The Great Calamity that engulfed the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire in 1915 has been narrowed down to a single question: Was the Young Turk Government in Istanbul guilty of Genocide?
But the tragedy of the deaths of great numbers of Armenians, Turks and Kurds is inexplicable if confined solely to this. And it obscures important historical questions around the issues of instigation and betrayal that should be raised around these events. An event can only be understood in relation to other events in history within the context of cause and effect. If an event is extracted from the course of history then historical understanding is impossible. So a context is required to explain what really happened to produce such a disaster in 1915. The context of the disaster is the Great War and the Armenian Insurrection within it.
The Armenian Insurrection was described by a leading figure in it, the Dashnak revolutionary. Dr. Pasdermadjian, in writings long since forgotten. He wrote two small books under his revolutionary name of “Armen Garo” (Armenian Hero) as he waited in Washington for his nation to be provided for by the victorious Allies in Paris. The books were called ‘Why Armenia Should Be Free’ (1918) and ‘Armenia and her Claims to Freedom’ (1919).
It is probably because the two books were written at this precise moment of seeming triumph that they are amazingly candid.
Pasdermadjian’s publications put a very different complexion on the events of 1915 than accounts appearing recently. They describe a great moment of decision when the very existence of a people was gambled in the struggle for a Great Armenia, carved out of Ottoman territories in which the Armenians constituted only a minority.
Pasdermadjian describes an Armenian Insurrection, beginning in late 1914, that, it is argued, contributed substantially to the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, and which was seen by Pasdermadjian as well worth the lives of the hundreds of thousands, or more, it consumed, because it had presumably achieved its objective.
The event that began the slide toward catastrophe was the 1907 agreement between Britain and Russia. During the 19th century Britain’s traditional rival in Asia was Russia (The Great Game). However, in the early years of the 20th century England decided that Germany was the coming power. Therefore, it was decided to overturn the foreign policy of a century and to establish alliances with its traditional enemies, France and Russia, so that Germany could be encircled and then when war came about Britain would join the conflict and destroy Germany. The alliance that Britain entered into with Russia in 1907, was the single most important event that made a British war on Turkey inevitable.
Britain, an island nation and primarily a sea power, needed the large Russian Army as a second front on the continent for it. It was seen to be like a ‘steamroller’ that would roll all the way to Berlin, crushing German resistance by its sheer weight of numbers. But it was vital to promise the Tsar his heart’s desire, Constantinople, to get him in the field against Germany and keep him in the field thereafter. And putting the Russians in the field had the effect of making the Armenian region of the Ottoman Empire a battleground and had a great impact on Armenian ambitions.
The Armenians had been offered the thing they had been aiming for over the previous decade, and what they had gone into alliance with the Young Turks for – autonomy in the “six vilayets” in which they constituted a sizeable minority of the population. But the Great War on Turkey suddenly increased their objectives dramatically and encouraged them to turn down the offer and go for broke. Pasdermadjian who had been an Ottoman deputy for a number of years and who had engaged with International Inspectors who were about to oversee the reform of the Armenian areas, headed for the Caucasus and took up his rifle.
This decision had decisive consequences according to Pasdermadjian:
“Had the Armenians assumed an entirely opposite attitude from what they actually did; in other words, had they bound their fate in 1914 to the Turco-German cause, just as the Bulgarians did in 1915, what would have been the trend of events in the Near East ? Here is a question to which, it is quite possible, our great Allies have had no time to give any consideration. But that very question was put before the Armenians in 1914, and with no light heart did they answer it by their decision to join the Allies. Each and every one of them had a clear presentiment of the terrible responsibility they assumed. Those millions of corpses of Armenian women and children which spotted the plains in the summer of 1915, rose like phantoms before our very eyes in the August of 1914 when we decided to resist the wild Turkish revengefulness and its frightful outcome.
“Now, in October, 1918, when we are so close to the hour of the final victory, and feel quite safe and certain that the heavy and gloomy days of the summer of 1914 will never return, I shall permit myself to picture in a few words, before I finish, that which would have taken place if the Armenians had sided with the Germano-Turks in the Near East from the beginning of the war.
“First of all, those frightful Armenian massacres would not have taken place. On the contrary, the Turks and the Germans would have tried to win the sympathy of the Armenians in every possible way until the end of the war.” (‘Why Armenia Should Be Free’, p.44)
Functional arrangements had been made to alleviate the minority position of the Armenians by the Ottomans in the centuries prior to 1870, and they seemed to work. But then a confluence of events and influences brought on the Calamity.
