16 December 2006
The following article of remarkable awareness was written by S. G. W. Benjamin stimulated by the political activity of the nations among whom their lot is thrown. The latter fact, at least, leads them to urge their countrymen in Turkey to make demands and to resist oppression to a degree that may, perhaps, precipitate results quite opposite to those they intend. This agitation derives very great importance, likewise, from the circumstance that the integral rights of the Armenian people were emphatically recognized, and a clause looking to the amelioration of their condition was incorporated, in the famous Treaty of Berlin. It is not denied that, in some respects, Turkey has failed to carry out the engagements incurred under that international con- tract.
Here, then, we have something tangible. The chief support of the Armenian claims must be looked for in Article 61 of the Berlin Treaty. The Armenians, however worthy, cannot rely on the assistance of Europe to secure for them the advantages they seek on any sentimental grounds such as led the great powers, together with a multitude of chivalrous adventurers, to bring such effectual aid to Greece in her great revolution. It was the arts, the poetry, the great men, the wonderful romance and history of Greece, appealing to the enthusiasm of scholars and soldiers alike, that summoned the world to her aid. Interesting as are some of the incidents of Armenian history, it is only the truth to assert that Armenia has not and never had a hold on the imagination of Europe like that of Greece. It is, therefore, a most extraordinary piece of good fortune that the Armenians were remembered in the Treaty of Berlin; for without that they might sue in vain for the attention of any of the European governments except Russia, who, for reasons of her own, is ever ready to interpose in favor of the oppressed, unless they happen to be her own subjects.
Benjamin, as he appeared at the end of
his life; from his autobiography, 'The
Life and Adventures of a Free Lance.'
During the last twenty-five hundred years, or since they first emerged from their legendary period into the scope of authentic history, the Armenians have enjoyed a distinct political independence for less than a century and a half; portions of that people have also maintained a certain independence within limited districts of Armenia for short intervals. But by far the larger part of their historic existence has been passed under vassalage to Parthia, Persia, and Rome. At one time, indeed, their satraps actually paid tribute to Rome and Persia simultaneously. Their dynasties were either Arsacid, allied to the Parthian throne, or of the Bagratid Hebrews family. For several centuries Armenia has been divided among Persia, Turkey, and Russia. Nor are the limits of ancient Armenia so precise and well defined as to afford any positive outline that the imagination can easily grasp, or on which a statesman could base distinct demands for the rehabilitation of the ancient Armenian dominion, such as we see so clearly marked out in Greece and the Greek islands, or, in a less degree, in the liberated provinces of Turkey in Europe. Such details are not unimportant in the case of a people which is looking for assistance in asserting its independence. They are essential in order to arouse that popular foreign interest which plays so important a part in directing the counsels of cabinets, and the movement of armies to relieve the real or alleged distresses of the oppressed. Here, again, we see the great value of Article 61 of the Berlin Treaty. What their cause lacks, therefore, in, other directions, the Armenians can supply by planting themselves on that treaty. It gives them a relative importance, which they could hardly hope to obtain as yet from any other claim they could urge. It is true that most of the powers, while recognizing all the provisions of the treaty, would still be loath, except in extreme necessity, to hold the Porte to absolute fulfillment of every clause of that instrument, because they are aware of the difficulties attending administration and reform in a theocratic government made up of many antagonistic nationalities. They would also hesitate to give Russia too much encouragement in pushing the network of mines with which she proposes to blow up the Turkish Empire. Europe needs that empire some time longer. While maintaining the principles of the treaty, therefore, they are disposed to accept the general good will of the Sultan, without laying too much stress on the letter of the compact.
Christians, they [the Armenians] argue, should be unwilling to see Christians under subjection to pagans and infidels. They are of Aryan origin...
With Russia it is quite otherwise. Article 61 may possibly prove of great use to her, for in case of any real or alleged maladministration she can arraign the Turkish government on the score of the very treaty which she herself has broken by fortifying Batoom. While penetrating her real designs through that philanthropic disguise, the powers could not openly accuse her of insincerity, or dispose of her assumptions to pose as the liberator of the Armenians. It is just here that we see the insidious character, the grave possibilities, of the present Armenian agitation. There is a plausibility in any advances made by Russia to relieve the Armenians which did not exist in the case of the Bulgarians, while any attempt to force Turkey to yield them territorial independence would prove exceedingly hazardous to the perpetuity of that empire.
