Articles in Turkish media

By Justin McCarthy, University of Louisville in Kentucky

April 11, 2001

Part I: Nationalists who use history have different goals. They use events from the past as weapons in their nations' battles. They have a purpose -- to triumph for their cause, and they will use anything to succeed in this goal. Like other men and women, historians have political goals and ideologies, but a true historian acknowledges his error when the facts do not support his belief. The nationalist apologist never does so. The Armenian issue has long been plagued with nationalist studies. This has led to an inconsistent history that ignores the time-tested principles of historical research. Yet when the histories of Turks and Armenians are approached with the normal tools a logical and consistent account results.

Throughout the recent debate on the Armenian genocide question, one statement has characterized those who object to politicians' attempts to write history, "Let the Historians decide". Few of us have specified who we are referring to in that statement. It is now time to do so.

There is a vast difference between history written to defend one-sided nationalist convictions and real accounts of history. History intends to find that the truth is illusive. Historians know they have prejudices that can affect their judgment. They know they never have all the facts. Yet they always try to find the truth, whatever that may be.

Nationalists who use history have a different set of goals. They use events from the past as weapons in their own nation's battles. They have a purpose -- the triumph of their cause -- and they will use anything to succeed in this goal. While a historian tries to collect all the relevant facts and put them together as a coherent picture, the nationalist selects those pieces of history that fit his purpose' ignoring the others.

Like other men and women, historians have political goals and ideologies, but a true historian acknowledges his errors when the facts do not support his belief. The nationalist apologist never does so. If the facts do not fit his theories the nationalist ignores those facts and looks for other ways to make his case. True historians can make intellectual mistakes. Nationalist apologists commit intellectual crimes.

The Armenian issue has long been plagued with nationalist studies. This has led to an inconsistent history that ignores the time-tested principles of historical research. Yet when the histories of Turks and Armenians are approached with the normal tools of history a logical and consistent account results. "Let the historians decide"; is a call for historical study like any other historical study, one that looks at all the facts, studies all the opinions, applies historical principles and comes to logical conclusions.

Historians first ask the most basic question: "Was there an Armenia?" Was there a region within the Ottoman Empire where Armenians were a compact majority that might rightfully demand their own state?

To find the answer, historians look to government statistics for population figures, especially to archival statistics, because governments seldom deliberately lie to themselves. They want to know their populations so they can understand them, watch them, conscript them, and, most importantly to a government, tax them. The Ottomans were no different than any other government in this situation. Like other governments they made mistakes, particularly in under-counting women and children. However, this can be corrected using statistical methods. What results is the most accurate possible picture of the number of Ottoman Armenians. By the beginning of World War I Armenians made up only 17 percent of the area they claimed as "Ottoman Armenia" the so called "Six Vilayets"

Judging by population figures, there was no Ottoman Armenia. In fact if all the Armenians in the world had come to Eastern Anatolia, they still would not have been a majority there.

Two inferences can be drawn from the relatively small number of Armenians in the Ottoman East: The first is that by themselves, the Armenians of Anatolia would have been no great threat to the Ottoman Empire. Armenian rebels might have disputed civil order but there were too few of them to endanger Ottoman authority. Armenian rebels needed help from outside forces, help that could only be provided by Russia. The second inference is that Armenian nationalists could have created a state that was truly theirs only if they first evicted the Muslims who lived there.

To understand the history of the development of Muslim-Armenian antagonism one must apply historical principles. In applying those principles one can see that the history of Armenians was a history like other histories. Some of that history was naturally unique because of its environment but much of it was strikingly similar to what was seen in other places and times.


  1. Most ethnic conflicts develop over a long period. Germans and Poles, Finns and Russians, Hindus and Muslims in the Indian subcontinent, Irish and English, Europeans and Native Americans in North America -- all of these ethnic conflicts unfolded over generations, often over centuries.
  2. Until very modern times most mass mortality of ethnic groups was the result of warfare in which there were at least two warring sides.
  3. When conflict erupted between nationalist revolutionaries and states it was the revolutionaries who began confrontations. Internal peace was in the interest of settled states. Looked at charitably, states often wished for tranquility for the benefits it gave their citizens. With less charity it can be seen that peace made it easier to collect taxes and use armies to fight foreign enemies, not internal foes. World history demonstrates this too well for examples from other regions to be needed here. In the Ottoman Empire, the examples of the rebellions in Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria demonstrate the truth of this.

