1915 Legends and Realities

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One of the main subjects that the "Turkish thesis" insists upon in discussions of the events of 1915, is the exaggeration of the number of slain people in Armenian circles. How many people died or were actually murdered? In a world, where Generals responsible of the murder of 7,000 people in Bosnia were sued for having committed the crime of genocide, this is a very weird argument. In addition, those taking part in this argument don't seem to be aware of the simple reality that the 1948 definition of genocide by the United Nations doesn't consider the principle of "killing" as a necessary condition. That's why claiming that the number of casualties is from 50,000 to 600,000, rather than 1 to 1.5 million, has no importance, and for this reason [this claim] is not taken seriously. It's perceived and interpreted as an indication of the panic of being guilty. This is a reality that our people don't see and don't want to see. What we need to know is that all the numbers given about Armenians - dead or alive - are conjectural, including in the first place the number of 600,000 given by A. Toynbee in the year 1916 when deportations and deaths still continued. The only official statistics were provided by the Ottoman Government after the war. After the fall of the Union and Progress party from power, one of the first tasks of the newly formed cabinet was to investigate this matter. In December 1918, a Commission was formed upon the initiative of the Interior Minister Mustafa Arif (Deymer). The Commission worked about 3 months, and the conclusions were made public by the Interior Minister of that time, Cemal Bey, on 14 March 1919. According to the Ottoman State Archives, the number of Armenians slain during the period 1914-1918 is 800,000 (Vakit, Alemdar, Ikdam, 15 March 1919). The fact that during the deportations and killings 800,000 Armenians lost their lives is a well-known and repeated fact by everybody during an entire period of time. At the head of people using that figure is Mustafa Kemal [Atatürk]: Mustafa Kemal said during a meeting with the American General Harbord that 800,000 Armenians were killed. (Memories of Rauf Orbay, "Our Recent History", Vol. 3, Pg, 179)

How Should the Turks be Punished?

Concerning this subject, the second source is a book published in 1928 by the General Staff about the losses of World War I. The book, published by Lieutenant-Colonel Nihat, is the translation of a French book, and the figures related with Turkey are provided after modification and correction. According to the numbers given by the General Staff "800,000 Armenians and 200,000 Greeks died because of massacres and deportations, or in labor battalions" during the First World War. Y. H. Bayur, who transmits this information, says that "these figures should also be considered correct by our official sources". (Y. H. Bayur, The History of Reforms, Vol. III, Part IV, pg. 787). It may look amazing, but the reality that what happened in 1915 was a mass murder was accepted by everybody having lived in that period, and was never the object of an argument. Of course the word soykirim [genocide] (being a term belonging to the post World War II period) was not used in those days. To describe what had happened in 1915, words such as "katliam" [massacre], "taktil" [killings], "teb'id" [taking away, expulsion, expelling], "kital" [massacre] were used. Mustafa Kemal has dozens of speeches in which he defines the treatments reserved to Armenians as "cowardice", or "barbarity", and names these treatments "massacre". In September 1919, the American General Harbord, who visited Mustafa Kemal in Sivas, says "he, too, disapproved the Armenian Massacre." According to Mustafa Kemal, "the massacre and deportation of Armenians was the work of a small committee who had seized the power" (see the above mentioned work of Rauf Orbay.) Again during the same period, in an interview given to the USA Radio Newspaper, he says, "we have no expansionist plan...we can give the guarantee that there will be no new barbaric deeds against Armenians." (Bilal Simsir, British Documents on Atatürk, Vol. I, pg. 171, Ankara 1973) In a telegram sent to Kazim Karabekir on 6 May 1920, he directs Kazim Karabekir to abstain from any initiative, meaning a new "Armenian Massacre". (Kazim Karabekir, Our War of Liberation, pg. 707) In a speech made on 24 April, he describes the treatments reserved to Armenians in 1915 as "cowardly". (Atatürk's speeches in public and secret sessions of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, vol. I, pg. 59), etc.

Not only there was no argument of the fact that the treatments of Armenians was a massacre, on the contrary it was openly defended that the guilty persons should be punished. There were a series of correspondences between the Cabinet of Ali Riza Pasha and Mustafa Kemal in September 1919. The War Minister Cemal conducting the correspondence on behalf of the Istanbul Government required that Mustafa Kemal make a declaration stating "the perpetrators of all sorts of crimes committed during the war will not avoid legal punishments." In his reply, Mustafa Kemal says, "our most special desires are the exposure and punishment of misgovernment during the war, to understand that in our fatherland the responsibility is shared equally by the ordinary people and the leaders alike, as well as to understand that the era of law has started in an impartial manner and with justice". He adds that he considers "more appropriate and useful" that this punishment "be shown to friends and enemies by putting it into practice, rather than be made of publications on paper in the advertisement style, which would lead to many arguments". That is, the punishments expected by Mustafa Kemal were not to be left on paper for advertising purposes, but they were in the form of concrete actions. (Speech, Vol. III, Documents, Document 141-2, pg. 164-6) The trial of those guilty of massacres was also discussed in the deliberations of Amasya. During the deliberations, decisions were made about five protocols, three of them being public and two being secret. In the first protocol dated 21 October 1919, the punishment of the criminals was considered in two separate articles: "1- The resurgence of the Unionism, of the idea of the Union and Progress, and even the appearance of certain signs of it are politically harmful. 4- It's judicially and politically necessary to legally punish those who committed crimes during the deportations". The third protocol was about the elections which would take place, and the necessity of hindering the participation in the elections of those unionists sought for because of their participation in the Armenian Massacre was agreed upon. For this reason, Anatolia reserved itself the right to intervene in the elections and it is said "The presence at the Delegation of Deputees, to be convened, of those whose personalities and Unionism are connected with their wicked acts, and those sullied with issues of deportations, massacres, and other wicked acts incompatible with the real interests of the nation and country, is unacceptable and that presence must be hindered by all possible means." (Speech, Vol. III, Document 159-160, pg. 193-4)

It is possible to quote examples over several pages. What I want to explain is the following: the fact that what happened in 1915 was a mass murder was not even the subject of an argument in any manner from the viewpoint of the actors of that period, with Mustafa Kemal at their head. The main discussion of that period was organized around the axis of the deliberations of Paris, and it was about how the "Turks" should be punished for the Armenian Massacre. To put the criminals on trial was one form of punishment. Another form was the partition of Anatolia. That is, the Western Powers were hiding their imperial ambitions mainly behind the reality of Armenians having been killed. Mustafa Kemal and his friends accepted the reality that those responsible of the massacre should be punished, but opposed that this punishment be in the form of the partition of Anatolia. Today, rather than producing lies and legends, if we make the position of Mustafa Kemal on this subject our departure point, and continue our discussion from there, we shall have covered a fairly long distance.

Taner Akcam




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