As regards the reasons which the Armenians urge for the restoration of their freedom, one of the most specious is the fact that they are Christians, and hence should receive the united cooperation of Christendom in aid of such a result. Christians, they argue, should be unwilling to see Christians under subjection to pagans and infidels. They are of Aryan origin, belonging to the great Judo-European family, and were one of the first, or, as they claim, the first nation whose sovereigns embraced Christianity, slightly previous to the conversion of Constantine the Great. Their creed and hierarchical organization are similar to those of the Eastern Church; but by refraining from attending the Synod of Chalcedon, and by adopting, as it is alleged, views of their own regarding the question of the Father and the Son and the precession of the Holy Ghost, they have been considered by the Greek and Roman Catholic communions as of doubtful orthodoxy; if not absolutely doomed to hell fire for heresy, they are regarded as standing uncomfortably near the danger line. They endured great persecution from their Persian rulers in the early centuries, and in the fifteenth century a violent schism rent the nation into two distinct and until now irreconcilable bodies. Jesuit missionaries induced probably a fourth of the Armenian nation to secede, and those sectaries have since then practically had their headquarters at Venice, and have been protected by the Catholic powers. The present agitation is confined chiefly to the so-called Old Armenians.
It is somewhat the habit of Protestants to speak of the Armenians as nominal Christians. The term seems to be ill advised, likely to arouse unnecessary prejudices, and is no more applicable to them than to any other people whom a tendency to exaggerate the importance of forms and ceremonies leads to substitute non-essentials for essentials, the letter for the spirit. Every sect, whether Christian, Buddhist, or Mohammedan, abounds in such dead-and-alive material. As for the orthodoxy of the Armenian Church, that is a question which no one has received a special dispensation for passing judgment upon. No men have a right to assume that they, and they alone, can settle questions so subtle and vexed as to tax the wisest, questions whose solution can be decisively reached only in the next world. It is sufficient for the claim of the Armenians that they are Christians; the Russian Church tacitly admits this. While on the one hand condemning them as heretics, on the other hand she concedes their Christianity by undertaking to protect them on the ground that they are Christians.
The heroism displayed by the martyrs of the Armenian Church, which is urged by some as an additional reason for maintaining the solidarity of the nation and treating its claims with respect, is altogether a side issue, and should have no weight in deciding the question. For every nation and every religion has had its martyrs, equally heroic, whether Buddhists, Magians, Islamites, or Christians. It is sufficient that the Armenians are Christians, and their claim on that score merits serious consideration as a factor in the settlement of the present agitation. There is no doubt that this is with many Christian nations an all-sufficient argument in favor of the immediate emancipation of the Armenians.
...Under the established law which has ordained the survival of the fittest and the rule of the strongest... Turkey has an undisputed right to rule until a stronger takes away that right.
While conceding, however, that if this is a sufficient argument to cause the liberation of all subject Christian races the Armenians are entitled to its full benefit, we maintain that the question of religion is one to be eliminated from all political discussions; the deliberations of statesmen should be conducted without admitting religion as an element in the settlement of national or race problems. The world is constantly growing more enlightened, more elevated in sentiment, more humane, and more tolerant and Christian in theory and practice. Hence should naturally follow a wider acceptance of the principle of absolute separation of church and state, each taking care of itself, the one by guiding the conscience, the other by the exercise of civil power. The oppressed should learn to demand their freedom not because they belong to this or that sect, but because all are equally entitled to the enjoyment of natural rights. The Irish, for example, should learn that they are entitled to receive their independence, when they seek it, not as Roman Catholics, but solely as men inheriting and occupying the same soil. It is the community of civil, and not religious, interests that makes a nation. The Armenians will deserve a sympathy based on sounder principles if they demand their rights because they are Armenians, and not because their rulers are Moslems. That should be the only legitimate ground on which to assert a national bill of rights. Human sympathy should be awarded to the oppressed on the score of common humanity, not o the score of unity of belief.
