The Armenian Genocide as a Case for Preventing Self-Determination

Ragip Zarakolu


The official attitude on the Armenian Genocide and the systematic practice of ethnic cleansing in Anatolia has reached a new stage with the recent statement by Vecdi Gonul, the former Turkish minister of national defense, to the effect that had these tragic events not occurred, the present-day Republic of Turkey could not have come into being. Repulsive as these words may be, we have to admit that they are much more honest than pure “denial,” and imply “admission” of what has happened.

However, that these tragedies should be presented as necessary, even indispensible, for the “building of a nation-state,” accompanied by a “take it or leave it” kind of challenge, also comprises an implicit element of “threat”: “We’ve done it before, so you’d better watch out or we’ll do it again!”

Were this “admission” to have been complemented with an apology, as Ahmet Insel writes in the newspaper Radikal, it could have provided a positive opening.

“Today, it is incumbent upon the Turkish state to extend an apology,” he writes. “We who continue to live on this territory owe it as an act of humanity to the Armenians [and to others-RZ] to apologize for what has happened (“An Apology Is Now a Must,” Radikal Iki, Nov. 16, 2008, p. 1).

In this context, I would like to draw attention to two books recently published, both of which facilitate the study and comprehension of the Armenian Genocide, one of the most tragic events in human history, relating to the national question and the exercise of the right to self-determination: Vahakn N. Dadrian’s magnum opus The History of the Armenian Genocide: Ethnic Conflict from the Balkans to Anatolia to the Caucasus (published in Turkish under the title Ermeni Soykirimi Tarihi/Balkanlardan Anadolu ve Kafkasya’ya Etnik Catisma by Belge Uluslararasi Yayincilik in 2008) and The Turks and Us by Shahan Natalie, famous for “Operation Nemesis” (the book was published in Turkish under the title Biz Ermeniler ve Turkler by Peri Yayinlari, again in 2008). These books provide an opportunity to understand not 1915 alone, but the period before and after as well. Shahan Natalie’s observation, “the Turks succeeded in building a nation” is interesting, provided one pose the question, “at what cost?”

In studying the Armenian tragedy of 1915, it would be useful, if one wishes to understand the question better, to look at the question from the perspective of “nation building,” “self-determination,” and the fundamental articles of the Genocide Convention.

The “Armenian Question” is one of the most significant instances of the method of leaving a problem to rot rather than solving it. In a certain sense, it is one of the last in a long line of problems created by the two-century-long dissolution of the Ottoman Empire.

While the Balkan peoples stepped into the process of nation formation earlier, that is, from the early 19th century onwards, partly under the influence of the French revolution, this process came on the order of the day much later for the Armenian people and the Turks themselves. However, in the latter case, the success of one, in a way, was achieved at the expense of the disappearance of the other.

Thus while the Armenian process of nation formation started earlier relative to that of the Turks, it was a belated process when compared with the Greeks, the Serbs, and the Bulgarians. On the other hand, an important difficulty derived from the fact that the Armenian people were torn between two despotic empires. This division had its impact all the way down to language. The Armenian language was to develop in two different branches, as Western and Eastern Armenian.

The model that was in front of Armenian nation building was that in the Balkans, which was, in effect, to serve as a model for Turkish nation building, as well. Hence, the tragic character of the relations between the peoples of the Balkans would reach an apogee in Anatolian territory and an ancient autochthonous people would be nearly wrested forcibly from its living spaces and be subjected to purge. This purge would not remain limited to ethnic cleansing, but would come to include all cultural space.

The result desired was to prove that the Armenian people never lived on this territory.

This, of course, forms a typical case of genocide cum ethnic cleansing.

In the wake of the 1908 revolution, an attempt at a democratic revolution that nonetheless was going to stop halfway, the political leaders and the organizations of the Armenian people opted for “coexistence.” They established political alliances with Ottoman parties and ran in elections on common lists. However, the fragility of projects for a common future in the Ottoman political arena and the impossibility of making these a reality summoned once again the old problems.

The efforts of Balkan socialists such as Benaroya to bring models such as a “federation” on the order of the day so as to pave the way to a common future and the defense of the idea of “decentralization” (i.e., autonomy by certain groups) unfortunately did not create a great echo in the country. This was the period of nation building, of building unitary states whatever the cost may be. Some Armenian intellectuals adopted a friendly attitude to the approach of the Turk Ocaklari (the Turkish Hearths) aiming at nation building. The great musician Gomidas tried, for instance, to extend support in these milieux to the search for a national identity through music, for they believed that separate identities could coexist. Up until that accursed year of 1914. Yet in a multinational empire where geographic cohabitation was the rule, the formation of a unitary national state could only be predicated upon campaigns of ethnic cleansing. And for the defense of the right to self-determination and separation, one had to have a certain proportion within the population, a majority.

