Righteous Turks: Who are they and why are they so important?

Within the last five years numerous talks could be heard about the Turks who rescued the Armenians during the years of genocide. The expression “the Turks who rescued the Armenians” sounds a bit strange, if not wrathful to an Armenian hearing. But is it true? An affirmative answer is recorded – yes, it is true. There are myriad examples and stories from handwritten and published memoires of the genocide survivors, as well as from oral stories stating about the mercifulness of ordinary Muslims – Turks, Kurds, Arabs and others, who helped Armenian individuals and whole families to survive, even if temporarily.

Yet, at least two challenges should be considered, referring to this topic. The first one is the classification of such cases. In general, human behavior reacts differently to wars, mass atrocities and natural disasters. Speaking about the Armenian genocide, the first and the most important statement is that the crime constituted a state organized and orchestrated genocide. Moreover, in case of the genocide against the Armenians there was an overwhelming consensus among the majority of the Turkish population of the Ottoman Empire. The latter regarded the state-initiated crime as beneficial for the state and for the security of the Ottoman Empire. It was also regarded as a great chance from the Heaven to make a profit while looting and expropriating Armenian property, as well as the chance for the most fanatical part of the Ottoman Muslims to kill the “infidels” and get permission for entering Paradise. Mass participation in the crimes against the Ottoman Christians, including also Turkish and Kurdish women and children, was also associated with the war time propaganda activities of the ‘Committee of Union and Progress’ government, especially with regard to the announcement of Jihad by late November 1914 shortly after the empire went into the war. This became a fatal point for the mobilization of the Ottoman Muslims to back the state planned crime of the genocide against the Armenians and other Christians.

In this regard the question of the mass participation of Turkish population in the crimes against the Armenians is vividly presented in a telegram sent to Paris Peace conference by Admiral Richard Webb, High Commissionaire in Istanbul:

“To punish all persons guilty of Armenian atrocities would necessitate wholesale execution of the Turks, and I therefore suggest retribution both on a national scale by dismembering the late Turkish empire, as well as individually by the trial of high officials, such as those on my list, whose fate will serve as an example.”(A telegram sent to Paris Peace conference by High Commissionaire in Istanbul Admiral Richard Webb at April 13, 1919.)

This means that at the end of the war Allies had already realized the impossibility of full punishment of the Ottoman Turks who were involved in the crimes en mass. 

The second challenge is the growing interest towards the topic of Righteous Turks and the need of the classification of rescue cases. Today we observe two hot topics being widely circulated in Turkey and beyond its borders at the threshold of the Armenian genocide centennial. One is about the “Turks who saved Armenians” and the second is about so called “hidden Armenians” still living in Turkey. Plenty of findings are available for research and data collection, as well as several international conferences also dedicated to this topic.

My sincere apologies if I destroy someone’s rosy and well calculated plans and prospects, but I have to state that in overstressing on the rescuing stories the existence of which I admit, it is easy to understand, that we deal with a clear-cut strategy of shifting the main narrative of the Armenian genocide with a quite secondary one. Although it is not an attempt for banalization or denial of the genocide, however, it is aimed at making such events as the dominant paradigm in overall representation of the genocide committed.

It will be ludicrous to say that there has been an Armenian Genocide, but as a result of these “tragic events’’ some Turks rescued Armenians. Any attempt to shift the main narrative of the genocide and any financial injection to support such attempts will be fruitless and will work against the real reconciliation of both sides. Such reconciliation is possible only after the acknowledgment of the crime committed and the acceptance of the necessity to deal with its consequences. 

Another issue is why such stories must be important to the Armenian part too. Firstly, all the cases of the Armenian lives’ rescue by the Turks during the genocide must be mentioned, even if those stories are few in number and scope over the general picture of the genocide, they MUST be presented, since the cover up or escape from mentioning such cases will be simply regarded as a denial. In other words, the stories of the rescue of the Armenians by the Turks are an unalienable part of the general story of the Armenian genocide. Secondly, those stories are important, since they additionally come to back the statement that the very state organized and orchestrated nature of the crime committed by Ottoman state. Those Muslims who saved the Armenians opposed to the Turkish state policy and risked their and their family members’ lives while hiding the Armenians. It is well known that the Ottoman military issued a strict order stating that if any Muslim would hide an Armenian in his house he would be hanged in front of his house and the whole house would be burnt. 

This is an essential point in this topic since we have to clarify that the whole discourse of the rescue stories touched upon the questions who, in which circumstances and from whom saved Armenian victims. Clearly enough such questions appear in the second place. Additional note: cases of those who saved Armenian lives simply to exploit them or expropriate their property ARE NOT among the cases of rescue. Similar to that is when a Turk, a Kurd or whoever saved whole family members’ lives just to get married to a beautiful Armenian female. These were often just physical rescue cases, and many times rescued Armenians, among them children, were forced to convert to Islam, were made Turkish in their new families and as a result lost their identity. These constitute the genocidal act according to the Genocide Convention. Let’s return to the main definition: the real rescue story is that when a Turkish individual or a whole family while opposing to the state order to destroy Armenians and while risking their lives hid or saved Armenians from deportations or helped them to escape from an inevitable death with no economic or personal benefit. Sorry, but the rest of the stories are a part of overall violence and shameful genocidal acts…

By Hayk Demoyan
Director of the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute

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