Viewing the case from this point, we maintain that the Turks have quite as much right to hold dominion over the Christians whom they vanquished by their military genius as the English have to rule the Mohammedans of India. Again and a fortiori, under the established law which has ordained the survival of the fittest and the rule of the strongest, from the smallest insect to the greatest man, a law that will always obtain in this world, Turkey has an undisputed right to rule until a stronger takes away that right. She has as much right to rule Greeks or Armenians as Prussia, Austria, or Russia have to throttle the life of Poland, or France has to subjugate Algeria, or the United States to wrest Texas from Mexico. To impugn the right of the Turks to hold territory and to rule wherever they have the power is to fly in the face of the laws by which empires have always been founded, and to question the title of every nation in Christendom. For the Armenians to seek their freedom, therefore, on the ground that their rulers are of another religion, or to assume that these have no rights over them because those rights were acquired by conquest, is intelligible enough, but does not furnish a reasonable ground for the interposition of other nations.
One of the first enterprises that a new Armenia would have to undertake would be to subdue these same Kurds; and a nice test it would be of the courage and military skill of the Armenians.
But, urge the Armenians, we are oppressed beyond measure by the Turks. This, if entirely correct, would prove a very strong argument in favor of the agitation now going forward. What are the facts? It must be admitted, unfortunately, that the present condition of that people is one of considerable hardship. They are forced to pay heavy taxes, and are often subjected to the rapacity of unprincipled governors at a distance from the capital. Those who live in the eastern part of Asia Minor are also liable to the savage raids of the Kurds. Were it evident that the Armenians are singled out as the objects of such outrages, or that they are especially hated, or that they are harassed beyond any other people in Christendom, then indeed should Christendom arise as one man, hurl the Turk from his throne, and, gathering in the Armenians from all parts of the world, reestablish them on the plateau of Armenia, and give them a chance to work out among themselves the problem of national existence. But this is very far from being the case. As regards the Kurds, they are an unruly lot, turbulent, treacherous, and cruel from the time when Xenophon hewed his way through them to the present day. They have never been completely subdued. One of the first enterprises that a new Armenia would have to undertake would be to subdue these same Kurds; and a nice test it would be of the courage and military skill of the Armenians.* No one would rejoice more than the Sultan to see the lawless mountaineers of Kurdistan civilized and tamed.
*Holdwater: Benjamin sounds as though he had little respect for the Armenians' soldiering abilities, but it didn't take the Armenians much courage to deal with the Republic of Armenia's "Kurdish problem." The Kurds, along with the other Muslims — mostly Azeris — who had formed a majority not long before, would simply be exterminated in 1918-20; just as they were being exterminated along with Turks, while Armenians were in control of eastern Anatolia, from 1915 on.
[Armenians] have liberty to go and come when and where and how they please, to study abroad and acquire every modern idea of progress and freedom. They are not obliged to serve in the army, which is an enormous immunity...
As to the oppression of Turkish officials, it is a well-known fact that they are no respecters of persons. It matters not to them whether the subjects are Greeks, Jews, Armenians, or Turks. All are more or less liable to oppression resulting from the necessity of raising heavy taxes in a poor country. The treasury must be supplied to maintain a large standing army, whose numbers might be greatly reduced if the Christian subjects of the Porte would cease their chronic agitations, and if Russia, already mistress of half a world, would cease to hunger for additions to her unwieldy possessions.
Nor are the Armenians oppressed to any such degree as some of the people of Christian nations. They have liberty to go and come when and where and how they please, to study abroad and acquire every modern idea of progress and freedom. They are not obliged to serve in the army, which is an enormous immunity. To be sure, they pay a special tax for this privilege; but how many of them would be willing to exchange this tax for conscription into an ill-paid service during the best years of their lives, with a chance of being riddled with balls from time to time? There are many Turks who would willingly give half their substance to escape the conscription.
The Armenians also enjoy every liberty for trade and business, and as they are essentially a commercial people this is no small advantage. Armenians have generally been the seraphs, or bankers, of the empire, and some of the largest fortunes in Turkey have been accumulated by individuals of that race. Man for man, it is quite likely that the average amount of wealth distributed among the Armenians is equal to, if not greater than, that of the Turks themselves.
Turkey is gradually reaching out towards reform, while Russia is rapidly returning to a bondage, an oppression, a terrorism, an intolerance, for whose parallel we must go back to the dark ages.
