Hille Hanso interviews Professor Hakan Özoğlu, Ph.D, Professor of History and Director of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Central Florida. His research interests include the power struggle in the modern Republic of Turkey after WWI, US involvement in the Middle East through Turkey since the Great War, and Kurdish Nationalism in the Ottoman Empire.
Books by Prof. Özoğlu:
Dewleta Osmanî û Neteweperwerên Kurd. 2012
Cumhuriyetin Kuruluşunda İktidar Kavgası. 2011
From Caliphate to Secular State: Power Struggle in the Early Turkish Republic. 2011
Osmanlı Devleti ve Kürt Milliyetçiliği. 2005, 2006, 2007
Kurdish Notables and the Ottoman State: Evolving Identities, Competing Loyalties and Shifting Boundaries. 2004, 2007
Q: Let’s talk about the highly sensitive issue of the mass killing of Armenians in the collapsing Ottoman Empire in 1915, which keeps Turkey and Armenia apart and many outside countries involved in the issue to this day. It is not easy to analyse an issue that has become so deeply politicised, but our aim is to take an analytical approach, not a normative one, and discuss what led to the terrible events and how the Great Tragedy is still a topic in day-to-day politics. Professor Özoğlu, thank you for sharing your views.
To put present-day relationships into context, we have to go back to the period that preceded the mass murders. Can you describe the geopolitical situation at the time of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and threats to “the sick man of Europe” from various world powers?
A: The Ottoman Empire (OE) comprised large territories in Europe, Asia and Africa. Historically these territories were located on the ancient trade routes of the Silk Road. The OE was able to collect taxes, that’s why this region was so successful.
By the 19th century, the empire was dying. It was a long and painful death. The Ottomans had been snobbish for centuries, believing they were destined to rule the world and did not need to learn anything from so-called infidels or other empires. They didn’t notice that a little territory called “Europe” was progressing in many ways. It was getting gold from America, enriching itself and becoming a powerful threat. By the time the Ottomans realised that, it was too late to react.
In the 19th century we see that the OE was trying to survive against threats from Russia, its greatest enemy, because the two empires had been rivals for centuries. In addition, other empires, like Great Britain and France, wanted their own shares of the Ottoman territories, hence, at the same time, they were competing against each other. That was the “Eastern Question”: if you let this big empire die, who gets what? That was the mindset and the reason for the political positioning of these three colonialist states while the OE was trying to survive.
The OE also faced various internal problems. Can you describe them?
At the same time, the Europeans discovered a trade route to India and China that bypassed OE territories, so the Ottomans were losing revenue. The only way to recover it was to increase taxes on the people, who revolted in protest. As the sense of nationalism was spreading like wildfire in the Ottoman Empire, Christian communities were the first to jump onto the bandwagon. So the biggest internal problem was to ensure the loyalty of its own citizens and maintain a standing army to fend off threats from abroad.
What did the Armenians do that triggered the fatal stand-off?
Armenians were frightened, too. Keep in mind that the OE was a multi-ethnic, multinational, multi-religion empire controlled by the Sunni branch of Turks. If you were not a Sunni Turk, your security was in jeopardy, especially during WWI. Many Armenians felt that the failing Ottoman state would not protect them. So they began looking for ways to protect themselves. What do you need to protect yourself? First of all, you need to be armed. If you are a small nation, you invite outside support. Who is willing to give you that support? Someone who is interested in weakening the Ottoman Empire. Here comes the vicious circle. You want to protect yourself, not necessarily to betray the OE, but you side with Russia because you have a border with it. Once you do that, you become an even bigger threat to the Ottoman state. Some Armenians were used by the Russian Empire and attacked Muslim villages. This became the major starting point for the OE to wipe out Armenians from that area.
In my opinion, the Turkish intention was not to kill the entire population, but to remove them at any cost. It was not like Nazi Germany trying to find every single Jew and then exterminate them from the face of the earth. The original aim was not to exterminate but to pacify. However, during the course of these actions, things got out of hand and the “Young Turks” elite chose to kill as many Armenians as possible. This was a desperate act of a small but frustrated clique in the government who unfortunately had the means to carry out these killings. One should bear in mind that this act should not be generalised to include the entire Turkish population—one should not blame all Turks for what this group did.
