The Armenian genocide

27 April, 2021

Conmemoration of the Armenian Genocide in Yerevan this week
Conmemoration of the Armenian Genocide in Yerevan this week

The US has acknowledged the Armenian genocide. From Bosnia to Azerbaijan via Turkey and Armenia, the declaration seems to have opened the cesspool of nationalist narratives, myths and delusions. But what was the Armenian Genocide? Who were the perpetrators? Why has the mere acknowledgement of its existence generated an international political earthquake? What does the Biden administration intend to do now?

In this article

In order to understand the Armenian genocide

The Panhellenic "great idea". The goal of Greek nationalism well into the 20th century was the creation of an ethnically homogeneous Greek nation on the territory of present-day Greece, Turkey and Cyprus
The Panhellenic “great idea”. The goal of Greek nationalism well into the 20th century was the creation of an ethnically homogeneous Greek nation on the territory of present-day Greece, Turkey and Cyprus

The breakdown of the Ottoman Empire began in 1821 with the Greek War of Independence, well fueled by the major European powers of the time: Britain, France and Russia. The mixture of Ottoman feudal terror, Greek romantic nationalism and the orthodox clergy-driven religious warmongering among the peasantry gave ideological cover to the first great ethnic massacres of the century in Europe.

Cheered, meddled with and manipulated by the contending global powers, the urban petty bourgeoisies of the Ottoman Empire in Europe will embrace throughout the 19th century national projects on the Greek model, i.e., based on a non-existent ethno-religious homogeneity.

The destiny of the nation will not be, as it happened to be in Argentina, Brazil or the USA, to extend over a largely unexplored cartographic territory, but to assert itself over a territory shared with other ethnic groups which, as was common in the great feudal empires, were associated with social strata. For instance, Bosnian and Albanian Muslims were in the majority among state administrators, Greeks and Armenians in certain trades, Jews in some manufacturing and workshops…

What as a general tendency will determine in each case the territory to which the new urban bourgeoisies aspire as national homeland will be the existence of a peasantry of the same ethnicity, leaving the urban minorities of other ethnicities as uncomfortable local minorities, and the minorities of their own ethnicity in areas of peasantry of another group, as territorial aspiration.

Obviously, the maps that each bourgeoisie made of its own nation clashed with those of its neighbors. But in principle, every attempt at statehood, including that of the very brief first republic of Macedonia – whose territory included Bulgaria and a piece of today’s Greece – will pursue policies to nationalize minorities and, through the new bourgeois institutions such as public schools, homogenize populations.

They will find again and again in the clergy – Muslim or Christian – of the minorities to be absorbed a strong resistance, especially in the rural world. And in the clergy of their own ethnicity – reactionary to bourgeois liberal principles – the main ally of their territorial hopes.

The inevitable result will be states incapable of effectively centralizing and homogenizing – in the style of the French revolution – the territories they claimed. Also an ideological and military apparatus deeply marked by extremely conservative -if not reactionary- forces that will shape all nationalisms from Croatia to Greece and will slow down or condition, in one way or another, the emergence and development of the various national capitals.

But it is the birth of a Turkish national project from the remains of the Ottoman feudal state at the beginning of the 20th century which finally detonates the Balkan map.

The cycle of genocides and massacres that began at that time, of which the Armenian genocide was an outstanding part because of its horror, is nothing but the form taken by national construction under the new historical conditions. A cycle of genocides that will replicate the inhumanity of the Armenian genocide by projecting it to the horrors that end in the partition of Cyprus in 1976, the crimes against humanity during the Yugoslav implosion from 1991 and still happen nowadays in Nagorno-Karabakh or the Kurdish para-states.

Turkish national liberation

Ottoman territories in Europe in 1912, on the eve of the First Balkan War.
Ottoman territories in Europe in 1912, on the eve of the First Balkan War.

What was so unique about the Turkish national liberation that upset the old balances between mismatched ethnic and national boundaries and ultimately set in motion the Armenian genocide, the first genocide of the 20th century?

