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Taner Akçam. Turkish Historian about the Turkish National "I" and Some of Its Specifics

Taner Akçam. Turkish Historian about the Turkish National "I" and Some of Its Specifics

"Belated" Turkish National "I" and Aggressiveness Caused by the Desire to Catch Up

For the first time ever the Turks began to seriously think about their national "I" only at the outset of the 20th century. In 1898 Hungarian Orientalist scholar Wambery wrote that he was surprised when in Istanbul he did not meet anyone who would be seriously interested in the problem of the Turkish nationalism and Turkic languages. Back then and even at the outsets of the XX century Turkish history was not taught in Ottoman schools. The main reason for the disappearance of Turkish "I" is the strong religious-cultural pressure of the Arab world. The impact of the Islam was so strong that Turkish language never became an official in any of the Turkic countries and up until the end of 12th century they used Arabic language. The reason for denying the nationalism was also due to the fact that propagation of such ideas could lead to the collapse of the Empire, and the Ottoman leaders were well aware of it. They proclaimed pan-ottomanism the "official" ideology, which was supposed to unite all the people of the Empire as Ottomans regardless their ethnic and religious origin. After the Balkan war of 19121913 when the majority of ethnic minorities had parted with the Ottoman Empire, the pan-Turkic entity got rid of the enforced sleep and the Turks finally talked loudly about their existence and started to pursue a policy of turkification of the population. The belated awakening and the desire to catch up led to the naked aggression of Turks against other ethnic groups.

Indeed Turkism was not a very desirable alternative. Firstly, because back then "Turk" had a pejorative meaning and some people were ashamed of their Turkish origin. Secondly, the main goal was to save and preserve the territorial integrity of the Empire, and Pan-Turkism pushed away both Christians and Muslims of non Turkish origin. Therefore the rulers of the empire tried to preserve the unity of the society through the doctrines of the pan-Ottomanism and pan-Islamism to the bitter end.

The belated awakening of the Turkish national consciousness had led to the prevalence of racist tendencies in it. The Turkish nationalism was fed upon the racist, Darwinian theory about the nations. Turks tried to prove that their pejorative race neglected by everyone, in fact was the highest one. 

Turkish National "I": Reaction against Permanent Inferiority Complex 

The Turkish national "I" was formed as a reaction against the constant disparagement. In fact pan-Turkism became an expression of despair, a hopeless and inevitable escape from the inferiority complex. In the history of the Ottoman Empire the term "Turk" was used in an offensive way. It was used to describe rude and ignorant people. That is why the Ottomans did not like to be called Turks in the West. The animus widely spread among the Ottomans towards the Turks was preconditioned by the following factors:

1. The Ottoman statesmen were not Turks by their origin. According to the ancient tradition, the children of Christians, converted to Islam, were educated appropriately and as specialists they were hired in the Ottoman bureaucracy high ranks. And so it only makes sense that they eyed the Turks askance and despised them. 

2. Defeat in the war against Timur. In the battle of 1402 the Turkish feudal of Anatolia "betrayed" the Ottoman dynasty and defecting to the side of Timur the Lame, conduced to the defeat of the Ottomans. The statesmen of non Turkish origin took advantage of this factor to instill hatred towards the Turks of Anatolia among the Ottomans who were deeply affected by the defeat.

3. The Arabic-Islamic studies are one of the main reasons of turkophobia prevailing in the Ottoman society. In the Ottoman religious schools: madrasah the base of the education system were the works of Arab-Muslim authors presenting the Turks in a derogatory way and comparing the latter with animals. Slanderous expressions for Turks can be found in almost all the fundamental works of Islam. 

4. The riot of alevi Turkmen. Throughout the history of the Ottoman Empire the peasants of Anatolia were organizing riots against the central government. The riots were for social-religious purposes and reinforced the anti-Turkish sentiments among the Ottoman bureaucracy. 

5. The foreign historiography was due in no small part to the formation of scornful attitude towards the Turks. It is common knowledge that in the historical works devoted to the Middle Ages and the Modern Age there are plentiful expressions characterizing Turks as barbarians and bloodsuckers. The stereotype of the Turk formed back in the middle Ages has retained its vitality in the Modern Age.

So, what else can people who have struggled with the inferiority complex throughout their history do, if not to try to prove their superiority. As to the evidence of superiority of the Turks, arguments such as formation of World Empire and predominance over other nations are often repeated. The right for living space was granted to the other nations provided they recognized the hegemony of the Turks. Even when Pan-Turkism did not exist yet and pan-Ottomanism and Pan-Islamism were being circulated, the advocates of these doctrines made it clear that through these concepts they mean the undeniable supremacy in the society of the Turkish element. Hence, it is no coincidence that the first attempts of introducing the ideas of Pan-Turkism into the language and literature were conducted by the same people who only yesterday were advocating Pan-Ottomanism and Pan-Islamism. This conclusion is of utmost importance to comprehend the essence of discussions about nationalism.

