Gwynne Dyer: Revisiting the Armenian Genocide

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      It is with great reluctance that I write about the Armenian genocide, as I know from experience that what I say will infuriate both sides.

      But it is the 100th anniversary of the catastrophe this month, and Pope Francis has just declared that the mass killing of Armenian citizens of the Ottoman empire in 1915 was indeed a genocide. Turkey, predictably, has responded by withdrawing its ambassador from the Vatican.

      Well, surprise! We’ve been listening to this argument for several generations now, and it rarely gets much further than “Yes, you did!” “No, I didn’t!” Unfortunately, I know a lot more about it than that.

      Ages ago, when I was a history graduate student doing research about Turkey’s role in the First World War, I got into the Turkish General Staff archives in Ankara and found the actual telegrams (written in the old riqa script) that went back and forth between Istanbul and eastern Anatolia in the spring of 1915.

      Later on I saw the British and Russian documents on their plans for joint action with Armenian revolutionaries in the spring of 1915, so I also know the context in which the Turks and Armenians were acting. And I can say with some confidence that both sides are wrong.

      There was an Armenian genocide. Of course there was. When up to 800,000 people from a single ethnic and religious community die from violence, hunger, or exposure in a short time, and they are under guard by armed men from a different ethnicity and religion at the time, it’s an open-and-shut case. (Today’s Armenians say 1.5 million died in 1915, but that’s too high. It could be as few as half a million, but 800,000 is plausible.)

      On the other hand, the Armenians desperately want their tragedy to be seen in the same light as the Nazi attempt to exterminate the European Jews, and won’t settle for anything less. But what happened to the Armenians was not pre-planned by the Turkish government, and there was provocation from the Armenian side. That doesn’t remotely begin to justify what happened, but it does put the Turks in a somewhat different light.

      A group of junior officers called the Young Turks seized control of the Ottoman empire in 1908, and their leader, Enver Pasha, foolishly took the empire into the First World War at Germany’s side in November 1914. He then led a Turkish army east to attack Russia, which was allied to Britain and France.

      That army was destroyed in the deep snow around Kars—only 10 percent of it got back to base—and the Turks panicked. The Russians didn’t follow right away—poor generalship—but the Turks had almost nothing left to stop them if they did. The Turks scrambled to put some kind of defensive line together, but behind them in eastern Anatolia were Christian Armenians who had been agitating for independence from the empire for decades.

      Various revolutionary Armenian groups had been in touch with Moscow, offering to stage uprisings behind the Turkish army when Russian troops arrived in Anatolia. Learning that the Turks had retreated in disarray, some groups assumed the Russians were on their way and jumped the gun.

      Similarly the Armenian revolutionary groups further south, near the Mediterranean coast, were in contact with the British command in Egypt, and had promised an uprising to coincide with planned British landings on the Turkish south coast near Adana. Quite late in the day the British switched their planned invasion much further west to Gallipoli, but once again some of the Armenian revolutionaries didn’t get the message in time and rebelled anyway.

      Enver Pasha and his colleagues in Istanbul simply panicked. If the Russians broke through in eastern Anatolia, all the Arab parts of the empire would be cut off. So they ordered the deportation of all the Armenians in the east to Syria—over the mountains, in winter, on foot. (There was no railway yet.)

      And since there were no regular troops to spare, it was mostly Kurdish irregulars who guarded the Armenians on the way south.

      Armenians defend the walls of Van in spring 1915.

      The Kurds shared eastern Anatolia with the Armenians, but the neighbours had never been friendly. So many of the Kurdish escorts assumed they had free license to rape, steal, and kill, and between that, the lack of food, and the weather, up to half the deportees died. To the extent that the Turkish government knew about it, it did nothing to stop it.

      More Armenians died in the sweltering, disease-ridden camps they were confined in once they arrived in Syria. It was genocide through panic, incompetence, and deliberate neglect, but it cannot be compared to what happened to the European Jews. Indeed the large Armenian community in Istanbul, far from the military operations in eastern Anatolia, survived the war virtually unharmed.

      If the Turks had only had the sense to admit what really happened 50 or 75 years ago, there would be no controversy now. The only duty of the current generation is to acknowledge the past, not to fix it (as if they could).

      Instead there has been 100 years of blank denial, which is why the issue is still on the international agenda. It will stay there until the Turks finally come to terms with their past.



      Robin Ottawa

      Apr 13, 2015 at 11:17am

      A voice of reason and research, as usual.

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      Apr 13, 2015 at 11:33am

      Sadly, the documents that Mr.Dyer refer to probably no longer exist. The Turkish government has for many years been destroying all evidence of their guilt from those archives.

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      Ian Butters

      Apr 13, 2015 at 11:35am

      Once again, Mr. Dyer cuts through the BS and tells a complicated story briefly and with great clarity. Well done.

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      Ihor Pona

      Apr 13, 2015 at 2:05pm

      “Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” ― John F. Kennedy.

      Thank you Gwynne Dyer for the vanishing skill of effort and thought and hopefully, circumventing the many opinions that would have arisen without this background.

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      Antonio Quinton

      Apr 13, 2015 at 3:34pm

      Maybe as a person who knows nothing about Armenians or this particular historical event, I don't really qualify to comment on this fairy tale, not research.

      He definitely succeeds in making the story sound very plausible and the happy ending will please the common person on both sides of the fence as well as the the average reader.
      But in fact this flimsy attempt to adhere to reason with a lot fluff is incoherent and makes absolutely no sense. That, I guess, would be an easy task! After all it has been a 100 years, and probably no one remembers what this was about in the first place, with the exception of Dyer, apparently.