But the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) and the Young Turks initially collaborated a great deal against the regime of Abdul Hamid II, and together pushed for a constitutional monarchy and challenged the absolute power of the sultan. Once that goal was achieved, the Young Turks gained strength and the power to govern. What changed in the Young Turks’ cooperation with the ARF?
It was an Ottoman system to cooperate with other ethnic and religious groups. It is very likely that the Young Turks wanted to consolidate their power without sharing it with any other opposition entities. This certainly included the ARF, but was not limited to it. Once the Young Turks’ government established itself, it began to see all other revolutionary forces as a potential threat. In addition, the ARF was a staunch supporter of Armenian nationalism, which challenged the Turkish nationalist ideology of the Young Turks. Any alternative nationalisms were not to be allowed. The two organisations were united only in their goal of toppling Abdul Hamid II. In reality, their ultimate goals post-Abdul Hamid were very different. It was therefore no surprise to see their cooperation ended, with the Young Turks retaining power.
You mentioned Armenians as a perceived threat to the Ottoman Empire’s eastern regions, but the mass deportations and killings involved the Armenian population from the west, too. How was the expulsion of those in Istanbul, Edirne, Izmit, Aydin, Izmir etc. explained at the time?
Armenians in the western Ottoman provinces were considered as big a threat to the Young Turks as those in the east. For example, there were suspicious that the sultan would be assassinated by Armenians. The Armenian elite was located in those cities and they were in close contact with the Western powers. There was a growing mistrust between the government and the Armenians. But I also believe that these killings were part of deterrence and perhaps revenge policies of the Young Turks. They might have wished to set an example, not just for the Armenians but for other groups, such as the Kurds.
In your opinion, why did things grow into a large-scale conflict? Armenians were increasingly seen as “others” who were generally wealthier, which created envy in a destitute, war-torn region. Or was it a religious, political, or foreign-policy stand-off; or a loyalty issue, as Sultan Abdul Hamid II had carried out smaller-scale killings of Armenian years before the main persecutions started in 1915?
All of these reasons together. Deep down, it started with the state feeling insecure, as I said, when rival empires such as Russia were expanding and luring the Armenians to their side. In my opinion, of all the things you mentioned, the economy comes first. Religion was used only as a tool. From the second half of the 19th century onwards, Armenians were no longer seen as loyal. The Ottomans tried to do what empires usually did when they felt threatened by certain populations; at first they wanted to relocate the Armenians, or at least the idea was presented this way. Later it was decided that the Armenians should be decimated to the point of crippling them.
1915 was a turning point. The Armenians were being forced to move to destinations like Syria, knowing that most would not survive. Horrendous acts undoubtedly followed and they were killed on the way. There were hired gangs, consisting of some irregular Turkish militia, petty criminals and some local Kurdish tribes. These groups carried out most of the killings. We know that they were organised by a group within the ruling elite of the Young Turk government. These killings happened on the orders of high-ranking government officials; however, these unfortunate events should not be generalised on an ethnic basis by claiming that “Turks killed the Armenians”.
Many Armenians were actually saved by their Turkish neighbours, and their children adopted—there were many such examples. This should not be ignored when the issue is studied. It is not black and white; there are grey areas. Historians also look at the grey areas, by encouraging further study, not blocking it by saying that “this is what happened and the case is closed,” as politicians do.
Why is the Republic of Turkey not held legally responsible for this issue?
Issues, especially territorial integrity, were settled after WWI with the Treaty of Lausanne; the current state is adamant about this and the Republic of Turkey took over Ottoman financial responsibilities and other war reparations. Turkey is the heir to the OE, its legacy, its memories. The Armenian issue did not become part of the negotiations, so the issue was—perhaps not in human watermsy, but in legal terms—settled in the eyes of modern Turkish governments. Of course, for the Armenian side, it is not settled at all.
Can you describe the newly formed ideology of Turkishness at the beginning of the 20th century? It is important because the growing nationalist ideology was part of the reason everything happened. Religion remained a major part of identity; it was and remained a big part of the culture. Others had to assimilate or go.
Ethnicity was not a major factor in most of Ottoman history, it was religion. Since religion failed to assure the loyalty of its citizens, the Turkish republic turned to so-called ethnicity. What “Turk” meant was anyone who was loyal to the state. So in that sense, they provided a definition in which anyone, even Kurds, could be included. This land is a mix of populations that survived throughout the millennium—it would have been hard to form a political identity based on biological traits.
