April 24, 1915 100 Years Later: What Really Happened to the Armenians?

Umit Kurt

Umit Kurt

By Ümit Kurt

The question in one sentence: “What happened to the Armenians on April 24, 1915?”

What happened on April 24 in fact is one of the significant radical moments in the process of extreme violence and mass annihilation of the great tragedy, which befell the Armenians. For it was through a decision taken on April 24, 1915, that the route of the deportation of the Armenians, which actually began in February to March 1915 in Dörtyol, Adana, Marash and Zeytun and was planned to go to Konya, evolved to go out of Anatolia and to stop in Syria.

On that same day, first in Istanbul, and later in all of the provinces of Anatolia, the arrest of Armenian intellectuals began, which would continue as long as July 1915 and lead to the murder of many around Çankiri, Ayas and Ankara. Again on the same day, troops of the British Empire began to bombard Çanakkale from land and sea. The wrath of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) leaders of the Ottoman Empire, feeling pressed into a corner and their existence threatened, fell first of all upon the Armenian community and afterwards on all non-Muslim Ottoman subjects.

“What happened in 1915?” “In 1915, did the central administration of the Committee of Union and Progress (the triumvirate of Enver, Talat and Cemal and the two physicians, Drs. Nazim and Bahattin Sakir, who organized the entire deportations and massacres) truly carry out a systematic, planned policy of annihilation of the Ottoman Armenians?” It is well known that official Turkish historical literature and its representatives have wandered around all sides of these questions — to the left, to the right, to the front and to the back — but in a word have avoided answering them. They attempt to cover up the numbers of Armenians who lost their lives during the deportations with calculations “proved by documents.” They have not shown themselves interested in historical problems such as “what happened for the Committee of Union and Progress [CUP] regime to decide to follow such a policy of massacre against the Armenians?” or “what process led to this point?”

Let us give its name without any hesitation. Yes, Turkey continues in the course of a 100-year policy of lies and denial. And with great desire, arrogance and determination, it continues this mendacious policy anew with new techniques and methods. It has so internalized this deceitful policy that lies have been turned into the truth, and the truth has been turned into the regime. We live under a “truth regime of deceitful policy.” This regime has been able to preserve itself up to a certain period. It built itself protective castles and created a strong ideological discourse, an infrastructure and an important indoctrination process with which to buttress itself. For this purpose, the bureaucrats of the “truth regime,” intellectuals, and all possible ideological and bureaucratic tools for the carrying out this deceitful policy have been mobilized. An entire country, with its public opinion, media, History Foundation and Higher Education Foundation, central Ottoman archives, universities, military General Staff, War History Office, Ministry of Education, and Board of Education and Discipline, through history curricula and teachers, and through the education faculties created by those teachers, has twinned itself to a historical event which took place 100 years ago.

The historical understanding represented by the Turkish Historical Foundation (Türk Tarih Kurumu, or THF), which has become the possessor of nearly the entire inventory of the deceitful denialist policy toward the 1915 events, is directly connected to the project of creation of a homogenous Turkish national state, which was directed, conditioned, and finally crystallized by the Committee of Union and Progress by the end of 1912, and after 1923 put into practice in a perfect manner by the Kemalist regime. Let me make clear that in this way, the CUP’s operations decreasing the Greek and Armenian populations of Anatolia and its policies intending to put the Muslim Turk element in a dominant position greatly aided in the work of the Kemalists. The thick walls built by this historiographical understanding devoted to a mission specific to itself, distant from an engaged perspective — or from any perspective, are being greatly eroded. The hegemonic discourse in the public sphere has been greatly weakened.

To see the parameters of the THF’s historical understanding, it is sufficient to look at the section devoted to the Armenian events in its website. The documents used by the THF have been greatly falsified. The mistake of the THF and its representatives on this subject is that they do not actually consider what happened in 1915 to be a subject of discussion. Instead, what happened is clear to them based on the “sacred” documents and archives which is in their possession. The decision taken by the CUP regime for deportation was legitimate, in accordance with the law, and essential for the security of both the Ottoman army and the Armenians living in the deportation zones.

This given and a priori “truth” is for them a fact, and gradually becomes objective and normal. Later, after subjecting all documents, archives and sources to fabrication in the name of proving this, they use this manufactured truth. All these processes produce “truths” for the safety of the regime. Very well then. Has the Armenian Research Department of the THF, that respected ideological tool of the “truth regime,” looked for an answer to the following questions in the massive book and works it published on the 1915 events and deportations?

