This is the complete review. It has previously been posted in three parts: Part 1 on the question of whether the 1915-17 massacres constitute genocide; Part 2 on the post-war trials and the Nationalist Movement; and Part 3 gives some conclusions on what went wrong in the Allied efforts to prosecute the war criminals and the implications for the present time, with Turkey’s ongoing denial of the genocide and the exodus of Christians from the Middle East.
A Question of Genocide
The controversy over the 1915-17 massacres of Armenian Christians by the Ottoman Empire is whether these acts constitute genocide. Those who say they don’t are not the equivalent of Holocaust-deniers in that while some minimize the figures of the slain, they do not deny that the massacres happened; what they deny is that the massacres reach the legal definition of genocide. Their case is based on three interlinked arguments:
- Unlike the Nazi Holocaust when a defenceless population was murdered only for its identity, the Armenians were engaged in a massive armed revolt, and this is why the Ottoman government decided to deport them.
- The intent of the Ottomans was not massacre but the removal of the Armenians, who had sided with one foreign invading power (Russia) and who were showing signs of collaborating with another (Britain), from the militarily sensitive areas as Turkey suffered a two-front invasion in early 1915.
- While terrible massacres, plus starvation and the cold, took maybe a million lives during the deportations, when the Armenians reached their destinations in Syria and Iraq, which were also part of the Ottoman Empire, they were well-treated and allowed to rebuild their lives, which would not have been the case had the Ottomans intended their destruction.
Taner Akcam’s A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility presents evidence to undermine every one of these arguments.
The Armenian genocide is marked on April 24, the day in 1915 several Armenian notables in Istanbul were arrested. This date fits rather well with the Turkish narrative.
Limited deportations of Armenians began in Cilicia in February 1915, becoming systematic by April. As Akcam demonstrates this was because of a well-founded fear of British spies among the Armenians helping a British landing at Iskenderun (Alexandretta). The British had called in advance for an Armenians revolt, and:
[The British] planned not only on close cooperation with local Armenians but also with Armenians abroad. An Armenian delegation offered the British a volunteer force of twenty thousand people.
Half of those troops were already in place in America, half were in the Balkans, and the British were going to use Cyprus as a training ground and staging-post. While this British plan was ultimately abandoned, an Armenian rebellion erupted in Van on April 19 and held the city for a month, before handing it over to the Russian invaders. Concurrently, the Allied Gallipoli campaign began on April 25: a direct invasion of Turkey intended to knock her out of the war and allow a supply-line from the West to Russia, in order that Imperial Germany could be stretched in the East.
The August 1914 conference of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF, a.k.a. Dashnaks), held in Erzurum, will often be pointed to by those who emphasize the deportations as a military exigency. The Ottoman government—held by the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP, a.k.a. “Unionists”), a faction of the Young Turks—sent a delegation to this meeting. The CUP offered the Dashnaks autonomy if they would foment a rebellion in Russia; the Dashnaks refused. In the Turkish version, the Dashnaks then decided on a secret internal revolt (in the Armenian version the Dashnaks wanted no part of covert intrigue and sought instead only to do their duty as Ottoman citizens.) There is no doubt that Armenian volunteer units had already been raised by, and were fighting alongside, Russian forces in eastern Anatolia in late 1914, and they committed terrible crimes against Muslim civilians.
This timeline, however, misses several key events which show that the deportations were not a reactive policy but a key strategic intention of the Ottomans in entering the Great War—and Istanbul did deliberately enter the war, despite much myth-making to this day that Turkey was forced into it. The CUP sought the restoration of Ottoman glory, a key component of which was the removal of the Christians from Anatolia, and thought this could be had by war.
The CUP sought pan-Islamic and pan-Turkic advantages from the war, as well as a reversal of the territorial losses after the Balkan Wars that pushed the Empire’s boundaries dangerously close to Istanbul. At a meeting on August 2, 1914, the CUP reformed the Special Organization (Teşkilât-ı Mahsusa, precursor of the MIT) to create units that would contribute to “Islamic unity and Turkish nationalism” by provoking unrest among Muslim populations in the Russian Caucasus, Iran, Egypt, and British India.
In early September 1914, the Special Organization units infiltrated Russia, trying to incite a Muslim revolt, and by October 1914 this had become a full-scale war in the Caucasus and eastern Anatolia. The Ottomans declared a jihad on November 11, 1914, entering the war on the side of the Central Powers. Kaiser Wilhelm might have wanted to ignite a “savage revolt” among Muslims in the British Empire and especially in Russia, and the CUP had inclinations of this kind, but their key aims were more local.
The CUP wanted to reverse the Capitulations and above all to free the Ottoman Empire of the internationally-imposed obligation to reform the six Armenian-dominated eastern provinces, which the CUP saw as a covert way of partitioning Anatolia, the avoidance of which became the CUP’s raison d’être.
The cancellation of the Treaty of Yenikoy, signed on February 8, 1914, under Russian pressure, which called for administrative reforms, namely autonomy, for the Ottoman Christians, and called for an international intervention if the reforms were not implemented, was one of the first acts after the Ottoman declaration of war. With the Armenian reform agreement dead, the legal basis for international interference in the Ottoman realm went with it.
Later Istanbul would also cancel the 1878 Berlin Treaty—the other instrument that dealt with the Armenian Question—and also withdrew from the 1856 Paris Treaty, which ended the Crimean War and inducted the Ottoman Empire into the “family of Europe,” the realm where international law applied, and the London Declaration of 1871. The cancellation of these three treaties freed the Ottomans from all international legal restraints on their behaviour and all legal right for other States to intervene in their internal affairs.
The CUP—and many other Muslims—never forgave the Armenians for seeking international protection when the Empire was weak. The Armenians tried to get formal Russian protection at the 1878 Berlin Congress, which sparked Turkish fears that Russia would use this as a pretext to steal the Armenian-majority areas—and this was not helped by the fact that some Armenians did want the Russians change the borders. The Armenian desires were the result of dire treatment by the Ottomans. The legendary “tolerance” of the Ottoman Empire had given way; by the seventeenth century those “voting with their feet” started to come West. In the nineteenth century, alongside efforts to annex European methods to rescue a dying Imperium, came a stern return to theocratic governance, which harmed the minorities. The 1894-96 atrocities against Ottoman Christians (the Hamidian massacres) in response to a small revolt was a harbinger of what was to come, having taken place at a time when the Porte wanted Europe’s sympathy.
