Aghamali Meherremov: Politicization of History - Revisiting the Events of Early 20th Century Anatolia
The prominence of politicized history has unfortunately served to discredit the discipline and detach it from the noble pursuit of seeking the truth, which is a central goal of academic research in all fields. In a world where the average citizen lacks basic historical knowledge but is increasingly prone to steadfast political loyalty, history-writing has come to be an incredibly powerful tool for galvanizing large populations to action. After all, telling a shocking and emotionally compelling story that is loosely based on historical events could earn certain organizations millions of dollars in funding, discredit governments and shut down economic deals, and even cause ethnic strife and war. It is not at all surprising, given history’s wide-ranging influence, that it has been tarnished and has lost some of its integrity.
The study of the ethnic conflicts in Eastern Anatolia during the period surrounding WWI has come to carry the hue of impurity described above. The historical interpretation of the uprising of the Ottoman Christian populations, namely the Armenians, Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Greeks, has turned into a political effort by these populations to skew historical narratives in order to receive economic and political concessions today. What is particularly problematic is the misuse of certain well-defined terms by historians and politicians when describing the events of 1915: words such as “genocide,” “systematic,” “mass-murder,” and “ethnic cleansing” have been recklessly applied to make politically potent but ultimately inaccurate accusations.
“Genocide Denial” and Political Stakes
Before the details of the argument are laid out, it is worth addressing the potential accusation of “genocide denial” that may arise among readers. The intention of this paper is not to belittle or justify the suffering of any group. Rather, it is to shed light on the politics involved in the question of genocide, as well as the major omissions - which in a sense serve as distortions - in the current mainstream historiography. The term “genocide denial” should not be used as a modern-day gag rule with the intention of stifling debate regarding the details of historical events. After all, in good academic faith, it is important that the facts are analyzed objectively, with all the necessary context and clarification, when reconstructing a complex tragedy such as the one that transpired in Eastern Anatolia in the early 1900s.
The events, as well as their interpretation, have come to serve an important geopolitical purpose. The “genocides” are continuously used to justify wars against neighboring Turkic states and expansionism, with the most recent manifestation of this argument playing out in Nagorno-Karabakh, where a population of 145,900 Armenians drove out roughly 600,000 Azerbaijanis in the 1990s, citing the Armenian genocide as a safety concern roughly 8 decades after its occurrence in a culturally and geographically separate context. There is also a very direct incentive for the Armenian, Assyrian, and Greek “genocides'' to be denoted as such, because if Turkey was to go through with all the concessions demanded by the “victimized” groups as a result of international pressure, it would amount to major expansion of territory at Turkey’s expense, “and hundreds of billions of dollars worth of cash reparations.” The territorial and monetary stakes serve to make truth a secondary priority.
Pro-reparations historians argue that the Turkish government was driven by paranoia and decided to pick out a minority population and exterminate it to galvanize and unite the country. There is a major omission here, which has to do with the personal involvement of Anatolian Christians in the ethnic conflict. Their narrative describes them as passive actors, not as the relatively powerful agents of this story. What they do not mention is that since the 1880s, there was an organized effort by Anatolian Christian groups such as the Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks to violently subvert the Turkish government. Organizations such as the Hunchak, Dashnak, and Armenakan were formed in the 1880s, and had the explicit goal of taking territory from the Ottoman state and carving out an Armenia through armed conflict, as written in their manifesto. The armed uprisings of the Christian Anatolians were pervasive and relentless, and they targeted Muslim civilians living in the territories where they were hoping to create an ethno-state. Below is a “resume” of some of these organizations, for the purpose of providing context on their style of operation:
A number of armed uprisings throughout the 1890s, 1900s, and 1910s, which led to bloodshed of Muslim minorities (Kurds, Circassians, Azeris, etc.)
Assassination attempts on Turkish diplomats, governors, and other government officials.
Assassination attempt on Grigory Golitsin, Russian general and statesman, in 1903.
Refusal to pay the Turkish government taxes, resulting in armed clashes in the early 1890s.
Massacres of Caucasian Tatars from 1905-1907, with 158 Muslim villages destroyed.
Massacring of Azerbaijani civilians in 1918 (over 12,000 dead).
Many of these organizations had very violent and belligerent provisions. Official Dashnak documentation had clauses such as the call for “The creation of armed militias, and their ideological and practical instruction,” “Creation of revolutionary committees,” “The destruction and plunder of government offices,” and “Utilization of terror against representatives of government, usurers, traitors, and exploiters of all kinds.” Modern readers will recognize the affinity between the attitudes and actions of the Dashnaks/Hunchuks and modern terrorist groups, not least because the word “terrorize” appears in the official documents verbatim. The “paranoia” referred to by an unreasonably large number of historians could hardly be called that, because starting with the Russo-Turkish war in the 1870s, Armenians and other Christian groups constantly sided with the enemies of the Turkish state, took up arms against local Muslim civilians, plotted assassinations and openly broke the laws of the country in which they lived. To draw a parallel, it is like if people in Florida stopped paying taxes, burned down U.S. government offices, plotted assassinations against America’s political and cultural leaders, went to conferences in Iran and North Korea calling for their support in subverting the U.S., and constantly massacred people in reservations and nearby cities. Nothing about this is even remotely close to the circumstances of the European Holocaust, something that genuinely warrants the designation of genocide.