On these principles, the histories of Turks and Armenians are no different from other histories. Historical principles applied.

The conflict between Turks and Armenians did indeed develop over a long time. The primary impetus for what was to become the Armenian-Muslim conflict lay in Russian imperial expansion. At the time of Ivan the Terrible, circa the sixteenth century, Russians began a policy of expelling Muslims from lands they had conquered. Over the next three hundred years, Muslims, many of them Turks, were killed or driven out of what today is Ukraine, Crimea and the Caucasus. From the 1770s to the 1850s Russian attacks and Russian laws forced more than 400,000 Crimean Tatars to flee their land. In the Caucasus region, 1.2 million Circassians and Abazians were either expelled or killed by Russians. Of that number, one third died as victims of the mass murder of Muslims that has been mostly ignored. The Tatars, Circassians and Abazians came to the Ottoman Empire. Their presence taught Ottoman Muslims what they could expect from a Russian conquest.

Members of the Armenian minority in the Caucasus began to rebel against Muslim rule and to ally themselves with Russian invaders in the 1790s: Armenian armed units joined the Russians, Armenian spies delivered plans to the Russians. In these wars, Muslims were massacred and forced into exile. Armenians in turn migrated into areas previously held by Muslims, such as Karabakh. This was the beginning of the division of the peoples of the southern Caucasus and eastern Anatolia into two conflicting sides -- the Russian Empire and Armenians on one side, the Muslim Ottoman Empire on the other. Most Armenians and Muslims undoubtedly wanted nothing to do with this conflict, but the events were to force them to take sides.

The 1827 to 1829 wars between Russians, Persians and Ottomans saw the beginning of a great population exchange in the East that was to last until 1920. When the Russians conquered the Erivan Khanete, today the Armenian Republic, the majority of its population was Muslim. Approximately two thirds, 60,000 of these Muslims were forced out of Erivan by Russians. The Russians went on to invade Anatolia, where large numbers of Armenians took up the Russian cause. At the war's end, when the Russians left eastern Anatolia 50 to 90,000 Armenians joined them. They took the place of the exiled Muslims in Erivan and else where, joined by 40,000 Armenians from Iran.

The great population exchange had begun, and mutual distrust between Anatolia's Muslims and the Armenians was the result. The Russians were to invade Anatolia twice more in the nineteenth century, during the Crimean War and the 1877-78 Russo-Turkish War. In both wars significant numbers of Armenians joined the Russians acting as spies and even occupation police.

In Erzurum, for example, British consular officials reported that the Armenian police chief appointed by the Russians and his Armenian force "molested, illtreated, and insulted the Mohammadan population" and that 6,000 Muslim families had been forced to flee the city. When the Russians left part of their conquest at least 25,000 Armenians joined them, fearing the vengeance of the Muslims. The largest migration though was the forced flight of 70,000 Muslims, mainly Turks, from the lands conquered by the Russians and the exodus of Laz in 1882.

By 1900, approximately 1,400,000 Turkish and Caucasian Muslims had been forced out by Russians. One third of those had died, either murdered or victims of starvation and disease. Between 125,000 and 150,000 Armenians emigrated from Ottoman Anatolia to Erivan and other parts of the Russian southern Caucasus.

This was the toll of Russian imperialism. Not only had one-and-a-half million people been exiled or killed, but ethnic peace had been destroyed.

The Muslims had been taught that their neighbors, the Armenians, with whom they had lived for more than 700 years, might once again become their enemies when the Russians next advanced. The Russians had created the two sides that history teaches were to be expected in conflict and mass murder.

The actions of Armenian rebels exacerbated the growing division and mutual fear between Muslims and Armenians of the Ottoman East.

The main Armenian revolutionary organizations were founded in the 1880s and 1890s in the Russian Empire. They were socialist and nationalist in ideology. Terrorism was their weapon of choice. Revolutionaries openly stated that their plan was the same as that which had worked well against the Ottoman Empire in Bulgaria. In Bulgaria rebels had first massacred innocent Muslim villagers. The Ottoman government, occupied with a war against Serbs in Bosnia, depended on the local Turks to defeat the rebels, which they did, but with great losses of life. European newspapers reported Bulgarians deaths, but never Muslim deaths. Europeans did not consider that the deaths were a result of the rebellion, nor the Turk's intention. The Russians invaded ostensibly to save the Christians. The result was the death of 260,000 Turks, 17 percent of the Muslim population of Bulgaria, and the expulsion of a further 34 percent of Turks. The Armenian rebels expected to follow the same plan.

