09 June 2009

2875) Armenian Rebellion at Van, University of Utah Press, Justin McCarthy, E Arslan, C Taşkiran, and O Turan : Book Review

The fate of the Ottoman Armenians during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has become over the past few decades one of the most controversial chapters in the modern history of the Middle East, and shows every sign of remaining as . . such. The events surrounding Ottoman-Armenian relations in the period are intricate and do not lend themselves to simple judgments and labels. Too often, these have been perceived in the West largely, and thus erroneously, through the lens of Armenians. The history of the Armenian question is marked by an interaction of diverse parts and should not be diluted. Before the First World War, the province of Van in southeastern Anatolia had a population of about 500,000, while the city of Van itself had approximately 100,000 inhabitants. Armenians formed one-fourth of the population. As McCarthy, Arslan, Taşkiran, and Turan remind us in The Armenian Rebellion at Van, Van's historical importance was mainly due to "its position on the traditional natural highways that connected Erivan, Bitlis, Tabriz, and Mosul." The authors have teamed up to provide some missing information and assessment necessary to place the episode of Van from the 1870s to 1919 in its proper perspective and give the English-language reader an opportunity to reach a sound conclusion about the policies and motives of the Sublime Porte toward its Armenian subjects. The authors are all well-qualified specialists on the Ottoman Empire who conducted painstaking archival research and who are armed with the essential linguistic and paleographic tools. For this reason. The Armenian Rebellion at Van is most welcome.

The purpose of this book is to fill a substantive gap in the current historiography. In view of the steady flow of publications that expand the bookshelves with studies of the Armenian question, such an intention may at first seem superfluous. But with respect to the effects of the provincial Armenian revolts on the Ottoman government and on its war effort, one still finds major areas that have been incompletely investigated.

The analysis is carefully made and clearly presented. This solid and fascinating study addresses three core themes. First, following the Ottoman-Russian war of 1877 to 1878 Armenians turned their eyes to St. Petersburg, because they reckoned Russia might at any time again be in control of eastern Anatolia. An agitation was in consequence started in Van by the Armenian revolutionary committees, who had contacted their kinsmen in Russia with the object of separation from the Ottoman state. The Armenian revolutionaries rose up at Van in 1896 and 1908 with a view to attracting European intervention. Second, as is amply demonstrated, it was always Armenians Yücel Guclu is first counselor of the Turkish Embassy in Washington, DC.

who attacked first. Third, Armenians were helpful to Russians in their invasion of Van district in spring 1915. With regard to the capture of Van, McCarthy et al. emphatically state that "there is conclusive evidence that the rebels did significantly aid the Russian cause." And they elaborate: "[I]n the First World War the Armenians did exactly what was needed to aid Russian victory: holding down Ottoman units many times the size of the rebel forces, crippling military communications, forcing hundreds of thousand of refugees onto the roads to hinder army movements, and ultimately making the Ottomans abandon strategies that might have won the war in the East."

Indeed, after Russia's proclamation of war against the Ottoman Empire on 2 November 1914, Armenians began to cause much trouble behind the Ottoman lines, particularly in eastern Anatolia, where they attacked government buildings, killed gendarmes, and massacred Muslim civilians and burned their villages. They often assaulted isolated detachments and convoys. Armenian revolutionaries were helped by local Armenians. When the revolutionaries were pursued by the Ottoman gendarmes, the Armenian villages were a refuge for them. When they needed rescue, the Armenian peasants rallied around them, hiding their arms in the churches, and running to their aid. Many Armenian churches, it was later discovered, were depots of ammunition. A large number of Armenians also acted as volunteers, informers, and saboteurs for the invading Russian forces. The actuality of Armenian revolts astride the main trunk roads and railways posed a significant military problem in a real sense. These outbreaks, which occurred in numerous places, forced the army to withdraw troops from various fronts for their suppression. The Sublime Porte was therefore compelled on 24 April 1915 to decide to remove the Armenians from strategic zones where they were assisting the enemy and were attacking the civilian population. By this means they were withdrawn from the more or less effective influence of the Entente powers, and were rendered incapable of vitiating the defense of the country and of imperiling national security. The relocation decision did not precede but was the result of Armenian rebellions and subversive activities, which were brought to their climax by the revolt at Van beginning on 15 April 1915.