As Rosa Luxemburg once pointed out, the Turkish national liberation is the first of a new era marked by the development of imperialism.

The first party of the bourgeois revolution, the Young Turks, went in a very short period of time, from 1908 to 1912, from a typical bourgeois revolutionary program to a totalitarian model of state capitalism. In this first phase they govern moreover in association with the liberals, who hoped to integrate the minorities into the new national project which still encompassed a certain territory.

But in 1912 a counter-revolutionary attempt is followed by the outbreak of the Balkan wars. Turkey virtually loses its European territories, nearly a million Muslims are expelled from the new Christian countries and must take refuge in Anatolia and Istanbul.

The nationalism of the Young Turks, seeing the territory on which they hoped to create a bicontinental capitalist market cut off, shifts course. It becomes the party of militarism and the accelerated creation of a finance capital around and from the state.

Thus, Turkey will be the first national liberation to consciously aim for a state capitalism and to define an imperialist program of its own… and instead of questioning the game of European imperialisms, it will tie its fate to the same German finance capital which strangles it.

That is, Turkey is the confirmation of Rosa Luxemburg’s theory of imperialism as opposed to Lenin’s.

Note. Rosa Luxemburg thought of imperialism as a whole, a stage of global capitalism which determined each national capital, therefore every national capital would be imperialist whether it wanted to be or not, given that the general conditions were imposed on it through the world market.

Lenin on the other hand thought that imperialism was a terminal stage of the most concentrated capitals, which although it impacts on global relations does not impose on other national capitals imperialist needs (access at all costs to new markets and investment destinations) nor does it shape them internally (direction of finance capital, centralization in the state, etc.). Therefore, for him the national bourgeois revolution could still represent a progressive rival to the global development of global imperialism. He was wrong.

The two phases of the Armenian genocide

The immediate context of the Armenian Genocide was the largest ethnic cleansing in Europe before World War II. Between 1919 and 1923 nearly four million people were forcibly displaced - and often massacred along the way - in deportations and "population exchanges" between Turkey, Greece, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria.
The immediate context of the Armenian Genocide was the largest ethnic cleansing in Europe before World War II. Between 1919 and 1923 nearly four million people were forcibly displaced – and often massacred along the way – in deportations and “population exchanges” between Turkey, Greece, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria.

The experience of the Balkan wars, the influence of almost a million refugees who were the victims of European ethnic cleansing and the totalitarian dynamics of state capitalism will change the Young Turks’ position on national identity. Minorities and their nationalisms are no longer seen as a temporary phenomenon to be absorbed, but as a threat and a danger to the construction of a state and thus a national market.

Enver Pasha. Leader of the Young Turks and top organizer of the Armenian Genocide
Enver Pasha. Leader of the Young Turks and top organizer of the Armenian Genocide

The outbreak of the World War and the alliance of Armenian nationalism with Russia precipitated the ethnic cleansing that prolonged and shaped the Armenian Genocide. In 1915 Enver Pasha, Minister of Defense and one of the founders of the Young Turks, began to order attacks, massacres and finally the massive displacement of the Armenian population. The aim was to homogenize the rearguard at all costs.

From isolated massacres, the systematic organization of an Armenian genocide was rapidly developed. The goal was purely and simply the physical elimination of Armenians from the territory.

After the Turkish defeat and armistice in 1918, the Young Turks lose power. The so-called three pashas fled and were tried in absentia by the Ottoman state itself for war crimes against the civilian population of the… Ottoman civilian population. It is then that the methods of this first phase of the Armenian genocide become known in all their horror.

It is estimated that in this phase of the Armenian Genocide more than one million Armenians were murdered by the Ottoman state. The vast majority in horrific ways.

But in reality, the Armenian genocide does not end by a long shot with the Turkish defeat, the trial of the Pashas and the occupation of the Ottoman Empire by the Allies.

