Turkey is a country small in neither size nor population, yet its rulers have the privilege of being ignored most of the time, no doubt because its language is remarkably little known, considering that for all its Arabic and Persian accretions it’s a most useful entry to the Oghuz Turkic tongues spoken from Moldova to China. This privilege was in evidence when Pope Francis chose in April to define the Armenian deportations, kidnappings, rapes and massacres that started in 1915 as a genocide. The Turkish government prefers fine terminological distinctions: what the pope, every Armenian and a great many others call a genocide should more properly be described as a First World War event involving mass killings (one of many such, down to the present day) and deportations (a wartime necessity given Armenian complicity in Russia’s invasion of North-east Anatolia); but in any case it was an unfortunate event that happened a long time ago, and an exception in Turkey’s fine tradition of tolerance. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu went on the offensive in the Washington Post: ‘I am addressing the pope: those who escaped from the Catholic inquisition in Spain [Sephardic Jews] found peace in our just order in Istanbul and İzmir. We are ready to discuss historical issues, but we will not let people insult our nation through history.’
To pause on the effrontery of citing benevolence to 15th-century Jews at a time when his party and its leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, continually denigrate today’s Jews (he blames ‘the Saturday People’ for Turkey’s high interest rates, and explains modern history as the product of the Üst Akil, the global conspiracy of you-know-who) would be to miss the point entirely: the persecution of the Armenians didn’t start in 1915, and wasn’t a First World War event as per the official Turkish line – there had been massacres of Armenians before then, notably in 1894-96, leaving some fifty thousand orphans. And, more important, the persecution didn’t end with the First World War, but continues to this day. Its current form, aside from occasional non-state violence such as the 2007 murder of Hrant Dink, founding editor of the bilingual magazine Agos (dedicated to reconciliation), is Turkey’s artfully drafted legislation on non-profit trusts and foundations. The lack of a good law on foundations wasn’t one of the Ottoman Empire’s shortcomings; its simple and efficacious Vakf law long persisted unchanged in the successor states including decidedly non-Muslim Greece and Israel (Agudat Ottomani). But the new Turkish state needed something more modern – the text after all was in an Ottoman Turkish that was both Persianised and written in Arabic script – and laws were duly enacted. One such law of 1967 (number 743, or 4721 in the current code), which amended Article 101 of the Turkish civil code, defines foundations in the usual way: charity groups that have the status of a legal entity formed by real persons or legal entities dedicating their private property and rights for public use etc. But then it adds: ‘Formation of a foundation contrary to the characteristics of the republic defined by the constitution, constitutional rules, laws, ethics, national integrity and national interest, or with the aim of supporting a distinctive race or community, is restricted’ [emphasis added] – which actually means that it is forbidden, because there are no provisions for exceptions.
That still left in place pre-existing foundations, allowing a dwindling number of Armenian and Greek churches as well as synagogues and schools to keep going, but in 1974 new legislation determined that non-Muslim trusts couldn’t own property that hadn’t been registered under their name in 1936. With that, some 1400 churches, schools, residential buildings, hospitals, summer camps, cemeteries and orphanages were deemed illegal and seized by the state, unless a ‘former owner’ could claim them. In 1986, under European pressure (at a time when Turkey’s accession to the EU was still treated as a realistic if long-term possibility), the laws that denied Armenian rights over ‘abandoned’ properties were abrogated. But any possibility of recovery was circumvented by a 29 June 2001 order by the land registry authority which effectively transferred all remaining ‘abandoned’ properties to the government. What’s more, no information regarding property titles may be disclosed, so claimants can’t even begin to avail themselves of the nominal restoration of 1986. Such seemingly technical administrative measures have sufficed to prevent the opening of any new church (Armenian or otherwise), synagogue or non-Muslim school since the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1923.
Today’s Islamist rulers are doing everything possible to obliterate Mustafa Kemal’s firmly secular Turkey – they are building mosques in universities where even headscarves were disallowed until very recently, and the official centennial documentary of his victorious Gallipoli campaign featured a fervently praying Erdoğan as well as re-enactors mouthing Islamic invocations while Kemal himself only flashed by as a silent image – but there’s one aspect of Kemalist Turkey that meets with their fullest approval: its uncompromising nationalism, which, though secular per se happens to define a ‘Turk’ as a Muslim Turk, treating all non-Muslim Turks as half citizens, with full obligations but few rights, and no chance of achieving political office. Kemal’s secularism, though commendable in its focus on the emancipation of women (Istanbul’s Sabiha Gökçen airport is named for his adopted daughter, who became a combat pilot in 1936) was not transitive: serenely non-believing himself, he strove to liberate the Turks from the lethargy of Islam, but didn’t proceed logically to accept non-Muslims as equals.