Armenians and Greeks did not fit into this picture because of their religion and it was not possible to link them to Turks despite the fact that they were as Turkish as the next person. To homologise the country based on nationalism, they had to rid themselves of these nations. Not many Armenians were left on Turkish territory after 1915. Greeks were dealt with by the population exchange following the agreement of 1922. Homologation aimed to achieve security, and education and assimilation policies followed. Promoting the idea of Turkishness served the new state. My own grandmother, who was born in Ottoman times, did not say they were Turks, she would say they were Ottomans, because “Ottoman-ness” carried some nobility. “Turks” meant “country bumpkins,” uneducated farmers. Kemalists brought back pride to it: “Ne mutlu Türküm diyene” (“How happy is the one that can call themselves a Turk”—Tr. k.), but they overdid it.
Does present-day Turkey still hold the same values?
Every Turkish government wants to make Turkish identity dominant. Identity politics has always been used and abused by those in power. The AKP’s (Justice and Development Party) understanding of Turkishness today is quite different from Kemal Atatürk’s vision. Political identity is flexible; it takes the shape of the needs dictated by the political power in charge at the time. People’s memories are manipulated, so people’s identity evolves to accommodate the needs of the political powers. Turkish identity today has a more Sunni Islamic flavour than, let’s say, 30–40 years ago. Democracy in Turkey is good until it supports those in power.
There are radically opposing international approaches: some say the Armenian killings were the first genocide of the modern era, whereas reactionary opinion says that calling it a genocide is a conspiracy against Turkey. Greece, Cyprus and Switzerland have prohibited denial of genocide by law, but the US and Israel have been very careful in their statements. Azerbaijan stands firmly with Turkey and claims there has never been any genocide. When did this discussion become a political rather than a legal or historical issue?
Since the Turkish side had long denied and ignored many facts about the Armenian issue, the Armenians forced a conclusion that their version should be the norm, and that there was no need for further study. But without this, no one knows what might come from a systematic study. There might be some evidence that would support the Turkish claims. There may be documentation on the Armenian side that points to the Armenians betraying the OE, and that the killings were mutual. Certainly, the Armenians suffered a great deal more.
I read world history as a story of a power struggle. The Armenian killings have become a bargaining chip, too, in this great game of fighting for international power. The Armenian issue is a good rallying point for governments; it is an internal political issue. The AKP, for example, usually brings the Armenian and Kurdish issue to the foreground before elections in order to get votes from nationalist voters.
In my personal opinion, the Armenian issue goes beyond acknowledging atrocities. Many states are trying to benefit from it politically. But the way to go is to mend the wounded memories and move forward by acknowledging one another’s pain.
Has this era been sufficiently researched? Turkey is still calling for more studies of the archives on both sides, but we know that the Young Turk government restricted the use of photography and reporting of the events. Although many American missionaries and diplomatic representatives, in particular, witnessed the deportations and broke the news of the mass murders, do we have enough information?
As an historian, I can’t say on any subject that we can stop researching now. We don’t know what we don’t know. There is credible documentation that proves Armenian civilians were massacred en masse. There are also documents on how Armenians killed Muslims—not on the same scale, but that does not matter.
We should be undertaking more research to break the deadlock. In Turkey and Armenia, in Russian and German archives, there has been no systematic research for political reasons. This has been prohibited or at least hindered by all sides.
For example, we don’t know exactly how many people were killed. Armenians say 1.5 million. An American diplomat, Admiral Mark L. Bristol [US High Commissioner in Turkey, 1919–27], about whose life in Turkey I am writing a book, interviewed an Armenian cleric at the time, as the Armenians were looking for an American mandate. He asked the cleric: “You want a state, but do you have a population to populate that state?” “Yes, we do,” was the answer. “600,000 were killed, but we have the numbers.” There is a huge difference between 1.5 million and 600,000. I am not belittling the 600,000 or saying that this figure is correct, but I do say that there are surprising documents still waiting to be discovered, and that they should be used. Speaking as an academic, there is a lot of work to be done, and we cannot say the issue is closed.
