko, Eleni, Luba, Sofia, Mila, Zlata turned into Nadi, Baha, Refet, Cemal, Mahmut, Fuat, Hilmi, Safiye, Mihrisah, Handan, and Zehra, etc. Ottomans never had any mixed-up emotions about their cosmopolitan characteristic for centuries. The religious-linguistic transformation in Anatolia was experienced partially in the Balkans on the basis of the elite. When there was a person who becomes a Muslim, they would also say s/he “became a Turk”. Being a Muslim and a Turk carried the same meaning. However, the forcibly recruited Muslims (Devshirme) described themselves as Muslims only and they did not like to be called Turks by the non-Muslims.  They would identify themselves as Muslims and would not recognize any other identities. The ones who rose to prominence or were promoted in military or civil service would be able to visit their villages and find their parents supposing that they are still alive. Such reuniting processes would be extremely heart-rending. 

The dissolution process of the empire was a terrible and gloomy period. The aftershock of the lost territory in the Balkans inflicted unbearable deep wounds in the souls of a whole generation. In this period, many Ottoman army officers and civil servants witnessed that the cities or towns they were born in were left outside the borders of the empire. The European territory of the empire that served as a home to many families was no longer in possession. The territory they were born in, hosted their childhood and harbored the graves of their grandparents belonged to different states now.

The belonging defined over religious identities had come to a conclusion. Christianity or Islam were not the main identities in detached Rumelia anymore; it was ethnonational identities.  Naturally, religious belonging was a part of such identities. However, for example, the difference between the Orthodox Greeks and Bulgarians, who were also from the same religious order, was not through religion but ethnicity. Muslims managed to observe such transformation, but they could not acknowledge the deep outlines of the identity difference. The identities were affected unavoidably when the Empire lost Rumelia after the Balkan Wars. Islamic and Ottoman identities would decline against the Turkish identity in conjunction with the meteoric adoption of nationalism among the Albanians and Arabs. The winner of this identity conflict was nationalism without a doubt. The vast majority of the Muslim Ottomans had now become Turkists. That was the only lifeline for them. The only remaining option left for them from the identities they did not or could not embrace was the belonging of Turkishness. Therefore, the grandchildren of the forcibly recruited or assimilated Christian ancestors initiated nationalism through the apprehension of racial-ethnic togetherness. An imaginary “ethnic Turkishness” was revealed.

Their viewpoint of Anatolia was changed as well. Anatolia remained as the only piece of land they possessed after the Balkans that had the potential to be home. The greatest concern of the Ottoman elites, who called themselves “Turks” after the Balkan Wars, was Anatolia experiencing a similar faith as the Balkans. Because Anatolia was also cosmopolitan just like the Balkans. First of all, there were places in Anatolia where Christians were a majority. And second, there were two dominant groups among the Muslims. Anatolian Greeks were living in the coastal Aegean, Constantinople, and Pontus region, while Armenians were the majority in many places in eastern Anatolia. There were also a remarkable amount of Non-Muslim subjects present in the entire Anatolia. Furthermore, it was a matter of public record that these territories were the homeland of these non-Muslims.

Unionists promised equality when they came into power. However, Jonturk (Young Turk) idealism suffered the hubris syndrome in record time. Thus, they lost the trust of liberals minorities who supported them in the very beginning in a short span of time. The severe trauma in the Balkans paved the way for the concept of a Socialist Darwinist racists nation to turn into an official ideology through Turkism. While the pathological and fascistic ideas such as uniforming, homogenization, Turkicizing, converting into a Turkish home, putting the non-Turkish subjects through ethnic cleansing were marginal in the very beginning, an opportunity arose for them to be put into practice in real politics after the start of World War 1. Generals such as Enver, Talat, and Cemal were carried away with a reverie where they dreamed of transforming the Ottoman Empire, which was rising as a Muslim empire, into a Turan empire. Just like Ziya Gokalp mentioned in his verses:

“The fatherland for Turks is not Turkey, nor Turkistan

The fatherland is a vast and eternal land: Turan.”

Conquering the territories, which were occupied by the Russian with the help of Germans and where Turkic peoples were living, lied behind this stargazer foreign policy. On the one hand, this foreign policy was being put into practice, but on the other hand, the military failures were causing accumulation of domestic rage and grudge. The Unionists started to blame the Armenians after the major defeat against the Russian army in Sarikamis. The fact that some Armenian nationalists were seeing the Russian army as their own salvation and actively supporting the Russian provided the excuse the Unionists were seeking after. Therefore, they formed the Labour Battalions and seized the armaments of the non-Muslims in order to send them to such battalions. The genie was already out of the bottle and the ethnic cleansing was launched.