Turkey’s current leaders often abrogate or subvert remnants of Kemalist rule with the aim of fully Islamising the country, but carefully preserve others to pursue the same aim. So in spite of repeated promises to Obama and all and sundry, they refuse to allow the reopening of the country’s only Greek Orthodox seminary at Halki (closed in 1971 when the Turkish constitution of 1961 was properly interpreted: Article 132 specified that only the Turkish Armed Forces and police are allowed to open private colleges). With this, the Orthodox Church established in Constantinople in 330, whose patriarch is still the primus inter pares of all Greek Orthodox patriarchs, can survive only precariously, because another Kemalist survival prohibits the importation of foreign priests.
Turkey was still fully Kemalist when the Armenians fell victim in a catastrophic way to its non-transitive secularism 27 years after the ‘First World War events’ began, and two decades after the widespread if merely incidental killings of surviving Armenians in the course of the 1919-22 Turkish war against the invading Greeks: on 11 November 1942 the Turkish parliament enacted a one-off wealth tax (Law 4305 in its admirably systematic civil code) on all fixed assets, land, buildings, commercial establishments and industrial enterprises. That tax was by no means unreasonable in itself: it was conceived when money was urgently needed to fund Turkey’s military forces in a dangerous phase of the Second World War, when the implicit British guarantee of its security had seemingly been invalidated by Germany’s spectacular advances across Russia and North Africa, which left Turkey as the potential prey of closing pincers. (As it happened, by the time the tax was enacted, El Alamein and Stalingrad had intervened.)
But the way the tax was actually levied was savagely, destructively discriminatory. Wealthy Muslims were to pay a rate of 4.94 per cent of assessed value, which was nominally the agricultural rate (poorer Muslims paid nothing); Greeks were to pay a 156 per cent rate, which was evidently meant to immiserate them; Jews were levied a 179 per cent rate; but to make it perfectly clear that they were at the very bottom of the pile, the Armenian rate was set at 232 per cent. In the event of underpayment or non-payment, the law prescribed the confiscation of all related and non-related wealth attributable to any and all family members, and detention for forced labour. The ensuing events were best described by one of the officials in charge, Mehmet Faik Ökte, whose unvarnished and sincerely contrite account, Varlık Vergisi Faciası, was published in 1951: a mere 15 days were allowed for payment once the notice had been issued to a taxpayer; those who had marketable valuables tried to auction them, or sell them to Muslim shopkeepers; they offered them in street markets, or simply laid them out on their front steps; private homes and any other buildings were sold to anyone who would buy them for whatever they would offer before the deadline of the 15th day (many a Dutch auction was conducted as the days went by); entire businesses or inventories were sold to Muslim competitors for whatever they were willing to pay, thereby largely destroying the remaining non-Muslim merchant class (the wealth of today’s few rich non-Muslims postdates the tax).
Poor non-Muslims, servants, craftsmen and even beggars were also taxed on mostly imaginary wealth, and thus sent straight to work camps. The then immense sum of 324 million liras (equivalent to more than $4 billion in 2015) was collected in 15 days of frantic discounting of bonds, loans and deposits, panicked selling and rapacious buying, followed by the removal of those who hadn’t paid enough, including the old and the sick, to forced labour in open fields, where there were uncounted deaths of Armenians, Greeks and Jews – no Muslim is known to have been detained. Non-Muslim youths whose families could no longer afford to feed them left their confessional or private schools to seek any work that paid them enough to survive; women and girls became servants in Muslim households, waitresses or inmates of Istanbul’s brothels. There were of course many suicides. When emigration became possible with the end of the war, many of the newly impoverished Greeks went to Greece, many Jews left for Israel after 14 May 1948, and the Armenians started on long quests for immigration visas. The wealth tax irreversibly changed Istanbul’s demography and society, though the diminished Greek community was attacked once more, in the 6-7 September 1955 pogrom in which mobs destroyed 73 churches, two monasteries and 26 schools, along with some five thousand homes and shops, 17 per cent of which were actually Armenian-owned (a synagogue was destroyed too), in accordance with the hadith that all unbelievers are one nation.
