I will not do justice to the horror of this crime. An organized massacre that beggars description. This is the first of the genocides of the Twentieth Century, implemented in wartime and within a collapsing Ottoman Empire, that was carried out from 1915 to 1920. And all but forgotten. Today what is known as Turkey lies empty of Armenians.
Armenians and Turks
The Armenians had been in the Middle East for millennia, speaking an Indo-European related language. Long before the nomadic Turkic Steppe peoples ever arrived in Anatolia the 11th Century. They were the first nation to declare Christianity the State Church in the early fourth century. Much of the time they subsisted as client states of the Romans, Persians, Arabs or the Turks and the Safavid Persian Empire with some periods of independence (885 A.D. to the 12th Century).
The Turkic peoples range throughout the vast Asian Steppe and were one of a series of aggressive nomadic Steppe peoples that terrorized or destroyed Civilizations for millennia. The Steppe was a relatively narrow grassy expanse of geography from Mongolia to Hungry, a few hundred miles wide. Huns that devastated the Roman Empire and Xiang Nu that challenged the Chinese civilization were two examples of these devastating Steppe peoples. Their military prowess was unparalleled, such that it was only in their inevitable disintegration into competing tribes that caused them to cease being a threat: formerly united groups would inevitably fall upon each other. The Mongolian succession crisis upon the death of the Grand Khan Ogedei of 1240 may have saved Europe.
In several cases these Steppe nomads subsumed civilization, in the case of the Turks, invading the Anatolian plateau in the 11th Century a province of the Byzantine Empire. Later heirs of the Seljuks, the Ottoman Turks, created a vast empire from the Baltics to the borders of the great Persian Civilization and included Egypt and some claim to sovereignty over Northern Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. By 1453 they had destroyed the Byzantine Civilization with the conquest of Constantinople and its massive walls, the final bastion of the Eastern Roman Empire, whose political existence in the West ended in 476 A.D but lived on another millennium in the East. The fall of Constantinople meant the control of the Ottomans over the Balkans was decidedly settled; their ascendency lasted over five centuries.
The Ottoman’s reign in the Middle East and Balkans was uncontested from the 15th Century until the end of the 18th. Even laying siege to Vienna in 1683. Within a century they were in retreat. Russia gained control over Crimea in 1783. Napoleon carried out a military adventure that briefly took control of Egypt and Palestine in 1798, but left with his army disintegrated, under siege by the British Navy.
Big cracks began to open in the Empire. Greece gained independence in 1818. Egypt rose in revolt in 1805 and was thereafter run by Muhammed Ali. Reverses against Ottoman Empire followed in Crimean War(1853-56), only to be propped up by France and England, and then the so-called Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, resulted in additional loss of territory. Bulgaria became independent, Serbia’s de facto independence was recognized, Cyprus was taken by the British Empire and Russia gained territories in the Caucasus and Bessarabia (Western Coast of Black Sea). Later Romania gained independence in 1881 and Bulgaria incorporated Eastern Romelia in 1885.
The Ottoman Empire was shocked by the sudden collapse of its Balkan provinces in 1912, carried out by the indigenous Macedonians, Serbs, Bulgars and Greeks. They were not aided by the major powers. The Ottoman’s had been present in the European Balkans in some measure over parts of seven centuries, since the 14th century. This was largely gone. After the Balkan War hundreds of thousands of Muslim refugees left to reside in the remainder of the Empire mostly Constantinople and Anatolia. In February, 1914 a consortium of Powers forced Turkey to agree to the oversight by the Russian Empire of its Eastern Provinces with its large number of the populace Armenians. This was the backdrop of the Ottoman Empire entering World War I.
The Young Turks
The extermination of the Armenians in Anatolia is a monstrous crime, made more monstrous by its denial by the government of Turkey and its people. The genocide of the Armenians was the end result of a policy of a political movement called the Young Turks, presumed democratic. They had gained ascendancy in the Ottoman Empire in 1908, ironically allied with the Armenians; they were to have set up a constitutional government with the overthrow of Sultan Hamid Abdul.
Shortly after CUP took power in 1909 the Armenians suffered a massacre in Adana, much like the series of widespread massacres, suffered under Sultan Abdul Hamid in 1890’s where countless thousands died. The Adana massacres, largely propagated by the Turkish military, rattled the association that the Armenian democratic segment had with the Young Turk.
Leaders of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) directed the genocide. Talat Pasha (1874-1921), born in what is modern day Bulgaria from lower civil service origins, became head postal clerk of Thessaloniki after 10 years. Starting his political career he became deputy from Edirne in 1909; he became minister of interior affairs (1913-17), secretary general of the CUP and Grand Vizier (1917-18). Along with physicians Behaeddin Shakir (1874-1922), head of the Special Organization, the genocidal arm of the CUP and Nazim Bey (1870-1926), also working with the Special Organization, were leading figures responsible for the genocide. In a speech to the CUP Dr. Nazim said:
If we remain satisfied with the sort of local massacres which took place in Adana and elsewhere in 1909...if this purge is not general and final, it will inevitably lead to problems. Therefore, it is absolutely necessary to eliminate the Armenian people in its entirety, so there is no further Armenian on this earth and the very concept of Armenia is extinguished.