Double Standard of the West. Hostility towards the Christians

The riots of the ethnic minorities allowed the imperialists to intervene in the internal affairs of the Ottoman Empire; almost all the ethnic minorities found themselves a defender. The Christians who were only yesterday considered as second-class citizens, though proclaimatory were set equal to the Muslims in their rights, obtained certain privileges. The mentioned was apprehended by the dominant nation as "betrayal".  The obvious consequence of this was the intolerance towards the democratic demands of the Christians. As a result the "Islamic supremacism" came into being, which did not recognize the equality or superiority of Christians. 

The Turkish nationalism was also fed upon by irredentism born as a result of defeats, Muslim violence and territorial losses. From the middle of the XIX century huge amount of Muslims who fled from the massacres, settled in Anatolia. This had an impact on the national consciousness on the Muslim Turks. Particularly there was a dramatic amount of massacres and escape of Muslims during the Russian-Turkish war in 1877-1878.  This was followed by Muslim massacres and deportation during the Balkan war. The refugees were deliberately settled in the territories with Christian population. These miserable people who had a narrow escape from the massacres were soon to become the willful executioners of ethnic minorities in Anatolia, and firstly of the Armenians.  To get an idea about the extent of resettling of Muslims, for example between 1878 and 1904 about 850 thousand refugees settled in the vilayet with compact Armenian population.  The sense of vengeance of the Ottoman-Turkish elite caused by the territorial losses was directed towards the ethnic minorities, living in those territories.  And for all the "sins" of Greeks and Bulgarians who the Turks could not "take revenge" during WWI, the "ungrateful Armenians were supposed to take the consequences of it who collaborated with the Imperialists and stabbed the Turks in the back". 

The formation of the Turkish nationalism was greatly influenced by the fact that Europe responded only to the rumors of extermination of Christians and the fact of the massacres towards the Turks and other Muslims were ignored.  The problem is not only extended beyond the double standard and the unfair attitude towards us. The bottom line is that in our eyes Christian minorities become the main culprits of such attitude.  In brief the essence of the Turkish official version resolves itself to the following: there were neither massacres, nor genocide, there were simply actions by the Muslims provoked by the Christians in an effort to ensure the intervention of the West into the internal affairs of the Empire. This leads to an important conclusion for our research. The mass slaughter of the Christian minorities is explained away with this logic. The conviction that the whole world is unfair towards us is based on one important fact: accusing the Christians of "betrayal" and the West of intervening into our internal affairs we are used to hiding behind these accusations and ignore the anarchy and pressure that we have in fact.  We constantly avoid the discussions about the violation of rights of ethnic minorities reasoning that they are weapons in the hands of the external force.  And today it is one of the outstanding features of our national character.

The struggle against the coalition of the imperialist states and their own Christian subjects largely affected the Turkish psychology. The idea that they are part of collapsing society and that the motherland must be protected by all means assimilated their knowledge. The number one task of the Ottoman-Turkish intellectuals was to create common values and aura capable of ensuring peaceful co-existence of different people and nationalities within the borders of one state. All the national movements were proclaimed as a matter of life or death for the Turks and were suppressed with peculiar ferocity. How much are justified the fear, emotions and the suspicions of the Turks? Where is the borderline between reality and fantasy? A part of the listed factors undoubtedly coincide with the objective reality. However they were exaggerated to such an extent that the society really freaked out and became aggressive. Within special terms the mentioned factors, the list of which can be added, opened the door to the barbaric action as the Armenian genocide.

The Armenian Massacre and the Genocide of 1915

The Turkish national "I" formed in the atmosphere described above should have shifted the responsibility for all the losses onto the Christian society on the territory of the Ottoman Empire. That is what happened. The Armenians were presented a bill for the Christian minorities separated from the Empire.   And they paid a rather high price, because Armenians in bad time resorted to the similar tactic and tried to obtain some rights through attracting the attention of the foreign powers. The Ottoman leaders already knew this tactic perfectly.  Moreover, the same tactic in the Balkan cost them dearly.  Lost territories, hundred thousand refugees, Muslim massacres, constant mockery by the West. Therefore the government was not going to stay in the role of an observer while spinning the old movie and was getting ready "to suffocate the child (Armenians) while in the crib".