The Armenian rebellion began with the organization of guerrilla bands made up of Armenians from both the Russian and Ottoman lands. Arms were smuggled in. Guerrillas assassinated Ottoman officials, attacked Muslim villages, and used bombs, the nineteenth century's terrorist's standard weapon. By 1894 the rebels were ready for open revolution. Revolts broke out in Samsun, Zeytun, Van and elsewhere in 1894 and 1895. As in Bulgaria they began with the murder of innocent civilians. The leader of the Zeytun rebellion said his forces had killed 20,000 Muslims. As in Bulgaria the Muslims retaliated. In Van for example 400 Muslims and 1,700 Armenians died. Further rebellions followed. In Adana in 1909 the Armenian revolt turned out very badly for both the rebels and the innocent when the government lost control and 17,000 to 20,000 died, mostly Armenians. Throughout the revolts and especially in 1894 and 1897 the Armenians deliberately attacked Kurdish tribesmen, knowing that it was from them that great vengeance was not that likely to be expected. Pitched battles between Kurds and Armenians resulted.

But it all went wrong for the Armenian rebels. They had followed the Bulgarian plan, killing Muslims and initiating revenge attacks on Armenians. Their own people had suffered most. Yet the Russians and Europeans they depended upon did not intervene. European politics and internal problems stayed the Russian hand.

What were the Armenian rebels trying to create? When Serbs and Bulgarians rebelled against the Ottoman Empire they claimed lands where the majorities were Serbs or Bulgarians. They expelled Turks and other Muslims from their lands, but these Muslims had not been a majority. This was not true for the Armenians. The lands they covered were overwhelmingly Muslim in population. The only way they could create an Armenia was to expel the Muslims. Knowing this history is essential to understanding what was to come during World War I. There had been a long historical period in which two conflicting sides developed.

Russian imperialists and Armenian revolutionaries had begun a struggle that was in no way wanted by the Ottomans. Yet the Ottomans were forced to oppose the plans of both Russians and Armenians, if only to defend the majority of their subjects. History taught the Ottomans that if the Armenians triumphed not only would territory be lost, but mass expulsions and deaths would be the fate of the Muslim majority. This was the one absolutely necessary goal of the Armenian rebellion.

The preview to what was to come in the Great War came in the Russian Revolution of 1905. Harried all over the Empire, the Russians encouraged ethnic conflict in Azerbaijan, fomenting an inter-communal war. Azeri Turks and Armenians battled each other when they should have attacked the Empire that ruled over both. Both Turks and Armenians learned the bitter lesson that the other was the enemy, even though most of them wanted nothing of war and bloodshed. The sides were drawn.

In late 1914, inter-communal conflict began in the Ottoman East with the Armenian rebellion. Anatolian Armenians went to the Russian South Caucasus for training, approximately 8,000 in Kagizman, 6,000 in Igdir and others elsewhere. They returned to join local rebels and revolts erupted all over the East. The Ottoman Government estimated 30,000 rebels in Sivas Vilayeti alone, probably an exaggeration but indicative of the scope of the rebellion. Military objectives were the first to be attacked.

Telegraph lines were cut. Roads through strategic mountain passes were seized. The rebels attacked Ottoman officials, particularly recruiting officers, throughout the East. Outlying Muslim villages were assaulted and the first massacring of Muslims began. The rebels attempted to take cities such as Zeytun, Mus, Sebin Karahisar and Urfa. Ottoman armed forces which were needed at the front were instead forced to defend the interior.

The most successful rebel action was in the city of Van. In March 1915 they seized the city from a weak Ottoman garrison and proceeded to kill all the Muslims who could not escape. Some 3,000 Kurdish villagers from the surrounding region were herded together into the great natural bowl of Zeve, outside the city of Van, and slaughtered. Kurdish tribes in turn took their revenge on any Armenian villagers they found.