Despite the open belligerence of the Christians in the Ottoman Empire’s eastern provinces against Muslims and the Ottoman state, any punishment or retaliation against their actions is included as part of the genocide narrative. In 1913, there was a proposal to assassinate the leaders of a political party called Ittihad during the 7th Conference of the Social Democrat Hunchakian Party in Istanbul. Those who put the proposal forward - a group of 20 members of the Hunchak party - were apprehended and executed in 1915 for this and similar proposals. The names of these individuals - and hundreds of others like them - are on the list of Armenian intellectuals who were killed during Turkey’s so-called deliberate annihilation of Armenia’s intelligentsia. That is historical manipulation. A group of twenty men were arrested and tried according to the laws of the state in which they resided, for a plot to assassinate members of the parliament. If the assassins were Turks, Kurds, or Azeris, the result would have been the exact same - plotting to kill members of the government is treason regardless of who does it. Thus, the killing of these Christian “intellectuals” is not an act of ethnic cleansing, but a regular application of Ottoman law.
The same flawed logic is applied on a broader scale. During WWI, Christian subjects of the Ottoman Empire sided with the British, Russians, and the French, and, using weaponry provided by these allies, began mass rebellions against the Ottomans from within, essentially creating a third front. The details of these violent uprisings are very well recorded - Christians, in cities that had mixed Muslim and Christian populations, attacked civilians and temporarily took control of local government. They were able to do so with relative ease because all the military units that would have normally been stationed in every domestic province were on either the eastern or western Ottoman fronts, fighting in WWI. When the Ottoman soldiers were pulled from the eastern front and deployed to the rebelling provinces, they essentially had to reconquer the mutinous cities, which resulted in military casualties. These deaths are also included as part of the genocide statistics, and the battles are described as “massacres.” Military engagements between Anatolian Christians and Ottoman troops, and the casualties thereof, should not be presented as evidence of Ottoman treachery, considering that these were mutually belligerent parties fighting in WWI.
As already stated, Ottoman Christians were used by the Allied powers to create major domestic instability, which manifested through the massacring of Muslims and takeover of cities. The majority of those Muslims were Kurds, who primarily reside in Eastern Anatolia. Many of the soldiers on the eastern front, due to proximity, also happened to be Kurdish, and when the unrest began, they were the first to be deployed to the mutinying provinces. Many of these Kurds witnessed the betrayal of their Christian compatriots first-hand, returning to burning cities and villages where many found their families slaughtered. Neighbors that they had grown up with were now armed and threatening the safety of their loved ones. In this atmosphere of heightened anger, the regional military commanders and local conscripts refused to obey the commands of their superiors, and began to violently exact revenge on the Christians. They simply did not care what their supervisors had to say regarding how to “properly” respond to a situation like this.
The fact that they had received explicit instructions to protect Christian non-combatants from the Ottoman government is indisputable. The Minister of Interior of the Ottoman Empire, in his official correspondence to his subordinates, had stated:
“It is essential that the security of the Armenians being moved be provided in full during their journey. The local population must not under any circumstances be allowed to take action against the Armenians during their journey. However, every precaution must be taken against possible attacks from clans and villagers on the route, and any who attempt such an attack must be stopped, using force if necessary.”
Not only were such orders given, but those who disobeyed those orders were apprehended, tried, and punished - many through execution. Close to one thousand such individuals were arrested and held responsible by the Turkish government for harm done against Armenians. Saying that there was a “systematic” massacring of Armenians and Assyrians is untrue, given that the “system,” in this case the Ottoman government, was strictly opposed to what was happening and did everything in their power to protect the innocent, all while in the midst of losing a massive war and having virtually no control over its eastern provinces.
To conclude, it is perhaps worthwhile to end with the perspective of the Anatolian Christians that usually goes unheard in this debate. Many Armenians and Assyrians who were opposed to the rebellion and massacre of Muslims were themselves killed by people of their own ethnicity - unsurprising given the “Utilization of terror against representatives of government, usurers, traitors, and exploiters of all kinds” clause in the founding documents of the rebels. A former member of Dashnaktsutyun and the Prime Minister of Armenia, Hovhannes Kajaznuni, had the following to say about the conflict:
“The proof is, however - and this is essential - that it was the struggle against the Turkish government that began decades ago, against which the Turkish government brought about the deportation or extermination of the Armenian people in Turkey and the desolation of Turkish Armenia. This was a terrible fact!”
It is a tragedy that centuries of peaceful relations between Armenians, Assyrians, Kurds, Turks, and other ethnicities within the Ottoman Empire culminated in so much bloodshed in the latter decades of the Ottoman period. When commemorating these events, we must not lose sight of the truth and use the suffering of the victims - both Muslim and Christian - for political ends.
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