This is not to say, however, that the Armenians or others don’t have the right to express their pain or call it a genocide. They have every right to do so. But at the same time, the other side has a right to say, “Yes, there were mass killings that were committed by the previous state,” and also bring out the crimes committed by Armenians.
Germany has not opened the files containing communications between the German government and German commanders serving in the OE at the time. This could be important, as German–Ottoman military cooperation was a matter of national policy and in 1913 a German mission arrived in Turkey with the task of reorganising the Ottoman army. Officers in the German military mission assumed responsibility for the command of the Turkish army under the leadership of Enver Pasha, then Minister of War. The German–Turkish relationship was formulated with the agreement of a military alliance between Germany and the Ottoman Empire in August 1914. Has the German role in the process been adequately evaluated, and what is known?
Yes, there is much more to learn from the archives that is not available to researchers, including the role of Germany. It is naïve to think that the German military was uninformed of these killings. However, we do not know the role they played without examining these documents.
An Armenian friend of mine here in Turkey is involved in gathering the memoirs and stories of those who suffered. She once told me they wished that outside countries would drop the subject and stop pressuring Turkey. Her rationale was that a country and its people have to take society to a point where they acknowledge the past and that only time and increased awareness can lead to this. In her opinion, the German parliament’s vote only took Turkey further than ever from taking on this responsibility, because it was met with an angry reaction. Is outside pressure leading Turkey to further denial?
“Üzüm yemek mi, bağcıyı dövmek mi?”1 If the idea is to solve the problem, this is how it should be. But if the idea is to beat the farmer, it makes Turkey act like a frightened turtle—hiding its arms, legs and head in its shell. If this happens, the issue will go unresolved for another hundred years and everybody loses. The solution is not to politicise the question if an honest outcome is expected. Of course, I am not so naïve as to think that this is completely possible. But if I were an Armenian, I would not want the German parliament to make it a political issue on my behalf because it scares people in Turkey off from considering an alternative way to look at it.
The outside powers could have a role to play in encouraging international support for more research on documents, and on the events themselves. They should help out to understand what happened and why it happened by encouraging research and discussion. I agree entirely with your Armenian friend because she is trying to solve the issue—“üzüm yemek” (“to eat the grapes”), not to beat the farmer. In my opinion, if you push for anything other than more research at this point, it means you are trying to beat the watchman.
There has to be an environment in which pressure is minimised on historians and other academics like linguists, archaeologists and psychologists working on the issue. For example, the Turkish government might be funding historians to find documentation to support its position. That is not the way to go. If this is an important issue, on the international level, it would be useful to identify scholars and fund them to explore what we do not know yet.
Would you agree that views in Turkey are slowly changing? It used to be forbidden to use the term “Armenian genocide”. Now we see this in the Turkish media and politicians are discussing it. Turkey, however, has denied the claims of genocide. What, in your opinion, is the future for this subject?
I have zero problem with Armenians calling it a genocide. But this is a judicial term and an international criminal court would have to establish that it can be labelled in that way. I suggest, however, that even a reasonable doubt over the strict sense of the term and the period in which it was committed would crush the case and the term genocide would be dropped—which is why Armenia has not sued Turkey.
But as an historian, I don’t have the right to make a legal judgment about this. Historians are fact collectors; we provide evidence, we should not make judgements. It would be unfair to leave this issue to historians for the final legal judgment. They just collect and present the evidence to the international community and at the same time they should bring this evidence to the attention of both the Armenian and Turkish peoples. Both sides should learn to empathise.
When I was at school, we were taught that Armenians betrayed us, and were moved and died. There was no talk of mass murders. That mindset has changed. Even the most nationalistic groups now accept that the government played a huge role in forcibly moving those people and their tragic deaths. They still do not accept the figure of 1.5 million, or labelling it as a genocide.
It is a key issue for the Armenian side—to call it a genocide—but for the Turks, the point of departure on this current point is a long way off. In that sense, Turkey has progressed much faster than the Armenians. If the Armenian diaspora moved faster too, both sides could find common ground. The key point is that manipulation and short-sighted political action by all involved should not be allowed. The Turkish side has been shying away from the issue, mainly feeling that those involved are trying to beat the watchman, not eat the grape. I am afraid that, if this continues in future, it will become a never-ending issue.
1 Turkish saying indicating one’s intentions as one enters a vineyard.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.