The investigation in The Armenian Rebellion at Van strives to cover more than four decades. The descriptive-analytical account is divided into ten chapters of unequal length, on the following topics: the ruins of Van; the city and province of Van; allegiance, politics, and power; rebellion in 1896; development of the revolution, 1897 — 1908; the Committee of Union and Progress and the Armenians, 1908-12; Kurdish revolts and the inspectorates, 1912-14; the First World War and the Armenian revolt at Van; destruction and murder in Van; and conclusion. Two-thirds of the book concentrates on the years after 1900. The conclusion is so well done that the reader wishes it were longer than nine pages. The authors treat most of their subject matter thematically rather than chronologically; this makes it easier to control, with advantages of grasping the argument in detail, but has the risk of making it harder for the reader to remember the circumstances in which any particular event was taking place. They are writing for an audience already familiar with the Ottoman Armenian history, which will need only to be reminded of the crisis, conflict, revolt, and war that were endemic throughout the period.

McCarthy et al. rely primarily on published and unpublished Ottoman, British and American archival sources. Many open and contentious questions are elucidated through fresh references from the vast archives of the Turkish General Staff Military History and Strategic Studies Directorate in Ankara. Meticulous research in the Prime Minister's Office Ottoman Archives in Istanbul has yielded a treasure trove of documentation, which the authors display to good effect. These documents were intended for internal use only, and they are more credible than Armenian publications pursuing a political agenda. As McCarthy, one of a few Western scholars to have done systematic research in the Ottoman archives, rightfully points out, the "reports of Ottoman soldiers and officials were not political documents or public relations exercises. They were secret internal reports in which responsible men relayed what they believed to be true to their governments."' Lengthy quotations from these sources form a significant part of the volume's methodological framework. French Ministry of Foreign Affairs records at Centre des Archives Diplomatiques in Nantes and documents of the Archives Nation a l s in Paris are referred to in endnotes 5 and 39 in chapters 3 and 8, respectively.

Unfortunately, the authors did not dig deeper in the French archives. Papers at Quai d'Orsay and Vincennes could have been consulted. Memoirs, autobiographies, and personal narratives of the protagonists of the period are also used — though with great caution.

The authors have mastered a wide variety of secondary literature, produced by writers on both sides of the conflict, that is discussed and evaluated in the endnotes. It is interesting to note that on the revolt at Van in 1915 the archives supplement rather than supersede the printed matter. The book gives full weight to published as well as archivalbased information.

The eleven detailed maps are clearly drawn and show only places or boundaries relevant to the chapters they illustrate. They make the reader's task significantly easier. The voluminous endnote file contains multiple archival references in different languages. Bibliographical references, both primary and secondary, provide points of departure for further investigations. The book also includes six useful appendices, nine tables, and a well-organized subject, name, and place index.

The reviewer could detect only one minor factual error in the volume. Altan Deliorman's book Tiirklere Karşi Ermeni Komitecileri is not published by Bogazici Univers-

1. Justin McCarthy, Conference on the Reality of the Armenian Question (Ankara: Turkiye Buyuk
Millet Meclisi Basimevi, 2005), 57.

itesi, but by Bogazici Yayinları. This is, however, a negligible cavil about a masterful book. The only reservation about The Armenian Rebellion at Van is that the authors do not utilize Russian archives that are accessible, and the contemporary Ottoman press and the minutes of the proceedings of the Ottoman Chamber of Deputies, which can readily be found at Istanbul. Important records are now available to foreign scholars in the Russian State Historical Military Archive at Moscow and State Historical Archive at St. Pelersburg that could potentially shed much light on the whole length and breadth of the Armenian assistance to the Russian armies invading eastern Anatolia in 1914-17.

