The Armenian Genocide is one of the vigorously contested incidents of mass murder in the 20th Century. The Armenian Genocide is alleged to have been the Ottoman government’s systematic extermination of the minority Armenian population. This occurred in the historic homeland of the Armenians which is within the territory of present-day Turkey. In spite of the many claims, the Turkish government denies it was a genocide. They claim it was a war which involved the mass killing of Ottoman citizens including Muslims and Ottomans. The Turkish government also claims that the number of Armenians who died in the period of the First World War has been extremely inflated. The purpose of this paper is to critically analyze and review the Turkish position on the Armenian mass killing of 1915 - 1916.
Views of a Genocide
In order to assess whether the Armenian deaths in World War I was a genocide or not, there is the need to set the yardstick for what a genocide is. There are numerous definitions of a genocide. However, the widely accepted and most comprehensive definition that captures different views is Article 6 of the Rome Statute which states that a “genocide” is committed when any of the following acts are committed with the view of destroying a group of “people” wholly or partially. The definition of a “people” includes a national, ethnic, racial or religious groups and the acts stipulated under the Rome Statute include:
The killing of people within the group;
Causing serious bodily or mental harm to the people;
Intentionally implementing measures that will ultimately lead to the physical destruction of the whole or part of the group;
Instituting measures that are meant to prevent births in the groups and
Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group
Obviously, this definition is extremely broad and for practical purposes, it could lead to absurdity in interpretation. However, from the facts of the circumstances in Eastern Anatolia of the Ottoman Empire between 1915 and 1923, it can be said that there was a calculated plan to eliminate Armenians who had lived in the area for over 3,000 years. This meant that there was a clear definition of the idea of a “people” since the nature of the Armenian people was such that they could be independently and distinctively identified and targeted for mass deaths and extermination.
The Young Turks seized power in 1913 and within this period, they came up with official measures and plans that were targeting the deaths and killings of Armenians. In this process, it is alleged that as many as one million Armenian men, women and children were killed and survivors of this mass massacre had to flee across the world to gain safety and refuge. This shows that there was a major problem with the attempt to exterminate these Armenians and cut their memories off the face of the earth.
Furthermore, it was a deliberate and an official policy of the Ottoman Empire at some point in its history. This is because the Empire sought to cleanse its boundaries of foreign elements who were deemed to be accessories to their enemies’ war effort. The facts indicate that Turkey committed a genocide and as such, as many as 22 countries including Russia, France and Poland as well as 43 out of the 50 states of the United States recognize the events as a genocide. This is because all the five classical standards and principles that define genocide were met in most of the instances. Hence, it can be said that Turkey sought to commit mass murder and must take responsibility and rectify its wrongs.
In most cases, any calls for recognizing a genocide is met by three classical forms of resistance denying, rationalizing and trivializing. This approach is employed in the defense of the Ottoman forces in their actions against the Armenian people who were believed to have sided with the enemies in war against the Turkish people.
Deniers of the Armenian Genocide argue that there was no standard and base-point to define a genocide. This is because many nations have taken similar measures in wartime. A classic example is the case of Britain which took up similar measures against White South Africans of Dutch descent in the Anglo-Boer War. This was a war where many Afrikaners were put into concentration camps whilst others were killed in ways that constitute war crimes in today’s legal terminology. However, Turkey was the only nation singled out for blame and accusations.
Another view is that the Ottoman Empire was dragged into a war it had very little interest in fighting. Thus, the responsibility for all the atrocities lie in the leading European powers that launched the war and invited the Turks to participate. After all, Russia was a leading power that took part in the 19th Century Arms race that laid the foundation for World War I. Thus, singling out the Ottoman Empire for doing what it was forced to do to ensure its survival in wartime was unfair, biased and inappropriate.
Realists also argue that the fate that befell the Armenians in the World War I was just a natural chain of events that the Turks needed to undertake to survive. This is because every country was at war. And every country had to take precautions against enemies within and without their boundaries. Thus, for instance, the British and Americans have always had laws that criminalizes trade with enemy states. This makes it illegal for anyone to trade with the enemy of a given government that declares war on the United States or Britain. Hence, Turkey was acting like any other country on the planet to protect its citizens and people.
This premise is supported by the fact that the Armenians were seen as a people who had traces and a history of trying to seek their own government and their own independence. The Armenians were Christian and they came under Ottoman rule in the 15th and 16th Centuries. They had gone through a lot of persecution because although the Ottoman Empire had always guaranteed freedom of religion, power remained with Muslims and the Muslims sought to oppress the minorities.
Armenia had created a national liberation movement in the 19th Century and they fought for self-determination and independence. Russia had long positioned itself as the “protector of Christians in the Ottoman Empire”. Therefore, most of the Christian groups had shown interest in supporting the Russians in their war effort against the Ottoman Empire. It was also logical to assume that in case of a Russian victory, they would try to suppress the Muslim Turkish majority by elevating minorities which included Arabs, Jews, Christians, and Armenians amongst others. Therefore, the idea of suppressing them and watching these minorities closely was a priority for the Ottoman Turkish government since that was the only way they could ensure the survival of their nation and their people.
