1915: Turks died, too
by Professor Justin McCarthy, University of
During World War I, Anatolia, the Asiatic section of modern Turkey, was the scene of
horrible acts of inhumanity between Armenians and Turks. For many decades, the history of
the conflict between the Turks and the Armenians has primarily been written from the
viewpoint of the Armenians. It is a viewpoint that emphasizes the deaths of Armenians but
completely ignores the deaths of Turks.
The Armenian position has been effectively publicized. Every year in Congress, a group of
representatives attempts to pass a bill that says the Turks were guilty of genocide.
Newspapers feature articles on events in Turkey in 1915 as if they were today's news. Over
the weekend, the Public Broadcasting System carried the historical visions of Armenian
producers all across the country.
Unfortunately, effective publicity does not ensure accurate history. What has been
presented as truth is, in fact, only one side of a complicated history that began more
than 100 years before World War I.
Lands occupied one by one
In the late 1700s, Russia embarked on the conquest of all the peoples around it. Those who
stood in the way of expansion to the south were Turks and other Moslems. One by one, their
lands were occupied by the Russians. In the Crimea and in the Caucasus region, the Moslems
were forced to emigrate. Those who resisted, especially in the Caucasus, were slaughtered.
The czar wished to have a loyal population in the new lands. Therefore, Russians and other
Slavs were imported into lands newly emptied of their Moslem inhabitants.
McCarthy dines with Turkish-American
students from the University of Pennsylvania
after presenting a talk
It was not possible to populate all of the
conquered lands with Slavs. The Russian population was hard pressed even in filling the
more northerly lands. A different policy had to be adopted south of the Caucasus
Mountains. The Russians took the southern Caucasus region from two Moslem powers Persia
and the Ottoman Empire. They had reason to fear that the Turks in the provinces that
bordered the Ottoman Empire would rebel against their rule. To meet the threat, they
adopted native Christians as their proxies. The Armenians, who were scattered throughout
the Caucasus and in Anatolia and Persia, were to be used much as the Slavs had been used
farther north, as a Christian group that would replace expelled Moslem Turks.
The Russians could promise many benefits to the Armenians. Those who sided with the
Russians could hope for better economic conditions as part of a European empire. Like
other Middle Eastern peoples, the primary identification of the Armenians was religious.
They were convinced of the superiority and ultimate triumph of their Christian faith, and
the opportunity to side with a great Christian power was seductive. Perhaps later there
would be a chance for independence.
Armenian cooperation with the Russians began when Armenian armed units assisted the
invading armies of Peter the Great and acted as spies against their Moslem rulers.
Armenians were subsequently to become Russian soldiers and even generals who lead the
The best example of the effects of Russian Armenian cooperation was seen in the province
of Erivan (today the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic). Before the Russian invasion of
Erivan, the majority of the population was Moslem. As the Russians defeated the Turks and
Persians in 1827 29, 30 percent of the Moslems of Erivan either died or emigrated. They
were replaced with greater numbers of Armenians from Anatolia and Persia. Many more
Armenians came to Erivan in the years to come, creating what today is Armenia.
Exchange continued for a century
The exchange of Armenian and Turkish populations
continued for a century. With each war between the Russians and the Ottomans, more
Moslems died, more fled. and more Armenians came. By 1922, more than 1 1/2 million
Moslems had emigrated from the conquered lands.
In the late 19th century, Armenian revolutionary movements sprang up in the Ottoman
Empire. They sought to create an independent Armenia in eastern Anatolia, in lands
that were three quarters Moslem in population. The Russians gave their support
whenever they felt they could use the revolutionaries.
After unsuccessful bloody uprisings in 1895 and 1909, the revolutionaries' chance
came in 1914, when Russia went to war with the Ottoman Empire. Armenian rebellions
broke out all over the empire, and Russian arms and even Russian uniforms appeared
from hidden caches. Tens of thousands of Armenians formed themselves into guerrilla
bands. The largest city of southeastern Anatolia, Van, was captured by the Armenian
rebels in April 1915, and many Moslems in the city and surrounding villages were
killed. The city was held until it could be turned over to the invading Russian
army. Throughout eastern Anatolia, Armenian bands attacked villagers wherever they
found them. In turn, Turks and especially Kurdish tribesmen attacked Armenian
villages. It was the beginning of a bloody war.
For five years, Armenian peasants and the Russian army battled Turkish peasants and
the Ottoman army. Most of the peasants undoubtedly wanted no part of the fighting
but were forced by circumstances to take sides. Starvation and epidemic disease
killed many times more people than bullets or knives did.
