After the disastrous Balkan wars of 1912-13, the Turks lost most of their European possessions. To dilute the Armenian presence and create a homogenous Turkish and Muslim population that would unequivocally support the Turkish state, the Young Turks decided on a policy of resettling Muslim refugees from the Balkan wars in Armenian areas and deporting the indigenous population. These early measures led to the impoverishment and death of thousands; then came the First World War with Turkey taking the side of Germany against Russia and its allies. It is in this context that the massacres in the province of Van, which were an early phase in the Armenian Genocide of 1915 can be understood.
The war on the Russian front started badly for the Turks. Led by Enver Pasha, the Minister of War, and one of the three major leaders of the Young Turks, they suffered a major defeat at Sarikamish in the winter of 1915. The Turks blamed their defeat on Armenian irregulars who were active on the Russian front. For their part, the Russians pushed on into Anatolia, making their way to the province of Van. The province and the town of Van—both were majority Armenian--were strategically important because they were gateways to Russia, Persia, and the rest of Anatolia.
In Van, Cevdet Bey, brother-in-law of Enver Pasha, had been governor since February 1915. He was known for being ruthless with Armenians and other Christians since the start of the war. Fearing the Russian advance and an Armenian rising, he initiated a search for weapons and demanded that Armenian leaders produce 4000 recruits for the Army. The Armenians demurred, fearing for the lives of the men. In the winter and early spring of 1915 Cevdet took increasingly violent measures against Armenians throughout the province. Then on April 19, 1915, following an incident, the Turks attacked the Armenian quarter of the city.
Fearing the worst, and encouraged by the advance of Russian forces, the Armenians had prepared to resist. Although outnumbered and outgunned, they fought with courage born out of desperation. They were able to hold off the Turkish seizure of their quarter until Russian and Russian Armenian forces liberated the district on May 21, 1915. But this was a false dawn because by July 30 Russian forces were forced to retreat and Van was once again occupied by the Turks. Many of the Armenian inhabitants of Van fled to Transcaucasia, the rest were deported and massacred as the area was re-occupied by Ottoman forces.
Author: Robert Melson, Professor Emeritus Political Science Purdue University
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