There were general issues and pointers that laid the foundation for the conflicts that came up after the War. For instance, there were statistical disparities. Whilst the Ottoman rulers identified there were less than a million Armenians in Eastern Anatolia in the early 1900s, there were Armenian sources quoted that there were over three million Armenians in the region in the same period. This laid the foundations for inconsistencies and arguments relating to whether the Ottomans were right in their claims or they were wrong. This made it difficult to define the extent of the mass murder and identify the impact on the different people who endured it.
There were various breaches and weaknesses in the Ottoman Empire in the late 19th Century. This showed evidence of a weak Sultan and a weak ruling class who could not maintain the kind of control that was needed. Therefore, in 1908, the Young Turks government took power and sought to modernize the empire and lay down very strong and rigid structures. This included streamlining the minorities and moving to create a national identity.
One of the first things the Young Turks did was to suppress rebellions from groups including the Armenians. In 1912, when the Balkan Wars occurred, the Ottoman Empire lost as much as 85% of its European territories. This showed the Young Turks two things – first of all if foreign elements were not monitored carefully, the empire could tear apart. And secondly, they needed to relocate Muslim refugees from the European parts of the Ottoman Empire that broke away from the Empire. Therefore, with the hate and pain, those relocated Muslim refugees could become an asset rather than a liability. Therefore, they moved them to places including Eastern Anatolia and they were vital in the attacks and mass murder of the Armenians.
Defenses in the Immediate Causes of the Massacres
Aside the many defenses raised within the background of the situation, there are many defenses deniers of the Armenian Genocide raise in relation to the actual events of World War I. When the Young Turks government entered World War 1 in November 1914, it was apparent that the Ottomans were brought by Germany and Austria-Hungary to block the advancement of the Russians who had a huge military. Thus, the Russians also had to intensify their attempts to get the Ottoman minorities to support their war effort. Thus, they announced their view of being protectors of the Christians and it was logical they would also free the other minorities like Arabs. Thus, the Young Turks had reason to believe the minorities will side with their opponents. The location of East Anatolia was quite remote and close to Russia. Thus, it was fairly easy for the Armenians to support the Russians and seek to gain some kind of benefit on the gateway of the two empires.
The turning point came in December 1914 when the Ottoman Turks faced the Russians in the Battle of Sarikamish in the area close to the Armenian homeland of Eastern Anatolia. The Turks suffered a major setback and Enver Pasha lost. He blamed the defeat on Armenian support of the Russians and as such, he sought to find a way to deal wisely with the Armenians before they sided with the enemy.
Therefore, in February 1914, the Young Turks government issued a directive to crash the foreign elements in Armenian Turkey. The Armenians in the Ottoman military were downgraded. Those in combat units were moved to other units that did not allow them to use military power and force. This meant that they were not able to wage war and they were denied firepower to launch any future rebellions against the Ottoman Empire. Through this, they could guarantee that there would be no purely Armenian units in the military who could later demand national sovereignty or independence.
Afterwards, there was an arrest and deportation of Armenian notables. This was to ensure that their elites who had money, power and influence were dispersed and they could not come together to make any demands that could threaten the Ottoman Empire. These elites were scattered in over 100 locations throughout the Ottoman Empire. With this, the commoners were opened to the vulnerabilities and negativities that could be inflicted on them by the Ottoman Turkish military.
This culminated in the plea for the conscription of able-bodied Armenian men. About 4,000 responded to this recruitment effort and they were all killed. This was followed by the separation of the strong and able-bodied men who were killed in the various towns and villages. Later on, there was the mass arrest and deportation of Armenian women and children who were viewed as people being relocated to prevent them from siding with the enemy
The issue of whether the Armenian deaths in World War 1 was a genocide or not is still in the process of being actively debated. There are many parties and interest groups who consider it a genocide and there are others who consider it as a legitimate act of the government to protect its citizens in a time of war. However, the evidence shows that the process was a bit extreme and harsh. Wiping out a whole population including women and children is something that is not to be tolerated anywhere. It constitutes mass murder and serious human rights violations in the least. Evidence also shows that lessons from the Armenian Genocide were learnt by the Nazi regime in perpetrating the Holocaust. Thus, considering the Holocaust a genocide and saying nothing about the model that gave inspiration to it is wrong. Therefore, it is imperative for some kind of admission of the genocide to be made and an apology provided by the Turkish government. It is apparent the effort to cleanse the empire of its enemies went beyond the normal bounds. And as an entity pursuing a policy of joining the European Union, the idea of proportionality is very important and must be used as a basis to judge the past actions as well.
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