This nonetheless does not detract from the basic value of the book, which will surely pave the way for further research of the Armenian insurgencies in other regions of the Ottoman Empire.

As Turkey negotiates to enter the European Union, this original and comprehensive piece of American-Turkish scholarship is particularly important and relevant. Historical events should always be open to discussion. Truth is discovered, not decreed. Many Armenians work tirelessly to ensure that their concept of history is the only view that is known. They show special preference toward Western writers who agree wholly with or supplement their pro-Armenian arguments, although many of these scholars did not study the Armenian question in depth or were aware of its complexity. They are very critical of those Westerners who adopt a position different from their own partisan stand or those who "abandoned" the Armenian cause. The facts of the matter are thought to be certain beyond dispute. Blind to atrocities perpetrated by Armenians, they almost always fail to examine the Turkish experience of the issue and tend to defend their positions from behind blinders that allow them to see only what they want with no regard for the larger picture. They most often give hardly any attention to the broader Ottoman context. There are two sides to every issue, and the Turkish side of the Armenian question is worth serious consideration.

Beyond its timeliness, as Andrew Mango puts it on the dust jacket, The Armenian Rebellion at Van is "a substantial contribution to Turkish-Ottoman and Armenian studies."

Undoubtedly, the authors have finely crafted a book that will stand for years to come as the standard in the field and as a monument to their skills and indefatigability both as researchers and as organizers of research projects. It therefore deserves a wide readership and should find one outside as well as within the scholarly community

Reviewed by Yücel Guclu, Mediterranean Quarterly: Summer 2007

A new book based on years of study and documents from the archives of many nations by Justin McCarthy, Esat Arslan, Cemalettin Taskiran and Omer Turan, published in 2006.Utah Series in Turkish and Islamic Studies, The Universty of Utah Press, Salt Lake City

Very few books mention the true version of the Van incidents, among them Prof. Dr. Stanford Shaw’s ‘’History of Ottoman Empire and Turkey.’’ For years, the world learned about the Van incident through the one sided books, such as ‘’An American Physician in Turkey’’ by Clarence Ussher, which was also made into a movie with the title, ‘’Ararat’’ (1). ‘’The Armenian Rebellion at Van’’ negates the false tales told in these books and movies, which is summarized in the back cover by Prof. Dr. Justin McCharty with the following statement:

‘’The Armenian Rebellion at Van’’ presents a long-overdue examination of Van from 1870s to 1919. As the authors state, ‘’The Armenian revolt was an integral part of the great disaster that overcame the people of the Ottoman East. The slaughter of Muslims that accompanied the Armenian revolt in the Van province inexorably led first to Kurdish reprisals on the Armenians, then to a general and mutual massacre of the people of the East.’’ The actions at Van offer a window into the far reaching events that soon followed in other parts of Anatolia.

The book has ten chapters, many maps of the region and appendices, including the Armenians in the Van Government, Armenian Refugees, and An Example of Attacks on Villagers. The first chapter opens with a presentation on the ruins of Van and makes reference to the visit of two Americans, Captain Emory H. Niles and Arthur E. Sutherland, Jr on July 24, 1919. Notes are provided at the end of each chapter, referencing the original documents and providing additional information on the incidents. The first note at the end of first chapter states that ‘’the report of Niles and Sutherland was deliberately suppressed by those who did not wish their account to be seen.’’ The note further states that a draft copy of this report, ‘’American Commissions to Anatolia and the Report of Niles and Sutherland is found among the detritus of the American Harbord Mission’’ (2).