It is to be remembered also that these people in Turkey enjoy a degree of religious liberty far greater than is popularly supposed. Recently, it is true, the government forbade the printing of the ritual and of certain books that have been published there for centuries. This led to the resignation of the Patriarch, or Catholicos, of Constantinople. But he has resumed his position, which indicates a modification or rescinding of the obnoxious order. It was caused by the extreme irritation of the Turks, and their apprehensions as well, owing to the Armenian agitations. The Sultan is friendly to the Armenians, and is well aware that their alleged grievances spring from no intention of the government to discriminate against them. The Armenians of the intelligent classes suffer somewhat from the severe censorship of the press in Turkey. But here again they are partially to blame. The swarms of foreign and native intriguers, who are perpetually straining every nerve and employing every means to foment disturbances in Turkey, force the government, against its own preferences, to guard the issues of the press. Self-protection is the first law of nature, and an unrestricted press is possible only when representative government is very fully developed. Even France is timid in this regard.** If these agitations were to cease, the censorship of the press would be greatly modified, and many reforms would gradually be introduced; for the Turkish government is far more inclined to be liberal towards all its subjects than some of the governments of Europe to their own subjects. We think, if those who are now striving to disturb the entente cordiale between the Porte and its Armenian subjects were to look over the border into Russia, they would discover that, whatever may be alleged against Turkish rule, that of Russia is infinitely more iniquitous. Turkey is gradually reaching out towards reform, while Russia is rapidly returning to a bondage, an oppression, a terrorism, an intolerance, for whose parallel we must go back to the dark ages.
**Holdwater: "Even" France? Little could Benjamin predict that in the 21st century, France would raise the banner on censorship of thought... by forbidding people from telling the truth against falsified genocides.
...Not brilliant, perhaps, but abounding in common sense.
But granting everything they urge in favor of an agitation for national independence, what prospect have the Armenians of gaining their end by such means? Absolutely none. They are a sturdy, handsome, ambitious, sober, industrious, and thrifty people; not brilliant, perhaps, but abounding in common sense. Asiatic and retaining many early Asiatic customs and traits, they yet take more kindly to city life and to European habits and methods of thought than almost any other Asiatics. They are, however, widely dispersed. Numbering not over four millions, of whom probably a million are Roman Catholics who are little concerned in the movement for a new Armenia, there is no one spot where there is an appreciable collection of Armenians equaling the other populations of such locality. They are scattered all over the Turkish Empire. Many of them are subjects of Russia and Persia. In Constantinople and Smyrna there are over three hundred thousand; but even there they are vastly outnumbered by the Turks. They are not a warlike people, by which we do not mean to say they are lacking in spirit and courage; but it is useless to deny that their record is not that of a nation of soldiers. Still, if a million or two of them were concentrated in a mountain district, as were the Circassians, thoroughly armed and organized and inured to fighting, they might pre- sent a very respectable front against attack, and hold their own until they should command respect and assistance from abroad, as was the case with the Greeks in their revolution. But nothing in the remotest degree resembling such a condition exists among the Armenians.
[Armenians] would be totally demolished, and the Turks would be justified in crushing them so that they would never revolt again, because every established government has a right to protect itself in the interests of all concerned. It is, moreover, a crime for any people or faction to create a rebellion and attack the public peace...
A rare photo of Osman Pasha
They form scarcely an eighth of the population of the Turkish Empire, in the midst of a military people, having a standing army well equipped and trained, and capable of displaying soldierly qualities unsurpassed by any troops in Europe. The world has not forgotten how Osman Pasha held the whole of Russia at bay at Plevna, and was only forced to yield at last when Russian gold insinuated itself into the pockets of certain officials who managed to withhold reinforcements. What, we ask, can the Armenians expect to accomplish, unaided, against the strong arm of the Osmanlis? They would be totally demolished, and the Turks would be justified in crushing them so that they would never revolt again, because every established government has a right to protect itself in the interests of all concerned. It is, moreover, a crime for any people or faction to create a rebellion and attack the public peace unless there is some reasonable hope of success. In this case there is absolutely not the slightest basis for such a hope, and the only result would be great bloodshed arid increased acerbity of feeling.
There remains, however, another resource. The European powers might be appealed to for intervention, since they have already recognized the rights in equity, if not in law, of the Armenian people in the Treaty of Berlin. But it is not likely, for obvious reasons, that any of them but Russia would do more than that at present. England, were Mr. Gladstone in power, might offer more positive intervention; but the influence of that statesman in foreign affairs has been greatly weakened by the loss of prestige to England during his last administration. It would also be an act of the grossest injustice to force Turkey to liberate her part of Armenia unless Persia and Russia also ceded back to the Armenians their shares of that country. Turkeys right to possess a third of Armenia is equal to that of those two governments, while her rule is, to say the least, as benign as that of Russia.
