Armenians, Turks, and Resolutions: The Historical Context Matters

By
Col. Steve Norton

Jan./Feb. 2001 - On September 27, 2000, a resolution was submitted in the House of Representatives "calling upon the President to ensure that the foreign policy of the United States reflects appropriate understanding and sensitivity concerning issues related to human rights, ethnic cleansing, and genocide documented in the United States record relating to the Armenian Genocide . . ." A strong campaign by the Turkish government and the Executive Branch ensued to stop the "Armenian Genocide" resolution from a House Floor vote.

If the vastly divergent views of this historical period are not brought closer together through research and scholarly debate, this resolution will likely be reintroduced in Congress this year, resulting in more problems for the new U.S. administration, Congress, the Turkish government, and Armenian Americans.

Last year, Ankara warned of U.S. economic and foreign policy consequences if the resolution passed in the House. The State Department issued a travel warning on October 17 for Americans in or going to Turkey. On October 19, President Clinton sent a strongly worded letter to House Speaker Dennis Hastert urging that the resolution not be brought to the Floor because it would endanger U.S. interests concerning Iraq, the Middle East, Central Asia, the Balkans, and energy issues. Citing the president's additional concern that American lives were at risk, Speaker Hastert took the resolution off the calendar.
The efforts of the president were preceded by similar pleas to Congress by Secretary of State Albright, Secretary of Defense Cohen, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Shelton, and other senior officials. This was not the first time such a resolution had been introduced in Congress. For many years, Armenian American groups have been advocating congressional resolutions affirming that genocide was carried out by the Ottoman Empire from 1915 to 1923, resulting in 1,500,000 Armenian deaths.

The Turkish government has responded by stating that the deaths of Turks and Kurds outnumbered Armenian casualties in the empire's eastern provinces, that Armenian casualties were closer to 500,000, that many Armenians were traitors to the empire during wartime, and that the Ottoman rulers ordered deportation-not genocide-of Armenians.

It is puzzling why events that happened during World War I-in an area little known to Americans and seldom visited by them, and in an empire that no longer exists-can produce such strong feelings on the part of Congress, the Armenian diaspora, and the Turkish government, and can involve the most senior U.S. officials, up to the president. How can the views of Armenians and the Turkish government be so far apart on issues that should be based on historical fact?

Most Americans have no knowledge of what happened in the eastern provinces of the Ottoman Empire over 85 years ago. The mores of the time; the history, terrain, weather, and medical and sanitary conditions; and the military situation in eastern Anatolia and the Caucasus, where many Armenians lived and died, are largely unknown. There are sources of information, but they differ widely on key aspects of the issue. Most of the present day statements on the fate of Armenians in World War I are purportedly proved or disproved by careful, selective use of source material. On some points, there seems to be agreement, even if there is no consensus on the relative importance of each point. A brief historical setting will be useful before listing these points.

The Ottoman Empire was multi-religious and made up of many ethnic groups, including Turks, Arabs, Kurds, Jews, Greeks, and Armenians. The empire's traditional enemy was Russia, whose territorial ambitions were especially focused on the eastern provinces, where many Armenians lived. In 1914, the Sultan still sat on the throne, but power was vested in a military junta headed by Enver Pasha. The empire had been in a steady decline for a century, losing territory to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the British, the Russians, the Bulgarians, the Greeks, and others. The great European powers actively meddled in Ottoman affairs. Nationalism was resurgent throughout the Ottoman Empire, and its non-Turkish subjects were demanding autonomy or independence.

As the once eclectic Ottoman Empire crumbled, a feeling of "Turkey for the Turks" was emerging. Just as a sense of enmity was building against Turks by Greeks, Armenians, Arabs, and other subjects, so too were Turks becoming less tolerant of these peoples who, in their view, were traitors and ingrates.

In the U.S. Library of Congress, there are numerous resources that provide a framework for events in eastern Anatolia during World War I, including the memoirs of General Liman von Sanders, the senior German officer in the service of the Ottoman Empire at that time. General von Sanders reported on the desperate situation the Ottoman Army faced on many fronts in 1914 and 1915. He wrote of Enver Pasha's bungling in the east, which caused the loss of the Ottoman Third Army, the first of the empire's armies to fight in World War I. "According to official reports, only 12,000 men of the original 90,000 of [the Ottoman Third Army] came back," von Sanders noted. "The others were killed, captured, died of hunger, or froze to death while camping in the snow without tents." This appalling defeat opened the eastern provinces to the advancing Russian Army and greatly reduced any semblance of law and order in the region.

Following this defeat, Enver relinquished command of the ruined Third Army and returned to Istanbul. Rumors of a greater Armenian conspiracy were spreading, and Enver claimed that a generalized Armenian revolt was imminent. By mid-1915, he decided to rule out any future use of the Armenians by Russia by moving over 1 million people out of the war zone. Deportation had begun.

The full story of this war from the optic of those involved in the eastern provinces-Armenians, Kurds, Russians, and Turks-has not been told. Yet, we do know some basic and important facts.

First, a human tragedy of enormous proportions did occur. In 1919, President Woodrow Wilson sent Major General James Harbord, U.S. Army, to the region on a fact-finding mission. General Harbord reported, "The dead from this wholesale attempt on the [Armenian] race are variously estimated from 500,000 to more than a million, the usual figure being about 800,000." At the same time and in the same region, Turkish and Kurdish deaths were also very high. General Harbord described their plight: "Things are little if any better with the peasant Turks in the same region. They are practically serfs, equally destitute and equally defenseless against the winter. No doctors or medicines are to be had. Villages are in ruins, some having been destroyed when the Armenians fled or were deported; some during the Russian advance; some on the retreat of the Armenian irregulars and Russians after the fall of the Empire. Not over 20 per cent of the Turkish peasants who went to war have returned. The absence of men between the ages of 20 and 35 is very noticeable. Six hundred thousand Turkish soldiers died of typhus alone . . ."

Second, the collusion of some Armenians with the Russians was a major factor in the calamitous decision by Enver Pasha to deport them from the war zone. The massacre and death of hundreds of thousands of people ensued. Like a nemesis of fate, the Ottoman Second Army was severely crippled by the deprivation of food and services previously provided by the Armenians.

Third, Ottoman officials clearly failed in their responsibility to protect the deportees from attacks by Kurds, deserters, and others. While famine, disease, severe weather, and a general lack of supplies seemed to affect everyone along the eastern frontier, it was the Armenians who, once unarmed, faced added perils from marauders, bandits, and undisciplined Ottoman officials and constabularies.

Fourth, cruelty seemed to be an unfortunate and common trait during this war. General Harbord wrote, "In the Territory untouched by war from which Armenians were deported, the ruined villages are undoubtedly due to Turkish deviltry, but where Armenians advanced and retired with the Russians [the Armenians'] retaliatory cruelties unquestionably rivaled the Turks in their inhumanity."

Oscar Wilde wrote, "Anybody can make history. Only a great man can write it." The massacre of the Armenians, Armenian collusion with Russian forces, the aggressive policies of Russia, and the plight of the Turks and Kurds in the eastern provinces are important, emotional, and far-reaching questions that should be further researched. It is to the Library of Congress rather than the halls of Congress that we should turn to find answers surrounding the great tragedy that befell the Armenians and others.

Research for this article was conducted at the U.S. Library of Congress and facilitated by the staff of the African and Middle Eastern Reading Room.

Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Kristina N. Terzieva // Program Assistant
  • Emily R. Buss // Program Assistant