What quickly became clear was that not only would the First World War not reverse the Ottomans’ long decline, but that it would likely finish-off the Empire. The catastrophe at Sarikamish in January 1915, where the Turks suffered up to 90,000 casualties, many from the cold, was the turning point. Now the CUP was thinking about the post-war situation, specifically establishing as a fait accompli an ethnically and territorially coherent Turkish polity.
Since at least 1911, when Italy seized Ottoman Libya, the Ottomans had been preparing for national resistance should they be occupied. This plan was formalized at the most senior levels in early 1913 after the defeat in the Balkans. In late August 1914, the Special Organization undertook a separate program from the expeditionary units sent to Russia to form civilian militias—armed gangs—from Kurdish tribes, jailed convicts, and recent emigrants from the Caucasus and Rumelia. These militias, organized under the Third Army which took direct orders from the Special Organization, were taken to Istanbul for training. By November 1914, the scale of the prisoner-release and the training program was evident to foreign consuls.
The documents showing a cross-over between this “resistance” track and the deportation program are missing, but these militias would be heavily involved in the deportations of the Armenians and the attendant theft and massacres. Part of the militias’ preparation for resistance against the Entente was to deal with “the individuals inside the country to be eliminated,” and the enemy within was overwhelmingly Armenian, by the CUP’s reckoning. Still, it is important to stress that the militias were not formed as an Einsatzgruppen; their initial purpose, and even their actions, are not comparable to the Nazis’ specialized anti-Jewish killing units.
What is also notable is that the CUP’s ostensible offer to the Dashnaks in August 1914 was a ruse. The CUP attended the Dashnak congress as a pretext to raise irregular militias in the area, and there is clear evidence of an attempt to liquidate the ARF leaders, who managed to escape the gangs waiting for them on the roads.
The militias had some success against Russia in late 1914, but before the year was out they had already perpetrated numerous massacres against Armenians. When the tide turned in the Russians’ favour, then the Armenians responded in kind. The psychological effect of this, however, and of the relatively small number of Armenians who joined the Russians—4,000 according to Akcam—was profound.
It should be noted that the CUP acted largely outside official government channels: its leaders—the “Three Pashas,” Enver Pasha (de facto war Executive), Talaat Pasha (civilian leader of the CUP), and Djemal Pasha (the on-the-ground administrator/military leader in the east)—came to power by coup d’état in January 1913, and in early February 1915, the Special Organization and its irregular units were taken out of the military chain of command and given to Behaeddin Shakir, a senior Unionist, putting the militias under party, not government, control.
The plan for deportations was never discussed in Cabinet, and the number of senior Ministers who collaborated with the CUP was small. In combination with the mass-destruction of evidence, the conveying of instructions orally, and obfuscatory methods of telegram use, such as sending a telegram and then sending a second one ordering that the first be ignored and the second be destroyed, it has made piecing together what actually happened within the power-wielding circles of the Turkish government during World War One very difficult.
Akcam argues (persuasively) that the main Armenian uprisings—Sebinkarahisar in July 1915, Urfa in October 1915, even Van, the main justification for the CUP’s actions—were a response to the Ottomans having begun to massacre the Armenians, rather than a cause of the deportations.
Not only did the militias begin massacres in late 1914, but by March 1915 a Germany missionary, Jakob Kunzler, reported that disarmed Armenian conscripts had been murdered with knives, saving the bullets for the foreign enemies, and the American ambassador Henry Morgenthau reported that Armenian labour battalions—where many Armenian conscripts were sent since they were not trusted in the army—were being murdered in Babi Yar-style massacres, shot in groups into open pits and their clothes stolen. There had been many anti-Armenian massacres around Van in this period, and a particularly terrible one on April 2, 1915.
Stanley E. Kerr, an American missionary, says 55,000 Armenians had been killed before the Van uprising, and the military attaché at Austrian Embassy described the uprising as “a desperate effort by Armenians, who witnessed the beginning of the murders and understood that their turn would come.” On the basis of the evidence presented, this is in fact the case.
It might still be said that these are excesses in a campaign whose intent is closer to ethnic cleansing combined with negligent homicide—crimes against humanity, rather than genocide. Even the clear official indifference to massacre—which contradicts a major apologists’ argument that the Turkish authorities intervened to protect Armenians being deported—would not prove genocide. But the evidence of a decision to murder, not just expel, the Armenians is, in my judgment, convincing.
Akcam argues that in late March 1915 the CUP took the decision to exterminate the Armenians, and then carried out this policy under the cover of the deportation order passed by Parliament in late May. There is no surviving documentation to provide a “smoking gun,” a la the Wannsee Conference, and Akcam explains why:
First, an official deportation order was sent to provincial regions by the Interior Ministry. … There were then separate, unofficial orders for the annihilation of the deportees, issued by the CUP Central Committee and conveyed to the provinces through party channels.
When the local governors received deportation orders from the Interior Ministry they would forward them to the security forces in their area … At the same time, the CUP would send liquidation orders to local governors. The messenger, usually a party secretary but on occasion Bahaettin Şakir himself, would travel from province to province transmitting a written document or conveying the order verbally. In cases where local governors resisted, they were removed from office [and sometimes murdered].
Following receipt of the deportation order, the gendarmerie would summon the Armenians to a central point and then accompany them on their route. When the convoy reached the provincial borders, the gendarmerie was supposed to deliver the deportees to the gendarmerie of the next province, however this was often the point where the Special Organization took over—set in motion by the secret liquidation order—and deportation became elimination. …
In some regions there were strict orders to prohibit military involvement. … However, in some regions massacres were carried out directly by the military.
Often by the time the Armenians were summoned into a town square, all the men had been killed. The military-age Armenian men were in the labour battalions—leaving the towns and villages near-defenceless—and were murdered at will. The remaining elderly men were carried off the night before the deportation and murdered outside the town.
Sometimes Armenians were allowed to carry property with them and would be given some food on the deportation marches; sometimes not. Armenian property was looted and many starved to death on roadsides in either case.
