Last Saturday, October 10, an agreement was signed in Zürich between the representatives of Turkey and Armenia, in the presence of foreign dignitaries including Hilary Clinton, normalizing diplomatic relations between the two countries. It provided for the opening of the border between them and setting up a commission of independent historians to study the genocide issue. The agreement has to be ratified by the parliaments of both countries.
On Sunday the foreign ministry of Azerbaijan objected to the agreement on the grounds that there could be no normalization without a deal of the disputed enclave of Nagorno Karabakh. But the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyin Erdogan reassured Azerbaijan immediately that the opening of the border would be tied to progress on the disputed territories.
Turkey has consistently denied that the massacre of Armenians was genocide. For some years Turkey’s resistance to calling the massacre genocide has been a serious stumbling block in the negotiations with the European Union about admission.
The facts, however, are hard to deny, nor that the crimes committed amount to genocide. One wonders how the commission of independent historians, if it ever comes about, can arrive at a different conclusion.
On April 24, 1915, Turkish authorities arrested two hundred and fifty Armenian intellectuals and community leaders. After that, the military took over and uprooted many thousands of Armenians from their homes and forced them to march hundreds of miles into desert country in what is now Syria, depriving them of food and water. Many did not survive.
Would any of this have happened if, in August 1914, the Turks, the heirs of the Ottoman Empire, had decided to join England and France instead of Germany? The decision to join Germany was by no means a foregone conclusion. Both sides had wooed Envers Pasha, the man in charge as leader of the Young Turks who had deposed the last Sultan Abdul Hamid ll in a coup in 1908. And both sides knew that the Ottoman Empire was in the last stages of decay. Even their tax collecting and postal services had to be farmed out. Both sides knew that their military forces might be more trouble than they were worth.
Still, for the British an alliance with the Ottoman Empire was highly attractive from a strategic point of view. After all, it stretched all the way from Europe to the Persian Gulf. Had it come about, the British would have been spared their costly failure at Gallipoli in 1915 and there would have been no need for any Lawrence of Arabia to rouse the Arabs against Constantinople. Constantinople and the Arabs would have been on their side.
For the Germans, Turkey would also be a great prize, mainly because in a war with Russia the Turks could launch an attack from the south while Germany and Austria attacked from the west and south-west. The Kaiser had come to power in 1888 and had a mystical view of the orient. There had been many ties between Germany and Turkey. German banks and German engineers were building a railway designed to connect Baghdad to Berlin. There had been two imperial state visits, during one of which the German empress was shocked to see the unhygienic conditions in the Sultan’s harem. So many flies!
In the four weeks between Sarajevo and the outbreak of war in 1914 the German embassy in Constantinople was lobbying Envers Pasha hard. At the same time there was a lively debate at home among the Kaiser’s advisers whether a Turkish alliance was really worth all that trouble. The doubters lost. The lobbyists won.
Soon after the outbreak of hostilities the German military took over the Turkish military. German generals occupied military headquarters in Constantinople.
A German military attaché – let us called him Major Schmidt; his real name has, alas, been temporarily misfiled – observed in the spring of 1915 that many of the Turkish generals around him were masterminding a massacre of Armenians.
He was appalled and sent a note to Berlin saying so. It was designed to reach the chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg. No doubt it was discussed in the highest circles but it was eventually put aside. This was considered an internal Turkish matter. The first priority was to win the war.
Major Schmidt was a well-educated man. In his note he had said the persecution of the Armenians was the most horrific event of its kind since the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492.