I have long believed that the very best introduction to the genocide question is Franz Werfel’s novel Die Vierzig Tage des Musa Dagh (‘The Forty Days of Musa Dagh’), that being the coastal mountain on which some 4500 Armenians successfully resisted vast numbers of soldiers, gendarmes and would-be looters until they were evacuated by French warships. Musa Dagh is also the site of Turkey’s single remaining Armenian village, Vak’if, resettled in 1918 when the area was under French rule. Werfel’s characters are his own, but the book starts with very well-documented accounts of the motives and methods of the three protagonists, the ‘Three Pashas’: Enver Pasha, the Ottoman war minister and ‘god of war’ who called for extermination and who would die in 1922 fighting the Russians for pan-Turkism; Talaat Pasha, the minister of the interior after whom many Turkish streets are now named, whose telegrams triggered the deportations in place after place and who was assassinated by an Armenian in Berlin in 1921; and Djemal Pasha, high military commander and mayor of Istanbul, where it all began with the mass arrests and executions of Armenian leaders on 23-24 April 1915. I realise, however, that an author whom I greatly admired at the age of 12, and whose final play became Me and the Colonel starring Danny Kaye, may not appear entirely authoritative to everyone, even though he had full access to the best diplomatic documentation (Germany’s), and was meticulous enough in his research to satisfy that insatiable perfectionist Alma Mahler.
Werfel’s novel provides a vital clue to the reason there was such especial vehemence against the Armenians. Its wealthy hero, Gabriel Bragadian, has returned from Paris to his native village of Yoghonoluk and slides into his dead father’s role as informal leader of his own and the neighbouring Armenian villages; he isn’t a separatist or sectarian but a loyal, indeed patriotic citizen of the Ottoman Empire, which has recently been reformed by the Young Turks. In 1908 their revolution allowed the emergence of political parties, instituted elections and ordained a new pluralist order whereby non-Muslim subjects were elevated into full citizens, who might serve in the armed forces as officers of any rank, and aim for high political office. Werfel’s Bagradian joins the army and serves bravely as an artillery officer in the 1912 Balkan War, as many Armenians may have done in reality: quite a few young non-Muslims believed in the Young Turks promise, including David Ben-Gurion, who went to Istanbul University to study law in 1912, envisaging a future as a community leader-cum-loyal official; in 1914 he personally raised a militia of forty Jews to serve the empire. For many in the Young Turks movement the response of the fictional Bragadian and the real Ben-Gurion was gratifying evidence that the best and brightest non-Muslims would pull their weight in the much needed modernisation of the newly constitutional empire.
But for others, especially for the leaders of the Committee of Union and Progress, which started out as a secret society, became a political party and ended up as the empire’s ruling junta, the Bragadians and Ben-Gurions were a sinister threat precisely because of their patriotism. The non-Muslims were minorities but not insignificant ones, with Armenians and Greeks numbering in the millions; they loomed large in towns and cities, even outnumbering Muslims in a few places, such as Edirne (Adrianople). More important, their exemption from the lethargy of madrassa and mosque gave them advantages over the Muslims in both energy levels and skills. Having long dominated commerce, they might – once emancipated by the Young Turks – come to dominate army and state.
The Three Pashas cited the danger that Armenian revolutionaries and separatists would assist a Russian invasion of eastern Anatolia, but it was the patriots they really feared, just as after 1492 it was not the crypto Jews in hiding that the Spanish elites feared but the ‘new Christians’, who were quickly rising in society and even in the church. The Greeks had their own state in which to pursue their political ambitions, the Assyrians were too few to matter and the Jews were even fewer, so it was the Bragadians alone who were a political threat. Kemal’s eventual remedy would be to try to take the Islam out of the Turk to make him more competitive, but by then the Three Pashas had done their best to eliminate the Armenian competitors.
In Werfel’s novel, Bagradian is concerned when he isn’t mobilised, given that the empire had joined the Central Powers in war in November 1914. He goes to the district capital to find out why, overhears officials, including the provincial governor, discussing Armenians in sinister fashion, and is finally warned of the imminent danger by an old Muslim family friend. It’s the sort of conversation that many had, as Ronald Grigor Suny’s carefully researched history of the massacres shows. He quotes a credible third-party account of what ensued when an elected Armenian member of parliament, Vartkes Serengülian, went to see his erstwhile friend Talaat Pasha to ask about the rumours that Armenian leaders would soon be arrested. The reply was a tirade: ‘Now it is our turn … This is politics … This is our turn, and, now it is we who are strong. We are going to do what is necessary in the interests of Türklük [Turkishness].’
