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Monday, July 29, 2013

Kasab Taburu (Butcher Brigade), Part Eight

        "While Armenian reaction to the war was mixed, the overwhelming fact was that Armenians, empire-wide, were loyal to the Ottoman government.  Armenians had fought hard for Turkey in the recent Balkan war and now made pledges of loyalty throughout the empire--to such an extent that prayer vigils and victory services were held in Armenian churches.
       There was, of course, a small minority that openly opposed the Ottoman government.  Outside the empire, at their annual meeting in Romania, some members of the Hunchak Party in 1913 had voiced opposition to the Turkish war effort, resulting in the hanging of twenty Hunchak leaders in Constantinople in June 1915.  When Turkey entered the war, some Armenians living in the borderland region left Turkey to join an Armenian volunteer unit in Russia.  And one Armenian--the same Armen Garo of the 1896 Ottoman Bank incident--who was at the time an Armenian deputy from Erzurum in the Ottoman parliament, also joined a volunteer unit in Russia;  to top it off he even sent a photo of himself and a few of his friends as 'Armenian revolutionaries' to the Daily Graphic in London.
        This kind of naive romanticism enraged the Turks and was despised by many Armenian leaders as well.  The priest Krikoris Balakian, who would be arrested with about 250 Armenian leaders on April 24, denounced Garo and his friends as fools who didn't know what they were doing.  'This kind of foolish act further provoked the Turkish officials and the general public,' Balakian wrote, 'who already despised the Armenians--unarmed and confused as they were.'  In his memoir Armenian Golgotha, Balakian underscored that 'in these fateful days,' as he put it, 'there was no nationalistic Armenian policy or plan.'  While a few Armenians like Garo behaved irresponsibly, most didn't, and in the end 'the innocent Armenian population living inside the Turkish borders would pay with the price of their own blood.'
        As the first chapter of the war opened for the Ottoman Empire, Minister of War Enver Pasha decided to invade Russia.  Driven by his pan-Turkist zeal, he took control of the Ottoman Third Army in the winter of 1914 with a plan to take the Russian military outpost of Sarikamish, near Kars, and then push through the Caucusus to Baku, where he hoped to incite the Muslim population to rise against the czar.  To Marshal Liman von Sanders, the head of the German Military Mission to Turkey, he confided that he hoped to march, like Genghis Khan in reverse direction, on to Afghanistan and then to India.
       On Christmas Day 1914, Enver Pasha did what Napoleon had done in 1812 and what Hitler would do in 1941--he invaded Russia in winter.  As it had been for Napoleon and would be for Hitler, so too it proved disasterous for Enver.  In two weeks Enver lost 75.000 of his 95,000 men.  They were killed in battle or froze to death in the blizzards of the Turnagel Woods.  Within weeks of having left the capital, he returned to Constantinople humiliated and was never to take personal command of an army offensive again.  In the wake of Enver's loss on the Caucasian front, the Turks became more insecure about their land on the Russian border, and the Armenians were pointed to as the 'cause of trouble' in the region.  Thus the Armenians of Van became even more vulnerable. 
        Enver's disaster in the Caucusus was followed by more failure for the Turks.  The Ottoman army's attempt to take northwestern Persia failed.  This time it was Enver's brother-in-law Jevdet Bey, whose forces were driven out of Tabriz.  In the aftermath of the Russian and Persian setbacks, Talaat appointed Jevdet Bey governor of Van Province in February 1915.  It was a calculated move, because Talaat wished to replace the more tolerant and politic governor Hassan Tahsin.
        Jevdet Bey was openly racist about Armenians, and he had a history of persecuting them.  As a kaymakam of Saray and later mutassarif (district governor) of Bashkale in Van Province, he was known for making constant searches and seizures of so-called militant Armenians in the region.  He was reviled and feared for his practices of torture, which included using cats to claw and bite incarcerated victims.  He also seems to have perfected the practice of nailing horseshoes to the feet of Armenians, thus earning him the name 'the horse-shoe master of Bashkale.'  In short, he made a name for himself and advanced his career through his anti-Armenian zeal.  Duplicitous, aggressive, and prone to violent behavior, the new governor began his job in Van in the winter of 1915, in the wake of his lost Persian campaign, eager to make a scapegoat of the Armenian population of Van."  The Burning Tigris by Peter Balakian, pgs.  199-201.

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