“The very persistence of the pattern indicates central planning,” as Akcam notes.
The fate of Armenian property was supposed to be governed by law: ostensibly the Armenians could take their property with them, and what remained belonged to the State. That isn’t what happened. Most Armenians were made to leave their belongings, and there was wholesale pillaging: this gave the deportations—and by extension the Unionists—a degree of popularity among the Muslim population. This looting was so public it made it into foreign Embassy reports.
Where Armenian property was not outright stolen, the Armenians were made to register their property at the local registrar’s office, after which they were obliged to sell it. The Armenians were then made to sign documents saying this had been done voluntary and that they received compensation. In reality, Armenians were able to grab some money from a sack for their property, almost always well under its actual value, and in all cases irrelevant since a functionary waiting at the exit then took this money and returned it to the sack to “purchase” from the next batch of Armenian property.
This highly-organized, State-directed program of expropriation created a new class of Muslim “notables,” and the nouveau riche would in time form the socio-political base of the Nationalist Movement, which rejected reparations for the Armenian massacres. The theft ended the much-resented predominance of the minorities among the merchants, and the looting dovetailed with the CUP’s homogenization program, plus it also allowed entry into various markets for their German allies.
During the deportations and massacres, Armenian families were torn apart, with the men and many adult women sent east, but some women remained essentially as slaves to Muslim families, and the children were taken away, converted to Islam (the boys being forcibly circumcised), and either sent to orphanages or to Muslim families. Young girls sent to Muslim families were pressed into marriages with Muslims. This was no spasm of populist mayhem: it was a deliberate policy.
A telegram sent by Talaat Pasha himself, on December 30, 1915, to the governor’s office in Niğde, was quite explicit: “on the condition that they be raised as Muslims, the children should be settled in Muslim villages where there are no Armenians or foreigners, or settled into orphanages. The young women and girls must be married off to Muslims.” A telegram sent by the Interior Ministry’s Directorate of Tribes and Immigrants (AMMU) to various provincial offices on April 30, 1916, urged that “young and widowed women should be married off, children up to the age of twelve should be settled into orphanages, and if an adequate space in the orphanage is not available, then they should be settled with Muslim families and raised with that community’s values and customs.”
This is especially significant because while the Genocide Convention famously defines genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group,” it specifies that “Forcibly transferring children of the [targeted] group to another group” is a means of committing genocide. In narrow legal terms, the systematic forced-transfer of Armenian children to Muslim families by the Ottoman government on its own qualifies as genocide.
There were great efforts by the British to restore Armenian property and persons after the war, but without much success: there was a lot of Ottoman resistance, popular and official, and, as the British High Commissioner put it, “a great number of the women have become attached to those persons with whom they have now lived for nearly four years; if they were to leave they do not even know … to whence they would be returning, or who of their relatives are still alive.” There were also botched efforts at repatriation, which accidentally removed Turkish children from their families, and these incidents were played up by Unionists both to incur further resistance to the campaign for reparations and to claim this as proof “there weren’t even two children being held.”
It has often been argued that Ottoman leaders tried to intervene to stop atrocities during the deportations, and that this constitutes evidence that the attempt was forcible transfer, not massacre. This is usually backed up with numerous wartime telegrams. Akcam shows that this argument is deeply flawed. It was often Talaat, usually under German or Austrian pressure, who sent cables to the provinces calling for humane treatment of deportees. It was also Talaat who sent the follow-up cable, or sometimes an envoy, cancelling the first order. Talaat had a telegraph line installed in his home so he could do business away from official records, and the “practice of cancelling orders with a secret, follow-up communication” was, in any case, “widespread among Ottoman administrators.” Nobody was in any doubt that “deportation” meant “massacre”.
Another argument against the genocide label is that when the Armenians reached the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire they were left alone, which shows that the deportations were to get them out of the militarily sensitive areas. This is untrue in several ways.
First, the deportations moved Armenians from areas in Anatolia were there was no fighting to the frontlines with the British in Mesopotamia. Second, the deportations were designed to serve a demographic project of “Turkifying” Anatolia, so that after the war an ethno-territorially contiguous Turkish State would be a fait accompli. And third, the Armenians were not treated humanely once they reached the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire.
Between May and August 1915, the Ottomans deported the Armenian population of eastern Anatolia, and cables came to Istanbul in September 1915 with reports to that effect. But the CUP then gave orders to move the Armenians out of Aleppo, where the survivors of the deportation marches were holed up in squalid concentration camps, into the Syrian and Mesopotamian deserts. The CUP’s also ordered that Armenian population density should not exceed ten percent in any location, in line with their ethnographic project. Given that the CUP had also ordered that there be no Armenians left in Anatolia, with some limited exceptions, once the Armenians have been packed into the desert areas, there is only way to comply with that order: mass-murder.
This explains why the massacres continued into 1916 and why Deir Ezzor was the centre. Where the Ottomans didn’t actively massacre the Armenians in the Arabian deserts, they denied humanitarian aid, especially from the Americans and the Germans, and just left the Armenians to die, without food, water, medicine, or shelter. Some of the strongest indications of genocide come from the lack of any preparation made by the CUP to facilitate the mass-movement and -resettlement of people, and indeed the September 1915 law dealing with Armenian property offers strong evidence that the lack of preparation for resettling the deportees was more than criminal negligence.
The new laws worked from the basis that Armenians would not be returning to their properties, which the State now owned, and Muslim settlers would replace the Armenians. The laws ostensibly provided for compensation to be paid to the Armenians, but there is no evidence anywhere in the records of compensation being paid to a single deportee, nor were Armenians given new land at their final destination. Had the plan been resettlement, there would be some evidence of this, and there isn’t.
After August 1915, with the eastern provinces clear of Armenians—the ones where there was a potential military danger—the Ottomans began the deportation of Armenians in western Anatolia and Thrace, applying the new laws, and what is in evidence is the CUP confiscating Armenian property, first to finance the deportations, second to finance other State operations, with, for example, some homes made into prisons and medical supplies distributed among Muslims—this is why there was zero tolerance for spontaneous looting—and third, using Armenian property to create a Muslim bourgeoisie, distributing homes and valuables to individuals and companies, which bound them to the post-war nationalist government with an interest in denial: this bourgeoisie did not want to admit how it had acquired its wealth, and it certainly didn’t want to give it back.