The capitulation treaty included a certain right of return for the Armenians of southern Anatolia who had managed to reach Syria (which included present-day Lebanon, Palestine and Israel) alive. Indeed, many of them would return to look for relatives, belongings and property. When they did, they encountered the Turkish War of Independence (1919-23), the Kemalist ascendancy and the final push of Turkish nation-building, which took the form of a widespread ethnic cleansing that was to be the second phase of the Armenian Genocide.

The final phase of Turkish national liberation, led by Kemal Atatürk, far from disavowing the Armenian genocide, takes it up and extends it. It is estimated that the number of Armenian returnees murdered rose to 200,000 people. To the murders of returning Armenians was joined the systematic genocide of the Pontic and coastal Anatolian Greeks in the Aegean. The genocide of Pontic Greeks involved the murder of more than 480,000 people.

But the mass deportations continued past the war and the constitution of Kemalist national Turkey. They were in fact completed by the Lausanne treaty of 1923 which fixed the Turkish borders and included a massive exchange of minorities between the new nation states (see map above).

In all, in the immediate post-World War II period between 1919 and 1925, nearly four million people were forcibly displaced – and often massacred along the way – in deportations and “population exchanges” between Turkey, Greece, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria.

What became of those who fled the Armenian genocide to the North

Death of Enver Pasha by riflemen of an Armenian battalion of the Red Army, as imagined by cartoonist Hugo Pratt.
Death of Enver Pasha by riflemen of an Armenian battalion of the Red Army, as imagined by cartoonist Hugo Pratt.

The Armenians of Southern Anatolia sought refuge in Syria and, those who returned, suffered a second genocide.

But the immediate repercussions of the Armenian Genocide did not end there. Armenians from Northern Anatolia came to the southern borders of the Russian Empire attracted by the Tsarist promise to help them reach Armenia and allow the constitution of an Armenian national state at the end of the conflict.

Of course, these promises were false, as was proven by the triumph of the October Revolution, when the government of the Soviets published the secret agreements of the Tsarist diplomacy with the British.

Quite a few of the Armenian refugees went to work as laborers in the Azeri oil fields and industries. And in that capacity they would participate in the Revolution in 1917 and the following years. We have counted almost half a dozen Armenian delegates in the Baku Soviet, which organized the insurrection in parallel with those in Moscow and Petrograd in October.

But not all Armenians had taken refuge in Azerbaijan and even fewer had become proletarians. A good part had been spread throughout the Caucasus. At the outbreak of the civil war, the Mensheviks, with the help of German imperialism, attempted to establish, from their control of Georgia, a Transcaucasian Federative Republic which included Azerbaijan – after massacring the Baku soviet – and Armenia.

However, in the course of the civil war Azerbaijan would be liberated by the Red Army and Menshevik Georgia would leave the Transcaucasian federation within a few months in exchange for further German support, leaving the weak state of the Armenian Mensheviks at the mercy of the Turkish army, which was nonetheless an ally of Berlin but had its own imperialist agenda.

From then on the Armenian Menshevik republic will live in war and for war with the Ottoman Empire, the remnants of Azerbaijan and Menshevik Georgia and finally the new Turkish republic, losing territories and seeing its population decimated. We could even speak of a third phase of the Armenian genocide during this period because the strategy of the Turkish armies will be one of annihilation in many cases.

Truth be told, in the Caucasus the Armenians of Anatolia would not stop being massacred until 1920, when the Armenian battalions of the Red Army entered Yerevan and the Menshevik republic was dissolved without resistance to become a republic of Soviets.

Meanwhile, the ultimate perpetrator of the first part of the Armenian genocide, Enver Pasha, had fled to Central Asia after obtaining from the Soviet government a passport to cross Russia and attend the Congress of the Peoples of the East organized by the International in liberated Baku in 1920.

His project, which he will present at the congress, will be to revolt the Turkic-speaking peoples of Central Asia to form a Turkic national state of their own. Although the Bolsheviks loathed such a personage, with their outdated theory of national liberation they thought that a Turkic republic in Central Asia would weaken the European powers, and especially Britain and Germany, struggling to control the oil outlet route from Iran.

