05 May 2012

3349) Clearing Some Misconceptions About the Armenian Issue

Maxime Gauin,
JTW Columnist,
5 May 2012

The Armenian question comes onto the agenda every year, at the end of April of course, and also during crises like that of the recent liberticidal bill in France—the bill which was eventually suppressed by the Constitutional Council in the name of freedom of speech. In looking for a better approach, it is important to avoid confusion, some of which this article analyzes.
. . .

At first, the trials of 1919-1920 are supposed to have firmly established the “criminal designs” of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) government vis-à-vis the Armenian population. The Entente libérale (Hürriyet ve İtilaf or Liberal Union), which was recreated by the instigations of the British Embassy in 1910-1911thanks to Greek and British money, came back to power in 1919 during the occupation of İstanbul due to British pressure, and was even infiltrated by the British intelligence service, according to the French officers in Turkey. The party was an archenemy of the CUP and wanted to reject all the possible blame on the CUP’s leaders, both due to personal hatred and because of an illusory hope to obtain a better peace treaty for the Ottomans. For the trial of the ministers, even Oskan Mardikian, a former minister (CUP) of post and telegraph, was indicted.

The Liberal Union sent the former CUP ministers in front of a martial court. It was legally wrong, since the Constitution of 1876, suspended in 1878 and restored in 1908 by the Young Turk Revolution, ordered that members of the government be judged for committed acts only by a special tribunal, the High Court. An unconstitutional procedure was chosen by the Liberal Union to sue former CUP ministers and their ex-collaborators, because according to the military justice of that time, the indicted persons were not allowed to be assisted by a lawyer during the investigation and did not have the right of cross-examination during the trial. Even in the Moscow trials organized by Lenin’s regime in 1922, or more recently in Guantanamo, the right of cross-examination was allowed to the defendants. After a short interruption, Damat Ferit Paşa, installed as Grand Vizier by the British, came back to power in İstanbul in April 1920. One of the first decisions of Damat Ferit was to ban the CUP defendants from hiring a lawyer, removing any right of defense.

After the forced resignation of Damat Ferit (October 1920), the right to appeal the decisions was eventually accorded to those whom sentences had been given after April 23, 1920. All the persons who had this right appealed, and all were acquitted of all (or most) charges by the appeal court. The others’ trials were ended in practice on March 28, 1922 by the last Ottoman government, which after an administrative investigation acknowledged many shortcomings in the conduct of these trials. Nemrut Mustafa Paşa, president of one of the main first instance courts, was himself sentenced for corruption in December 1920, a few weeks after having given a severe and controversial verdict.

All the original material of these tribunals—proceedings and “documents”—is lost, despite İstanbul having been retaken without a fight by the Kemalists, which left all the necessary time for Armenian and Greek activists to save, if needed, the material. All what remains are partial accounts in the İstanbul newspapers of 1919-1920, and these accounts contradict each other on some important points. Better translations would at least slightly improve the trust which can be placed in this material. For example, Taner Akçam changed the sense of the verdict for the case of the Bayburt events. The verdict mentions an order, coming from Erzurum, of a general expulsion of the Armenians of the region; Mr. Akçam asserts that there was an order coming from İstanbul for the annihilation of the Armenians, changing “not to leave any Armenian” into “not to leave any Armenian alive.”

Vahakn N. Dadrian and Taner Akçam took similar liberties with the little basis upon which they allege that the Special Organization (SO) was involved in the Armenian relocation and the killings of some of the relocated Armenians. The record does not substantiate these accusations, quite the contrary, as demonstrated by Guenter Lewy, Edward J. Erickson and Erman Şahin. In particular, the archives (reports, mission orders) of the most frequently accused unit of the SO definitely demonstrate that this unit was on the Caucasian front, instead of relocations paths, during the years 1915 and 1916.

In addition to these general errors of appreciation regarding the “evidence” for the “genocide” allegation, there are some misconceptions which are more specific to Turkey. Some Islamic conservatives apparently consider the Armenian issue a tool to take revenge against the secularists, considering that the Young Turks paved the way for Turkey’s secularization. Needless to say, it is ethically wrong to misuse history for political purposes. But such reasoning forgets the fundamentally anti-Muslim stance of the mainstream of those advocating the “Armenian genocide” allegation. The Anglo-Saxon, Armenian and Greek propaganda of WWI largely stressed “Muslim fanaticism” as the main cause of the “extermination” of the Ottoman Armenians. More recently, Vahakn N. Dadrian presented Islam as the main cause of the “Armenian genocide.” Even in Taner Akçam’s work, there are some traces of such an absurd thesis.

Another kind of shortcoming is to believe that the strident reactions from the Armenian diaspora, and from Armenia itself, are the expression of suffering and that a certain “recognition” (the spectrum of hypothesis for such a “recognition” is rather large) is the main solution to the Armenian issue. In fact, most of the virulent Armenian speeches come from old extremistorganizations—namely the revolutionary parties created at the end of 19th century—which hated the Turks before 1915 and will continue to hate them, whatever their position may be. The mere existence of such organizations, and thus the material interest of their leadership, depends on the pursuit of the Armenian-Turkish conflict.

On the opposite side of Turkey’s politics, the most common error is to label the events of 1915 a “civil war.”The bloody Armenian insurrections of Van, Zeytun, Urfa and some other cities, followed by a harsh repression, can be called “civil war” events, but the whole Turko-Armenian tragedy cannot be reduced to that. Nor can the relocated, mostly unarmed (or disarmed) Armenians deceased due to various reasons (assassinations, famine, epidemics) or the unarmed Muslim civilians killed by Armenian volunteers during the Russian retreat of 1917-1918 be appropriately called victims of a civil war.
In conclusion, the Armenian question must be understood in its complexity, which means improving both the level of knowledge of Turkish opinion and Western opinion. In both cases, the translations and diffusion of scholarly work are crucial.

*Maxime Gauin is a researcher at the International Strategic Research Organization (USAK) and a Ph.D. candidate at the Middle East Technical University Department of History.



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