      There is not a single traceable fact mentioned in this commentary to support the case Mr. Dyer is trying to build with so many haphazard statements and random contradictions in an essay of 500 words or less!

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      Still hurts

      Apr 13, 2015 at 4:01pm

      1st: Who said that every genocide has to be compared to what happened to the jews? Is the holocust the measuring stick of all genocides? 2nd: the turkish leaders "panicked", (really?) during WWI, as through there were no systematic massacres before 1915 (there were several in late 1800s). Maybe Hitler also panicked b/c he thougt the jews were helping the allies? Of course there was systematic, planned genocide.
      If only there was rail, all these murders, rapes, etc, would not have happened dear Mr. Dyer...

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      Vahe Balabanian

      Apr 13, 2015 at 7:11pm

      Gwynne Dyer that way back In 2012 published an article in the Embassy magazine using a title "Sucking Up to Armenians" and used a language such as "Armenia has 'genocide envy'" particularly insulting to genocide survivors and their descendants. His articles are poorly researched but I welcome at least his admission that Armenians were subject to genocide after Pope Francis's declaration. May be the Holly Spirit awoke his conscience?

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      David Davidian

      Apr 13, 2015 at 10:15pm

      While Dyer might sound reasonable to the untrained, he ignores the wider picture and uses point events to reach a convenient middle ground. For example, the affect of German proto-fascist ideology had a huge role in the Turkish extermination of the Armenians. Basically, the Germans wanted a clear road east, with no local competition, and Turkey provided that. German ideologs called for the removal of the Armenians many years before 1915. Their experience in with the Herero genocide a decade earlier has a stark resemblance to the Turkish genocide of the Armenians. When one looks at all contributing events over time -- which is what hard core historians provide -- one can clearly see events starting from the settling of Chechens and Circassian in Armenian regions of Anatolia starting from the 1860s, to redrawing provincial borders to lessen demographic profile of the Armenian majority, free reign given to the Kurds to reduce Armenians to near-serfdom in many areas, to the Turkification of the remaining non-assimilable groups across Turkey having begun in 1913. All these events culminated in the genocide of the Armenians, Assyrians, the murders and expulsion of Anatolian Greeks, and the subsequent Turkish state policy of forced assimilation of Turkey's Kurds, Alevis and others. The trend is very clear.

      Yerevan, Armenia

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      Richard Jones.

      Apr 14, 2015 at 12:12am

      You seem to be missing the flaw in your article, which is disguised as "the voice of reason", but unfortunately for you, it does not pass the smell test.

      Here are 2 paragraphs from your article, your own words, to discredit what you wrote.

      "Ages ago, when I was a history graduate student doing research about Turkey’s role in the First World War, I got into the Turkish General Staff archives in Ankara"

      "But what happened to the Armenians was not pre-planned by the Turkish government, and there was provocation from the Armenian side. That doesn’t remotely begin to justify what happened, but it does put the Turks in a somewhat different light."

      See what I mean?
      Next, you managed to bring down the death toll to 800,000 (amazingly the same number of what the turks claim to be the total, dead+deported) while almost all scholars and even UN's own genocide prevention group has the number to be at lease 1.5 million and in fact can easily be argued that it is almost 2 millions based on turkey's own census records.

      You really think that you could find something in ankara's own "archives" to condemn turkey?
      You think their government led by their ultra nationalist radicals play fair and are all about the truth?
      Then sadly, you are mistaken. History proves it.

      Next, to add insult to injury, you claim there was "provocation" by the Armenians, but manged to insert the standard disclaimer "but that should not justify it", which is not only disturbing but insulting. You post a cleaned up image of the mass murderer, one of the main architects of the Armenian Genocide, enver pasha, and the only image of the Armenians you post is couple of the brave souls who found a way to organize self defense (yeah how dare they refuse to be massacred like sheep?), in your effort to pain the victims as the aggressors who had it coming, and therefore turkey is justified.
      Let me ask you a simple question. Along with the Armenians, around the same period over 400,000 Assyrians, 900,000 Pontic Greeks, tens of thousands of Yazidis and others were killed. Did they also "provoked" the turks? Have you bothered to study history and examine archives from the Armenian, Russian, German, and even the Vatican sides?
      There was no provocation, Armenians served on turk and Russian armies due to their geographic location, turks use that excuse, and you are doing their PR for them.

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      Apr 14, 2015 at 5:54am

      Your article is nonsense. Not pre-planned? So what about in 1898 when Armenians protested for being doubly taxed and treated poorly by the turkish government and 200,000 were killed? What about the fact that 200 teachers, scientists, priests and other Armenian intellectuals were executed on April 24 by turkish officials? They must have been speaking with Russians too right? I mean a Priest after all is a key soldier to have in a rebellion. What about the notices on armenianb business that all things will be "safely kept upon your return," by turkish officials, only to have those business sold for pennies to turkish citizens. If this wasnt pre planned.. then why did some turkish governors who wanted to save men refuse to put armnenians on trains and stalled in doing so despite orders from the government? Why were turkish prisoners released and given free reign to murder Armenians? Why would a german soldier named wagner feel compelled to take pictures of the raping then hanging of women on crosses? Why would eye witness reports from henry morgenthau plead washington for help in what he was was witnessing as "race extermination"?

      You obviously must have flunked history class because no sane professor would ever pass a student on such lousey research. Hopefullly you are living well off turkish money paid to write this garbage.

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