Book Review: The Ottoman Armenians, Victims of Great Power Diplomacy

Assist. Prof. Dr. Ycel ACER*
Armenian Studies, Issue 4, December 2001 - January-February 2002

Salahi Ramsdan SONYEL.
K. Rustem and Brother, London, 1987. 426 pp. Bibliography, Index.
ISBN: 9963-565-06-9.

It is no secret that most of the studies on the relations between the Armenians and the Turks have been carried out either by the Western researchers or by the Armenians. Naturally, most of these studies are partisan in the sense that they do not reflect the Turkish view of the events properly. The studies made by the Turks are relatively very few. Another significant fact is scarcity of the studies made by the Turks in foreign languages, especially in English. The Turkish side of the events therefore stays mostly unknown for the western readers who are dominantly fed by the Armenians’ and the Westerners’ views of the past events that took place between the Turks and the Armenians especially in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

This is a very unfortunate omission that has to be rectified by serious and documented works to be made by the Turkish historians particularly in English. The study made by Salahi Sonyel is such a work that, at least for this reason, should be acknowledged as a very valuable one.

It is emphasized in the book that any individual researcher or a study would be unable to get at the root of the relations between the Turks and the Armenians, especially that of the conflict between them simply because such a task requires not only the examination of mostly disorganized and deficient achieves but also the through examination of many other primary and secondary sources. And all these should be done on a ‘very controversial subject which usually has more than one version, and even liable to much falsification, distortion, and sensation at the hands of unscrupulous and self-seeking writers.’ 

The book however sets a goal to get deeper into and shed more lights on the Turco-Armenian relations through a comprehensive study of events and questions that remained unresolved even today. When we get into the details of book, it becomes clear that the book establishes itself as a comprehensive work.

Like most of the studies made on the relations between the Turks and the Armenians, the book starts with describing the Armenians, their origins, original homeland, culture and history before they came under the control of the Ottomans.

It devotes a considerable space and thoughts to the status and organization of the Armenians during the Ottoman rule. More significantly, it deals with all the main events that eventually led to the inception of the ‘Armenian Question’. It is emphasized that the inception of the Armenian question was contributed to significantly by the ‘Eastern Question’ which fundamentally relates to the Western expansion on the Ottoman Empire. In this context, the war of 1877-78 between Russia and the Ottomans and the resulting international instruments like the Treaty of San Stefano, the Cyprus Convention and the Treaty of Berlin are considered significant and examined in details in the inception of the Armenian Question in the Ottoman Empire as they embodied the western goals on the Ottoman Armenians into binding accords. It was through these instruments that the Great Powers, especially Britain and Russia would be able to interfere into the Ottoman rule and further the Armenian Question towards the fulfilment of their own goal of expanding.

The book makes a through examination of the British protection on the Ottoman Armenians. It could be noted with a great comfort that it contributes significantly to the reveal of the events that took place particularly in the British internal politics towards the Ottoman Christians in general and the Ottoman Armenians in particular. It becomes clear that one of the early policy of the Great Britain towards the Armenians was to pave way to the establishment of an autonomous Armenian province in the eastern soils of the Ottoman Empire. Liberal Party which came to power in April 1880 was placated as having greater zeal in pursuing a stronger policy towards the Ottomans in this regard. The book emphasizes in this regard that the Britain contributed to the establishment of secret Armenian societies in order to procure an autonomous Armenian province in the Eastern Anatolia.

Why such a support did not eventually pay off for the Armenians is an interesting and a discussed point in the book. The book dwells in this respect on the conflicting interests of the Great Powers and the Armenians.

What differentiates this book from the similar studies is also the fact that it deals with not only what the Great Powers and the Armenians did to initiate a problem between the Ottomans and the Armenians, but also what the Ottomans failed to do to avert the emerging problem. This is to question the treatment of the Ottoman Empire to its subordinates, the Armenians during the related years of 18th and the 19th centuries although the blame would mostly be put on collapsing Ottoman financial and administrative systems for some other and deeper reasons. It is no surprise that the book also examines the financial and economic situation of that time in the Ottoman Empire when it deals with the Ottoman Armenians and related problems.

The study of Mr. Sonyel takes on another peculiar but mostly suppressed aspect of the Armenian issue. This is the Armenian terrorism which were inflicted on various elements of the Ottoman Empire in the efforts to establish an autonomous or independent Armenia in the Eastern Anatolia. The Armenian terrorism is reflected to the readers by getting into details of the establishment of secret revolutionary Armenian societies such as ‘Hintchak’ and the ‘Dashnaktsutiun’. The point that is taken on is that such societies indulged ‘indiscriminately’ in a campaign of terror, assassinations, sabotage, incendiarism, abductions, and forced levies inflicted even on the Armenians, which eventually forced the Ottomans to set up against them the ‘Hamidiye’ regiments.

As it deals with primarily the troubled aspects of relations between the Ottomans and the Ottoman Armenians, the book also reviews the full-scale conflicts between the Ottomans and its Armenian subordinates in a detailed manner. These are the revolts that were, as studied in the book, orchestrated by both the Armenian revolutionaries and the outsiders such as Britain and Russia. It is emphasized that such revolts were so serious in some events that they could be regarded as a civil war, such as the revolt of Summer 1895 in Sasun in eastern Turkey.

It should particularly be noted here that the book gets into another less known aspect of the relations between the Ottomans and the Ottoman Armenians. It reflects the efforts made to reconcile the Turks and the Armenians following the revolts and similar events that took place between 1894-1896. It could be a point of controversy that the book considers the ‘Young Turks Revolution’ as a major event that significantly calmed the Armenian oppressions down until First World War.

It is unavoidable for the book to touch eventually on the issues of the alleged ‘genocide’ and ‘Armenian atrocities and treachery’ against the Turkish nation, as it is the most notorious and inherited aspect of the Armenian question by the Turkish Republic which has been established following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The book makes possible to comprehend the events and decisions that led to the deaths of many people from both Turks and the Armenians during the World War I, but alleged as ‘massacre’ of the Armenians by the Turks.

The book consequently establishes itself as a significantly valuable source in English which should be referred to understand ‘what really happened’ and ‘why it happened’ between the Ottomans and the Ottoman Armenians especially from the less reflected view, the Turkish view.

* -
- Armenian Studies, Issue 4, December 2001 - January-February 2002
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