chapter  10
The Armenian genocide: a foreign policy problem in a globalized world
Pages 15

During the First World War, hundreds of thousands of Ottoman Armenians were force-marched towards Syria from their homes in eastern Anatolia. Hundreds of thousands died. The exact figure is disputed, and in any case cannot be verified with precision, but Ataturk himself, who reportedly referred to the killings as a ‘shameful act’ (Akcam 2007: xxii), also apparently cited a figure of 800,000 dead, as did a 1928 Turkish General Staff publication (Akcam 2007: 200). A more commonly cited figure is 1.5 million. Many who were not killed were forcibly converted, especially women married off to Muslim men and children adopted by Muslim families. Armenians and many historians regard what happened as genocide, which, according to the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, means acts committed with ‘the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group’.1 In 2003, the International Centre for Transitional Justice, an NGO specializing in identifying culpability for mass atrocities and human rights abuses, concluded that genocide of Armenians did indeed take place.2 The Turkish republic and some historians accept that many deaths occurred, but contest that what occurred constituted genocide. They point to the thousands of Muslims who also died, and stress both the intercommunal dimensions of the killing and the widespread starvation, disease and exhaustion that afflicted the entire Anatolian population during this period. Furthermore, the substantial Armenian communities residing in cities such as Istanbul, Izmir and Aleppo were left largely intact, and a small Armenian community resides in Istanbul to this day. The main point at issue is whether a physical eradication of the Armenian

population was intended and centrally planned, and thus warrants being termed genocide, or whether what happened was an unintended or spontaneous, rather than planned, by-product of a war measure. There are also differences of view concerning the extent to which culpability lies with regular Ottoman forces or was primarily the work of irregular, often Kurdish, bands; and whether the Ottoman authorities can be deemed responsible, or whether the deportations were essentially the brainchild of a relatively small number of

CUP leaders acting independently through the highly secretive ‘special organization’. There are also differences of view concerning the accessibility, reliability and utility of documentation relating to the events. These debates are not merely one more example of those that habitually occur between professional historians. The Armenian genocide issue arouses deep and violent passions amongst Turks and Armenians. The chief protagonists are the Turkish government and the globally distributed Armenian diaspora,3

but the Armenian government and Turkish society are also highly engaged with the issue. Few who venture into the debate escape the wrath of one side or the other. This chapter does not concern itself primarily with these debates, but instead focuses on the way in which globalization processes have kept the issue alive and affected Turkey’s foreign relations. It will also seek to offer an insight into how Turkish society has responded to these external pressures. Data, propaganda and detailed historical analyses concerning the fate of Anatolia’s Armenians are available elsewhere (Bloxham 2005; Lewy 2005; European Stability Initiative 2009). The impetus behind the deportations and resettlements, as the Turkish

side of the debate prefers to characterize the events, stemmed ostensibly from doubts about Armenian fidelity to the Ottoman regime. The empire’s Armenian subjects had in the past been regarded as the ‘loyal community’ (millet-i-Sadika) (Gunter 1990: 2). However, towards the latter half of the nineteenth century, and along with other Christian minorities in the Ottoman sphere, the Armenians began to demand self-determination. The Christian communities of the empire – Greeks, Bulgarians, Serbs and so on – had been championed by the European powers, keen to present themselves as protectors of the empire’s Christian subjects. By 1914, the empire had lost its Balkan territories, many of which had been Ottoman domains for five centuries, and most of its Christian subjects. The Armenians were cultivated by the Russian empire in particular, which had established an Armenian entity on its territory in 1827, and which regarded itself as the protector of eastern Christians residing within the Ottoman sphere. External interest in the fate of Ottoman Armenians was internationally legitimized by the 1878 Treaty of Berlin, which followed in the wake of the 1877-78 Russo-Ottoman war. This also coincided with the empire being left with a clear Muslim majority for the first time in its history (Findley 2005: 164). However, Armenian settlements were scattered throughout eastern Anatolia,

with substantial communities in Istanbul, Izmir and other cities, and along the southern coastline. They nowhere constituted a clear majority, and their struggle for self-determination led increasingly to clashes with their ethnically Turkish and Kurdish Muslim neighbours. These intercommunal clashes had already resulted in the deaths of up to a quarter of a million Armenians during the period 1894-96 and again on the south coast in 1909. They were accompanied by a kind of ‘Islamification’ of the Ottoman empire’s ethos, or what has been described as a ‘transition from Ottomanism to Turkism’ (Akcam 2007: 73). This increased prioritization and privileging of the Muslim

population was also a response to the arrival and settlement of the millions of Muslims who had fled to Anatolia from the Balkans and Caucasus during the last decades of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth, fleeing the discrimination and brutality of triumphant Christian nations. Indeed, there is a less-well-known movement for the recognition of the genocide of Caucasian (or ‘Circassian’) people by Russia during the nineteenth century. Many of the Caucasians fled to Anatolia.4 European support for the creation of an Armenian homeland covering substantial swathes of Anatolian territory threatened further displacement of Muslim communities, this time in Anatolia itself. Unsurprisingly, the empire’s Muslims belatedly began to acquire the nationalist impulses that had infected its Christian subjects, while the Ottoman authorities became ever more mistrustful of the Christian communities scattered throughout Anatolia. Thus, and in addition to the exigencies of war, a broader Ottoman aspiration to secure the Anatolian heartland for its loyal Muslim subjects can also be regarded as one of the impulses behind the deportations. Indeed, the Assyrian Christian community was also largely purged from the region (Travis 2006), as were hundreds of thousands of Greeks. Armenia today hosts a small community of adherents to the syncretic Yezidi faith, who fled Anatolia with the Armenians during the First World War.5