As we enter the centennial years of the conflict between Armenians and Ottoman Empire during World War 1, Armenians have renewed demands for land reparations and an official recognition of an alleged “genocide”. Meanwhile Turks maintain that there’s another side to the story that goes untold or worse, ignored.
In order to find common ground and make true progress we must take an honest look at the complicated history behind the conflict. In doing so it will become clear that it’s not a one-sided story, it’s a complex tragedy in which each side suffered incredible losses.
Founded 1299, in spanning six hundred years, Ottoman Empire was vast. Comprised of multiple ethnic and religious groups which largely coexisted in peace.
But as the empire began to weaken in the nineteenth century European nations saw an opportunity to gain new territory. Taking advantage of a shared religion and manipulating hopes for independence, Russia encourage some Ottoman Armenian groups to incite violent revolts against Turks, in order to trigger counterattacks, encourage foreign intervention and decrease stability.
Starting in 1894 Armenian groups attack several cities across Anatolia triggering a deadly cycle of massacre and retaliation that cost thousands of Muslim and Armenian lives.
The situation was escalated further by the onset of war. The Balkan War was soon followed by World War 1, in August 1914. And the conflict deepened as Armenians sided with Russia and allies against the Ottoman Empire. Armenian volunteers joined the Russian army to invade Anatolia which they hoped would be the site the new Armenian nation with Van as its capital.
As Russian forces moved on after capturing Van in April 1915, Armenian rebels wiped out the Muslim sections of the city. Facing open revolt, Muslim rulers relocated many Armenians outside the war zone, declaring that while they would protect peaceful citizens they were determined to defend their cities and defeat the rebels.
In summer 1915, following a successful counterattack by the Turks, Russia withdrew its forces from Anatolia. Many Armenians, fearing reprisal, retreated to the Russian Empire.
Tragedy continued during these migrations from the Ottoman homeland as many Armenians died of war, starvation, exposure or disease. Meanwhile the Turkish populations who were being deported from the Caucuses, Arabia and Balkans to Anatolia also suffered from same conditions in even greater numbers.
The violence continued. In late 1915 the Russian army, now led by Grand Duke Nicholas, retook cities eastern Anatolia with the help of Armenian citizens who knew the area and once again innocent Muslims were targeted.
But an unexpected turn was soon to come. In March 1917 the socialist Bolshevik Party to control of Russia and signed an armistice with Ottomans. Most Russian soldiers in Eastern Anatolia deserted, leaving a small Armenian force to hold the territory. But within a year, The Ottomans had recaptured Anatolia and the bloodshed continued.
However while the Ottomans won this battle they lost the war. Surrendering to Allied Forces in October 1918. At the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, Armenians reminded the West that their contributions to their cause and asked them to intercede on their behalf. But following a fact-finding mission ordered by US President Woodrow Wilson, the Armenian mandate was voted down. Fearing retribution hundreds of thousands of Armenians fled the Empire to Russia and the West.
In 1920 and 1921 a series of treaties were signed which would end the violence between Turkey and Armenians.
And finally in August 1924 the Treaty of Lausanne was signed in Switzerland. Allied nations recognised the sovereignty at the new Republic of Turkey but did not acknowledge any statehood for Armenia. Failed by its Western allies the dream of an Armenian nation had ended. Not to be realised until more than fifty years later. Armenia only achieved independence in 1991 with the dissolution the Soviet Union.
During these dark years of war, more than 2 million lives were lost. And these were not just orthodox Christian Armenia lives, but Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Turks, Arabs and Kurds.
A brief honest review of this conflict makes it clear that there’s no simple allocation of right and wrong between Turkey and Armenia. Thorough historical research would be required to fully understand this highly complex and nuanced series of events in order to heal the deep wounds on every side. This complex history must be examined with clear eyes and hearts. Then we can stop looking back at the last century and begin focusing on the next 100 years, finding new opportunities for dialogue, cooperation and peace.
Read our articles for facts about Armenian Issues and the conflict.