But in reality Enver Pasha could not aspire to much more than being a puppet of the imperialist great powers and the most reactionary tribal forces of the Turkic world. His main military target was not the invading troops of distant imperialisms but the Red Army.

He was killed fighting against the troops led by Trotsky in 1921 by a shot from an Armenian Red Army rifleman. Soviet Armenia and the Bolsheviks celebrated this as a metaphor: the ultimate perpetrator of the Armenian genocide was dying at the hands of an Armenian battalion of the workers’ army as the old world of genocides and militarism would die at the hands of the world proletariat.

What was the Armenian genocide really all about?

One of the many terrible scenes of the Armenian Genocide
One of the many terrible scenes of the Armenian Genocide

During the period of the bourgeois revolutions and the rise of capitalism, the citizen-centric model of the French Revolution aimed to absorb local differences into a great national culture emancipated from feudality. But this model could only work where the absolutist state had previously substantially flattened the ethnification of the social strata. In Western Europe, the differences will end up being reflected in the different role of anti-Semitism in the national construction of France and Great Britain, on the one hand; and Germany, Poland and Russia on the other.

But in the Ottoman Empire – and later the Austro-Hungarian Empire which would absorb a good part of its European territories – the ethnicized layers were not limited to a minority. Its entire territory, from Iraq to Bosnia and from the Caucasus to Libya, was crammed with a whole series of bureaucratic and commercial strata which, in the new context, would develop aspirations to national bourgeoisie without counting on an environment homogeneous enough to configure a synthetic national culture capable of homogenizing a national market to a sufficient degree.

In addition, as we have seen, the competition to win over their own peasantry will make these budding young bourgeoisies hostage to the clerical strata, giving an essentialist character to the attempts at territorial regrouping. Thus, with Greek independence, the ethno-religious massacres and population movements began.

But what were one-off moments within the processes of national construction changed in the context of a capitalism entering decline and reorganizing the bourgeoisie around the state, the weaker the national capital, the more virulent it became.

What was already an insurmountable tendency in the processes of bourgeois national construction became qualitatively worse. With state capitalism the militaristic, totalitarian and repressive features in the state grow to take center stage. Population management becomes part of state planning and linguistic and cultural homogenization turns into ethnic cleansing, mass deportations and genocides.

That is why the Armenian genocide cannot be analyzed in isolation, as if it were an exceptional historical event with specific perpetrators. It has to be put in a context in which mass deportations, massacres, ethnic cleansing and genocides were to follow. It is not something left in the past either, the massacres of genocidal vocation continue to this day, organized by practically all the capitalist states and governments with the most varied ideological excuses and the unfailing support of external imperialisms.

The great lesson is that national construction in decadent capitalism is inseparable from ethnic cleansing wherever there is ethnicization of social classes or layers thereof. And that ethnic cleansing in a context of unbridled state totalitarianism associated with war and the militaristic upsurge is very easily converted into genocide. The Armenian genocide was the first in a long series that will not end until we do away with nation states.

Why is the Armenian genocide a topic right now

Allegory of the Turkish national revolution and constitution of 1910
Allegory of the Turkish national revolution and constitution of 1910

Although the Armenian diaspora is usually linked to the genocide, the reality is that since the 13th century there were already minorities scattered throughout the Middle East, the Levant and Europe. In fact it will be Turkish national development from 1890 onwards that will for the first time in contemporary times significantly increase the flow of emigrants to regions where communities and commercial interests owned by Armenians already existed.

On that basis the surviving refugees of the Armenian genocide who originally fled to the South would attempt to settle. It is from that time that the emergence of a large Armenian community in Lebanon will in turn be the origin of contemporary Armenian migration to France, Argentina and the U.S.