The Armenian massacres in the Ottoman Empire have a long history. As per their nature and format of execution it is critical to break them down to three stages. The first stage covers the period 1890—1909, the second one covers 1915—1917, the rest begin after 1918. The massacres of the Armenian population have a rather interesting evolution. At the first stage, there were more of a local nature and were implemented within the framework of the policy of systematic pressure on the non Turkish ethnic and religious groups.  This policy was pursued not only by the government. The ways of implementing them were as follows: 

1. Continuous attacks of Kurdish and Muslim tribes on the Armenian villages, plunders, abduction of girls, mass murders.

2. Civil war, collision of Muslims with Armenians and slaughters executed during the collisions.

3. Massacres, executed by the state forces under the veil of collecting taxes, prosecutions of gang of bandits, suppressing riots and "unrest" of the Armenians.

Since the 90s of the XIX century the type of massacre against the Armenians began to sharply differ from the similar actions implemented against the other minorities. The government started to play the "Pan-Islamism" card.  A campaign arouse in the society humiliating the Armenians both as an ethnic and religious group.  The authorities started to pursue a racist policy against the Armenians.  In contrast to other Christian people the massacres executed against the Armenian people were centralized and organized by the official authorities.  The attacks on the Armenians and the massacres executed against them were used to strengthen the influence of the state among the Muslim population.  At the same time unambiguous exhortation to the mass extermination of the entire nation was urged as a way of solving the Armenian issue which they began to fully implement by 1915—1917. What factors contributed to its implementation?

The main factor indeed was the "right atmosphere" created as a result of WWI. Although there were elements of racism in the Islamic mindset of the Ottomans, it is hard to say if they had a racist program of eradicating Armenians as an ethnic group.  Even during the first months when the contradictions and the tensions between the Armenians and the Turks were plain to see there were no evident signs that the "Union and Progress" party was going to slaughter the Armenians. The researchers of the issue agree that this kind of decision was made up late February early March of 1915.  

Undoubtedly, the peculiarities of the Turkish national "I" had no smaller part in it.  Dispirited and insecure leaders of the Ottoman Empire thought that the WWI would provide them the historical possibility to restore the past, but all these hopes were soon dissolved leaving room for pessimism and fear, the fear for the near end.  The defeats in the war one after another hastened the climax.  And the defeat at Sarykamish was a real disaster.  As a result of the defeats, the lands that were still in the hands of the Turks should have been passed to Armenians.  Before the war the Turks were provided with a reform program (in the Armenian regions) that they managed to avoid only with the beginning of the war. This state of mind is directly relevant to the Armenian genocide.

The official date of the Armenian genocide is considered April 24/25, 1915, but it is rather symbolic, as the deportations and the mass murders started long before the mentioned date. It is worth noting here that there are no documents containing the decree and the order to exterminate the Armenians. The existing documents were published immediately after the deportations and they contained expressions like: "resettle the Armenians into the other regions", "resettle and accommodate in the regions designated well in advance for this purpose" and etc.   Without dispute there are telegrams sent by Bahaddin Shakir, responsible for the extermination of the Armenians. The content of one of them is the following:  "Are there any Armenians exterminated or simply deported? Report as soon as possible". Although such telegrams denote a planned massacre, but there is no official government decree available. One can have the more or less full picture of the sequence of events based on the evidence of witnesses, reports of the consuls or from the words of the foreign military officers, sisters of mercy or missioners who were in the region back then.  Conspicuous is the fact that the messages of these people serving in different places and developing reports independently from each other are basically congruent suggesting about the existence of one program to exterminate the Armenians.  It is a very important moment as the Turkish side constantly adheres to the version that there is no fact of systematic extermination.

In fact the peculiar part of the Armenian genocide is its seeming chaos. At first view one has the impression that this is not about a planned action but about series of massacres, executed by the controlled crowds as a result of habitual negligence of the local authorities.  Through murders, abductions, famine it was necessary to reduce the number of the deportees to ensure visibility of deportation.  For us it makes little difference whether the genocide was an action planned by the authorities.  There are many documents proving the involvement of the government in this action.  Even the fact that no efforts were made to organize the relocation of an entire nation in the point of departure, along the route and in the new areas of resettlement proves the intention of the government to wipe Armenians off the face of the world.   The ability of the government to call this action inadvertent leaves heads spinning.

Armenians were proclaimed as suspicious and slippery nation long before the war. Back on September 6, 1914 the Ottoman government sent to the vilayets with compact Armenian population encoded decrees demanding to constantly follow the heads of the political parties and leading figures of Armenians.  With the beginning of the war the wholesale desertion enveloped some Armenian soldiers too. There were cases when a number of Armenian detachments led by well-known figures, crossed the border and joined the voluntary troops in Russia.  And in different parts of Anatolia Armenian armed groups were formed who fought both against the government troops and the Kurdish ashirets. The Ottoman-Turkish official bodies also include these actions among the reasons that led to the Armenian genocide.

