Armenian News Network / Groong

The Critical Corner - 08/27/2014


Armenian News Network / Groong
August 27, 2014

By Eddie Arnavoudian

PART TWO: Turkish nationalism, Kemal Ataturk and the Armenian question

R K Sahakyan's `Turkish-French Relations and Cilicia - 1919-1921'
(328pp, 1970, Yerevan) enables a clearer and more detailed grasp of
the character of French-Armenian and French-Turkish relations in
post-war Cilicia. As he charts French relations with the rising and
eventually triumphant Turkish movement headed by Kemal Ataturk,
Sahakyan also, and perhaps most valuably, documents its essentially
anti-democratic, reactionary and chauvinist nature. He shows Kemal
Ataturk to be but an extension, in republican guise, of the Young Turk
nationalist project to salvage an internally disintegrating Ottoman
Empire by means of Genocide, forced assimilation, war,
ethnic-cleansing and national oppression.


In view of their early precarious and uncertain positions in the
post-war Ottoman Empire and the Middle East, both vis-`-vis their
imperialist rivals and their Turkish opponents, the French positioned
themselves with careful calculation. Preparing to secure colonial
privileges they simultaneously played both their Armenian and Turkish
cards while awaiting further developments to decide which camp to
eventually settle set up tent in.

To secure an Armenian bastion for colonial dominance in Cilicia, the
French recruited an Armenian Legion of volunteer soldiers and in
addition encouraged and financed the return to their Cilician
homelands of up to 120,000 Armenians, even offering them some limited
facilities to recover lost land, property and wealth. But wielding the
Turkish card, as a balance and alternative, they left in place the
Young Turk dominated administrative and legal apparatus and showed
absolutely no inclination to disarm virulently anti-Armenian Turkish
nationalist forces. Thus they cynically put into the ring two opposing
forces and readied themselves for action in the event of a decisive
advance by one or the other or any qualitative change in regional

The rise of Kemal Ataturk's nationalist movement, his emergence as a
rallying point for Turkish nationalists opposed to the European
dismemberment of the defeated Sultanate leadership of the Ottoman
Empire proved such a qualitative regional transformation. Ataturk's
military successes, especially against depleted French arms prompted a
French rapprochement, all the more so in view of the continued
subservience of old Ottoman Royal court to their British rivals and
indeed because of an alarming growth of pro-British sentiment among
Armenians. With Armenians threatening to fall into British arms, any
manifestation of Armenian power in Cilicia could only be detrimental
to the French. So they cast their Armenian cards into the Turkish

There then followed the brutal imperial abandonment of a one-time
ally: a point-blank refusal to protect Armenians from Turkish
slaughter, a stubborn immobility as beleaguered Armenian communities
were once again forced from their homes, secret, sudden retreats that
left unarmed civilians defenceless before advancing and marauding
Kemalist battalions. As a result, in Marash thousands of Armenians
were murdered. Almost all of Hajun's 6000 Armenian population was
slaughtered. Subsequent French retreats from Ourfa, Aintab, Zeitun and
elsewhere were followed by the forced departure of all Armenians who
had with French assurances returned to their Cilician homes. Whilst
they largely escaped slaughter, their fate testifies to the systematic
ethnic cleansing carried out by Kemal's forces.

Armenian fortunes were sealed and destroyed after the 1920
Franco-Turkish cease-fire, the 1921 Franco-Turkish Ankara Accords and
the European recognition of Ataturk who had vanquished in addition
both Greek and Armenian forces to his west and his east. Thereafter it
took Kemalist forces just another 2 years of systematic national
repression to drive all but a tiny group of Armenians from what had
been for centuries Armenian Cilicia


Sahakyan reminds us that French imperialism had major stakes in the
Ottoman Empire, with economic, social and cultural interests that
spanned the entire region of Asia Minor. It was this that had dictated
steady French support for the territorial integrity of the Ottoman
State. It was this same policy that guided it in the immediate
post-war of fierce inter-imperialist rivalries over the Middle East
and Asia Minor. Here British proposals for the division of the Empire
threatened to snatch from France significant chunks of profit and
advantage. Given French military inferiority in the Middle East and
the commanding power of the British armed forces, they at first had
little option but to string along with British proposals. But they
still manoeuvred for the post of top dog in what remained of the
Ottoman estate, and it was in an early move to secure an independent
foothold in post-war Turkey that they allocated their Armenian allies
a role as pawns in the imperialist chess game.

For imperial France action was urgent. Their British rivals had
already begun seizing the best portions of Ottoman controlled
territory, including Mosul oil. So to grab for itself what it could,
France advanced on Cilicia using Armenian survivors of the Genocide to
secure an early hold. Ataturk's increasingly successful resistance to
the European carve up of Asia Minor prompted the French to change
tack, and sacrificing the Armenian pawn, turn tables on the British by
securing an alliance with the increasingly confident and strident

French calculation was that such an alliance with what was expected to
be a pliant Ataturk offered them at least a slim chance of emerging
dominant in a unitary Asia Minor state, and this at the expense of the
British and the US. So with each successful step taken by Kemal's
forces as they battled European imperial powers and their allies in
Asia Minor, French policy took its own step in his direction. A
rapprochement with the rising star of Turkish nationalism offered of
course no guarantees. But at least it promised the French prospects
more promising than that of remaining in tow to the British or relying
upon ineffective Armenian forces. Their supposed Armenian allies
became their first victims.