The Armenians were told they were destined to be a nation, even though that thought seemed to go against the reality of their situation in almost every way. They were told this from Liberal England, from the Missionaries of Christian America, and from some of their own community in Russia and Persia who had been influenced by the modern world and become nationalists of a revolutionary kind. The Armenians in the Ottoman Empire were the last to believe this to be a possible or a desirable development. They knew that something like this could only happen in the most extraordinary and catastrophic of circumstances.
The Protestant Missionary activity among the Ottoman Armenians, in particular, had a great disrupting effect upon them. The functional arrangements that had been built up to provide for stability by creating non-territorial nations in the Ottoman patch-work of peoples was undermined in favour of the dream of constructing a territorial nation built on European nationalism. The Armenians who had been thorough Orientals were instigated into metamorphosing into nationalistic Europeans. And nations of the European form of progress were fatal to the stable relations painstakingly assembled in the Ottoman State.
However, progress (on the Liberal model) was deemed imperative no matter how much instability it would result in when applied in the most unsuitable of circumstances.
An instrumental part was played by the Liberal Anglosphere in foisting dangerous notions of historic destiny on the Armenians and then a fraudulent war encouraged them on to destruction.
The Ottomans tried to remain neutral in the Great War that was unfolding around their territories but with Britain, their traditional guarantor since the time of the Cyprus Convention, in alliance with those who required Istanbul and the Straits, the writing was on the wall. With Churchill seizing their battleships, ending the naval alliance and blockading the Dardanelles they were forced into the German embrace. And with a British army of the Indian Empire poised at Basra the battle lines were drawn for the Turks, whether they liked it or not.
In the course of the Great War and Armenian Insurrection within it the Government in Istanbul ordered the relocation of the population living in the war-zone. The decision quickly followed the Allied invasion at Gallipoli which, added to the British invasion of Mesopotamia and the Russian advance into Eastern Anatolia, put the Ottoman State in the melting-pot and the survival of its Moslem population in doubt.
The conflict could not be kept at the purely military level due to the significant part played by the Armenian Insurrection and the fact that its objective was only possible through the destruction of the Ottoman State and the removal of the Moslem population from the vast area the Armenian revolutionaries were claiming. This imposed a fundamental character of life or death struggle upon a conflict that had already assumed catastrophic proportions by the British decision to make such a Great War.
The Armenians relied militarily on the Tsarist regime to make good their national objectives. However, the Tsar’s intention was to win “Armenia without the Armenians.” Having conquered the territories that the Armenians desired in conjunction with Armenian forces he refused to allow the Armenian populace back. And then his state began to dissolve and the Armenians could not hold the line alone against the Turks.
The British could, of course, not be relied upon. There were prominent Britons like Arnold Toynbee and James Bryce who had kept up support for the Armenian cause during the War and a vast amount of propaganda had been generated on its behalf by the secret department of State, Wellington House. This had been established on a suggestion by T.P. O’Connor, the Irish Parliamentary Party Member of Parliament, and it flooded the world with its output. But it was just that – propaganda, the moral froth on a traditional Balance of Power war to cut a commercial rival down to size.
The Armenians, like the Serbs, were forgotten, as collateral damage. They had served their purpose and Britain went off chasing Palestine and Mesopotamia for the Empire and washed their hands of the “Armenian Question” Liberal England had created.
At the end of the war the Armenians, without military allies, were driven back to their Russian core which was now becoming Sovietized. They were left alone with only moral allies (rather than military ones) and they relied on the propaganda of the Allies being not only well-intentioned but sincere. But they found the promises of Britain, France and their allies to be castles made of sand washed away by the Imperialist land grab. And the great Democracy of the United States, on which their last hopes were pinned was repelled from aiding them by the motives and behaviour of its Imperialist allies.
Like many others around the world, the Armenians found the Great War to be nothing but a great fraud.
Betrayal had came full-circle.
When remembering the Armenians in this centenary of the Great Calamity what should be sought is not only the truth, but the whole truth. But, as in other aspects of the Great War, Remembrance is only sought within the limits of what is permissible to think.
‘The Armenian Insurrection and the Great War – A Cautionary Tale of Betrayal’ will be published shortly.