Edward Ericson: "The events of 1915 in Turkey were provoked by Armenian revolutionaries"
Famous military historian Edward J. Erickson arrived from the United States to Moscow to present his scientific and historical monograph ”Ottomans and Armenians: A Study in Counterinsurgency”, which was published this year in Russian. Vestnik Kavkaza spoke with the American researcher about the main results of his work and the importance of such independent works on the 1915 events in Turkey for historical science.
- What are the main questions that your book answers about the 1915 events in Turkey?
- In 1915, at the beginning of the First World War, the Ottoman Armenian citizens were relocated from their homes to camps for the purposes of counterinsurgency program - this event, over the last 100 years, has often been described as a genocide, a prototype for the Holocaust. My work puts the relocation in a context: these people were moved as a part of the war and because of national security concerns by the Ottoman Empire government. So the book and the events are all about an explanation of why approximately 350 thousand Armenian citizens were moved from their homes to the camps in the Euphrates valley, and this is an alternative interpretation of the events of 1915.
- What myths about the 1915 events in Turkey did you manage to disprove in your book?
- There is a context to the movement of the Ottoman Armenian citizens. And that context deals with the national security during the WWI. My book advances the main idea is that the Ottoman Armenians citizens, some of them, not all of them, but some of them were involved in the revolutionary activity, which was common throughout the age: the Bulgarians had had a revolution against the Ottomans, the Greeks had had a revolution against the Ottoman Empire, the Macedonian had had a revolution against the Ottoman Empire. All those peoples then became independent. So when the Armenian revolutionaries start to plan and conspire in the 1890s and 1910s, this was very worrisome, this threatened the Empire. When the WWI breaks out in 1914, the Armenian revolutionary committees are working with the Russians, the British and the French to try to gain independence, only a small number, not everybody but a small number of revolutionaries are working with the allies from the inside of the Ottoman Empire. That results in the Ottomans moving the people as a way to stop the revolutionary activities.
They had learned how to do this, they had never done this before. They learned how to do it from the Spaniards in Cuba in 1895, from the British in the Boer War in 1899 and from the Americans in the Philippines in 1900. So there are several ways you can stop the insurgency, revolution - you can send the army and suppress that or you can move the people. This is the explanation why the people were removed, it was understood in Turkey, but not widely understood elsewhere. That is the value of my book for the Turks.
- In your estimation, what place will your work occupy in the corps of studies of the 1915 events?
- I am a military historian. There are social, political, gender, other types of historians that looked at the events of 1915. All of the historians have had a different approach. The Ottoman Armenian population was moved one - to be killed intentionally. Two - because the Ottomans hated Christians. Three - they were economically competitive with the Ottomans, that the Armenians and the Jews took Turk money, they were better businessmen. These are kinds of explanations, social, political, economic, that the other historians have put for this reason. The significance of my work is that it puts the removal and the massacre of these people in a military context. This did not just happen in 1910, before the war, or in 1930, after the war - this happened in the middle of the WWI, and you can’t understand the relocation or removal of these people from their homes without understanding the military context. So I am the first person who has put the entire picture together in terms of the military effort of the war.
Many people interested in this problem already made up their minds. For example, the worldwide Armenian community, the Armenian diaspora, the Armenians who live in the US, France, Russia have already made up their minds on it as a genocide. And the other side, the Turks have already made up their minds that it was not a genocide, that the Armenians rose in rebellion and then because of the rebellious activities suffered the consequences. So the Turks and Armenians have already made up their minds. The importance of my book is that the people who have not yet made up their minds, people who are fresh to the argument, people who do not know much about what really happened in evaluating factual basis. The importance of this book is that population, those people in the middle who do not know much about it might read my book and say, yeah, this is a reasonable explanation. History is not a truth, history is simply a number of facts that have been assembled to tell us a certain story. The facts I have assembled are the same facts the Armenians are using, they are the same facts that the Turks are using, but it is a different interpretation of those facts that provides a new explanation for people who are undecided what might have or not happened.
- In your opinion, why are the Western researchers are interested in the subject of the 1915 events in Turkey?
- I am not a Turk, so why would I be interested in these events? I am a military historian and I specialize in the WWI. This is embedded, it is intervened in the story of the Middle East in the WWI. My country, the United States did not fight in the Middle East during the WWI, but my interest in the British military history, the British fought a very famous campaign in Gallipoli, an Amphibious invasion that failed. They fought against the Ottomans in Palestine and in Mesopotamia, while the Russians fought against the Ottomans in the Caucasus. So all these things are of interest to me - how in the middle of the war, in the middle of all this conventional warfare the Ottomans are dealing with the insurgences inside the Empire.
There was an ongoing effort in the WWI in the Middle East on the part of the British to encourage the minority members, the minority populations of the Ottoman Empire to rise in rebellion. They encouraged the Arabs, and worked very well, they encouraged the Armenians, that failed. The Russians in the Caucasus were also encouraging the Armenians. This takes away soldiers and resources from the front. If this is the Ottoman Empire, and you are fighting in the Caucasus, and you are fighting in Gallipoli, and you are fighting in Palestine, and all of a sudden right in the middle of this there is an insurgency. It takes forces, you have to take forces from the fronts to move them in to fight the insurgency. This is of interest to me. This is the part of the war that most people do not know about. But it is important because the Ottomans were not only fighting the foreign enemies, but they were fighting domestic insurgencies the same time. This is a very hard thing to do and needs explanations historically.
- What sources did you use in your study?
- This is again interesting to me, because where I live, in the United States and Great Britain, the only sources we’ve had so far have been British sources. So the last 100 years the story of the Middle East during World War I in the West has been taken from the British sources. I am the first Western author to investigate the Turkish sources, the Ottoman historical and military archives. My sources are the plans and reports of the commanders of the allies, the after-action reports that the Ottoman army wrote about these events. My sources are the original army records now kept in the military archives in Ankara. For the first time, my work takes not only the Western English-centric sources but adds to it Turkish Ottoman sources.
I am happy to be here in Russia to discuss my book, which was recently translated and published in Russian. Thank you!