How was Turkish national identity formed, and by means of which historical actors? What really took place in 1915? Whatever the justifications and causes, did the CUP carry out a policy of annihilation of Armenians who were Ottoman citizens living in Anatolia? How and why did the CUP come to this point? What sort of atmosphere, what type of social and historical conditions resulted in such a tragedy? If the existence of Armenians in the southeastern and eastern regions of the Ottoman Empire constituted an element of insecurity under wartime conditions that had to be controlled, why was the “Armenian deportation” not restricted solely to those districts where Armenian and Turkish/Kurdish bands (çete) clashed with one another, but was also carried out in regions where such clashes were not numerous or did not occur at all like in Inner or Middle Anatolia (including Trakya/Thrace and Tekirdag)? Is it possible to have access to the archives necessary for forming an opinion on the dimensions of the wealth, both economic and social, which belonged to the Armenian people who were uprooted?

Why, in the year 2005, when the Title Deed Land Registry General Directorate wanted to transcribe to modern Turkish, digitalize, and transfer to the General Directorate of the State Archives (of the Republic of Turkey) the land registry documents from the Ottoman period found it its own archives, through the project named TARBIS (“Land Registry Archive Information System”), did Brigadier General Tayyar Elmas, president of the National Security Council’s Mobilization and War Preparation Planning Office, through his letter signed August 26, 2005, act as obstacle, writing “the information contained in the register books in question concerning the Ottoman period may become the fodder for ethnic and political exploitation”?

Very well — did the CUP leaders not use a dual mechanism with two parallel command systems, one written and the other oral? Did they not succeed in destroying the orders and cipher telegrams that were found objectionable after reading them? Was a first order not invalidated through a second order sent through a certain channel? Is the “Armenian Department” of the THF, which for decades was making “serious preparations” and getting ready to issue “new books,” invalid due to their falsifications, the department whose former director said “our scientific reflex will be very tough,” going to respond to all these questions with the reflexive “the documentation is here”? Are we not going to be able to evaluate these events without this “document fetishism,” simply looking at what is written in the document, but instead employ the perspective of “historical interpretation” that is one of the most basic elements of the historiographical discipline and methodology?

Can we not discuss this issue without “finding the document”? The construction of a “national state” and the transformation of Atatürk nationalism into the official ideology does not only occur through the syndrome of “saving the state” of a political establishment. Are we not going to see the existence of a connection, which cannot be omitted, with the calculations of the material interests (the economic dynamics) of a social sector ascending in this fashion?

Instead of examining the official state discourse and the writing of official history which is offered as an indispensable part of the Turkish educational system with a critical approach, it is clear that people have sanctified and dogmatized it. What has been related up until now showed that in history, the national state and national identity had been made into a taboo and the determinant of everything. Consequently developing a critical perspective concerning official historiography is indispensable, and now inevitable. It is very difficult to ignore how problematic and destructive a potential it has in the creation of Turkish national identity and how it forms the source of many of today’s problems.

However progressive a structure the nation state has been from the point of view of modernity, it is clear that the national identity which establishes the nation state is based on the liquidation of those whose identity is not included as part of that state. Now a serious critical history and historiographical understanding which interprets history, historical events and processes without slipping into “document fetishism” exists in Turkey. If it is necessary to be more clear, today a process is taking place of coming to accounts with Kemalism and the “truth regime” which it created from top to bottom, and confronting the operation which was seen appropriate for this people who were deracinated, with the discussion of the “1915 events” halted and their results wiped out from their memory, and dehistoricized. Because what happened in 1915? Everything was burned, finished and turned to ashes.

(Translated from the Turkish)


Ümit Kurt, a native of Aintab, Turkey, with a Bachelor of Science degree from Middle East Technical University, and a master’s degree from Sabancı University, is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the department of history at Clark University and an instructor at Sabancı University. He is the author of several books, including “Türk’ün Büyük Biçare Irkı”: Türk Yurdu Dergisinde Milliyetçiliğin Esasları (1911-1916) (İletişim, 2012) [Great and Hopeless Race of the Turk: Fundamentals of Turkish Nationalism in the Turkish Homeland Journal]; Kanunların Ruhu: Emval-i Metruke Kanunlarında Soykırımın İzlerini Aramak (İletişim 2012] with Taner Akçam. The latter has been published in English as The Spirit of Laws: Seeking the Traces of Armenian Genocide in the Laws of Abandoned Property (B