The massacres had stopped by the summer of 1917, though the destruction of Armenian property had not.
There is a significant argument over how many Armenians there were in pre-war Turkey—the Armenian Church says 2.1 million; the Turks say 1.3 million. What is known for sure is that 600,000 Armenians were alive after 1918—thus 600,000 to 1.5 million Armenians were killed, with 150,000-to-200,000 of them having survived the deportations. The number of Armenian women and children taken into servitude or converted within Muslim families is impossible to estimate
The First Phase of the Trials
On October 30, 1918, the Ottoman Empire signed its final treaty of defeat. The Ottomans’ long decline began in 1683, and by the 1830s the Empire was referred to as the “sick man of Europe”. The armistice was a near-total surrender, allowing the occupation of any area the Allies deemed necessary for their security. Unfortunately, it was neither the end of the war nor the end of the massacres against the Armenians.
The Allies—Britain, France, and Russia—issued a declaration on May 24, 1915, saying:
In light of the crimes against humanity and civilisation committed by Turkey, the allied powers warn the Sublime Porte that members of the Ottoman government involved in the mass murder will be held personally responsible for these crimes.
Not coincidentally, within days of this an official deportation law was passed through the Ottoman Parliament and would thereafter be issued by the Interior Ministry as legal cover for the CUP’s actions. This was a first introduction of the concept of crimes against humanity, and of individual responsibility that extended to senior Generals and Heads of State. The Russians fell to the Communists and for reasons of realpolitik the French and Italians soon dropped their demands for punishing the Turkish war criminals, but the British were relentless.
For the British, the crimes of the Ottoman government against the Armenians were a central feature of their war policy. British intentions were present: before Sykes-Picot was published; before the war’s outcome was certain; and over President Woodrow Wilson’s objections. Wilson wanted to stop the fighting by any means, even exculpating the Turks. But the Allied War Medal referred to “The Great War For Civilization,” and the British really meant it.
The British felt a sense of guilt because they had orchestrated the Treaty of Berlin in July 1878, which annulled the provision of the March 1878 San Stefano Treaty that the Russians had forced on the Turks after Moscow’s victory in Bulgaria, which provided for Russian control of the Armenian areas of Anatolia until the reforms (autonomy) had been enacted. Those reforms never arrived but a series of massacres against the Armenians did, and the British felt responsible.
When the British arrived in Istanbul they were under strict instructions to coldly treat the Turkish leadership to ensure there were no illusions that lost land in Arabia would be recovered, nor that the war criminals would escape punishment. Thereafter, Britain acted “vigorously” and with popular backing at home to uphold “a principled position on the prosecution of the perpetrators [of the Armenian genocide], even when this attitude clashed with its colonial interests,” Akcam notes.
The immediate post-war Ottoman government of Ahmet Izzet Pasha had helped the senior war criminals escape, which infuriated both the Allies and the Ottoman populace, which disliked the CUP leadership for being corrupt and authoritarian, and for leading Turkey into this disaster. Ahmet Tevfik Pasha took over as Grand Vizier in early November 1918 but his government proved no more willing in practice to help try the war criminals.
The Turks knew that to achieve a better settlement at the Paris Peace Talks they had to appear to punish the war criminals, but in reality hardly anything was ever done. When lists of suspects were submitted to the Ottoman government, many were tipped off, either by Cabinet Ministers or by Unionist agents, of which there were still a great many in the bureaucracy. Tevfik Pasha did eventually arrest some of the senior suspects, but this was to keep them out of the hands of the British, hoping to pardon them later.
This changed in March 1919 when Damat Ferid Pasha became Grand Vizier. The leader of the opposition Concordat and Liberty Party against the CUP through the war and the Sultan’s brother-in-law, Ferid Pasha was the one senior Ottoman government official who was serious about prosecuting the Turkish genocidaires. The various military and civilian tribunals were now combined into the Extraordinary Courts-Martial, which was under military control to circumvent the Unionists and had its writ expanded to allow investigation of any individual who: pushed the country to war; organized massacres of Greeks, Armenians, or Muslims; and/or incited hatred between groups.
The first execution for war crimes was carried out on April 10, 1919: Mehmet Kemal Bey, a former district official in Bogazliyan, was hanged in Istanbul’s Beyazit Square. The reaction was ferocious. The funeral the next day turned into an anti-occupation demonstration with wreaths commemorating the “Great Martyr of the Turks” and “the innocent Muslim martyr”. The Sultan, who was displeased with this reaction, had a fatwa issued banning reprisals, but the British “rightly assessed that ‘not one Turk in a thousand can conceive that there might be a Turk who deserves to be hanged for the killing of Christians’,” which meant that despite the tricky legal status, the Ottoman war criminals would likely have to be moved out of Turkey.
Though the Turkish war criminals were held by the Ottomans, there were two tracks running: there was the international proposal to try the criminals before some as-yet-non-existent international tribunal, and there was the proposal to try the criminals within the bounds of military law as the national occupying power. The British lawyers had found in early April 1919 that they could not try the war criminals before their own military commissions—thus the attempt to get the Ottomans to try their own—and that the genocidaires would have to stand before an international court.
A total of sixty-three cases of war crimes went to trial by early 1919; the results of most are not known—and of those that are an overwhelming majority were acquitted or dismissed. The main trial, that of the CUP Central Committee members and the directors of the Special Organization, had begun on April 28, 1919, and went on for seven sessions, holding its final session on May 17.
The protests after the execution of Kemal Bey were a serious impediment to the trials, but what finally derailed them was the landing of the Greeks at Izmir on May 16, 1919, as a provision of the Paris Peace Talks.
The Greek Prime Minister had extended a formal claim to the city and district of Izmir, which contained an important Greek minority. “The Turkish people, beaten and dispirited, seemed ready to accept almost anything that the victors chose to impose on them,” Bernard Lewis wrote. “Almost, but not quite … [T]he thrust of a neighbouring and former subject people into the heart of Turkish Anatolia was a danger—and a humiliation—beyond endurance.” The attempt for a Greater Greece comprising both sides of the Aegean had too much of the echo of Byzantium about it, and the reaction in Turkey was explosive.
