The question of the massacres of the Armenians during the Ottoman Empire is one of those poisonous issues that never seems to go away. But what can we learn from it? To find that out, we need to go back to where it all started.
The decline of the Ottoman Empire was a long one that started with the death of Suleiman I and ran all the way until the last Sultan abdicated in 1922. One of those countries which took advantage of decline was Russia. In 1774 one of those wars ended with the Treaty of Kainardji, where the Ottomans almost lost control of the Crimea (the drama over that little peninsula never ends, does it?) But more relevant to the present discussion was the following treaty provision:
Turkey promises to protect constantly the Christian religion and churches and allow the ministers of Russia at Constantinople to make representations on their behalf.
What this basically did was make a large part of the Sutan’s subjects agents of a foreign power. The broad term for this kind of thing, which could also be judicial and economic, is “concessions,” and other European powers, especially the British and French, would pile on the Empire in similar ways. The Ottoman Empire was the first major non-European power to be subjected to this kind of thing, basically colonialism without a colony. The Europeans were so enamoured with the results that they repeated it elsewhere, especially in China, where the Chinese kicked back hard, first with the Boxer Rebellion and ultimately with the People’s Republic.
Like many things, it took a while for the ramifications of this to kick in. And the Armenians within the Empire did their best to be the loyal, productive subjects they were through Ottoman history. Even when the Sultan raised the Banner named Barack and declared jihad on the Russians in 1876, the Armenian religious leadership responded as follows:
Shortly after the declaration of war Monsignor Narses, Patriarch of the Armenian Church, also addressed to his flock a pastoral, in which he called upon them to show, as in the past, their unalterable fidelity to the Ottoman throne. He recalled to their memory how the Armenians had worked for the good of the Fatherland, and had contributed to it by agriculture, commerce, and manufactures, and even by participation in administrative reforms. Pie summoned them to remain, as a Christian people, faithful to their traditions, to “render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things which are God’s.” The Patriarch exhorted his people to give an example of fraternal love, whether to fellow-believers or otherwise, and, above all, to pray that God ” may deliver us from the implacable enemies who come to our attack.” His Eminence further inculcated the duty of assisting by every possible aid and contribution the Ottoman Government, to which they were bound to furnish every moral and material support. His Eminence also directed the Armenians to pray for the success of the Sultan’s arms, ” so that our ecclesiastical liberties, our language, and the free administration of our scholastic and religious establishments, may be preserved to us.” (H.M. Hozier, The Russo-Turkish War, Vol 1)
However, not all Armenians were under the Sultan’s rule. Some had been lost to conquest, but others to emigration, driven by the “Turkification” process (which included military service) and the uninspiring economic state of the Empire. Many of these Armenians, inspired by European nationalism, began to agitate for either their own state or more rights under the one they had.
That played into the paranoia of Sultan Abdul Hamid II. In 1894, following some outbreaks of rebellion, he decided to “give them a box on the ears.” What that meant was the first of the Armenian massacres, which were carried out with precision and direction from the Sultan himself, with help from any non-Armenian population which would join in the slaughter. This included the elimination of the Christian population of Trebizond and the burning of the cathedral in Urfa, which was packed with refugees from the slaughter and who perished with the building.
The massacres went off and on for three years. It helped to wreck the Sultan’s reputation among his own people and earned him the moniker “Abdul the Damned.” It seriously aided the push to do something drastic about the Sultan’s rule. That something came in 1908, when the “sons of donkeys,” led by the Young Turks, forced Adbul Hamid to abdicate and set up a constitutional monarchy–of sorts.
The Young Turks–soon lead by the triumvirate of Enver, Talaat and Jemal after a coup in 1913–found out quickly that taking charge of a nation and making it work were two different things. They actually came to an agreement to reform the Armenian provinces, one worked out with Russian leadership. But having come to power in the midst of the Balkan Wars, they found themselves in the middle of a much great conflict–the First World War–on the side of Germany.
That put them back into war with Russia. Enver Pasha, a parade ground general if there ever was one, decided to invade the Caucasus Mountains at the start of winter, where Turkish armies froze to death and which was a military disaster for the Ottomans. Unable to achieve victory against the Tsar’s armies, and incensed that some of these armies were Armenian volunteers, the “progressives” decided that genocide was in order.
With no more use for Armenians than Woodrow Wilson had for black people, Talaat boasted that “I have accomplished more towards solving the Armenian problem in three months than Abdul Hamid accomplished in three years.” Talaat had the brass to ask American Ambassador Morgenthau the names of the dead Armenians with American life insurance policies so that the Empire could collect the death benefits. Enver even brushed off the Ambassador’s diplomatic attempt to let him shift the blame to his underlings; Enver stated that “…I am entirely willing to accept the responsibility for everything that has taken place.” That, of course, was the death of three-quarters of a million Armenians.
The impending loss of World War I likewise was the end of the rule of Enver, Talaat and Jemal, who left Constantinople in a German torpedo-boat. Turkey stumbled through several years of further conflict and suffering until Kamal Ataturk, who was the military genius Enver was not, deposed the last Sultan and make Turkey a secular republic.
At this point it’s time to pause and attempt to learn some things from this horrific history. A good place to start would be another observation by Thomas Sowell in Black Rednecks and White Liberals:
Past grievances, real or imaginary, are equally irredeemable in the present, for nothing that is done among living contemporaries can change in the slightest the sins and the sufferings of generations who took those sins and sufferings to the grave with them in centuries past. Galling as it may be to be helpless to redress the crying injustices of the past, symbolic expiation in the present can only create new injustices among the living and new problems for the future, when newborn babies enter the world with pre-packaged grievances against other babies born the same day. Both have their futures jeopardized, not only by their internal strife but also by the increased vulnerability of a disunited society to external dangers from other nations and from international terrorist networks.
To be relevant in our times, history must not be controlled by our times. Its integrity as a record of the past is what allows us to draw lessons from it.
One of the most chilling lessons of the history of the twentieth century is how deceptive domestic tranquillity can be in a multi-ethnic society, when it takes only the right circumstances and the right demagogue to turn neighbour murderously against neighbour.
First: the Turks need to simply admit the truth of these massacres. They were bad. To some extent there is a disconnect because the Ottoman Empire was superseded by the Republic of Turkey. The Turks’ ancestors did not pick the Sultan or really the Young Turks for that matter.
Second: the Armenians need to realise that some of the “payback” they seek has already been done. Armenian nationalists assassinated Talaat and Jemal (the Bolsheviks dispatched Enver in combat). And obsessively nursing grievances about this is unworthy of one of the most enterprising people on God’s earth.
Third: we need to realise that the combination of European nationalism and the centralising tendencies of the modern state are, together, poison, a poison that transcends the Armenian tragedy. We live in a world where it’s possible for a variety of people can live the way they want to, especially with the technology we have. But instead we see democratic institutions being used to force a uniformity on society based upon the possible effects that certain groups might have on the rest of society. In that context what could be means of liberation become tools of enslavement.
If we could learn that last lesson, the Armenians who perished in the desert–and all of the other groups who have experienced persecution, suffering and mass death–would not have died in vain.