Sahakyan draws welcome attention to the actual social and political
nature and character of Kemal Ataturk's nationalist movement. Ataturk's
resistance to the European plan to carve-up the Ottoman Empire had
nothing democratic, progressive or anti-imperialist about it. Even as
this movement waged war against France and Europe, it was no
democratic anti-imperialist war; it was not representative of an
oppressed people, let alone of the Turkish or Kurdish common people,
fighting for national liberation. Ataturk acted rather in the
interests of a colonial, imperial nationalist Turkish capitalist-
landlord class intent on seizing all the commanding economic, social
and political positions in what remained of the Ottoman Empire in Asia
Minor.  Kemal Ataturk's movement set out not to democratise the old
Ottoman Empire but to ruthlessly eliminate all non-Turkish rivals.

Sahakyan thesis is well supported with extensive extracts from
declarations and resolutions issued at all the major conferences that
Kemal Ataturk organised during the course of his campaign against the
European imperial powers and against his Greeks and Armenian
opponents. Sahakyan of course draws particular attention to Ataturk's
absolute and categorical rejection of all Armenian rights to social,
political or national life, not just in Cilicia, but in the very lands
that constituted historical Armenia and that had been inhabited by
more than two million Armenians before the 1915 Genocide.

Demonstrating the continuity between Kemal Ataturk and the Young
Turks, even though penned in the Soviet era, this volume is a forceful
polemic against the standard Soviet era depiction of the Kemal
Ataturk's movement as a revolutionary, anti-imperialist nationalist
force. This portrayal of post-war Turkish colonial and chauvinist
nationalism as an anti-imperialist liberation force, evidently false,
was clearly tailored to suit the early USSR's attempts to forge a
defensive alliance with Turkey then in conflict with the same European
powers sponsoring war against the new Soviet Republic.

While a European carve-up of Asia Minor was certainly planned, it was
not a carve-up of the Turkish nation but of the Ottoman Empire that
even in the post-1915 era remained home to diverse nationalities.
Ataturk's was not resistance to the carve-up of Turkey but a war to
secure Turkish colonial hegemony over the remaining fragments of the
Ottoman Empire. Yet given the particular form of the proposed division
of Asia Minor, the early imperialist proposals to establish Greek and
Armenian nation-states on territories with huge non-Armenian
populations, Turks had reason to fear for their future in lands that
they too had lived on for centuries. Kemal successfully exploited
these fears to rally Turks from all classes behind his own Turkish
landlord-capitalist ambitions.


Before the 1915 Genocide the position of Cilician Armenians, a
community of some 300,000, even had they been the largest of
minorities, showed up sharply the deadly possibilities inherent in the
form of nationalist politics that swept through the Ottoman Empire, or
rather the infinitely more preferable democratic, inter-national
reform that was alas never to be. For Cilician Armenians an
independent Armenian nation state was not an option, as indeed it was
not even in the whole of historic Armenia, either for Armenians or any
other of the peoples inhabiting these lands. That path was blocked by
history and demography. And if such an exclusive nation state did come
about, in any part of Asia Minor, it would inevitably harbour
explosive contradictions - up to and even more than 50% of its
population would be hostile, dedicated to its overthrow and
destruction...more blood, more turmoil, more destruction.

The history of 19th/20th century Armenian Cilicia is significant in
many ways, and one in particular underlines the danger that separatist
nationalism harboured for all peoples of Asia Minor. The multinational
demographic structure of the Ottoman Empire's Asia Minor territories
precluded the emergence of discrete, ethnically founded, nationally
homogenous nation-states.  It did not however preclude singular
national development. The demographic structure of the Empire at least
until the final triumph of Kemal Ataturk's national movement dictated
certain defining parameters for cross-national, social and economic
development and progress. These however were crushed by an intolerant
and chauvinist Turkish nationalism.

The bloody and viciously brutal unravelling of the Ottoman Empire, the
Genocide and ethnic cleansing, was in a decisive aspect pre-determined
by the failure of democratic social reform and revolution and the
emergence in consequence of exclusive nationalist movements within a
nationally diverse, demographically multitudinous Asia Minor. Once
assuming a discrete, exclusive character and nationalist direction,
the political and socio-economic clashes within the Empire could only
take one form - that of the law of the jungle, the survival of the
strongest. And by virtue of its dominance in the Ottoman State
apparatus, the strongest and best-positioned nationalism was that the
Turkish elite, the one nationalist force, it needs to be noted devoid
of all progressive qualities.

The historical odds weighed heavily against non-Turkish nationalist
movements in Asia Minor. None had any serious foothold in the
apparatus of state.  Defined exclusively in economic and cultural
terms, emerging always within the shadow of a ready-to-pounce Turkish
nationalism embedded within the Ottoman state, Armenian and other
non-Turkish national movements were, in addition, easy prey for
imperialists manipulation with promises of forcing reform on an
Ottoman Empire they themselves aspired to control. As Armenians and
others bent to European policy, the reactionary Turkish propaganda
machine seized the opportunity to rally the Turkish common people in a
war against Armenians depicting them as agents of imperialism. Against
such a united, almost monolithic Turkish nationalist movement
non-Turkish peoples had little chance of survival.

How the Armenian national movement developed and unfolded in decades
after Kemal Ataturk's victory and what defines and structures it today
in the age of a resurgent Turkish imperial ambition calls for urgent

Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in history and politics from
Manchester, England, and is Groong's commentator-in-residence on
Armenian literature. His works on literary and political issues
have also appeared in Harach in Paris, Nairi in Beirut and Open
Letter in Los Angeles.
Redistribution of Groong articles, such as this one, to any other media, including but not limited to other mailing lists and Usenet bulletin boards, is strictly prohibited without prior written consent from Groong's Administrator.
Copyright 2014 Armenian News Network/Groong. All Rights Reserved.
| Home | Administrative | Introduction | Armenian News | World News | Feedback |