Yesterday, April 24, 2015 marked 100 years since the official beginning of the Armenian genocide. While this date symbolizes the beginning of a horrific period of mass murder, it is by no means meant to imply that acts of violence against Armenians did not occur before or after this date. It is merely a date to remember the horrors that unfolded in Turkey and the Armenian homeland between 1915 and essentially up until the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. Therefore it is important to ensure that we remember not only April 24th, but a period of almost a decade in which industrial genocide and other horrific acts were perpetrated against the Armenian people by Turkey. Of a pre-war population of over 2 million, between 800,000 to 1.5 million Armenians were killed during the genocide.
The context of the Armenian genocide is fraught with complex and often manipulated historical facts that have been used to deny that genocide ever took place. Evidence such as coded Turkish telegrams used to inform regional governors to orchestrate the genocide, in addition to reports of mass piles of dead and decaying bodies from foreigners working in Turkey, seems to prove a very different reality. When World War I broke out in 1914, Turkey’s government joined with the Central Powers. Turkish expansion to the East soon butted against Russia’s border, and provided opportunity – in the fog of war – to implement a ‘final solution’ against the Armenian population. It has been reported that given Armenians natural inclination to support their Christian Orthodox brethren in Russia, Turkey was somehow justified to extend collective guilt by association over all Armenians who were perceived to be disloyal to the Ottoman Empire (although it has been well documented that many Armenians had joined the Turkish army to loyally fight). Within this context, Turkey began to disarm Armenian conscripts (estimated at 60,000) and all remaining Armenians by force. In the fall and winter of 1914, having had all their weapons confiscated, Armenians were forced into slave labor battalions under extreme and brutal conditions, resulting in needlessly high death rates. This would be only the beginning of a more industrial state-sponsored plan to exterminate all Armenians.
The decision to implement mass genocide against Armenians was taken by the ruling ultra-nationalist Young Turks – also known at the Committee for Union and Progress (CUP). Armed roundups began on the evening of April 24, 1915, as hundreds of Armenian political leaders, educators, writers, clergy and dignitaries in Constantinople (now Istanbul) were taken from their homes, jailed and tortured, then hanged or shot without trial and without notice. The military then began to turn their attention to innocent women, children, and the elderly. Armenians of all ages were ordered to leave their homes under the pretext of protection. In reality hundreds of thousands would be dispatched on death marches to deportation centres round Turkey, and then extermination areas in the deserts of Syria. By May of 1915, the Turkish (Ottoman) government passed the Temporary Law of Deportation which gave the military free reign to arrest anyone perceived to be a national threat. For those who didn’t perish in the death marches, many died of starvation and rape was permitted and condoned. It has been estimated that 75-80% died during the death marches alone.
When World War I ended in November 1918, Turkey found itself as part of the defeated Central Powers. In the chaos and imminent collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the Young Turk government, most of those who had perpetrated the genocide had fled to Germany where they were offered asylum. While most of the historic Armenian lands had been lost to Ottoman control, the fledgling Republic of Armenia did attend the post-war Paris Peace Conference in hopes of seeking justice for their land which had been seized by Turkey, and justice from those who carried out mass genocide against their people. Limited hope arrived during the signing of the Treaty of Sevres in August, 1920 which restored Armenia to its historic borders. This would however be short-lived. During the Turkish War of Independence Mustafa Kemal, Turkeys nationalist leader who had seized power, viewed the Treaty of Sevres as a treacherous act and refused to accept the peace agreement. Turkish forces routed any remaining Armenian resistance and forced thousands of fleeing Armenians eastward. It is ironic, but Bolshevik Russia’s support of Kemal meant that Russian gold was bankrolling the Turkish advance against Armenia. It was, as you recall, only a few years prior that, it was Russia was viewed as a natural ally for the Armenians. Only a small portion of historic Armenia would continue to survive as a part of the Soviet Union until its return to independence in 1990-1991.
After the successful obliteration of the people of historic Armenia during the Armenian Genocide, the Turks demolished any remnants of Armenian cultural heritage in the areas recaptured from Armenia. Turks leveled cities in an attempt to remove all traces of the three thousand year old Armenian civilization. To this day, Turkey refuses to recognize the mass killings of Armenians as a genocide and indeed continue to portray conflicting historical justification for the killings. Turkey merely refers to the Armenian Genocide as the “Events of 1915”.
In remembering the Armenian Genocide we are forced to look at ourselves as a human race. We are rightfully forced to examine our negligence, our complacency, to allow what was the first genocide of the 20th century to occur with impunity. The first genocide of the 20th century was certainly not the last; and that we as human beings in fact continue to search for methods of greater and more efficient methods to exterminate our foes, speaks to a terrifying human trait often perpetrated under the guise of wars, conflict and lies. It is even more saddening that we continue to witness mass genocide around the world and refuse to take serious action to stop it. Armenia may indeed be a small remnant of what it once was; but it has ensured that the memory of those who lost their lives to senseless murder will never be forgotten. We can all make a modest contribution to their memory by telling and retelling their story.
For more information and resources on the Armenian Genocide, please consult the following links:
Armenian Genocide Centennial
The Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute
Armenian Genocide Museum – Virtual Tour
New York Times – A Century After Armenian Genocide, Turkey’s Denial Only Deepens
Armenian National Institute