Because of the rebellion, the Ottoman government decided that it could not trust the
Armenians. Orders went out to deport all Armenians from dangerous areas. The
Ottomans, who were fighting a Russian invasion and vainly trying to defend Moslem
villages from Armenian guerrillas, spared few soldiers to defend the columns of
Armenian refugees moving to Syria. Many of the columns were attacked. and many
Armenians were robbed and killed by Kurdish tribes or corrupt officials. However, to
put the suffering of Armenian refugees into perspective, twice as many Moslems as
Armenians were forced from their homes because of attacks by Russian soldiers and
When the Russian Revolution destroyed the czar's power in Anatolia, a new Armenian
Republic attempted to hold the territory that the Russians had conquered. They were
defeated by the Turks, and as the Armenians retreated, they killed the Turks who
fell into their hands. Cities such as Erzincan were left in ruins, with Turkish
bodies filling the streets. Armenians who failed to escape with their retreating
army were killed as well.
In Erivan and other parts of the Caucasus under the control of the Armenian
Republic, Turkish villages were destroyed. and the inhabitants were forced to flee
or die. Two thirds of the Moslems who had lived in the province of Erivan in 1914
were gone at war's end. A similar fate met Armenians in Turkish Azerbaijan.
In the end, almost 600,000 of the Anatolian Armenians had died. Almost 3 million
Anatolian Moslems had died, more than one third of them in eastern Anatolia.
Mortality in the Caucasus was similarly proportioned.
Why have we in the West formed such a one sided view of the
Armenian question? It is a matter of sources and prejudice.
The events of World War I in Turkey were seen in the West only through the eyes of
American missionaries and Armenian propagandists. American Protestant missionaries had
worked extensively with Armenians and had been instrumental in creating Armenian
nationalism. The missionaries reported the murders of Armenians by Turks. They did not
report the murders of Turks by Armenians that were occurring at the same time. Their
reports were collected by the US ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Henry Morgenthau, who
disseminated them. Morgenthau believed that the Turks were an inferior race and openly
printed his view that Turks had "inferior blood." It is no wonder that his
observations were colored by his prejudices. Yet it is his reports and the reports of
others like him that have formed our histories.
If it seems odd that Americans of that time were so deeply prejudiced, we should reflect
on the general attitude of our ancestors toward non Europeans and non-Christians. Asiatics
and Africans were routinely described as inherently inferior to Europeans and Americans.
Respect for and knowledge of non Christian religions and peoples was virtually
nonexistent. Only in recent years have scholars begun to examine other evidence. There are
Ottoman military records that tell of massacres of Turks and Kurds by Armenians,
eyewitness accounts by Russian military men of Armenian atrocities against Turks, evidence
of Americans who saw the destruction of the Ottoman East by Armenians. Most important,
there is demographic evidence that tells us, for example, that 60 percent of the Moslems
of the province of Van, where the Armenians began their rebellion, died in war. Such
evidence belies claims of a one sided massacre. It does very accurately describe an awful
war, one in which both sides were heroes and both sides were villains.
Those who bring forth such evidence are often vilified as unobjective and pro Turkish. But
is it less than objective to state that both Turks and Armenians were killers and that
both were victims? Can such be called a pro Turkish view? Unfortunately, we have not yet
reached a time when the Armenian-Turkish conflict is studied as we would study any other
A search is on
Today, a search is on for proof that the Ottoman
government ordered genocide for the Armenians. What has appeared so far would be
unacceptable in any other historical inquiry such as a few telegrams in poorly
forged handwriting produced by an Armenian and entered in no telegraph records;
reports from trials in which no objective evidence was produced and the accused were
not allowed to defend themselves. Evidence that indicates the Ottomans intended no
genocide is, like the deaths of the Turks, ignored. Yet the accusations will
continue as long as nationalist sentiment guides the studies.
It would be better, I believe, to approach the Armenian-Turkish conflict as a study
of the sufferings of the Armenians and the Turks. The nationalist feelings of today,
whether Armenian or Turkish, have no place in the study. We should examine the fate
of the millions who died in Russia's expansions efforts and consider the effects of
revolutionary movements that pursued an ideal over the bodies of their own people
and of others. We should study what occurs when a government is too weak to defend
its people. The important questions are human questions, not national questions.
On April 24 of ever year, Armenians gather to remember their dead. They grieve for
lost family and the lost homes of their grandfathers, as is proper. It should be
remembered that Turks, too, grieve for their dead.
The preceding is from tetedeturc.com/Armenien/turks_died_too.htm