Especially the Anatolian Greeks in the west started to run away to Greece through the Aegean as the oppression and genocide against the Anatolian Greeks intensified in western Anatolia and the Black Sea. Similar incidents happened in the Black Sea. The Armenians were now the primary victims of the ethnic engineering initiative.

A myth called “Armenians who backstab the Ottomans” was composed, which was to be discussed in the Turkish historical thesis later on, in order to legitimize what was to be practiced. However, interestingly enough, a decree was passed for not only the Armenians throughout the borderland but also the Armenians in the entire Anatolia, who were living in the settlements hundreds of kilometers away from the border, to be sent to the deserts of Syria.  Deportation Law was passed on 27 May 1915. The property rights of the Armenian people, which were protected by the Ottoman constitution (Kanun-i Esasi), were repealed accordingly. Movable and immovable properties of the Armenians started to be seized aggregately. Armenians living in regions such as Constantinople and Izmir were included in this terrible act of lawlessness. The Muslim immigrants, who ran away from Rumelia, were relocated to the places owned by Armenians whose immovable properties were taken away. Thus, unionists intended to enjoy the best of both worlds; make room for the Rumelian immigrants in Anatolia; increasing the population of the “ethnic Turks” in Anatolia, and decreasing the numbers of the non-Muslims; forming a national bourgeoisie thanks to the properties seized from the minorities; transforming into a national empire in Anatolia with a population consisting of monotonous “ethnic Turks”. The intention of this deportation was to “clean Anatolia off” Armenians and forming a monotonous Turkish fatherland. This was an “ethnic cleansing” policy. Unionists knew what they were doing. Not only the Armenians throughout the borderland but also the Armenians in Anatolia were subjected to forced migration. The majority of these people were systematically killed, raped, tortured, forced to walk thousands of kilometers on foot regardless of them being women, children, or elders, and they died because of starvation, epidemic, maltreatment, and the attacks of the local Muslims. Similar cruelties continued in the concentration camp formed in Syria. A bunch of Armenians who managed to survive succeeded to run away to western countries. Armenian children, who were taken away from their parents by force, were adopted by wealthy Turkish families at a very young age. A crucial number of Armenian girls were forced into marriage with Muslim men. The existence of Armenians in Anatolia was wiped out irreversibly thanks to such brutal policies. The owner of such policies was the state itself. They were not individual but systematical. Contrary to today’s state arguments, they were also not some conflicts between two different ethnic groups in a war environment. And the “Armenian fedayi” (Armenian militia) argument cannot legitimize anything. The deportation plan put into practice against an entire ethnic group throughout the country and supposedly created in response to some partisan Armenians, who rioted in war territory and make up maybe 0,1% or even 0,01% of the total population, is a cruel genocide that is impossible to fight against. This is a genocide regardless of which state carries it out. It is a shame to try finding excuses for this genocide and bringing forward different theses that manipulate historical data and are inconsistent.

The population of the Armenians in Anatolia before 1915 is estimated to be between 2 million to 2.5 million. Today, it is estimated that between 50.000 to 70.000 Armenians live in Turkey. Between 1 million to 1.5 million Armenians lost their lives in this genocide according to international sources. And the remaining ones took shelter in different countries by migration. A terrible kind of demographic engineering took place. This is the summary of 1915. It is time to face this disgraceful dirty page of history with some dignity. Identity wars must come to an end. The accounts should be squared with the concept of a nation that is built upon a racial and ethnic belonging myth in the light of scientific data. The starting point of this terrible nightmare is the Armenian genocide. Turkey and its people could start the spiritual purification they need more than ever by a thorough self-criticism and facing this terrible past.  

(*) This article is dedicated to millions of Armenian brothers who lost their lives or their country during the 1915 events.

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PROF. MEHMET EFE CAMAN
PROF. MEHMET EFE CAMAN
Dr. Mehmet Efe Caman is a Scholar of Politics at Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN). Dr. Caman’s main research focuses on Democracy, democratization and human rights, Turkish politics, the Middle East, Eurasian politics and post-Soviet regions, the European Union. He has published a monograph on Turkish foreign policy, numerous book chapters and scholarly articles in English, German and Turkish about topics related to his research areas.
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