When the Young Turks summoned both Muslims and non-Muslims, both Turks and non-Turks to serve and strengthen the empire that was to be their common home, nothing had been said about Türklük. But in its name, Greeks, Assyrians, Jews and any other non-Turks would soon revert to subject status in a secular version of Islamic dhimmitude that did not exempt Arab Muslims or Kurds (at that point the empire still had vast Arabian, Levantine and Mesopotamian territories). The Armenians, who had their own villages and some towns, as well as their own nationalist organisations, and also potential allies in the invading Russians in north-east Anatolia, were marked for deportation along with Zionist colonists. But there was a vast difference: the Zionist colonists were allowed to prepare themselves before being sent by train to Syrian cities without immediate harm; the Armenians expelled from Bitlis, Iskenderun-Alexandretta, Adana, Aleppo, Diyarbakir, Hadjin, Sis, Sivas, Urfa, Van, Zeytun and elsewhere even before 24 April, were marched out without supplies or any provision for shelter, suffering extreme hardship and deadly violence from the start. Evidently Talaat’s feelings of friendship towards Vartkes weren’t extinguished: he reportedly told him to ‘Go. Leave now, don’t wait even a minute.’ By then Talaat had already sent out orders to decapitate the Armenian secular leadership in Istanbul by arresting some 250 doctors, lawyers, journalists, writers and assorted others, including members of Armenian nationalist organisations as well as of the entirely legal, indeed quasi-official, Armenian National Assembly, headed by Boghos Nubar, son of a three-time prime minister of Egypt. Of those arrested, almost all were soon executed.
Those first arrests started on the night of 23 April 1915 and were completed the next day, when Talaat sent out his deadliest telegrams: one instructed the Ottoman Army High Command to disarm any Armenians in uniform anywhere in the empire, and send them to forced labour; and to arrest any local members of any Armenian organisation, and seize their institutions. Another was the warrant for a much vaster catastrophe: Talaat changed the destination of the mass deportations from central Anatolia, where survival was possible, to the far deserts of Syria, notably Der Zor, to give it its dreaded Armenian name (Deir ez-Zor in Arabic), some 1500 kilometres from Istanbul, and the site of a fine memorial church blown up last September by Islamic State. It was by a series of individual miracles that after many if not most of the able-bodied men were separated early on for deadly forced labour or simply execution, tens of thousands of women, children and elderly survivors arrived at Deir ez-Zor. There, they were killed en masse along the banks of the Euphrates; many times their number had already been murdered or died of thirst, hunger, cold and sickness at the hands of their escorting soldiers and gendarmes, the miserably paid, miserably clothed Zaptiehs. The Zaptiehs scarcely tried to protect the endless processions from the Turks, Kurds and Arabs who came in improvised hunting parties to rob, kill, rape and abduct boys and girls for a day, night, week or for ever. Even now, a century later, Armenian descendants emerge here and there to reclaim their identity in such places as Diyarbakir, the ancient city of Amida on the Tigris river, and in Dersim, now Tunceli province, where the population, mostly identified as Kurdish or Zazaki, may be of Armenian origin in large part; not coincidentally, the inhabitants are mostly of the Alevi Bektashi faith, the world’s largest ignored religion (it has at least ten million adherents), nominally a version of Shia Islam that strongly enjoins toleration, so that they were more likely to save deportees than to kill them.
Pope Francis ’s condemnation of the events of April 1915 was only the first of many in this centenary year. On a visit to Yerevan, Vladimir Putin made a speech deploring the Armenian genocide. The Turkish Foreign Ministry went on the offensive: ‘Taking into account the mass atrocities and exiles in Caucasus, in Central Asia and Eastern Europe committed by Russia for a century; collective punishment methods such as Holodomor [the Ukraine famine of 1932-33] as well as inhumane practices especially against Turkish and Muslim people in Russia’s own history, we consider that Russia is best suited to know what exactly “genocide” and its legal dimension are.’ Coming from a once smoothly professional Foreign Ministry, this wildly aggressive and entirely pointless reaction reflects the influence of Erdoğan on Turkish officialdom. In Austria, six parliamentary parties recognised the massacre as a genocide though the country’s official stance hasn’t changed; Turkey’s response was to withdraw its ambassador with the warning that relations between Austria and Turkey had been damaged permanently. Given that the Turks have traditionally held Germany and the Germans in high regard, it’s remarkable that President Joachim Gauck’s use of the word genocide triggered another unrestrained response by the Foreign Ministry: it called his remarks ‘baseless allegations directed towards Turkish identity, history and society … President Gauck does not have the right to attribute to the Turkish people a crime which they have not committed.’ The anger of Turkish officials has even spilled over against the European Parliament, notwithstanding Turkey’s quest for accession. ‘Turkey ignores all such resolutions as null and void,’ Erdoğan said. ‘Whatever decision the European Parliament takes on the Armenian genocide claims, it will go in one ear and out the other.’ Davutoğlu called the resolution ‘a reflection of Europe’s racism … where are those aboriginal people? Where are the Native Americans? Where are the tribes of Africa? How were they wiped out from history?’
