March 5, 2010


Armenian-Turkish Conflict (Speech given by Dr. Justin McCarthy at the Turkish Grand National Assembly, March 24, 2005)

Conflict between the Turks and the Armenians was not inevitable. The two peoples should have been friends. When World War I began, the Armenians and Turks had been living together for 800 years. The Armenians of Anatolia and Europe had been Ottoman subjects for nearly 400 years. There were problems during those centuries--problems caused especially by those who attacked and ultimately destroyed the Ottoman Empire. Everyone in the Empire suffered, but it was the Turks and other Muslims who suffered most. Judged by all economic and social standards, the Armenians did well under Ottoman rule. By the late nineteenth century, in every Ottoman province the Armenians were better educated and richer than the Muslims. Armenians worked hard, it is true, but their comparative riches were largely due to European and American influence and Ottoman tolerance. European merchants made Ottoman Christians their agents. European merchants gave them their business. European consuls intervened in their behalf. The Armenians benefited from the education given to them, and not to the Turks, by American missionaries.

While the lives of the Armenians as a group were improving, Muslims were living through some of the worst suffering experienced in modern history: In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Bosnians were massacred by Serbs, Russians killed and exiled the Circassians, Abkhazians, and Laz, and Turks were killed and expelled from their homelands by Russians, Bulgarians, Greeks, and Serbs. Yet, in the midst of all this Muslim suffering, the political situation of the Ottoman Armenians constantly improved. First, equal rights for Christians and Jews were guaranteed in law. Equal rights increasingly became a reality, as well. Christians took high places in the government. They became ambassadors, treasury officials, even foreign ministers. In many ways, in fact, the rights of Christians became greater than those of the Muslims, because powerful European states intervened in their behalf. The Europeans demanded and received special treatment for Christians. Muslims had no such advantages.

That was the environment in which Armenians revolted against the Ottoman Empire--hundreds of years of peace, economic superiority, constantly improving political conditions. This would not seem to be a cause for revolution. Yet the nineteenth century saw the beginning of an Armenian revolution that was to culminate in disaster for both.

What drove the Armenians and the Turks apart?

First and foremost, there were the Russians. Regions where Christians and Muslims had been living together in relative peace were torn asunder when the Russians invaded the Caucasian Muslim lands. Most Armenians were probably neutral, but a significant number took the side of the Russians. Armenians served as spies and even provided armed units of soldiers for the Russians. There were significant benefits for the Armenians: The Russians took Erivan Province, today's Armenian Republic, in 1828. They expelled Turks and gave the Turkish land, tax-free, to Armenians. The Russians knew that if the Turks remained they would always be the enemies of their conquerors, so they replaced them with a friendly population-the Armenians.

The forced exile of the Muslims continued until the first days of World War I: 300,000 Crimean Tatars, 1.2 million Circassians and Abkhazians, 40,000 Laz, 70,000 Turks. The Russians invaded Anatolia in the war of 1877-78, and once again many Armenians joined the Russian side. They served as scouts and spies. Armenians became the "police" in occupied territories, persecuting the Turkish population. The peace treaty of 1878 gave much of Northeastern Anatolia back to the Ottomans.

The Armenians who had helped the Russians feared revenge and fled, although the Turks did not, in fact, take any revenge. Both the Muslims and the Armenians remembered the events of the Russian invasions. Armenians could see that they would be more likely to prosper if the Russians won. Free land, even if stolen from Muslims, was a powerful incentive for Armenian farmers. Rebellious Ottoman Armenians had found a powerful protector in Russia. Rebels also had a base in Russia from which they could organize rebellion and smuggle men and guns into the Ottoman Empire. The Muslims knew that if the Russians were guardian angels for the Armenians, they were devils for the Muslims. They could see that when the Russians triumphed Muslims lost their lands and their lives. They knew what would happen if the Russians came again. And they could see that Armenians had been on the side of the Russians. Thus did 800 years of peaceful coexistence disintegrate.
The Armenian Revolutionaries

It was not until Russian Armenians brought their nationalist ideology to Eastern Anatolia that Armenian rebellion became a real threat to the Ottoman State. Although there were others, two parties of nationalists were to lead the Armenian rebellion. The first, the Hunchakian Revolutionary Party, called the Hunchaks, was founded in Geneva, Switzerland in 1887 by Armenians from Russia. The second, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, called the Dashnaks, was founded in the Russian Empire, in Tiflis, in 1890. Both were Marxist. Their methods were violent. The Hunchak and Dashnak Party Manifestos called for armed revolution in the Ottoman Empire. Terrorism, including the murder of both Ottoman officials and Armenians who opposed them, was part of the party platforms. Although they were Marxists, both groups made nationalism the most important part of their philosophy of revolution. In this they were much like the nationalist revolutionaries of Bulgaria, Macedonia, or Greece.

Unlike the Greek or Bulgarian revolutionaries, the Armenians had a demographic problem. In Greece, the majority of the population was Greek. In Bulgaria, the majority was Bulgarian. In the lands claimed by the Armenians, however, Armenians were a fairly small minority. The region that was called "Ottoman Armenia," the "Six Vilâyets" of Sivas, Mamüretülaziz, Diyarbakir, Bitlis, Van, and Erzurum, was only 17% Armenian. It was 78% Muslim. This was to have important consequences for the Armenian revolution, because the only way to create the "Armenia" the revolutionaries wanted was to expel the Muslims who lived there.

...but they should expect to be treated roughly if they demand it in the midst of a war and with the support of the enemy.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 5, 2010 8:57 PM
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