In the face of massive protests against the Greek occupation and amid rumours of a Bastille-like breakout of Bekir Aga (the main prison the war criminals were held in), the Ottomans had released forty suspects to try to assuage the mob. Seeing this—and in conformance with a secret Ottoman request—on May 28 the British took sixty-seven prisoners from Bekir Aga to Moudros and Malta.
On May 19, 1919, Mustafa Kemal was sent by the government to Ankara as Inspector General to disarm and demobilize the remaining Ottoman military. Instead, Kemal took charge of the National Movement and began a major organized resistance campaign.
The Nationalist Movement
It is important to note that the Nationalist Movement was not strictly anti-imperialist—at one point it formally requested that America make Turkey a Mandate, as long as America kept the country whole. The National Movement’s core aim was to avoid the partition of Anatolia—exactly the aim for which the CUP had committed the genocide—and the Greek occupation was seen as giving encouragement to the Christians to pursue their autonomy ambitions. That the Nationalists should share the CUP’s aims was no accident: the Nationalist Movement is essentially the successor to the CUP.
The Nationalist Movement knew the political cost of being associated with the CUP—inside Turkey and especially internationally—so always distanced itself from the Unionists, but in both membership and outlook the connection was direct.
Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) had an ideological difference with Enver and Talaat Pasha. Where the Pashas wanted to preserve the multinational Empire and expand eastward on the precepts of both pan-Turanism and pan-Islamism, Kemal wanted only to keep the ethnically Turkish-dominated areas of Anatolia, having no interest in incorporating either foreign Turks or non-Turkish Muslims. This was an intra-Unionist squabble, however, and the main differences between Kemal and the Pashas were tactical.
Kemal thought the advocacy pan-Turkism/Islamism put the Turks at a disadvantage internationally, which has left an ambiguity over whether Kemal opposed pan-Turanism/Islamism in principle or in practice. (It is notable, for instance, that though the Istanbul government would incite pro-Caliphate revolts in Nationalist-held areas, the Nationalist project was “fundamentally defined by religion, despite all claims to the contrary.” Kemal would sever this alliance of exigency with the faithful after independence.)
Kemal had been unhappy with way Enver ran the war, particularly Enver’s closeness to the German General Staff, and thus in the aftermath Kemal was displeased that, organizationally, the tools available for a resistance campaign were entirely the work of the CUP, and these were respondent to Enver’s orders. It was the Special Organization, under instruction from the CUP Central Committee, that stockpiled the weapons at secret depots through Anatolia, for example, and the Karakol organization, one of the most effective institutions of the resistance, was also under Enver’s control, even after he went into exile.
Karakol was set up in late 1918, either just before or just after the October armistice on the direct order of Talaat Pasha to provide a secret link for “those who will keep to the Unionist way,” with the primary task of securing escape routes for the war criminals.
Karakol was instrumental in setting up the Defence of Rights Associations, the local resistance committees that were built on firmly Unionist foundations, many old military and party members but also the nouveau riche who had profited from the CUP’s genocide. (These local committees would later form the Republican People’s Party.) Karakol also organized the creation of the National Forces, the insurgent brigades of the Nationalist Movement, which were made up not only of ex-CUP and Special Organization members on the run from the British but bandits, military deserters, released convicts, and adventurers looking for plunder.
Karakol was a “symbolic connection,” Akcam says, between the Armenian genocide and the National Movement. Karakol was led by senior Unionists; according to their memoirs, it was Karakol that persuaded Mustafa Kemal to take the leadership of the National Movement, and it was even Karakol that communicated with the War Ministry—with which it had close connections, as it did the Istanbul government in general through the Unionist leftovers in the bureaucracy—to have Kemal appointed Inspector General, which allowed Kemal to leave occupied Istanbul without arousing suspicion.
Kemal remained distrustful of Karakol because its leaders, as those of the renamed Special Organization (“the Worldwide Islamic Revolt”), continued to take orders from Enver. It was only after Kemal secured a switch of allegiance to himself from these institutions—and extracted commitments, including funding—that he agreed to abandon the quietism he had pursued between November 1918 and May 1919 in Istanbul and lead the Nationalists in Ankara.
Kemal disapproved of the deportations/massacres—he called it “a shameful act”—but his associations also made him unwilling to prosecute, not least when prosecutions seemed to be at the behest of foreign powers and for no political gain for the Turks—i.e. Kemal opposed justice for its own sake—and in time this position would harden.
The Nationalists would come to argue that the whole issue of punishing war crimes was an imperialist scheme to partition Anatolia. Even Ferid Pasha said that the genocide was the work of “a couple of thugs,” and partition was unacceptable because it would punish “the innocent Turkish nation” as a whole. When the Allies were seen to be blurring the lines between the punishing the perpetrators of the genocide and punishing the Turks as a nation via partition for the genocide, this would be seized on and used to further opposition to the trials.
The Final Phase of the Trials
By the summer of 1919, the National Movement’s influence was spreading, helped by the sectarian atrocities of the Greeks at Izmir, and after the French moved to restore some 12,000 Armenians to their homes in Cilicia in September and October 1919, a full-scale revolt had erupted in eastern Anatolia. The National Movement elected a Representative Council in Ankara in September 1919, centralizing control over the Defence of Rights Committees and forming a de facto second government. The Ankara assembly’s influence was so great that Ferid Pasha was forced from office in Istanbul in early October in favour of Ali Riza Pasha, who was widely (and correctly) seen as a Unionist, i.e. a Nationalist sympathizer at least.
Riza Pasha’s government immediately started dismantling even the minimal architecture for prosecuting the Turkish war criminals: Armenians were forbidden from returning to western Anatolia, the Extraordinary Courts-Martial was sidelined in favour of a commission staffed by Unionists, and the postponement of trials for crimes committed by Armenians was lifted. On November 17, 1919, British High Commissioner Admiral de Robeck wrote that Istanbul was “so dependent on the toleration of the organizers of the National Movement” that it was “futile to ask for the arrest of any Turk accused of offences against Christians”.
Between December 1919 and February 1920, the British moved ahead with categorizing the 150-odd criminals they held on Malta between those who had mistreated British POWs, those who had committed violence against the Turkish Christians (the overwhelming majority), and those who had violated the terms of the armistice.
