This week marks the centenary not only of the Gallipoli campaign, but – today – of the Armenian genocide. The destruction of the Armenians coincided with the planned Allied attack against the Ottoman capital, Istanbul.
For the Young Turk Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) at the reins of the Ottoman Empire, Spring 1915 was a watershed moment. Together with its defence of the Dardanelles, this conspiratorial group of right-wing revolutionaries made its war “total” in a way that Europe did not know before the second world war.
In 1915 and 1916, the Ottoman Armenians were destroyed as an organised community, while more than half of them, around one million people, were killed. After the Allies had failed in its naval breakthrough through the Isthmus on March 18 1915, they launched a landing on the Gallipoli peninsula, east of the Dardanelles, on April 25.
This occurred just a few hours after the Ottoman minister of the interior, Mehmed Talat, the CUP’s strong man, issued orders to destroy his fellow Ottoman Armenians. Even if the Ottoman Empire eventually lost the war, which it had considerably prolonged by joining it, the CUP achieved its minimal war goal: exclusive Muslim power in Asia Minor by destroying the Armenians.
Its Kemalist successors, most of them former CUP members, built the Republic of Turkey in a “cleansed” Asia Minor. Like Mehmed Talat, Kemalists exalted Gallipoli as a victory of Muslim Anatolia against imperialist invasion. For them, it paved the way to a successful nation-state.
For the pioneer of the UN Genocide Convention of 1948, Raphael Lemkin, the suffering:
of the Armenian men, women, and children thrown into the Euphrates River or massacred on the way to Der-el-Zor […] prepared the way for the adoption for the Genocide Convention by the United Nations.
Lemkin based his work on what Armenians and Jews experienced during the two world wars.
Genocide was a means of total war. For the CUP, the war served both to secure a sovereign and safe home for Muslims in Asia Minor (its minimal, “existential” goal), and to restore and expand the Empire (its maximal war goal).
Many leading members of the CUP hailed from the Balkans, once part of the Ottoman Empire, but which had been lost during the Balkan Wars in 1912–1913. In 1913, triggered by the loss of Macedonia, the CUP established a dictatorial regime and redefined what it understood as a nation.
The CUP was already unwilling to share power equally with Ottoman non-Turks and non-Muslims before the constitutional revolution of 1908, but after the loss of Macedonia (divided among Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria), leading members of the CUP embarked on defining the Empire as a Turkish nation in which only Muslims could be successfully assimilated. Asia Minor was to become the Turk’s Homeland (Türk Yurdu).
In this new and more exclusive vision of the Empire, Ottoman Christians were seen as aliens and acting as a fifth column. In June 1914, for example, the CUP expelled about 150,000 Greek Orthodox Christians from the Aegean coast and settled Muslim refugees from the Balkans in their houses.
The CUP, looking through Social Darwinist “Macedonian glasses”, then turned to another topical conflict of the late Ottoman world – the ‘Armenian question’ in the eastern provinces.
The European powers had instituted article 61 of the Berlin Treaty (1878) in an effort to safeguard a secure future for Armenians with their Muslim neighbours through reform. The Ottoman government belatedly signed the Reform Agreement on 8 February 1914. By that time, however, the Agreement was at odds with the CUP’s exclusive outlook on its core land and its co-optation with anti-constitutional forces in the region.
In a time of peace, the Reform Agreement might have worked.
Europe in crisis and the Armenians
What changed the situation was the crisis of European diplomacy in July 1914 and the German Kaiser’s order to accept a CUP request for a war alliance.
Germany’s paramount goal was military victory. When the CUP consequently annulled the Reform Agreement, Germany did not protest. The highly influential German military mission in Istanbul contributed to a comprehensive mobilisation of Ottoman forces and pressed for Ottoman military action according to the terms of the alliance signed on August 2 1914.
Once the overstretched Ottoman forces went on the offensive, however, they began to lose. The failure of the Allied naval assault on March 18 1915 in the Dardanelles saved the CUP and instilled in it the audacity to achieve its minimal war goal in a radical way: by doing away with the Armenians.
Talat Pasha felt confident in both a successful Ottoman-German defence of the capital and a window of opportunity in the shadow of this effort directed at the Armenians.
On April 24 1915, he ordered the arrest and deportation of Armenian intellectuals in Constantinople – and then began to target the Armenians as a whole after he had implemented regional anti-Armenian measures and disarmed Armenians serving in the army.
Evidently, Ottoman Armenians could not share the CUP’s notion of a Turk Homeland (Türk Yurdu).
From the Autumn of 1914, Armenians became deeply worried by Islamist and Turkish war propaganda and the CUP’s obstruction of the Reform Agreement. Several thousand young men had joined the Russian army, but for others the future looked bleak. One can sense the exasperation and frustration of Armenian voices during those early months of the war, but still hoped on German help.
Hopes set on Germany were misplaced. The Armenians were alone, except the asylum offered by Alevi and Yezidi Kurdish neighbourhoods, a number of Muslim families and some support given by American and Swiss missionaries on the spot.
In a few places, Armenians organised resistance. The most prominent was the resistance on Musa Dagh, a mountain in the Turkish province of Hatay, that later gave birth to a novel by Franz Werfel, a contemporary Austrian writer. His book was translated into Yiddish and avidly read in Jewish ghettos during the second world war.
An organised destruction
The destruction of the Armenians ordered by Talat Pasha took place in several phases.
He first ordered the arrest, torture and murder of Armenian leaders, beginning on the night of April 24.
In a second step, he organised the removal of the Armenian people to Syria. He began in the eastern provinces where elderly men, boys and other men not serving in the army were massacred before removal.
At several places en route, mass killing included women and children. Rape was systematic. Removal from Western Asia Minor as well as Thrace started in July 1915, and included the displacement of men that partly took place by train.
The second phase of genocide concerned the survivors of deportation who starved to death in camps in the Syrian desert.
About 150,000 Armenians were formally Islamised, resettled in the south and were thus saved by Kemal Pasha, the military governor of Syria. Apart from that, any attempts at resettlement were frustrated. In August 1916, more than 100,000 survivors of starvation and renewed forced marches to the southeast, including children, and were killed east of the Euphrates next to Dair az-Zor. These were scenes of indescribable horror.
In guise of a conclusion, a question that’s being asked elsewhere today: Can the Allies’ failed invasion of Gallipoli be honestly commemorated without remembering the Armenian genocide?
Hans-Lukas Kieser will be speaking at the Australasian Association for European History (AAEH) XXIV Biennial Conference, War, Violence, Aftermaths: Europe and the Wider World, to be held in Newcastle, from July 14-17 2015. Details here.
The Conversation is currently running a series looking at the history and nature of violence.