And continued by saying, "the procedure this time will be one of total annihilation-it is necessary that not even one single Armenian survive this annihilation".
General Enver Pasha, Minister of War, was the key proponent of cooperation with Germany and thus led the Empire into War against Russia. He was fully implicated in the genocide. He advocated pan-Turkism (an Ideological pipe dream in which all Turkish speaking peoples would unite, much of whom reside in Russia). In the Battle of Sarikamish his life was saved ironically by an Armenian who carried his wounded body back through enemy lines to safety. Later he fought against the Soviets in the Russian Civil war, where he was killed in 1922.
Before long it became apparent to most that the Young Turks began to exercise authoritarian control, not democratic governance. In fact it became evident that the Young Turks biggest fear was the continuing dissection of the Empire and would do what was necessary to maintain the geographic integrity of the Ottoman Empire that was to be made uniformly Turkish. They were in fact Turkish Nationalists, not Democratic Liberals.
Ziya Gokalp (1876-1924) was their luminary. They were in fact a secular nationalist movement, using the propensity of Islam for insistence on ascendancy, and claimed that the progression to ascendancy of the Turkish peoples as rightful and something to be expected in their fancied struggles of peoples. Much akin to the National Socialist idea of the Darwinian struggles of peoples. Gokalp was influenced by the sociologist Durkheim, where the group was superior to the individual: "the individual becomes a genuine personality only as he becomes a genuine representative of his culture". Gokalp hinted that the Turks were the Ubermensch, spoken of by Friedrich Nietzsche, the 19th Century German Existentialist. A state not based on shared consciousness cannot survive, he said. It was then of prime importance that the Turk should assert themselves within the Empire, violently if need be. Basically, their thought was a toxic concoction, which became deadly to the Armenians.
At the conclusion of the Balkan Wars in 1913 Muslims some hundreds of thousands (413,992 Toynbee’s calculation) were expelled from the Balkans and arrived in Constantinople and Anatolia. This gave pretense for the killings. In 1914 the Ottoman government feared dismemberment of the Empire, especially after the collapse of the Balkans, and thought that Germany could provide protection for them from the Entente and so they ineptly entered the War on Kaiser’s side. There were visions by some Young Turks of a war uniting the Turks across Asia. The Armenians were immediately made suspect of colluding with the Russians. Armenians lived across the border in the Russian Empire as well, and the Armenians in Eastern Anatolia were deemed to have sympathies toward Russia and its Armenia subjects. And some fought for the Russians, as could be expected being subjects of the Russian Czar. However, the Armenians, who yearned for equality in the Empire, were in no position to defend themselves.
There were progressive elements in the Armenian population whose interest was being treated as equals in the Empire. Dissent and perceived disloyalty was treated with naked, brutal and barbaric suppression by the Ottoman Government. In 1895-96 Sultan Abdul Hamid’s widespread massacres killed countless thousands, some estimates as high as 200,000. The Ottoman Empire operated under a governing principle that subject peoples existed at the sufferance of the ruling Ottomans. Any grumbling or discontent by these peoples was given a knee jerk cuff, so to speak. Not finding any positive development in their quest for equality some Armenians began to look European powers for independence.
The Young Turks came to a conclusion that the Armenian Peoples had to be attended to for the preservation of the Empire. The Empire was pressured time and time again by the European Powers and saw in the loss of the Balkans in 1913 that Anatolia itself was about to be dismembered or at the least provide a protectorate for the Armenians in eastern Anatolia. Note at the conclusion of the Balkan Wars in 1913 Muslims some hundreds of thousands (413,992 Toynbee’s calculation) were expelled from the Balkans and arrived in Anatolia.
Best solution, dare I say Final solution, in the mind of the Young Turks was destruction of the Armenians, co-habitants of the Anatolian peninsula for nearly a millennium, residents of the Middle East for millennia. Then the Powers would lose the object of their intervention into the Empire, the oppressed subject peoples, largely Christians. The objectives real purpose, as they saw it, was the partition of a collapsing Empire. The real prospect of the annihilation presented itself under the cover of World War I.
Initially the progressive elements of the Armenian community allied with the seemingly progressive Ittihadist movement, commonly known as the Young Turks, only to be betrayed. The Young Turks’ primary goal was preservation of the Empire. Once they had overthrown the Sultan and setup the semblance of a parliamentary style government, they had no need of their former allies the Armenians who presented a threat to the homogenization of the Empire.
In October 1914 as Ottoman Empire initiated war with Russia, the Armenia male population was inducted into the Turkish Army. After the devastating defeat by the Russians at the Battle of Sarikamish in December 1914 to January 1915 in Eastern Anatolia, where 60-90,000 Turks died, many froze or starved to death. The General in Command, Enver Pasha blamed Armenian disloyalty rather than his own deficiencies in leadership for the defeat. Afterwards the Armenians within the Army were disarmed and placed into unarmed labor battalions and later starved, overworked or bludgeoned to death. In April 1915 the Armenian elite, many would be shocked to find out, were betrayed by the Ittihadists their former allies and seeming friends, were rounded up and arrested then executed.