Events, however, were spinning out of control. In January 1920, the Istanbul Parliament, elected under the agreement between Istanbul and Ankara, took its seats; it had a Nationalist majority, giving the Nationalists control of the formal Parliament in Istanbul and their own government in Ankara. The Istanbul Parliament immediately began attacking the courts. In February 1920, the National Pact is issued by the Nationalists, vowing a national liberation struggle based on the Ottoman borders of October 30, 1918. A day later, the French withdrew from Maraş after a three-week siege by the Nationalists, and not less than 10,000 Armenians were slaughtered as “collaborators” for having taken back their homes under French protection.
On March 16, 1920, the British, French, and Italians reluctantly occupied Istanbul. The reason often given is the promulgation of the National Pact and the growing insurgency, and this is true, but there were other reasons just as important. The renewal of the massacres at Maraş and the widespread sense that the Nationalists meant to finish with the minorities altogether were decisive in the British calculation: London was determined to punish this renewal of criminality and prevent any further atrocities. Senior Nationalists in Istanbul were arrested and some sent to Malta.
The French had been prepared to tilt with the wind and make a deal with whoever had the most influence in Turkey, and the Italians actively sided with the Nationalists after the Greeks moved into Izmir and it became clear Italy wasn’t going to be given the territory it had at one stage been promised. But the British saw one final opportunity to do justice. On April 5, 1920, Damat Ferid Pasha returned as Grand Vizier, and the trials recommenced in earnest.
The last Ottoman Parliament in Istanbul was dissolved on April 11 after it had prorogued itself indefinitely on March 18. In Ankara, on April 23, 1920, the Nationalist Movement opened the “Grand National Assembly” and claimed it as the legitimate Parliament, filling it with the Nationalist-supporting deputies from Istanbul and the Defense of Rights Committees.
The Nationalists had been careful to make a pretense of continuity with the Istanbul government, and their official position was that they recognized the Sultan as sovereign and were determined to rescue him from his imprisonment by foreigners. This position was harder to maintain after April 11, 1920, when Şeyh-ül İslam issued a fatwa saying it was religiously obligatory to kill the Nationalist rebels. This was followed by the April 18 formation of the “Disciplinary Forces” to fight the Nationalists and the May 11 death sentence against Mustafa Kemal and other Nationalist leaders for trying to assassinate the Grand Vizier.
On May 5, the Mufti of Ankara issued a fatwa—endorsed by 152 Muftis in Anatolia—which said that a fatwa issued under foreign duress didn’t count, and called on Muslims to “liberate their Caliph”. On May 19, Ankara banned all contact with the Istanbul government, stripped Ferid Pasha of his citizenship and put his whole Cabinet on trial as “traitors”. The Ankara chamber issued Law Number 7 on June 7, which voided all laws and agreements made in Istanbul, retroactive from March 16.
Still, Ferid Pasha pressed on: Between June and early August 1920, at least seven Unionists were executed by Istanbul for war crimes, and more than one-hundred death sentences were passed—not all for war crimes, it should be said. Some capital sentences were now passed for offences against the Istanbul government.
On August 10, 1920, the Treaty of Sèvres was signed. Sèvres was harsh, giving the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire to the Allies, creating an independent Armenia and an autonomous Kurdistan, giving the Greeks a region surrounding Smyrna/Izmir, and the Allies economically dominated much of what was left to Turkey.
The Sèvres Treaty never went into effect, but it did trigger the final end of the Nationalists even pretending to favour the punishment of the war criminals.
The very next day the Ankara assembly abolished the token courts it had established for dealing with the genocide and voted to give the criminals held on Malta full salaries even in their absence, as well as to give stipends to the families of those executed in Istanbul. Mustafa Kemal wrote to the British on August 12 that if any of the criminals on Malta were handed over to Istanbul and executed then the British hostages held by the Nationalists would be killed. The threat worked: no more death sentences were passed against the genocidaires after this date.
By October 1920, the Nationalists’ rise made Ferid Pasha’s position untenable, and under Allied, even British, pressure he resigned and the by-now-openly pro-Nationalist Tevfik Pasha became Grand Vizier. The efforts against both the war criminals and the Nationalist insurgents were ended. Collaborating with the National Forces was now declared “worthy of applause,” and all cases cancelled. In November 1920, the president of the Courts-Martial was arrested, and in December the new president started releasing the genocide suspects one after another.
In the background, in eastern Anatolia, a terrible series of massacres and counter-massacres between the Turks and Armenians was ongoing. In areas like Erzurum in January/February 1916 where the Armenians had Russian protection they were the perpetrators of massacres; where the Turkish army had control it continued its program of massacre and expulsion during the war. The Russians withdrew in phases after the Bolshevik coup and the signing of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty in March 1918, which restored the Ottoman borders to 1878.
The Ottomans took more than the 1878 borders and pushed into purely Armenian areas of the Caucasus. The Germans noted of units commanded by Enver Pasha’s brother, Nuri, and uncle, Halil Pasha, in May 1918, “The aim of the Turkish policy … is to attain the Armenian regions and to annihilate the Armenians. … All utterances of Talaat and Enver to the contrary are lies.” In late 1921, Enver Pasha arrived in Soviet Central Asia and tried to lead the Muslims already in revolt against the Bolsheviks to realize his pan-Turkic dreams; he was killed in August 1922. (Talaat was struck down in Berlin in March 1921 ostensibly as part of Dashnak’s Operation NEMESIS, in reality in a Soviet-British intelligence operation, and Djemal, who had gone to work for the Afghan army, would be cut down by an Armenian assassin in Georgia in July 1922.)
An Armenian Republic roughly on the present borders was declared in May 1918 and, with the Turks at the gates of Yerevan, the Batum Treaty was signed in June 1918 that fixed the border and renounced Armenian claims to “Western Armenia” (the six eastern Anatolian provinces), but this truce was temporary. Andranik (Ozanian), an Armenian General, wanted to fight on and did so, massacring one Tatar village after another in the Caucasus. In May 1919, the Yerevan Parliament passed the “Act of United Armenia,” which claimed “Western Armenia”. This was nothing less than a declaration of war to the Ankara government. Cables from American diplomats in the late summer of 1919 testify to the scale of the anti-Armenian atrocities underway in the Caucasus. The Armenians in some areas, especially Erzurum, responded in kind.