The book tells the story of Armenian uprisings and revolt against their own government. The following is from the first chapter: ‘’The Armenians of Van had revolted against the Ottoman government, putting their trust in the Russians, who betrayed them. They and the Russians had driven the Muslims from the province. The Armenians were in turn had been driven out. Theirs was the final exodus. Surviving Muslims returned. Neither side, however, can truly be said to have won the war. More than half of Van’s Armenians had died, as had almost two-thirds of its Muslims.’’ Table 2.2 on Page 10 gives a figure of 509,7007 as the total population of Van province in 1912, with 313,322 as Muslims and 130,500 as Armenians.

Chapter four gives the details of the ‘’Rebellion in 1896’’, followed by the ‘’Development of Revolution, 1897 – 1908’’, all before 1915, the year that the Armenians and their supporters would like to begin, completely ignoring the events that brought about the re-location of Armenians in Eastern Anatolia. Chapter seven explains the events on ‘’Kurdish Revolt and the Inspectorates, 1912 – 1914’’ while the Ottoman government was in an impossible situation in Eastern Anatolia during the brief alliance between the Committee of Union and Progress and the Dashnaks and the military events, especially in the Balkans (3).

Chapter eight, ‘’World War I and the Armenian Revolt in Van’’ clearly shows that the incidents portrayed as Armenian self-defense was actually Armenian rebellions with the support of the Russians who had already invaded Iran in 1908, occupying northwestern Iran by 1914. Men and arms were routinely smuggled into Eastern Anatolia and Van from the Russian occupied regions for the Armenian revolutionaries.

Chapter nine describes the ‘’Destruction and Murder in Van’’, with many references to the torture, rape and murder of Muslims by the Armenian revolutionaries, without giving any details purposely, except the testimony of Ibrahim sargin (Note 1, p. 251). Note 20 (p.252) states that ‘’American missionaries Mrs. G.C. Reynolds and Clarence Ussher made some small admission of murders of Muslims’’, followed by a brief testimony of Ussher, even stating that ‘’The flaws in Ussher’s work are also an indictment of missionary reports in general.’’ On Ussher’s motives, the authors state that ‘’Ussher plays upon all prejudices of the time. According to him the Germans were responsible for the Armenian troubles; Muslims hated Christians and routinely beat and persecuted Armenians; once defeated, the Muslims would convert to Christianity.’’ This book tells otherwise.

Van rebellions, which is one of many rebellions in Eastern Anatolia, such as the Sasun-Zeytun incidents and also mentioned in the book, forced the Ottoman government to re-locate the Armenians to Syria. There is a comprehensive Bibliography (close to 150 books and articles) that includes those by Armenians as well. The book mentions that, among the organizations which made the study possible are the Istanbul Chamber of Commerce, the Istanbul Chamber of Industry, the Istanbul and Marmara, Aegean, and Mediterranean and Black Sea Chamber of Shipping. Fugen Camlidere, Melih Berk, Caitlin McCharty and Carolyn McCharty are among the individuals who aided the authors. Our thanks to everyone for making this book a reality, which should be read by everyone interested in the resolution of the Armenian issue and copies sent to every US congressmen and others.


(1) For a review of the movie ‘’Ararat’’, please see ‘’Ararat – A Propaganda Film of Imagination and Distorted History.’’

(2). For a brief description of the Harbord Mission, please see the article, ‘’Harbord Mission Documentary on TV8, 28 March 2004.’’ Although US Chairman of Joint Chiefs was sent to eastern Anatolia by president Wilson who also met with Mustafa Kemal and Kazim Karabekir, and issued a Report but not presented to the US Congress.

(3) There has been a surge of articles on the activities of the Kurdish tribes during those years, latest in 15 – 21 February issue of Nokta magazine, ‘’Nokta Tartismaya Aciyor - 1915 Felaketinde Kurtlerin Rolu ’Nokta Opens for Debate – The Role of Kurds During the Catastrophe of 1915.’’

Reviewed by Yuksel Oktay, PE
19 February 2007


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