Why do Armenians Commemorate 24 April 191524 April 2008
Armenians in the Ottoman Empire on the Eve of WWI: An Overview
Until WWI, Armenian Christians were one of the main communities populating the Ottoman Empire. In the 19th century, Ottoman Armenians were divided into three communities: the Armenian Apostolic (or Gregorian), the Armenian Catholic and the Armenian Protestant. The Armenian Apostolic community was the largest, headed by the Patriarch of Istanbul. After 1864, the Patriarchate of Istanbul evolved a broader base, and included an elected national administration. . .
So, what was the physical presence of these Armenians in the Ottoman Empire? According to the last census of the Patriarchate of Istanbul in 1913, on the eve of WWI, there were approximately 2 million Armenians in the Empire, inhabiting 2,925 town quarters and villages. These communities had 1,996 schools with over 173,000 male and female students, as well as 2,538 churches and monasteries of varying description. So, one could say there was a vibrant and rooted Armenian presence in the Empire.
While Armenian artisans and merchants were very visible—because they dominated much of their professions in urban centers—the vast majority of Armenians were peasants and lived alongside Turks, Kurds and other Muslim and Christian communities.
Following the 1908 Young Turk revolution, a number of Armenian political parties were also active in Ottoman politics. Some were Ottomanists and worked within the political structure of the Empire, while others were more critical of the Ottoman system of government.
The largest Armenian organisation, which ran the day to day affairs of the community—was the Istanbul Patriarchate. Armenian Protestants and Catholics also had a comparable ethno-religious structure.
[Slides: Armenians in the Ottoman Empire: Population, churches, schools]
The Armenian Genocide of 1915
Given the presence of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, when we talk about the Armenian Genocide, we refer to the destruction of over 2,000 Armenian communities—through the expulsion and killing of people, the ruin of communal infrastructure such as schools, libraries, and churches, as well as the loss of private property. If one were to go to the provinces of modern Turkey today—where most Armenians in the world lived before WWI—practically nothing can be seen or is acknowledged of the historic Armenian presence there.
Regarding the mass killing of people, a central component of the 1915 genocidal process, we have substantial evidence from different sources—beyond noting the disappearance of thousands of people.
Just to give you an example of why I believe that the Ottoman state carried out systematic murder during this period, I would like to mention one incident in the Harpoot (Elazig) plain. There are other similar examples from the Harpoot region, as well as other parts of the Ottoman Empire. I use the Harpoot plain as an example because:
1. Around 40,000 Armenians inhabited over 50 town-quarters and villages in this area. Not one village was left intact by the end of 1915.
2. The Harput plain was not a battlefield during WWI, so it is clearer to decide what happened to Armenians there. The state had absolute control at all times, there was no form of resistance, including during the so-called deportations of 1915. The local Armenian population was passive and made no efforts to defend itself when victimised.
3. Many foreigners were present in the region and recorded what was happening. One of the most important sources we have from this area was Leslie Davis, who was the United States consul there.
What did Consul Davis Say?
Consul Davis reported that a reign of terror against Armenians had already started in May 1915 and got much worse in June. Many men were arrested and re-arrested, together with hundreds of others. "On the night of June 23, 1915, several hundred of the most prominent Armenians were sent away in ox carts from the local prison to an unknown destination… all [of] these men were massacred somewhere near Arghana Maden, about half way between Harput and Diarbekir….” The exact number of people deported and killed in this caravan, initially called the caravan of 800, was estimated at 979. Davis stated that several survivors of this group returned to Mezereh and related what had happened. Some government gendarmes also bore witness to what had happened to these Armenians. Davis concluded that the shooting and killing of people a few hours after their departure from Harput showed that "the real intention of the Government is not to exile them but to kill them.” Davis recorded more such killings in the subsequent weeks. He also visited some of the locations where thousands of Armenians had been killed a few hours south of Mezereh (Elazig).
However, not all Armenians were killed outright. Once young men and community leaders were liquidated, the authorities began the deportation of the remaining population—with few exceptions—to Syria. Some of these deportees suffered and died from privations on their way to exile, something Davis witnessed amongst Erzeroum deportees when they passed through the Harput plain. There was no doubt in his mind what deportations entailed.
What happened in the Harput region in June-July 1915 was fairly typical and was repeated elsewhere, including in such regions as Sivas, Erzerum, Diyarbekir, and Yozgat provinces. In all cases such persecutions were totally unexpected by the victims, and the typical response from Armenian community leaders was to accept such abuse in order to avert worse disaster, which, of course, is what happened.
In many ways, events in Istanbul on April 24th—two months before the general deportations and killings of most Armenians living in the provinces—fell into a similar pattern. It was on the evening of April 24th, 1915 when Ottoman police began the arrest of a large number of Armenians in Istanbul. Approximately 220 men were arrested in one night, and gathered in the Central Prison (Mehderhane).
