[Originally published in Turkish Daily News]
An oft-repeated quote from Adolf Hitler is the words he uttered to silence the internal resistance to his Final Solution. “But after all,” the Nazi leader asked, “Who remembers the Armenians?”
Of course, history proved Hitler wrong. His evil plan for exterminating the Jews – along with Slavs, Gypsies or the German disabled – could not ultimately triumph; moreover the world remembers his crimes with a justified abhorrence. And nowadays we are repeatedly told to prove him wrong once more by remembering the perished Armenians whom he assumed to be forgotten.
I think we – and this “we” includes the Turks – should indeed remember and honor the memory of the hundreds of thousands of Armenians who lost their lives during the tragic events of 1915. Certainly we should share the pain that their descendents feel today. But we should also remember the other side of the story, which includes the enormous suffering that the Muslim population of the Ottoman Empire went through.
Death and Exile
In his 1996 book, “Death and Exile: The Ethnic Cleansing of Ottoman Muslims: 1821-1922,” historian Justin McCarthy wrote much about that oft-neglected side. He revealed that in the course of the century between the Greek war of independence and World War I, the Ottoman Empire suffered 5.5 million dead and 5 million refugees, a fact he deems Europe’s largest loss of life and emigration since the Thirty Years’ War.
The losses among the Ottoman Muslims included those that perished in the Russian onslaught of the early stages of World War I, an attack accompanied by ethnic cleansing on the part of Armenian nationalist militias aligned with the invaders. During this Armenian revolt, which preceded the alleged Armenian genocide, horrible atrocities took place. For example, according to McCarthy:
“Everything Islamic in Van was destroyed. With the exception of three antique buildings, all the mosques were burned or torn down. The entire Muslim quarter was destroyed. When the Armenian work and the battle between Ottomans and Armenians were finished, Van more resembled an ancient ruin than a city… When the Armenians attacked Muslims’ own villages or nearby villages, Muslims fled with whatever moveable property they could carry. On the road, Armenian bands first robbed them, then raped many of the women and killed many of the men. Usually, but not always, a number of women and young children were killed as well… After the Armenian retreat, much of eastern Anatolia was a graveyard.” (p. 189, 202)
The Ottoman decision to deport the Armenians from the East came after such events and, unfortunately, while on the road the expelled Armenian population faced a horrible vengeance from the local Muslim population and some local officials.
What McCarthy’s book does is to reveal this crucial context of 1915. According to Daniel Pipes, another historian and an expert on the Middle East, McCarthy “puts into perspective the deportation of Armenians in 1915 and turns this from an act of hatred into one motivated by fear – had the Armenians, with Russian support, rebelled, Ottoman Muslims could have expected to be slaughtered.”
Not a Holocaust
All of which means that the Armenian tragedy of 1915 was not something comparable to the real Holocaust. During the latter the Nazis exterminated 6 million Jews simply out of an unprovoked, sadistic hatred of the Semitic race. Whereas, in the words of Bernard Lewis, a most authoritative commentator on the Middle East, “The suffering of the Armenians was limited both in time and space to the Ottoman Empire and, even there, only to the last two decades of Ottoman history. More important, it was a struggle, however unequal, about real issues; it was never associated with either the demonic beliefs or the almost physical hatred which inspired and directed anti-Semitism in Europe and sometimes elsewhere.” (“Semites and Anti-Semites” 1998, p. 21)
Moreover, a detailed examination of the events shows that the intent of the Ottoman government was indeed to transport, not to exterminate, the Armenians. According to historian Gunther Lewy, “The documentary evidence suggests that the Ottoman government wanted to arrange an orderly process of deportation – even a relatively humane one, to gauge by the many decrees commanding protection and compassionate treatment of the deportees.” Lewy adds:
“Many observers on the scene, indeed, saw the tragedy in this light, constantly citing the incompetence and inefficiency of the Ottoman bureaucracy. ‘The lack of proper transportation facilities,’ wrote the American consul in Mersina in September 1915, ‘is the most important factor in causing the misery.’ The German consul in Aleppo told his ambassador around the same time that the majority of Armenian exiles were starving to death because the Turks were ‘incapable of solving the organizational task of mass feeding.’ A lengthy memorandum on the Armenian question drawn up in 1916 by Alexander von Hoesch, an official in the German Embassy in Turkey, pointed to a basic lack of accountability: some local officials had sought to alleviate the hardships of the exiles, but others were extremely hostile to the Armenians and, in defiance of Constantinople, had abandoned them to the violence of Kurds or Circassians.” (“The First Genocide of the 20th Century?” from Commentary, December 2005)
In other words, there are justified reasons for Turkey to argue that the events of 1915 do not amount to “genocide.” Some Turks might be saying this simply out of nationalist zeal and bias, but it is no secret that some proponents of the “genocide” are not without an equal and opposite zeal and bias.
Yet still, I believe that we Turks have a task to prove Hitler wrong. We should indeed remember the perished Armenians, along with our own losses. What killed both of those peoples, after all, was not Turkishness or “Armenianness” per se, but ethnic nationalism. That is the enemy which traumatized these lands in 1915 and which still haunts us today.