The war increased pressure on the Armenians.  In the vilayets of western Armenia attacks on the villages were carried out, plunders and murders locally were executed under the veil of collecting taxes and persecuting runaways. In this action the main role is assigned to the Kurdish regiment "Hamidiye" and "Teshkilyat-i Makhsusa" organization.  Before too long they will conduct the mass slaughter of the Armenians. 

"Teshkilyat-i Makhsusa" organization mainly consisted of people released from the jail, also Muslim refugees from the Balkan and the Caucasus. Some of them claimed that they went through special trainings to execute the massacres during the genocide. For this purpose they underwent a special training under the supervision of the Ministry of Military Forces. In the first months of the war the raids, plunders and murders executed by the units of this organization reached to such an extent, that the governors of several vilayets started to complain about them and demanded from the government to do away with this kind of hideousness.

The defeat of the Turkish army at Sarykamish became a turning point in the anti-Armenian policy.  As per the decree dated February, 1915 all the Armenian military servicemen were disarmed and working groups were formed from them.  Used for road construction or cargo transportation these groups either died from famine or cold or were physically exterminated.

The second wave of repression began after the famous events in the city of Van. According to the Turkish version in April, 1915 in Van the local Armenians who were defending themselves for a month, until Russian troops entered the city, revolted. On April 24/25 this event was used as a pretext for the numerous arrests of Armenians in Istanbul. But in vilayets the arrests began on April 19 and continued up to May 19th. In some places the arrestees were publicly executed to intimidate the others. All the above mentioned served for a shared objective: to minimize the resistance of the Armenian population against the deportation. At the same time all the Armenians were terminated from the public service and were forbidden to travel within the country.  

The issue of disarming the Armenian population was raised long before the war. The troops of "Teshkilyat-i Makhsusa" were especially successful in implementing it.  The disarmament of the Armenian population and the soldiers, the arrests and the executions of the leaders of the Armenian community; all the mentioned were preventive actions before the systematic extermination. 

The official decision about the deportation was made on May 27, 1915 and was published in the "Resmi gazete" on June 1, 1915. However, the deportation of Armenians began in March.  The most massive deportations and massacres were carried out in the Eastern vilayets, where in the event of the defeat of the Ottoman Empire the Armenian state could be formed.  The deportation of Armenians from these vilayets began in May and ended in early August.  

The form and methods of deportations and massacres in different regions were of different nature. In a number of places the population was advised in two hours' time, while in other places they were given five days. But, as a rule, these terms were fictional.  In some places the Armenians were allowed to take with themselves some belongings, but there were regions where the sale and purchase of their property was forbidden and there were even executions of Muslims who had dared to buy the property of the Armenians. 

As a rule, the menfolk were exterminated before the deportation. And in places, where the "cleanup" was not implemented beforehand, at the very first rest stop the men were separated from women and children and were killed by different methods.  In addition to members of the "Teshkilat andi- Makhsus" and Kurdish ashirets, the military forces (especially the gendarmerie) and the civil population also participated in the exterminations.  There were cases when the civil population protected the Armenians, but there were also cases when the gendarmerie had to protect the Armenians from the civil population.   

After the deportation from the eastern vilayets was completed in May—July, the eviction of Armenians from Western Anatolia and Thrace began.  The first place of destination was the city of Aleppo in Syria.  Those who reached here alive were placed in concentration camps.  Getting out alive from these concentration camps was considered a miracle. From here they were sent in two directions: southern Syria or Eastern Mesopotamia, i.e. the Arab desert...It was equal to death.  The camps built up in the desert were apparently to become graves for Armenians. They were not only exterminated in their own hands but they also established conditions when famine, thirst and diseases decimated the Armenians.  A witness who visited the death camp in the Arab desert made a good point: "here they do not kill people immediately to ease their suffering but prefer to torture them with lingering death".  It is the new "achievement" of the civilization.   For sure slaughter is less legal than starvation death.  This way the Turks saved "the image of the civilization".  By the end of 1916 the deportation was completed.

It is unknown the exact number of people exterminated during the deportation. In 1919 at the trial of the leaders of "Unity and Progress" party, they were mentioning 800.000 people.  Johannes Lepsius talks about 1 million victims.  Data from other sources fluctuate between 600.000—1,5 million people.

The result is obvious.  As Talaat Pasha said during the conversation with the representative of the German embassy Forst Hohenlokh-Langenburg on August 31, 1916, "La question armenienne n'existe plus" ("The Armenian question does not exist anymore").


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