The arrested prisoners came from all walks of life, and most of them were intellectuals and community activists. They included members of political parties, community activists, journalists, doctors, teachers, merchants, artists. It was not clear why they were all arrested, and no reason was given by the authorities.
The following day, on April 25th, these men were taken to Sarayburnu, where they embarked on a waiting ship and taken to Haydar Pasha train station. They were then taken into the interior of Anatolia. They were not told where they were going. They spent a night at Eskishehir and continued their journey eastwards. They disembarked at Sinjankeoy on April 27th, where they were divided into two groups. One group was sent to Ayash, the other to Changiri.
After the prisoners were separated into groups, the situation seemed a little clearer: Those who were sent to Ayash were the mainly political intellectuals. This group of 70 or so prisoners was imprisoned and kept under armed guard. The larger group of around 150 was sent to Ankara, and then taken by carts to Changiri, where they were initially imprisoned in an old army barracks, and then allowed the freedom of the town. They were simply required to report to the police station every day.
Why were they arrested?
The prevailing rationale amongst the prisoners for their arrests was because the Ottoman Empire was at war, there was fighting at the Dardanelles, and Ottoman authorities suspected many Armenians to have sympathies for the Allied powers (Great Britain, France and Russia). The mass arrests, they thought, were probably a precautionary measure to stop any potential trouble from Armenian quarters.
However, most of those arrested could easily protest their innocence. They assumed that the authorities had made a mistake and they waited for an opportunity to prove their innocence. They thought time was on their side.
A small number of people, however, were simply afraid, because it was obvious that the arrested were mostly harmless individuals, and they doubted the motivation of the government in arresting them. They suspected that there were more sinister reasons for these arrests, but they did not know what those reasons were.
The Fate of the Prisoners
We know a great deal about these arrests, the names and profiles of most of the arrested, and the manner in which they were initially treated. This is because some of the prisoners were released and survived their ordeal, and they wrote down their experiences. The key sources we have used for this paper are Aram Andonian (Chankiri), Mikayel Shamdandjian (Chankiri), and Krikoris Balakian (Chankiri), Piuzant Bozadjian (Ayash).
To give an account of what happened to the arrested, based on the above sources, we can summarise as follows:
About 20 men were allowed to return to Istanbul following special representations made on their behalf by foreign ambassadors (such as ambassadors Morgenthau, Wangenheim, Pallavicini). A few were also released because their arrest was due to mistaken identity. A few survived miraculously, such as Aram Andonian, who broke his leg and was hospitalised—and missed the death caravans of his fellow inmates.
In the case of the 70 men sent to Ayash, the majority of the prisoners were killed. Krikoris Balakian lists 62 prisoners by name, and records that 45 of those named and 13 of the others were killed. That is 58 men killed out of 70 imprisoned.
In the case of Chankiri, where initially 150 prisoners were sent, 81 people were deported from prison in three caravans starting in June 1915. They also disappeared and were reported killed. The balance of prisoners were expected to remain in exile and not to return to Istanbul.
However, we know very little how the Ayash and Cankiri prisoners were actually murdered. They were marched away and never heard of again. In the case of Taniel Varoujan and Roupen Sevag’s group of five, we are reliably informed that they were killed near the village of Tuney by a Kurdish thug and his gang. It is not clear how the gendarmes in charge of these five men allowed the killing to take place. According to Andonian, a second group of men (24) were shot and buried at Elma Dagh.
Krikoris Balakian lists 69 of the prisoners in the Changiri by name and states that 25 of them were killed. Balakian suggests that most of the balance was also killed, but he does not provide any names.
So, the men arrested in Istanbul on 24 April 1915 were taken into state custody. From the moment of their arrest, the government was responsible for whatever fate befell them. The fact that they were not formally charged and not allowed a defence speaks volumes. The arrests could only be seen as a political exercise, directed by the Ittihadist government. These men were not arrested for what they did, but what the government wanted to do in the months ahead. Clearly the law was used as an instrument of power, not for justice.
Because these Istanbul Armenians were arrested before the general deportation and massacre of Armenians in the provinces, the April 24th arrests have been seen as a significant step towards what is now called the Armenian Genocide of 1915. The April 24th arrests liquidated the cream of the Ottoman Armenian intelligentsia, drove others into hiding, and paved the way for the liquidation of provincial Armenians.
Until recently, the Armenian issue was treated as a taboo in Turkey. In some ways, it is still challenging how to discuss the matter. However, it is now clear that Armenians, and the issue of 1915, are part of the common history of this land. Should Turkey continue down the democratic path of openness, I am sure Turkish archives will yield more information that is relevant to our topic today, and we will come to a better understanding of our common past. It is in this spirit that I have presented my commemorative talk on why we Armenians commemorate April 24th as probably the blackest page in our history.