THE “DEPORTATIONS” 1915
Shortly thereafter the “Deportations” would begin in the Eastern Provinces of Turkey, the region of the majority of the Armenian peoples. Deportation was a euphemism for destruction by starvation, overexertion, brutal death by marauding bands of released criminals, kidnapping and rape of young women, some forced to accept Islam and on occasion allowed conversion under threat. The Armenians were not permitted to bring with them anything other than that they could gather and carry in a matter of a few minutes. They were given no provisions on the way and often had to bribe their “caretakers” for essentials to continue to survive. NO provision was made by the Young Turks for care and sustenance of the “deportees”. Groups largely composed of women, children and the aged did nothing to resist. There are instances of hundreds of “deportees” herded by 2-3 gendarmes; 10,000 by a squadron. In addition to the “Deportations” mass drowning of up to 50,000 were reported by the Italian Consul of Trabzon on the Black Sea. Innocents sent on boats and then the boats would be sunk, all to be drowned.
All Armenian property, untold amounts, was confiscated as well. In large part the Christian minorities were the merchant and financial class of the Empire, although in the Eastern Anatolia there were hundreds of thousands of Armenian peasants. Part of the appeal of the widespread confiscation of Armenian property was an attempt by the Young Turks to create a Turkish Middle Class. “Assistance offered by Germany, America, and international aid organizations was all refused.”*
Despite the destruction of much of the documentary evidence of the genocide by the government of the Ottoman Empire, there is still much evidence of the crimes. US Ambassador to Ottoman Empire, Henry Morgenthau recounted much of the atrocities that were occurring. The German Protestant missionary, Johannes Lepsius, reported widespread atrocities. The German military, allies to the Turks in WWI , also made note of these barbarities. The Germans worked closely with the Turkish Military High Command, who relied on them ultimately for leadership in their military operations. Trials after the end of WWI compiled documentation, some of which has survived, as well. Significantly, Taner Ackam’s Killing Orders:Talat Pasha’s Telegrams and the Armenian Genocide, confirms Talat Pasha’s genocidal orders to subordinates. No longer can deniers claim that the killings were not coordinated for the center.
As anyone knows there are but a tiny few Armenians in the Anatolian peninsula today. This is evidence after the fact of the ethnic massacre perpetrated upon them, despite all the denials.
It must be noted that the killing didn’t stop in 1915. “Deportations” continued into 1916. In March 1918 the Soviet Russians left the War with the Russian State itself in disintegration. The Turks invaded Russian Armenia; several massacres and atrocities took place in which hundreds of thousands of Armenians lost their lives, one of which in Baku in September 15-17 in which 30,000 Armenians died. Under a later repatriation 5-12,000 Armenians were slaughtered in 1920 in Marash in Turkey’s War of Independence.
There are several parallels to the Holocaust of WWII. The Young Turks were largely an imbedded Ideological party behind the Ottoman Empire after 1908 with agents acting throughout the Empire. Instructions by the Young Turk hierarchy were sent to their functionaries to initiate the “deportations”. Jails were emptied to form criminal gangs that preyed on the deportees. Special Organization, the genocidal wing of the Young Turk political organization led the “deportations” which in most cases led to starvation, exhaustion or butchery. It was systematic and punitive consequences of their crime were largely absent. A pitiable few responsible saw retribution. This undoubtedly influenced the NAZIs’ thinking later that they could escape punishment in their horrific destruction of the European Jewish population.
Nearly as disturbing, a century later Turkey, its government and the population at large, continue to deny there was genocide. One argument runs; yes, hundreds of thousands died but they, being a Fifth Column, really deserved it. Turkey was simply fighting Armenian Fifth column uprisings. There was no general uprising or civil war involving the Armenians. In additional argument Armenia got what it deserved because thousands of Muslims were expelled from the Balkans and so the Armenians were “expelled” and the displaced Muslims took their place. In fact virtually all violence that Armenia committed was in a futile attempt to defend themselves against slaughter. Little blame can be assigned on the instances where Armenian’s allegiance in Eastern Anatolia leaned to the Russians, who didn’t have a recent history of slaughtering them. The vast majority of the Armenians acted peacefully toward the Ottoman Empire.
How many died? Estimates run from 800,000 to 1.5 million with a million being a figure that’s most often employed. Considering just as in Eastern Europe there are frightfully few Jews, where once were millions, one must presume a vast number of people were killed. There was 1.3 to 2.4 million Armenians in Anatolia prior to the Genocide. Currently one will not find Armenians in their former homeland in Eastern Anatolia, or the Region once known as Cilicia. Istanbul is empty of Armenians as well, except for a few thousands. Somehow they all disappeared, I guess.
It must be noted that the Greeks, resided in Anatolia for three millennia, were forcibly expelled from Anatolia as well, after World War I.
I admit I haven’t done justice to the crime. Individual testimony of the barbarity is nearly unspeakable. And simply recounting it seems only to trivialize it. And few have heard of the atrocities against the Armenians. The silenced don't speak. There are those who hope no one speaks for them.
*Ackam, Taner, A Shameful Act, pg 10.