The first genocide of the 20th Century occurred when two million Armenians
living in Turkey were eliminated from their historic homeland through forced
deportations and massacres.
For three thousand years, a thriving Armenian community had existed
inside the vast region of the Middle East bordered by the Black, Mediterranean
and Caspian Seas. The area, known as Asia Minor, stands at the crossroads
of three continents; Europe, Asia and Africa. Great powers rose and fell
over the many centuries and the Armenian homeland was at various times
ruled by Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs and Mongols.
Despite the repeated invasions and occupations, Armenian pride and cultural
identity never wavered. The snow-capped peak of Mount Ararat became its
focal point and by 600 BC Armenia as a nation sprang into being. Following
the advent of Christianity, Armenia became the very first nation to accept
it as the state religion. A golden era of peace and prosperity followed
which saw the invention of a distinct alphabet, a flourishing of literature,
art, commerce, and a unique style of architecture. By the 10th century,
Armenians had established a new capital at Ani, affectionately called the
‘city of a thousand and one churches.’
In the eleventh century, the first Turkish invasion of the Armenian
homeland occurred. Thus began several hundred years of rule by Muslim Turks.
By the sixteenth century, Armenia had been absorbed into the vast and mighty
Ottoman Empire. At its peak, this Turkish empire included much of Southeast
Europe, North Africa, and almost all of the Middle East.
But by the 1800s the once powerful Ottoman Empire was in serious decline.
For centuries, it had spurned technological and economic progress, while
the nations of Europe had embraced innovation and became industrial giants.
Turkish armies had once been virtually invincible. Now, they lost battle
after battle to modern European armies.
As the empire gradually disintegrated, formerly subject peoples including
the Greeks, Serbs and Romanians achieved their long-awaited independence.
Only the Armenians and the Arabs of the Middle East remained stuck in the
backward and nearly bankrupt empire, now under the autocratic rule of Sultan
By the 1890s, young Armenians began to press for political reforms,
calling for a constitutional government, the right to vote and an end to
discriminatory practices such as special taxes levied solely against them
because they were Christians. The despotic Sultan responded to their pleas
with brutal persecutions. Between 1894 and 1896 over 100,000 inhabitants
of Armenian villages were massacred during widespread pogroms conducted
by the Sultan’s special regiments.
But the Sultan’s days were numbered. In July 1908, reform-minded Turkish
nationalists known as “Young Turks” forced the Sultan to allow
a constitutional government and guarantee basic rights. The Young Turks
were ambitious junior officers in the Turkish Army who hoped to halt their
country’s steady decline.
Armenians in Turkey were delighted with this sudden turn of events and
its prospects for a brighter future. Jubilant public rallies were held
attended by both Turks and Armenians with banners held high calling for
freedom, equality and justice.
However, their hopes were dashed when three of the Young Turks seized
full control of the government via a coup in 1913. This triumvirate of
Young Turks, consisting of Mehmed Talaat, Ismail Enver and Ahmed Djemal,
came to wield dictatorial powers and concocted their own ambitious plans
for the future of Turkey. They wanted to unite all of the Turkic peoples
in the entire region while expanding the borders of Turkey eastward across
the Caucasus all the way into Central Asia. This would create a new Turkish
empire, a “great and eternal land” called Turan with one language
and one religion.
But there was a big problem. The traditional historic homeland of Armenia
lay right in the path of their plans to expand eastward. And on that land
was a large population of Christian Armenians totaling some two million
persons, making up about 10 percent of Turkey’s overall population.
Along with the Young Turk’s newfound “Turanism” there was
a dramatic rise in Islamic fundamentalist agitation throughout Turkey.
Christian Armenians were once again branded as infidels (non-believers
in Islam). Anti-Armenian demonstrations were staged by young Islamic extremists,
sometimes leading to violence. During one such outbreak in 1909, two hundred
villages were plundered and over 30,000 persons massacred in the Cilicia
district on the Mediterranean coast. Throughout Turkey, sporadic local
attacks against Armenians continued unchecked over the next several years.
There were also big cultural differences between Armenians and Turks.
The Armenians had always been one of the best educated communities within
the old Turkish empire. Armenians were the professionals in society, the
businessmen, lawyers, doctors and skilled craftsmen. And they were more
open to new scientific, political and social ideas from the West (Europe
and America). Children of wealthy Armenians went to Paris, Geneva or even
to America to complete their education.
By contrast, the majority of Turks were illiterate peasant farmers and
small shop keepers. Leaders of the Ottoman Empire had traditionally placed
little value on education and not a single institute of higher learning
could be found within their old empire. The various autocratic and despotic
rulers throughout the empire’s history had valued loyalty and blind obedience
above all. Their uneducated subjects had never heard of democracy or liberalism
and thus had no inclination toward political reform. But this was not the
case with the better educated Armenians who sought political and social
reforms that would improve life for themselves and Turkey’s other minorities.