The Russo-Ottoman and the Balkan wars resulted in waves of forcible migration both from the Caucasus and the Balkans into Anatolia. The newly formed Balkan states, in particular, were based on policies of strengthening the national fabric by forcing the “others” to migration, through policies of massacre and violence, and by assimilating the remaining populations.

In Macedonia, no ethnic group had a decisive plurality. This was a region coveted by three different nation states, the Serb, the Bulgarian, and the Greek. The fact that the different ethnicities each formed their own partisan group led to strife not only between the Ottoman state and these groups, but also between themselves. In the end, Macedonia came to be partitioned between these three states and every group drove the others out, melting the remaining population in the national crucible.

The utter lack of law and order in the Balkans forced the Ottomans to accept European powers to assume the role of gendarmes on the peninsula. A similar situation of lawlessness was to be seen in eastern Anatolia from the point of view of Armenians.

In 1914, the Ottoman government acquiesced under the pressure of the Great Powers, and in particular Russia, to start a reform program similar to that implemented in Macedonia in eastern Anatolia, which was densely populated by the Armenians. This created panic in the Ottoman government that even Anatolia was being lost. On the other hand, there was need for space for the great wave of migration from the Balkans.

The country was ravaged by an economic crisis as a result of the Balkan wars and the government was bankrupt. For its part, the great Ottoman Army, which had recently been modernized, had suffered humiliating defeat at the hands of the newly formed Balkan states, which had taken aback even the West. The fact that the Albanians, one of the most loyal subjects of the sultan, had, for the first time, overcome their religious division to rise in revolt, had given these small states the possibility of joining forces and the courage to make a move.

The Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) entrusted the task of reorganizing the devastated Ottoman Army to the Germans, and by starting a ruthless policy of violence in the military tried to establish a discipline akin to Prussian methods.

The Arabs, following in the footsteps of the Albanians, also started to vociferously put forth their demands. The Kurds, for their part, insisted in remaining loyal to the caliphate.

The CUP found the way out of this mesh of problems in entering World War I under the command of German militarism. It is a fact that Armenian leaders tried to talk the CUP leaders out of this orientation simply because this was bound to put the Armenian people in a difficult situation. In the meantime, the CUP leaders suspended the Armenian reform using the excuse of the war effort. The Armenians, so the argument went, could force the Muslim population to emigrate and could then impose the right to self-determination.

On the other hand, significant forces of the Ottoman Army were decimated under harsh winter conditions on the Allahuekber Mountains as a result of a campaign under the command of none other than Enver Pasha himself. The only method to prevent the formation of an Armenian state was to cleanse this people from its historic territory. This meant the deportation of an entire people, including women, the elderly, and children, who were to be put on an exile journey headed towards the Syrian desert. The excuse provided for this forced exile was “Armenian revolutionaries”; in other words, it was the “revolutionaries” who were held responsible for what happened to their own people. It is of interest to note that the official explanation provided for the entire world in 1916 has to this very day formed the overall substance of how Turkey defends itself.

It is, of course, true that some Armenian organizations had their partisan groups, and these did stage actions. But, contrary to what the official view has claimed to this day, this can never legitimize the wholesale annihilation of civilians. Today, even insurgent forces, let alone civilians, have rights and a status within the framework of the Geneva Conventions on war.

On the other hand, we know of the existence of Armenian soldiers and officers who served in the Ottoman Army up to the end of the war or died in Gallipoli or the Allahuekber Mountains. So much so that, on his return to Istanbul after the debacle, Enver Pasha published a statement praising the heroism of Armenian soldiers.

The accusation leveled at an entire people for “treason” on the basis of the actions of certain groups and the forcible deportation of this people in a manner that would necessarily destroy it cannot be understood without the logic of ethnic cleansing that lies behind them.

To cite a simple example, using PKK actions as an excuse, the entire Kurdish population has not been subjected to a kind of deportation that would leave only a handful of survivors. Even this simple example shows that holding Armenian revolutionaries responsible for the 1915 deportation is hardly convincing.

Nation building is the process that creates the highest number of victims in this world. It is also the creation of a single identity in a melting pot, a fictional thing. Benedict Anderson analyzes nation-building processes particularly in the post-World War II context and the prices paid. The suffering, the exile, and the massacres experienced during the formation of the nation-states of the Balkans are testimony to this. In a certain sense, it was the Armenian people that paid dearly the cost of this whole process in the Balkans.

On the basis of a mechanical outlook on history, the leaders of Turkey thought that the process in the Balkans was going to be followed by Armenian nation building. Those in charge had come to terms with the prospect of casualties and massacres, but no one imagined that this was going to turn into a genocide.

