To understand what exactly happened between Turks and Armenians in 1915 one has to examine what happened before 1915.
Ottoman Empire was a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society reflective of the Empires of the time.
Turks and Armenians have lived in peace in Anatolia for over eight centuries. Up to 19th century Armenians were called “loyal nation” (Millet-i sadıka) because of their success in integrating to the Ottoman community. As privileged subjects of the Ottoman Empire, Armenian community was to rise to prominence as ministers, ambassadors, mayors, industrialists and businessmen. They were not discriminated in any way because of their ethnic and religious roots.
In the Ottoman time:
- Twenty-nine Armenians achieved the highest governmental rank of civilian generals (pasha);
- There were twenty-two Armenian governmental ministers. Among the posts held were the Ministries of Agriculture, Mines and Forestry, Foreign Affairs, Finance, Trade, Public Works, Post and Telegraph Services;
- Gabriel Noradunkyan, the Minister of Foreign Affairs in 1912-1913, was Armenian;
- Numerous Armenians headed governmental departments concerned with a variety of functions, including agriculture, census, and economic development;
- In the post-1876 Ottoman Chamber of Deputies (Meclis-i Mebusan), there were thirty-three elected Armenian representatives;
- Seven Armenian Ambassadors and eleven Consul-Generals and Consuls served in the Ottoman diplomatic service;
- Eleven university professors of Armenian origin brought their valuable contributions to the Ottoman academic life.
Towards the end of the 19th century, the “Entente Powers” of those days began to regard the Armenians as an important tool which could be manipulated against the Ottomans. They promised the Armenians a state of their own in Eastern Anatolia where paradoxically they constituted only a minority.
With the Berlin Conference which was held after the 1877-1878 Ottoman-Russian War, Armenians gained great political acquisitions. With Article 61 which was accepted in the Conference (The Sublime Porte undertakes to carry out, without further delay, the amelioration and reforms demanded by local requirements in the provinces inhabited by the Armenians, and to guarantee their security against the Circassians and Kurds. It will periodically make known the steps taken to this effect to the Powers, who will superintend their application), “The Armenian Issue” was brought to the agenda in the international arena.
It was with the creation of two radical revolutionary Armenian committees, the Hinchag Committee formed in Geneva, Switzerland in 1887, and the Dashnag Committee, established in Tbilisi, Georgia in 1890, that Armenian national aspirations began to assume the more classical form which the Ottomans had come to know and worry in the previous half-century. After that with these Committees provocations and foreign subsidized rebellions were started in different cities of the Ottoman Empire. The first big Armenian rebellion was started in Van in 1896. After government’s quashing the rebellion Armenian organizations continued their activities and they made many rebellions in different cities.
The start of World War I and the entry of the Ottoman State into the war against the Allied Powers were seen as a great opportunity by these revolutionary groups. They revolted against the Ottoman Government, collaborated with the invading Russian Armies and other foreign forces, launching attacks on the Ottoman army and Muslim civilians from behind the front and engaging in acts of sabotage. In March 1915, the Russian forces began to move toward Van. After the failure of Sarıkamış Operation, on April 11, 1915, the Armenians of Van initiated a general revolt which is the second rebellion of Armenians in Van, massacring all the Turks in the vicinity to enable the city’s quick and easy conquest by the Russians. As a result, Ottoman Government enacted the Relocation Law on May 27, 1915. The Armenians who were living around strategic military locations were to be relocated to other areas far from the war zone.
When we analyze the 1915 Events in the historical context, the Ottoman Government which was facing enormous internal and external threats such as terrorist attacks, rebellions and cooperation with enemies resorted to a defensive measure and increased precautions. Accordingly, these precautions were not pre-planned and they have no political purpose based on a certain ideology. On the contrary, they are implemented because of military and security related needs.
Military historians say that Ottoman Government was forced to enact the Relocation Law of May 27, 1915 because of the military necessities and the threat of separatist movements.
The other point to be noted was that Armenians were not foreseen to be deported, but were relocated to the places outside the Ottoman war zones. Armenians living in Eastern Anatolia were transferred to places within other Ottoman regions, reserving their right to return back to their homes after the end of the war.