The Young Turks decided to glorify the virtues of simple Turkish peasantry
at the expense of the Armenians in order to capture peasant loyalty. They
exploited the religious, cultural, economic and political differences between
Turks and Armenians so that the average Turk came to regard Armenians as
strangers among them.
When World War I broke out in 1914, leaders of the Young Turk regime
sided with the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary). The outbreak
of war would provide the perfect opportunity to solve the “Armenian
question” once and for all. The world’s attention became fixed upon
the battlegrounds of France and Belgium where the young men of Europe were
soon falling dead by the hundreds of thousands. The Eastern Front eventually
included the border between Turkey and Russia. With war at hand, unusual
measures involving the civilian population would not seem too out of the
As a prelude to the coming action, Turks disarmed the entire Armenian
population under the pretext that the people were naturally sympathetic
toward Christian Russia. Every last rifle and pistol was forcibly seized,
with severe penalties for anyone who failed to turn in a weapon. Quite
a few Armenian men actually purchased a weapon from local Turks or Kurds
(nomadic Muslim tribesmen) at very high prices so they would have something
to turn in.
At this time, about forty thousand Armenian men were serving in the
Turkish Army. In the fall and winter of 1914, all of their weapons were
confiscated and they were put into slave labor battalions building roads
or were used as human pack animals. Under the brutal work conditions they
suffered a very high death rate. Those who survived would soon be shot
outright. For the time had come to move against the Armenians.
The decision to annihilate the entire population came directly from
the ruling triumvirate of ultra-nationalist Young Turks. The actual extermination
orders were transmitted in coded telegrams to all provincial governors
throughout Turkey. Armed roundups began on the evening of April 24, 1915,
as 300 Armenian political leaders, educators, writers, clergy and dignitaries
in Constantinople (present day Istanbul) were taken from their homes, briefly
jailed and tortured, then hanged or shot.
Next, there were mass arrests of Armenian men throughout the country
by Turkish soldiers, police agents and bands of Turkish volunteers. The
men were tied together with ropes in small groups then taken to the outskirts
of their town and shot dead or bayoneted by death squads. Local Turks and
Kurds armed with knives and sticks often joined in on the killing.
Then it was the turn of Armenian women, children, and the elderly. On
very short notice, they were ordered to pack a few belongings and be ready
to leave home, under the pretext that they were being relocated to a non-military
zone for their own safety. They were actually being taken on death marches
heading south toward the Syrian desert.
Most of the homes and villages left behind by the rousted Armenians
were quickly occupied by Muslim Turks who assumed instant ownership of
everything. In many cases, young Armenian children were spared from deportation
by local Turks who took them from their families. The children were coerced
into denouncing Christianity and becoming Muslims, and were then given
new Turkish names. For Armenian boys the forced conversion meant they each
had to endure painful circumcision as required by Islamic custom.
Individual caravans consisting of thousands of deported Armenians were
escorted by Turkish gendarmes. These guards allowed roving government units
of hardened criminals known as the “Special Organization” to
attack the defenseless people, killing anyone they pleased. They also encouraged
Kurdish bandits to raid the caravans and steal anything they wanted. In
addition, an extraordinary amount of sexual abuse and rape of girls and
young women occurred at the hands of the Special Organization and Kurdish
bandits. Most of the attractive young females were kidnapped for a life
of involuntary servitude.
The death marches, involving over a million Armenians, covered hundreds
of miles and lasted months. Indirect routes through mountains and wilderness
areas were deliberately chosen in order to prolong the ordeal and to keep
the caravans away from Turkish villages.
Food supplies being carried by the people quickly ran out and they were
usually denied further food or water. Anyone stopping to rest or lagging
behind the caravan was mercilessly beaten until they rejoined the march.
If they couldn’t continue they were shot. A common practice was to force
all of the people in the caravan to remove every stitch of clothing and
have them resume the march in the nude under the scorching sun until they
dropped dead by the roadside from exhaustion and dehydration.
An estimated 75 percent of the Armenians on these marches perished,
especially children and the elderly. Those who survived the ordeal were
herded into the desert without a drop of water. Others were killed by being
thrown off cliffs, burned alive, or drowned in rivers.