But the most telling response to the international denunciations was the threatened conversion into a mosque of Justinian’s massive and majestic former cathedral, Hagia Sophia, now the country’s most visited museum, thereby punishing the Orthodox worldwide for the pope’s statement on the Armenians, most of whom are neither Catholic nor Greek Orthodox (their church is miaphysite rather than Chalcedonian). The threats came not from wild-eyed imams preaching in back streets but from authoritative voices, including Mefail Hızlı, mufti of Ankara: ‘Frankly, I believe that the pope’s remarks will only accelerate the process for Hagia Sophia to be reopened for [Muslim] worship.’ Politicians, including Bülent Arınç, a deputy prime minister, have been pressing for the conversion for some time: ‘We look at this forlorn Hagia Sophia and pray to Allah that the days when it smiles on us are near.’
One small irony in Erdoğan’s sensitivity about the term ‘genocide’ being deployed against the Turks is that he himself has used the word lightly, accusing the Chinese of genocide for their repression of the Muslim Uighurs and the Israelis of systematic genocide of the Palestinians. (He rejects International Criminal Court charges against Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir because ‘no Muslim could perpetrate a genocide.’) But a larger irony about the Turkish denial of the Armenian genocide is that it is possible to justify it. Their denial is tainted by gross underestimates of the numbers killed – there is no valid reason to dispute the canonical numbering of the dead at a million and a half – but the genocide accusation is nonetheless legitimately disputable. The list of highly distinguished scholars who deny that what took place was a genocide as legally defined include Bernard Lewis, Stanford Shaw, David Fromkin, Justin McCarthy, Guenther Lewy, Norman Stone, Michael Gunter, Andrew Mango, Roderic Davison, Edward Erickson and Steven Katz, and although all of them have had dealings with Turkish academic institutions, none is likely to have bent his opinion to suit material interests. They are joined in their denial by the British and US governments, each of which has presented its arguments in full legal detail within the terms of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, based on the reasoning and advocacy of Rafael Lemkin, a Lithuanian-born Jewish lawyer who practised in Poland before reaching the United States, where he introduced the word ‘genocide’ in his seminal work Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation, Analysis of Government, Proposals for Redress, published in 1944. Formally adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948, the Genocide Convention came into effect in 1951, forming the basis for a new criterion in the law of nations. Lemkin cited the Armenian case as central in his book; at that point the full scope of the Shoah was not yet fully manifest.
The argument of Lewis and the rest, as of the governments that hold out (Obama’s way out is to use the untranslated Armenian term Meds Yeghern, ‘great calamity’), is best parsed by lawyers, but its essence is that the Turkish authorities wanted to kill a great many Armenians but were not fully exterminationist. For Hitler’s Germany, by contrast, the killing of all Jews everywhere was an overriding priority: it devoted scarce manpower and scarcer resources to the task (every rail wagon that carried Jews to the camps had an opportunity cost); it used much political capital in failed attempts to extract the thousand or so Finnish Jews, and the remaining Jews of Romania after its formerly mass-murdering government changed its mind; and it even engaged in high-risk military operations to get just a few more, for example sending very scarce shipping to Rhodes, a long voyage exposed to British air attack, in order to collect its 1600 Jews on 31 July 1944, just weeks before the final German evacuation of Greece.
Evidently the aim was to kill all Jews everywhere at almost any cost. The Turks, by contrast, had no interest in killing Armenians outside their empire, and didn’t try to kill them all even within it, not deporting all Armenians from all towns (a hundred thousand were left in Bolis, their name for Istanbul), and not trying to kill all those they deported; Patriarch Zaven I Der Yeghiayan of Constantinople, for example, was allowed to plead for his congregants on repeated occasions before being deported to Mosul in 1916 without injury, whence he returned to his native Baghdad. In other words, the Turkish authorities under the Three Pashas certainly engaged in mass murder on a colossal scale, they certainly wanted to destroy the Armenians politically and they certainly destroyed many communities, whose survivors became exiles worldwide, but because they didn’t try to exterminate all Armenians, it wasn’t genocide.
Personally, I enlisted long ago with Gabriel Bragadian, and considering subsequent facts up to the present, notably the cruelty with which the wealth taxation law was imposed on surviving Armenians, I find today’s official Turkish position (‘there were killings on both sides’) downright absurd, though too sinister to be laughable. As for the Genocide Convention, I spit on it, given all the difference it has made to the fate of the Cambodians, Rwandan Tutsis, Sarajevo Bosnians and indeed every beleaguered ex-Yugoslav population.