The transfer started after necessary preparations. Meanwhile, Armenians living in areas outside the military operations were not part of the resettlement process. Thus, the Armenians living in Istanbul, Kütahya and Aydın were not affected by this law. The decision made by the Ottoman Government was not an extension of any ideology.
In this law, every measure was foreseen to be taken to ensure the security of the Armenians subjected to relocation. The Ottoman Government instructed the local authorities to take the necessary security measures for the orderly relocation of the Armenians. Moreover, officials or civilians who disobeyed the instructions of the Government and committed offences against Armenian convoys were tried by the Military Courts (“Divan-i Harbi Örfi, 1915-1916). The Courts decided to take 1763 people into custody and passed death sentences for 67 individuals. The documents relating to the case are available in the Ottoman archives. Despite these measures, war conditions, local gangs, robbery, local feelings of hatred and vengeance have prompted attacks towards the convoys during the transfer process. The Government tried to prevent them. As a matter of fact, there were very limited attacks on the Armenian convoys in the regions where the state authority was relatively high. Insufficiency of food and other means in war days, heavy climatic conditions and outbreaks of epidemic diseases like typhus had also led to the increase of loss of human lives. In fact, the said time period was an era in which all Anatolian peoples shared the same fate. It should be noted that 3 million people, mostly civilian Muslims, died in Anatolia during World War I. Those who perished in the hands of Armenian bands reached 524, 000 between the years 1914 through 1922.
How did a state, willing to annihilate Armenians and targeting to massacre, try officials or civilians who committed offences against Armenian convoys? And why did this state adopt a special law to take the necessary security measures for the orderly relocation of the Armenians? The circles claiming the 1915 events as “genocide” cannot respond to these questions. Also, the answers for these questions prove that there was no intent on the part of Ottomans to destroy the Armenians.
In the Ottoman period, Armenians was fully integrated to the Ottoman society and bureaucracy. Even, it is well known fact that the Committee of Union and Progress who adopted the Relocation Law, cooperated with the Armenian groups during and after the advent to power. Many Armenians were elected as Parliamentarians in the general elections of 1908, 1912 and 1914 from the list of the Committee of Union and Progress. Among these Bedros Hallaçyan served as Minister of Trade and Public Works two times as well as a member of the Central Committee of the Committee of Union and Progress.
After World War I, the Armenian allegations were investigated between 1919 and 1922, as part of the legal process against the Ottoman officials. Subsequently, 144 Ottoman high officials were arrested and deported for trial by Great Britain to the island of Malta.
The information that led to these arrests was mainly provided by local Armenians and the Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul. So while the deportees were under detention in Malta, the British occupation forces in Istanbul, which had absolute power and authority in the Ottoman capital, looked frantically everywhere to find evidence in order to incriminate the deportees.
However, no evidence, demonstrating that the Ottoman Government, the members of the Committee of Union and Progress and the Ottoman officials deported to Malta either sanctioned or encouraged the killings of the Armenians, was found.
Moreover, no evidence could be found to this effect in the American and French archives. After two years and four months of detention in Malta, all the deportees were set free without trial.
Within the framework of the efforts to equate the events of 1915 with the Holocaust, various Armenian groups recently claim that the ruling the Committee of Union and Progress during the period of World War I, with a Social Darwinist ideology, tried to apply a repressive “Turkification” policy and aimed to annihilate Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.
In this framework, one of the concepts is formed as a racism targeting to collective identity instead of a racism rejecting in terms of biology. Numerous historians who are experts of the Committee of Union and Progress disclosed that this argument was thoroughly baseless, since the Committee of Union and Progress did not have a monolithic ideology. The Holocaust was a horrific outcome of centuries-long racist ideology penetrated into the European society. In the Ottoman Empire, such a racist ideology against the Armenian subjects of the Empire never existed. There was, in no way, Turkish-Armenian discrimination in terms of administration.
On the other hand, Ottoman Empire sent Notes to the Governments of Spain, The Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden on February 1919 and asked them to assign two legal experts and form an enquiry commission to investigate the claims of Armenian massacres. Unfortunately, this initiative has remained inconclusive due to the British intervention.