As we enter the centennial years of the conflict between Armenians and the Ottoman Empire during World War I, Armenians have renewed demands for land reparations and official recognition of the alleged genocide. Meanwhile, Turks maintain there’s another side of 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 of genocide – it’s a complex tragedy in which each side suffered incredible losses.
Founded in 1299 and spanning 600 years, The Ottoman Empire was vast - comprised of multiple ethnic and religious groups, which largely co-existed in peace.
But as the empire began to weaken in the 19th Century, European nations saw an opportunity to gain new territory.
Taking advantage of a shared religion and manipulating hopes for independence, Russia encouraged some Ottoman Armenian Groups to incite violent revolts against the Empire, in order to trigger counter attacks, encourage foreign intervention, and decrease stability.
Starting in 1894, these groups attacked several cities across Anatolia, triggering a deadly cycle of massacre and retaliation that cost thousands of Muslim and Armenian lives.
In 1908, there was a brief chance at peace, as Turkey’s new Committee of Union & Progress government took power, and began working on a series of economic and social reforms in partnership with its Armenian citizens.
But these hopes were dashed by the onset of war. The Balkan War was soon followed by World War I in August 1914, and the conflict deepened as Armenians sided with Russia and the Allies against the Empire.
Armenian volunteers joined the Russian army to invade Anatolia, which they hoped would be the site of a new Armenian nation, with Van as its capitol. 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 counter-attack 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 starvation, exposure, or disease.
The violence continued. In late 1915 the Russian army, now led by Grand Duke Nicholas, re-took cities in 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 took control of Russia, and signed an armistice with the Ottomans. Most Russian soldiers in Eastern Anatolia deserted, leaving a small Armenian force to hold the territory. But within a year the Ottomans had re-captured 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 of 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. Betrayed by Western Allies, the dream of an Armenian nation had ended.
Finally in December 1920, the Treaty of Alexandropoi was signed, ending the Turkish-Armenian conflict.
During these dark years of civil war, more than 2 million lives were lost. And these were not just Orthodox Christian Armenian lives – but Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Turks, Arabs and Kurds.
Taking an honest look at this history, makes it clear that there is no simple allocation of right and wrong in the conflict between Turkey and Armenia.
In order to heal the deep wounds on every side, this complex story 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
To learn more and take action, visit turkishprogress.org.