by Efraim Karsh
It is commonplace among Middle East scholars across the political spectrum to idealize the Ottoman colonial legacy as a shining example of tolerance. “The multi-ethnic Ottoman Turkish Empire,” wrote American journalist Robert Kaplan, “was more hospitable to minorities than the uni-ethnic democratic states that immediately succeeded it … Violent discussions over what group got to control which territory emerged only when the empire came to an end, after World War I.”…
…While there is no denying the argument’s widespread appeal, there is also no way around the fact that, in almost every particular, it is demonstratively wrong. The imperial notion, by its very definition, posits the domination of one ethnic, religious, or national group over another, and the Ottoman Empire was no exception. It tolerated the existence of vast non-Muslim subject populations in its midst, as did earlier Muslim (and non-Muslim) empires—provided they acknowledged their legal and institutional inferiority in the Islamic order of things. When these groups dared to question their subordinate status—let alone attempt to break the Ottoman yoke—they were brutally suppressed, and none more so than the Armenians during World War I….
….The Armenian population in western Anatolia and in the metropolitan districts of Istanbul was somewhat more fortunate as many people were transported in trains—although grossly overcrowded—for much of the deportation route, rather than having to straggle along by foot. In Istanbul, deportations commenced in late April when hundreds of prominent Armenians were picked up by the police and sent away, most of them never to be seen again; some five thousand “ordinary” Armenians soon shared their fate. Though the majority of the city’s 150,000-strong community escaped deportation, Armenians were squeezed out of all public posts with numerous families reduced to appalling poverty. Deportations in Ankara began toward the end of July; in Broussa, in the first weeks of September; and in Adrianople, in mid-October. By early 1916, scores of deportees, thrown into a string of concentration camps in the Syrian desert and along the Euphrates, were dying every day of malnutrition and diseases; many others were systematically taken out of the camps and shot.
The Ottoman authorities tried to put a gloss of legality and innocence on their actions. The general deportation decree of May 27, 1915, for example, instructed the security forces to protect the deportees against nomadic attacks, to provide them with sufficient food and supplies for their journey, and to compensate them with new property, land, and goods necessary for their resettlement. But this decree was a sham. For one thing, massacres and deportations had already begun prior to its proclamation. For another, as is overwhelmingly borne out by the evidence, given both by numerous firsthand witnesses to the Ottoman atrocities and by survivors, the rights granted by the deportation decree were never followed.
Consider the provisions for adequate supplies for the journey and compensation for the loss of property. After the extermination of the male population of a particular town or village, an act normally preceding deportations, the Turks often extended a “grace period” to the rest of the populace, namely, women, children, and the old and the sick, so they could settle their affairs and prepare for their journey. But the term normally given was a bare week, and never more than two, which was utterly insufficient for all that had to be done. Moreover, the government often carried away its victims before the stated deadline, snatching them without warning from streets, places of employment, or even their beds. Last but not least, the local authorities prevented the deportees from selling their property or their stock under the official fiction that their expulsion was to be only temporary. Even in the rare cases in which Armenians managed to dispose of their property, their Muslim neighbors took advantage of their plight to buy their possessions at a fraction of their real value.
Nor did the deportees receive even a semblance of the protection promised by the deportation decree. On the contrary, from the moment they started on their march, indeed even before they had done so, they became public outcasts, never safe from the most atrocious outrages, constantly mobbed and plundered by the Muslim population as they straggled along. Their guards connived at this brutality. There were, of course, exceptions in which Muslims, including Turks, tendered help to the long-suffering Armenians, but these were very rare, isolated instances.
Whenever the deportees arrived at a village or town, they were exhibited like slaves in a public place, often before the government building itself. Female slave markets were established in the Muslim areas through which the Armenians were driven, and thousands of young Armenian women and girls were sold in this way. Even the clerics were quick to avail themselves of the bargains of the white slave market.
Suffering on the deportation routes was intense. Travelers on the Levantine railway saw dogs feeding on the bodies of hundreds of men, women, and children on both sides of the track, with women searching the clothing of the corpses for hidden treasure. In some of the transfer stations, notably Aleppo, the hub where all convoys converged, thousands of Armenians would be left for weeks outdoors, starving, waiting to be taken away. Epidemics spread rapidly, chiefly spot typhus. In almost all cases, the dead were not buried for days, the reason being, as an Ottoman officer cheerfully explained to an inquisitive foreigner, that it was hoped the epidemics might get rid of the Armenians once and for all.
As the deportees settled into their new miserable existence, they were forced to work at hard labor, making roads, opening quarries, and the like; for this, they were paid puny salaries, which effectively reduced them to starvation; work in the neighboring villages that could earn them some livelihood was strictly forbidden. Water was normally brought to the camps by trains; no springs were to be found within a radius of miles. The scenes at the arrival of the water trains, by no means a regular phenomenon, were heartbreaking. Thousands of people would rush toward the stopping place, earth-jars and tin cans in hand, in a desperate bid for their share of this elixir of life. But when at long last the taps were opened, people would often be barred from filling their vessels, having to watch the precious water running out on the sun-baked ground.
Independent estimates of the precise extent of Armenian casualties differ somewhat, but all paint a stark picture of national annihilation. In his official report to the British parliament in July 1916, Viscount Bryce calculated the total number of uprooted Armenians during the preceding year as 1,200,000 (half slain, half deported), or about two thirds of the entire community. Johannes Lepsius, the chief of the Protestant Mission in the Ottoman Empire who had personally witnessed the atrocities and had studied them thoroughly, put the total higher, at 1,396,000, as did the American Committee for Armenian and Syrian Relief, which computed the number of deaths at about 600,000 and of deportees at 786,000. Aaron Aaronson, a world-renowned Zionist agronomist who set up the most effective pro-Anglo-French-Russian entente intelligence network in the Middle East during World War I, estimated the number of deaths at between 850,000 and 950,000.
Genocide or “Collateral Damage”?
Turkey has never acknowledged any wrongdoing vis-à-vis the Armenians….