Ankara went to war with Armenia in September 1920, settling the land question with victory that December. Thereafter, the official position of the Nationalists was that they smiled on an Armenia beyond their borders; the secret and real position was that they wanted Armenia eliminated. The changes of border and the near-continual war between the Turks, Armenians, and Soviet Union helped fuel the dislocation under the cover of which the systematic massacres of Armenians had recommenced. This would eventually stop in 1923.
Mayhem continued around Izmir between the Greeks and Turks, a fight in which the Allies declared neutrality in March 1920. The Greeks finally pulled out in October 1922.
Between the sectarian atrocities in east and west Anatolia and the Nationalist struggle against the Istanbul government, the urgency of the prosecutions had faded, and in June 1921 the British hopes for prosecutions of the genocidaires were shattered.
The British had, from August 1919—i.e. near the beginning—known that the large-scale destruction of evidence by the Turks meant there was little chance of a conviction before Allied courts. But the news that no incriminating documentation could be found in the American archives was devastating. The only thing left to do was to try to cut a deal with the Nationalists to exchange the Malta prisoners for the British hostages held by the Nationalists (and attempt to have them try their own criminals).
In September 1921, for the third time, Ankara promised to try Turkish war criminals if the British handed them over. The Malta detainees would be “marched from the [Istanbul] port straight to their respective states where they will be tried for the crimes of which they have been accused,” Ankara’s Interior Minister said. On October 23, 1921, the British signed a deal in Istanbul with the Ankara government for the return of the war crimes suspects held on Malta. When the Malta detainees arrived in Istanbul on October 31, they promptly moved to Ankara to take up senior posts in the Nationalist government.
The Extraordinary Courts-Martial was formally abolished in July 1922 and in September 1922 Ankara even proposed reinstating the September 1915 law that had allowed the confiscation of Armenian property, which had been annulled by the Sultan in December 1918. On November 1, 1922, the Nationalists abolished the Sultanate. The Ministers soon resigned and the Sultan fled. The laws of the Ankara assembly—which abrogated everything back to March 1920—were extended to the whole country. The Lausanne Conference opened on November 21, 1922, recognizing the Ankara government as legitimate, and concluded with the Treaty of Lausanne on July 24, 1923, superseding the Treaty of Sèvres.
The most the Armenians got at Lausanne, which was effectively international ratification of the Nationalists’ military victory, was the chance to deliver a speech to the Sub-committee on the Protection of Minorities on December 26, 1922. Proposals for an Armenian State in Syria were dismissed and the Lausanne Treaty was wholly one-sided in the way it dealt with stolen Armenian property and persons. The only concession the Turks would make was to not undo the work of family-reunification and recompense the Entente occupation forces had done between October 20, 1918, and November 20, 1922. A general amnesty for all political and military crimes committed between August 1, 1914, and November 20, 1922, closed forever the possibility of prosecutions.
The last foreign troops left Istanbul on October 2, 1923. On October 6, Turkish troops re-occupied Istanbul, and on October 13 the Turkish capital was moved to Ankara. The independence struggle won, the focus now turned to the form independence would take.
Having already abolished the Sultanate—that is the executive post held by the House of Ottoman—Mustafa Kemal (later Atatürk) abolished the Caliphate on March 3, 1924. Atatürk also scrapped the office of Şeyh-ül İslam, banished the House of Ottoman (packing Sultan Abdülmecid onto the Orient Express), and closed the separate religious schools on the same day. The ulema had given much ground during the reforms of the nineteenth century but they had also frustrated and defeated many reformers; Atatürk would not be one of them. The promulgation of the Republican Constitution on April 20, 1924, confirmed parliamentary supremacy over the shari’a, secular law over theocracy.
In the late 1920s, further reforms were made. The fez, which “had become the last symbol of Muslim identification,” was banned. Atatürk said the fez was “an emblem of ignorance … and hatred of progress”. Turks would wear the costume “common to the civilized nations of the world,” which is to say Europe. Atatürk adopted the Swiss legal code, which removed the Holy Law from personal status—abolishing polygamy, making both parties to a marriage equal, allowing divorce, and allowing people to change their religion. Islam was disestablished as the State religion, and as the final step the Arabic script was changed to Roman. The connection with the East was broken, and Turkey was firmly oriented West. A final phase of reforms in the 1930s gave women the vote, gave Turks surnames, and made the weekly holiday from 13:00 on Saturday until Monday morning.
Atatürk did run a one-party dictatorship, but it was not the mass-mobilization and indoctrinating kind seen in Europe that was later emulated in the Middle East. Atatürk’s Republican People’s Party (CHP) was “almost ashamed of the monopoly” it exerted, and the regime was elitist and paternalistic, seeking to guide a nation out of its authoritarian habits, rather than terroristic. While parliament was mostly a façade, the Rule of Law was nonetheless always seen to be upheld, and when the Republic transitioned to democracy the framework and practice was already operational. Atatürk regarded nineteenth-century liberalism as progress—unlike the Bolsheviks and Nazis who saw liberalism as decadence—and Atatürk’s State was not one where a peasant glanced over his shoulder before speaking or worried that his neighbour might be an informant. The press was controlled and political agitation against the regime was banned, but speech and even books and periodicals were relatively free. Critics among the elite were often punished by being sent to remote Embassies. The use of violence by Atatürk’s authoritarian regime was—by any historical standard, especially when the scale of the transformation is considered—minimal, and where outright violence was used it was almost always in response to an armed rebellion. The 1926 executions of several old CUP leaders was the nearest Atatürk’s regime came to a purge, and even then it was initially triggered by a legitimate threat to Atatürk’s life and regime. After that there was really no arbitrary threat to life or property.
Because of Atatürk’s historical achievement and because Atatürk was basically us, an outspoken Westernizer, he has received a great deal of admiration in the West, and there is no doubt that if the word “great” attaches to historical figures it attaches to Atatürk. Atatürk took a defeated and dying country and revitalized it, instituting reforms that set Turkey on the road to independence, a measure of prosperity, and (very rarely from nationalist revolutions) democracy.