The CUP leaders wished to rule out the possibility of the establishment of Armenia in case the Ottoman state lost the war. But how could a people that had been physically decimated found a state?

On the other hand, Armenia was seen as a “nuisance” in the midst of the coveted empire called Turan. The Sevres Peace Treaty signed after the war stipulated a greater Armenia alongside a small Kurdistan.

But how to establish a state without a people? This indeed was the real reason the Sevres Treaty was stillborn.

Hence, the CUP method of solving the Armenian Question was, within the confines of its own logic, successful. And it also paved the way for the foundation of the Turkish nation-state. To an ambassador who was still talking about the Armenian Question in 1916, Talat Pasha’s answer was “no longer does there exist such a question” (Cf. Taner Akcam, Ermeni Meselesi Hallolunmustur, Iletisim Yayinlari, 2008). One wonders whether this was a method based on intuition against the right to self-determination, or if the lessons of the Balkans and the massacres practiced by German imperialism in West Africa served as a model.

From the military point of view, the Armenian Deportation can only be characterized as an “excellent” operation. When you look at the maps displaying the routes of forcible migration, you can sense the contribution of Prussian militarism in the preparation of these plans. Given their debacle in the Balkans, it seems hardly credible that the CUP adventurers would be able to execute such an operation all on their own.

One really wonders to what extent the experience of the atrocities perpetrated by the German colonial army in West Africa had its impact on all this. Is it pure coincidence that many German officers who were commanders in the Ottoman Army later took part in the early organization drive of fascism in Germany and participated in the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch of Hitler? The German military could have stopped the deportation, had they so willed. On the contrary, in the military operations in Zeytun, Urfa, and Van, where the Armenians put up a partial resistance, German soldiers actively participated, let alone prevented what was happening.

But the depopulation of this territory was in line with the wishes of many colonial powers. The German right wanted Anatolia to be opened up for German settlement in the future (Cf. Lothar Rathmann, Alman Emperyalizminin Turkiye’ye Girisi, trans. Ragip Zarakolu, 2nd ed., Belge Yayinlari, 1992).

For its part, when in 1916 the Russian tsar took hold of eastern Anatolia, he decided to settle Cossacks in the region to replace surviving Armenians, which of course created great consternation among Armenian intellectuals.

Had there been no Soviet Revolution, Armenia would not have come into existence. Just as it would have been very difficult for a state like Turkey to come into being. It is not the slightest irony of history that it was the same revolution of 1917 and the new international balance of forces that it brought in its wake that made it possible for these two states, which do not recognize each other officially, to exist.

To sum up, if you look into the UN Genocide Convention, you are bound to see that all the fundamental elements find their place in the Armenian case. The policies of the CUP, on the other hand, were reminiscent of those of a proto-fascist party. In other words, this was a case of fascism avant la lettre. Precisely in the same way as the de facto occurrence of genocide in 1915, even before the concept “genocide” itself had come into circulation.

The end result is that the Anatolian region has lost its Armenian sons and daughters. The ethnic cleansing operation later reached out towards the eradication of historic buildings and even cemeteries. How could a people that did not exist, that even left no trace behind it, reclaim its rights?

In the final analysis, the material basis for the exercise of the right to self-determination for the Armenian people was destroyed. It was not for nothing that Hitler, on the eve of the attack on Poland in 1939, asked at a meeting the question, “Who remembers the Armenian people nowadays?” (Cf. Kevork Bardakciyan, Hitler ve Ermeni Soykirimi, editor: Ragip Zarakolu, Istanbul, 2006).

Translated from Turkish by Sungur Savran.

Ragip Zarakolu is the longtime director of the Belge Publishing House, which for more than three decades has challenged publishing taboos on subjects such as the Armenian Genocide and minority rights in Turkey. Zarakolu is also chair of the Freedom to Publish Committee of the Turkish Publishers Association, and a member of the Turkish PEN Center.


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  1. Hajo said:

    So the right thing to do would be to force Sevre, even if that would result in a new country with 0 population. Otherwise it boils down to this: kill an entire people and get rewarded. Oh wait, that is actually true: nice going Turkey, nice going Germany and thank you very much to the shameless sponsors. By the way, Russia-fans: all made possible only because the Soviet Union was enough of a threat to spawn new allies. So in a way your unrewarded loyalty is misplaced here.

  2. albert said:

    I think that Armenia should do a land switch with Abkazia. They could change the name of Akbhazia to the Northern Republic of Armenia. This would benefit both sides.

  3. albert said:

    The Northern Republic of Armenia would then have access to the Black sea allowing for economic development.

    • Fred said:

      If you go far enough back in history. Georgia was once part of Armenia. I think the time has come to look into joining back up again

    • Fred said:

      Mind you the georgians would have to be dragged into the aliance kicking and screeming