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In 1948, the United Nations defined genocide as an action intended “to destroy in whole, or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group.”
Nobody disputes that the Nazi attempt to exterminate all Jews, or the 1994 Hutu butchery of Tutsis in Rwanda, were acts of genocide.
The weight of world opinion falls on the side of defining the deaths of 1.5 million Armenians as genocide, but the government of Turkey insists it was simply one of those nasty things that happens during wartime.
Choosing Sides in World War I
Sitting at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, Armenians had endured three thousand years of foreign rulers―Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, and Mongols. Despite all of these invasions and occupations the Armenian cultural identity remained firm.
In 1915, Armenia was part of the crumbling Ottoman Empire of Turkey. It was then, and still is today, a small nation to the east of Turkey, with about two million ethnic Armenians spilling over the border into the eastern part of the country.
The First World War was raging and Turkey had joined the German and Austro-Hungarian team. Russia was on the Allies side and, as its forces began advancing on Turkey, the Armenians threw in their lot with Russia.
Muslim Turkey suspected that the Christian Armenians were some sort of fifth column that would rise up against the government. To forestall any attempted rebellion, the Turks confiscated every pistol and hunting rifle owned by Armenians.
About 40,000 Armenians were serving in the Turkish Army. They were forced to hand in their weapons and were turned into slave labourers building roads or carrying supplies like human pack animals.
Death March into Syria
Totally disarmed, the Armenians were helpless to resist being rounded up. It started on the evening of April 24, 1915. Armenian intellectuals were arrested in their homes in Constantinople (today’s Istanbul). About 300 were taken to prison and, after being tortured, were shot or hanged.
Then, Turkish soldiers, police, and civilians descended on Armenian towns and villages. The men were taken into the countryside and shot or bayoneted. The children, women, and old people were then marched into Syria and Iraq.
The long columns were “guarded” by police who allowed groups of criminals to have what they viewed as fun; this involved an orgy of torture, rape, and murder. Whatever meager possessions the marchers had were stolen.
The marches covered hundreds of miles and lasted for months; those that couldn’t keep up were shot. Sometimes, the people were ordered remove all their clothing and had to march under the blazing Sun. Of the million or so that started the trek only a quarter survived.
Their destination was the desert where they were abandonned without food or water.
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Grigoris Balakian, who survived the mass killings, gave an eyewitness account of the harrowing experience in his book Armenian Golgotha; a translation of which was published by his great nephew Peter in 2009.
60 Minutes correspondent Bob Simon visited a place in northern Syria with Peter Balakian. He found the bones of thousands of victims of the massacre lying just below the surface of a hill.
Simon reported that, “450,000 Armenians died in this spot in the desert. ‘In this region called Deir Zor, it is the greatest graveyard of the Armenian Genocide,’ [Balakian] explained.
“Deir Zor is to Armenians what Auschwitz is to Jews.”
The few remaining Armenians left behind in their traditional homeland got some help from Russia as its forces moved into central Turkey. But then the Russian Revolution put an end to that country’s involvement in the war. As the Russians retreated, the Armenian Turks withdrew with them and settled among Armenians living in Russia.
In a last gasp of the war, Turkey attacked eastwards but ran into now-armed Armenian exiles. At the end of May 1918, the two sides clashed at the Battle of Sardarabad. The Armenians fought fiercely and put the Turks to flight.
Historians argue that if they had lost the battle it would have led to the complete annihilation of the Armenian people. As it was, Armenian leaders followed the victory by declaring the setting up of the independent Republic of Armenia. It remains an independent country today, but it covers only a small part of its historical territory.
Turkey Denies the Armenian Massacre was Genocide
The United States Ambassador to Turkey at the time was Henry Morgenthau Sr. He wrote to the State Department that “When the Turkish authorities gave the orders for these deportations, they were merely giving the death warrant to a whole race; they understood this well, and in their conversations with me, they made no particular attempt to conceal the fact.”
Turkey admits to the tragic events taking place but continues to say it was not genocide, and anyway, it was not organized by the government. There were some half-hearted efforts to prosecute some of those involved, but they went nowhere. Shortly after the trials all the documentation mysteriously vanished.
After years of searching, a Turkish historian at Clark University in Worcester, Taner Akcam, has found an incriminating telegram. Mr. Akcam believes there is a treasure trove of documentation hidden in archives in Jerusalem that will prove Ottoman government involvement in, and organization of, the massacres.
The official Turkish version is that terrible things often happen in wars and the deaths of the Armenians is one such sad episode among many.
Armenians around the world have campaigned to have the affair officially recognized as genocide. Turkey, with equal vigor, exerts pressure to stop the genocide definition from being made. So far, most historians and many national governments have sided with the Armenians; it was genocide.
- In October 2019, the U.S. House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to declare the slaughter of Armenians a genocide. In April 2021, U.S. President Joe Biden added his voice to the many by declaring the death of the Armenians was genocide.
- Sultan Abdul Hamid II was the leader of the Ottoman Empire from 1876 to 1909. He was a brutal man who responded to Armenian calls for more democracy with violence. Between 1894 and 1896 he ordered the killing of more than 100,000 Armenian villagers.
- In 1909, Abdul Hamid was overthrown by a group of army officers in the Young Turks Rebellion. This did not lead to an improvement of conditions for the Christian Armenians as the rebellion ushered in a new period of Islamic fundamentalism. According to The History Place “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.”
- In a speech in August 1939, Adolf Hitler outlined his plans for Poland, whose invasion was to take place in a couple of weeks: “I put ready my Death’s Head units, with the order to kill without pity or mercy all men, women, and children of the Polish race or language. Only thus will we gain the living space that we need. Who still talks nowadays of the extermination of the Armenians?”
- “Turkey and Armenia’s Battle over History.” CBS 60 Minutes, February 28, 2010.
- “House Panel Says Armenian Deaths Were Genocide.” Brian Knowlton, New York Times, March 4, 2010.
- “Denial.” Canada and the World Backgrounder, September 2008.
- “Turkey Condemns U.S. Genocide Vote.” Al Jazeera, March 5, 2010.
- “Genocide in the 20th Century.” The History Place, undated.
- “We Must not Forget Armenia’s Suffering.” Alexander Lucie-Smith, Catholic Herald, February 4, 2015.
- “ ‘Sherlock Holmes of Armenian Genocide’ Uncovers Lost Evidence.” Tim Arango, New York Times, April 22, 2017.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2017 Rupert Taylor