In examining the Armenian genocide, great confusion is caused by the fact the Armenians were engaged in an armed rebellion. First, this makes direct comparisons with the Holocaust untenable, and second it means the Turkish sense of an existential threat, and their viewing the Armenians as the source, was not wholly irrational; the Armenians were not a defenseless population targeted solely for their identity.
Because there is no “smoking gun” proving that a decision was made to massacre—although there is clear evidence of an official policy of separating families and forcibly converting children, which also counts as genocide—some of the Turks’ decisions can be passed off as, and some even were, military exigencies. A verdict of negligent homicide can seem reasonable.
Taner Akcam provides good evidence that the Turkish actions were not reactive and primarily based on military considerations, from the pre-war decision to clear Anatolia of Christians as a means of restoring Turkish glory and ensuring the integrity of the State to the organized theft of Armenian property that created new Muslim classes to the clear evidence that no planning was ever made to resettle the Armenian deportees in the Syrian and Iraqi deserts. But those who deny that the label “genocide” applies to the 1915-17 massacres of Armenians should not be assumed to be acting from ill-motive, and they certainly shouldn’t be criminalized.
This latter impressed itself rather forcefully on me because I read part of the book in France, and at the time I was sceptical—because of a simple lack of knowledge—that the genocide label applied. It occurred to me that if I represented this opinion publicly I would be in breach of the law. This is absurd. (For what it matters I also oppose laws against Holocaust-denial, though that is a different phenomenon: it is the denial of historical events for bigoted motives, not the contestation of a legal category.)
The difficulty for some, even after they conclude that the atrocities against the Armenians were a genocidal campaign, is that to “officially” admit this carries implications. There are, for example, activist groups that demand reparations from the Turkish State for property and wealth seized from the Armenians during the genocide. One might either sympathize with or oppose such a program, but at present the one place that most needs this debate—Turkey—is legally banned from having it.
The fact that an honest accounting of the history of the Armenian genocide is currently banned by law in Turkey is a testament to the ongoing importance of these events, now a century old. In combination with the continued maltreatment of the Kurds and the Turkish occupation of northern Cyprus, the denial of the Armenian genocide is what stops Turkey becoming a normal country. These are all problems of the Atatürkist system.
For a start, the language change that was purposely designed as a tabula rasa has meant that it is actually very difficult for Turks to examine the history of the Armenian genocide; most Turks cannot read material published before 1928 in Turkey, and what is published after 1928 is the Nationalist version—that extraordinary measures were required against rebellious Armenians who were colluding with foreign invaders and, while many Armenians died, the intention was to get the Armenians out of the militarily sensitive areas, not to annihilate them.
Moreover, the Nationalist Movement Atatürk led, and the capital—human and material—on which his achievements were built, were tainted by the genocide committed against the Armenians and the expropriation of their land and property, and this has necessitated the campaign of official lying that continues to this day.
Damat Ferid Pasha might now be written-off as a quisling who could never get on the right side of history but he, a “reactionary,” was adamant that the Turkish genocidaires be prosecuted and he tried to wrest his country back from the criminals who had taken it over in the name of constitutionalism and led it into war, mass-murder, defeat, and occupation.
Ferid Pasha surely could not—and would not—have done what Atatürk did by way of reforms, especially not so quickly, but a Turkey led by Ferid Pasha or his like would have dealt honestly with its past and thus any progress would have been tenable. As it is now, except for avoiding partition, the entire Atatürkist system has unravelled the moment Turks were allowed free elections. Atatürkism relied on non-democratic controls to maintain its power and its narrative; regimes built on lies cannot last forever, and once they try to open up the whole thing comes crashing down.
For the West, Atatürkism has led us astray in two major ways. First, it has given us a “Turkish model” that is illusory. The model roughly was one of democratic rule, where the army served as a check on Islamists and chaos, intervening to restore order and secularism when they were threatened, until the point democracy was mature enough to survive on its own.
The “Turkish model” has an inherent authoritarianism, with extra-legal bodies having veto-wielding power over elected bodies. And in Turkey the wide use of torture and assassination by the military, especially after 1980, left some doubt that they were acting for the greater good. But the real problem is that the military that was supposed to be guiding this transition to full democracy developed commercial and other interests in a partial democracy, in State institutions remaining immature, and in maintaining restrictions like censorship to avoid a free press that would trouble the military’s position.
This is a common finding: gradualist transformations of “developmental autocracies” almost never work. Too many people have too many interests in the status quo, and the State has too much power to manipulate and monopolize any changes, leading to a partially transformed State that is both corrupt and authoritarian but which might have some popular legitimacy by providing targeted economic favours.
The second way the West has been led astray is that the attempt to apply this Turkish model elsewhere in the Muslim world has led to horrifying results, especially in the Arab world. The long search for another secularizing dictator who could bring the world of Islam to modernity has ended with the indulgence of all manner of rogues who promised us they were modernizers holding back the zealous hordes when in fact they were deliberately ensuring the only alternative to dictatorship was fanaticism and were displacing the rage of their populations onto the West.
The lodestar of “modernity” is also a tricky one. In the modern Middle East the main effect of modernization has been the removal of the intermediary forces that used to provide a check on the power of the ruler. But it also did not begin positively. The Young Turks and their Unionist offshoot, undoubtedly the modernizers of the Ottoman Empire, dragged Turkey into the First World War under the cover of which they committed genocide.
The Allies certainly botched the attempt to prosecute the Turkish war criminals by not drawing a rigid distinction between the plans for justice and the plans for partition—and indeed for suggesting that the partition was justice, or part of it, for the State crimes of Turkey. Had the Allies made as the price of territorial integrity the prosecution of Turkey’s war criminals there is every reason to believe the Turks would have accepted it. Both the Istanbul government and the Nationalist Movement (early on) signalled a willingness to try the war criminals as a means of gaining a more favourable outcome at the Paris Peace Talks.
The final thought Akcam’s book leaves one with is that the politicized charges being made at present that the exodus of the Middle East’s Christians began with the 2003 invasion of Iraq is historically illiterate. The 1915 massacres themselves were the culmination of a process of homogenization that had begun in the late nineteenth century, and less directly the movement of Christians out of the Middle East and to the West began in the late seventeenth century when Christendom had finally exhausted itself with religious wars and for the first time began to offer greater tolerance than the Islamic world.