The Turkish countryside became littered with decomposing corpses. At
one point, Mehmed Talaat responded to the problem by sending a coded message
to all provincial leaders: “I have been advised that in certain areas
unburied corpses are still to be seen. I ask you to issue the strictest
instructions so that the corpses and their debris in your vilayet
But his instructions were generally ignored. Those involved in the mass
murder showed little interest in stopping to dig graves. The roadside corpses
and emaciated deportees were a shocking sight to foreigners working in
Turkey. Eyewitnesses included German government liaisons, American missionaries,
and U.S. diplomats stationed in the country.
The Christian missionaries were often threatened with death themselves
and were unable to help the people. Diplomats from the still neutral United
States communicated their blunt assessments of the ongoing government actions.
U.S. ambassador to Turkey, Henry Morgenthau, reported to Washington: “When
the Turkish authorities gave the orders for these deportations, they were
merely giving the death warrant to a whole race…”
The Allied Powers (Great Britain, France, Russia) responded to news
of the massacres by issuing a warning to Turkey: “…the Allied governments
announce publicly…that they will hold all the members of the Ottoman
Government, as well as such of their agents as are implicated, personally
responsible for such matters.”
The warning had no effect. Newspapers in the West including the New
York Times published reports of the continuing deportations with the
headlines: Armenians Are Sent to Perish in the Desert – Turks
Accused of Plan to Exterminate Whole Population (August 18, 1915) -
Million Armenians Killed or in Exile – American Committee on
Relief Says Victims of Turks Are Steadily Increasing – Policy of
Extermination (December 15, 1915).
Temporary relief for some Armenians came as Russian troops attacked
along the Eastern Front and made their way into central Turkey. But the
troops withdrew in 1917 upon the Russian Revolution. Armenian survivors
withdrew along with them and settled in among fellow Armenians already
living in provinces of the former Russian Empire. There were in total about
500,000 Armenians gathered in this region.
In May 1918, Turkish armies attacked the area to achieve the goal of
expanding Turkey eastward into the Caucasus and also to resume the annihilation
of the Armenians. As many as 100,000 Armenians may have fallen victim to
the advancing Turkish troops.
However, the Armenians managed to acquire weapons and they fought back,
finally repelling the Turkish invasion at the battle of Sadarabad, thus
saving the remaining population from total extermination with no help from
the outside world. Following that victory, Armenian leaders declared the
establishment of the independent Republic of Armenia.
World War I ended in November 1918 with a defeat for Germany and the
Central Powers including Turkey. Shortly before the war had ended, the
Young Turk triumvirate; Talaat, Enver and Djemal, abruptly resigned their
government posts and fled to Germany where they had been offered asylum.
In the months that followed, repeated requests were made by Turkey’s
new moderate government and the Allies asking Germany to send the Young
Turks back home to stand trial. However all such requests were turned down.
As a result, Armenian activists took matters into their own hands, located
the Young Turks and assassinated them along with two other instigators
of the mass murder.
Meanwhile, representatives from the fledgling Republic of Armenia attended
the Paris Peace Conference in the hope that the victorious Allies would
give them back their historic lands seized by Turkey. The European Allies
responded to their request by asked the United States to assume guardianship
of the new Republic. However, President Woodrow Wilson’s attempt to make
Armenia an official U.S. protectorate was rejected by the U.S. Congress
in May 1920.
But Wilson did not give up on Armenia. As a result of his efforts, the
Treaty of Sevres was signed on August 10, 1920, by the Allied Powers, the
Republic of Armenia and the new moderate leaders of Turkey. The treaty
recognized an independent Armenian state in an area comprising much of
the former historic homeland.
However, Turkish nationalism once again reared its head. The moderate
Turkish leaders who signed the treaty were ousted in favor of a new nationalist
leader, Mustafa Kemal, who simply refused to accept the treaty and even
re-occupied the very lands in question then expelled any surviving Armenians,
including thousands of orphans.
No Allied power came to the aid of the Armenian Republic and it collapsed.
Only a tiny portion of the easternmost area of historic Armenia survived
by being becoming part of the Soviet Union.
After the successful obliteration of the people of historic Armenia,
the Turks demolished any remnants of Armenian cultural heritage including
priceless masterpieces of ancient architecture, old libraries and archives.
The Turks even leveled entire cities such as the once thriving Kharpert,
Van and the ancient capital at Ani, to remove all traces of the three thousand
year old civilization.
The half-hearted reaction of the world’s great powers to the plight
of the Armenians was duly noted by the young German politician Adolf Hitler.
After achieving total power in Germany, Hitler decided to conquer Poland
in 1939 and told his generals: “Thus for the
time being I have sent to the East only my ‘Death’s Head Units’ with the
orders to kill without pity or mercy all men, women, and children of Polish
race or language. Only in such a way will we win the vital space that we
need. Who still talks nowadays about the Armenians?”
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