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6-10-2015, 11:36

The persecution of the Armenians

As is well known, the Young Turks’ confrontation with the Christian communities during the war was not limited to the business sector, for beginning in early 1915 they carried out a large-scale persecution of the Armenian community. There is a voluminous, but also very polemical, literature on the subject, both by Armenians and by Turks and supporters of the Turkish position. Nevertheless, I think the testimony of the survivors, the reports of German and Austrian officials (allies of the Young Turk government of the day), and the proceedings of the post-war court martial in Istanbul, which tried a number of people accused of involvement in genocide, all offer convincing evidence that an inner circle within the CUP used the deportations (which were horrendous enough in themselves) to execute a planned ‘ethnic cleansing’ or genocide of the Armenian population. While many Ottoman provincial and military officials opposed the killings, the provincial party chiefs and special emissaries pushed them through, utilizing the forces of the Special Organization.26

The persecution of the Armenians can be understood only in the context of the traumas suffered previously by the Muslims of the empire, fully one quarter of whom were either fugitives from Russia and the Balkans or the children of fugitives. Those same Young Turks who ordered and executed the wholesale killing of Armenians had seen the European provinces where many of them were born and raised lost in the Balkan War. They joined the CUP while serving in the fight against separatist Greek, Macedonian and Bulgarian bands in Macedonia and Thrace, and now they were convinced that what had happened in the Caucasus and the Balkans was about to repeat itself in Anatolia. In this sense the genocide was a product of the reactive Muslim nationalism that motivated the Young Turks.

At the same time, the persecution of the Armenians shaped and polarized identities in Anatolia. After the massacres, no Armenian could regard himself wholeheartedly as an Ottoman citizen. The thousands of Muslims who had been directly involved in the persecution and the hundreds of thousands who had witnessed them, could no longer envisage living in anything but a Muslim state. This was, of course, especially true for the CUP functionaries from top-level politicians, military leaders and provincial governors down to the Special Organization thugs who did the actual killing. These people then were the first to support the struggle for continued Ottoman Muslim independence in Anatolia, known in Turkish historiography as the Millt Mucadele (National Struggle) or Kurtulus Savasit (Liberation War). It is no exaggeration to say that the period of the national independence movement (between 1918 and 1920) and the subsequent war for independence (between 1920 and 1922) was the zenith of Ottoman Muslim nationalism.