Having seen the Armenian population of Turkey reduced to a few tens of thousands – many of whom would convert to alevism in order to dodge the homogenizing furies of the Kemalist state – and the national homeland turned into a Soviet republic, the Armenian bourgeoisie in Britain and France – and later the US – could not hope to play their own cards in the Middle East partition during the interwar period. But it would soon discover that the genocide and its diaspora gave it for the first time a social and political base of its own, which it articulated hand in hand with the Armenian church in exile.

The Armenian genocide would become its legitimization as the ruling class of an imaginary Diasporic nation in hope of taking over a territory straddling the Stalinist USSR and Kemalist Turkey. The reinterpretation of genocide thus became a useful ideology during the Cold War period and the ideological basis of an international network of local lobbies created on the model of the Herzelian Zionist movement.

Meanwhile, in Turkey, genocide denial was integrated into the founding myths of the Kemalist state. But the denial was not merely because the denial of the massacre would be instrumental in rejecting the aspirations of the diasporic Armenian bourgeoisie to a piece of Turkish territory or reparations.

The expropriation of Armenian and Greek property that accompanied the Armenian and Greek genocide enabled the nascent Turkish state capitalism to create a petty bourgeoisie in its own likeness. The parallel with the current denial of the complicity of Polish nationalism and the Polish state in the final stages of the Jewish genocide and the massacres of Jews that followed the German withdrawal and the return of refugees is telling.

And if this were not enough, the turn to a neo-Ottomanist policy by the Turkish bourgeoisie from 2008 caused by a whole series of reasons, led Turkey to get involved in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno Karabakh. Conflict which, although it is above all an imperialist conflict, is, together with Cyprus, Kurdistan and partly Syria, reminiscent of the nation-building processes we spoke of above. Thus, the denial of the Armenian genocide has been state policy in Azerbaijan since the 1990s and part of the unifying ideology of the club of Turkic countries of Central Asia on which Turkey oriented its imperialist ambitions in the region.

Asserting the existence of an Ottoman genocide against Armenians is today a criminal offense of opinion in Turkey.

What does the US intend by “acknowledging” the Armenian genocide

The U.S. recognition of the Armenian genocide has bolstered Turkey's imperialist rivals and sent Erdogan a clear signal: Turkey is no longer strategic enough for Washington so Erdogan should not take the limits of the Cold War for granted.
The U.S. recognition of the Armenian genocide has bolstered Turkey’s imperialist rivals and sent Erdogan a clear signal: Turkey is no longer strategic enough for Washington so Erdogan should not take the limits of the Cold War for granted.

During the Cold War the US limited its support for the Armenian bourgeoisie abroad to its claims and actions in Stalinist Armenia. Reagan, the president who was closest to the Armenian lobbies, referred only once and tangentially to the Armenian genocide… but did not go beyond that. After all, Turkey was a front line against the USSR and a key ally in the pivot between Europe, Russia and the Middle East.

It is true that this framework ended in the 1990s. Indeed, France, whose imperialist interests in the Levant directly clash with Turkey, recognized the Armenian genocide as long as 20 years ago. But Germany did not do so until 2016, in a peak of tension with Ankara over the passage of Syrian refugees to Europe. The U.S. kept a careful distance pending developments in the Syrian war.

But now Biden is shifting the primary axes and fronts of US imperialism, concentrating forces around the struggle with China and reducing as much as possible its leading role in the Middle East. On the other hand, the Turkish imperialist game maintains with Russia a confrontational relationship that, given the experience of the last two years in Syria, Libya and the Caucasus, is perceived in the US and the EU as a cooperative competition: they compete with each other but cooperate in order to exclude the European powers and the US.

What does the acknowledgement of the Armenian genocide mean in that context? A clear message: Turkey is no longer strategic enough for Washington… so Erdogan should not take the Cold War limits for granted. Ankara has to change its imperialist strategy towards Russia and in the Mediterranean if it wants to find a niche under the sun of the new US imperialist momentum. And if it doesn’t, anything becomes possible: including operating openly to overthrow the Erdoganist regime or confronting it militarily — directly or indirectly — on the battlefronts it has open or intends to open.