The recourse which the Armenians might have to Europe for aid is reduced, then, to the simple fact that it would be from Russia, and Russia alone, that such aid could be reasonably expected. Russia only waits the word and the hour. Her agents are found everywhere instigating the Armenians to agitate and revolt. She yearns, she burns, for the day when, her intrigues having matured, the Armenians shall rise against the Turks. By asserting their rights and causing the suppression of riots and revolts with unavoidable bloodshed, the latter will then furnish Russia with the casus belli which she has plotted, and for which her pious legions are camping on the border.
The Turks cannot be expected to abandon their rights any more than any other ruling people...
The first result might be the liberation of the Armenians, and the temporary establishment of a small Armenian state, of course under the tender protection of Holy Russia. But the end would be the rapid absorption of that state by Russia, who would need only the flimsiest pretext. The position of Servia and Bulgaria, adjacent to powers watchful of Russia, arid able to manoeuvre on her flank much to her disadvantage, has prevented that power from swallowing up those two countries, as she intended to do when hypocritically fighting for their liberation from Turkey. By the perpetual intrigues she has maintained in those states, she has unmistakably shown her hand to all but those who are determined not to see. But such reasons would have little or no weight in Asia, and the Armenians would soon learn, to their eternal sorrow, that their hopes of again enjoying the privilege of becoming an independent nation must be postponed until the fall of the Russian Empire.
There are, as we see, two points to consider in this question: the rights of the Turkish government, which are as sound as those of any other government having territory and subjects won by conquest, and there are few or none that are not in that position, and the rights and aspirations of the Armenians. The Turks cannot be expected to abandon their rights any more than any other ruling people; it would afford a dangerous precedent, and would practically amount to committing hara-kiri. Bat the Porte is not ill disposed towards its Armenian subjects, and but for the present unfortunate agitations and intrigues might have been expected to grant further concessions.
...If the Armenians allow hot-headed or unprincipled agitators to push them into open revolt, they are bound to suffer enormous misery...
Lord Stratford de Redcliffe, better known as Sir Stratford Canning, was the ablest diplomat and the most clear-sighted statesman of England, and perhaps of Europe, in this century. Eng- land has had abundant cause to deplore his loss. He knew the Turks well, and appreciated their good no less than their evil qualities. He was also a true and noble benefactor of the Christians and Hebrews of Turkey. It was precisely because he could see the merits and rights of each that he was able to persuade the Sultan to issue, in 1856, the famous charter of reform, or bill of equal rights, called the Hatti-Humayun. If the complete fulfillment of the reforms it promised has been somewhat retarded, owing partly to the influence of such unfit envoys as Sir Henry Bulwer, there is, on the other hand, no reason to infer that the Porte has ever desired to revoke its provisions. And every candid and intelligent observer of the affairs of Turkey must allow that very decided progress in many directions has been made in that country, and that the tendency continues favorable. What Turkey most needs at present is freedom from foreign interference.
The best friends of that most interesting and progressive people, the Armenians, cannot but feel that by far the wisest course for them is, therefore, by moderation and patience to establish a modus vivendi between themselves and the government, doing all they can to restore the confidence of the latter in their loyalty and subordination. In this way they may gradually gain more offices, and eventually have a certain province set aside for them under an Armenian governor tributary to the Sultan. A similar experiment has been successfully tried in other parts of the empire. The rest will come in time, with the maturing of the designs of an overruling Providence. But if the Armenians allow hot-headed or unprincipled agitators to push them into open revolt, they are bound to suffer enormous misery when the Turks distinctly understand their purpose. If they should succeed in bringing about the fall of the Turkish Empire, they would themselves plunge into the abyss of national annihilation by absorption into the Russian Empire, with all that such a calamity implies.
The Turks are not the worst nor the most cruel people in the world, as they are represented to be. The Armenians are far from being the most oppressed of men. They have energy and ability on their side. If to these qualities they add the wisdom of patience, Fortune will of herself relent at last in their favor.
S. G. W. Benjamin.
"The Turks are not the worst nor the most cruel people in the world, as they are represented to be. The Armenians are far from being the most oppressed of men."
Three cheers for Mr. Benjamin. The man was a rarity, truly on the ball, compared with the lot of his bigoted, ignorant contemporaries. (And even those not his contemporaries, from over a century later.
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