-Talat Pasha, in a conversation with Dr. Mordtmann of the German Embassy in June 1915
The Armenian Genocide unofficially began with the arrest of 250 Armenian intellectuals by Turkish officials on April 24, 1915. Over the next several years a series of systematic deportations and mass executions along with intentional starvation would cause the deaths of more than 1 million Armenians. The aftermath left the remaining Armenian population scattered, resulting in one of the greatest diasporas in the twentieth century.
Below is a condensed history of the Armenian Genocide, beginning with the life of the Armenians before the genocide and extending to the genocide's legacy today.
The Armenians before the Genocide
The Armenians and other Christian communities, including the Greeks and Assyrians, were significant minorities in the Ottoman Empire. Despite being a multi-religious and multi-ethnic state with members from all three of the great monotheistic religions (Islam, Christianity, and Judaism), the empire was dominated by ethnic Turks. The second half of the 19th century, saw the rise of Turkish nationalism that placed emphasis on the ethnic and religious identity of the majority element of the empire to the growing detriment of religious and ethno-religious minorities inhabiting the country. Beset by a series of military defeats, an ever-shrinking economy, and an overall political instability on both domestic and international fronts, the Ottoman Empire eventually turned inwards. The various Turkish nationalist movements meanwhile grew both in strength and stature, a growing sign of their influence being the nearly overnight proliferation of literature and articles that touted the uniqueness and supremacy of Turkish civilization.
The military losses that saw the further fragmentation of the empire and the ensuing reactionary nationalism would have a disastrous impact on Empire’s remaining Christian minorities, but especially the Armenian community. It left them as one of the largest Christian groups in the Ottoman Empire, geographically largely confined to Eastern Anatolia and away from other Christian populations, and thus especially vulnerable to political abuse and collective violence. Although throughout the centuries Armenians had been considered the “loyal nation,” and had risen to economic and civic prominence in the most important of imperial urban centers and in the capital, with the rise of Turkish nationalism their situation was becoming increasingly intolerable and untenable. The first Armenian political parties established around this period sought to address the increasing vulnerability of the Armenian cultural life in the empire, seeking political and economic reforms that would alleviate the growing discrimination towards the Armenian minority. This growing Armenian political awareness on one hand, and their economic overachievement in the Sultan’s domain on the other, would contribute to the atmosphere of distrust between Turks and Armenians.
The Armenian question, long a fixture of European and Ottoman diplomacy, was now becoming a fiercely debated topic of highest importance in Turkish politics. Political and economic reforms advocated by European powers and at least on paper embraced by Ottoman authorities was fast becoming a mere afterthought given how fast events on the ground were developing. Tensions would ultimately come to a head when a series of pogroms were unleashed against the Armenians and to a lesser extent against other Christian groups in the empire. The Hamidian massacres of 1894-1896 claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Armenians, serving, in the words of one Armenian historian, as a “dress rehearsal” for the Armenian Genocide of 1915.
In the years leading up to the genocide, the Ottoman authorities would further tighten the restrictions for learning, property ownership and religious practices for minorities, including the Armenians, in the empire. This would foreshadow future events.
The Armenian Genocide
It can be difficult to pinpoint an exact date when the Armenian Genocide begins because it was the culmination of a series of policies targeting the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian population. In February 1915, Armenians serving in the Ottoman army were removed from active duty and forced into labor battalions. However, April 24, 1915 is widely considered the date the genocide began because it was then that Turkish authorities arrested 250 Armenian intellectuals. The reason given was fear that the Armenians were in league with Russia, the Ottoman Empire’s historic rival, and could serve as a potential fifth column. The hysteria created by World War I created a perfect cover for the Ottoman government led by the nationalist ruling party of Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), a.k.a. the Young Turks, to set in motion its genocidal plan against their Armenian fellow citizens.
In May 1915, the deportation of the Armenians from Empire’s eastern provinces began apace. A series of consecutive laws passed by the Turkish government gave it the right to confiscate or otherwise impound Armenian properties and businesses left behind by the departing deportees as a wartime necessity. Other restrictions of similar or harsher nature soon followed, leaving the Armenian population defenseless, property-less and generally destitute. Forced marches, massacres became more commonplace and widespread, especially on deportation routes. The Turkish military instituted a number of gruesome methods to exterminate the Armenian population, some of which would be adopted and refined by the Nazis a mere 25 years later. Those who were not killed outright by the military often faced starvation along the way. Rapes of women and girls were also commonplace.
The Armenians who managed to survive the marches were sent on foot to concentration camps created by the Ottoman military. These camps were located near modern Turkey’s southern border, in the Syrian desert of Deir ez-Zor. The Turkish government routinely withheld food and water from the Armenians in the camp. The lack of nourishment, coupled with unsanitary conditions and widespread disease, meant life expectancy at the camps was extraordinarily short. Armenian women and girls, were often sold while in the camps by Turkish gendermes to local Arab bedouins and chieftains. Many of the Armenian women were also routinely abducted and taken as forced brides by Turkish and Kurdish militiamen.
Much of the genocide would come to an end in 1918 with the conclusion of World War I.
Reaction to the Genocide
The international community was fully aware of the genocide as it was unfolding. Several European countries and the United States had active consular missions throughout the Ottoman Empire providing a detailed account of events during the Armenian Genocide. In addition, Christian missionary organizations and charities were also active in the area at the time. It is through these missions that newspapers of the period were able to get regular updates on the events in Turkey. In the years after the genocide, several western witnesses to the atrocities would publish their own accounts, most notably Henry Morgenthau, the former US Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.
Aid groups, especially from the United States, sent groups to provide relief to the Armenian people. In the aftermath of the genocide, thousands of Armenian people were adopted by westerners. In all, relief groups raised more than $100 million to provide aid to more than two million Armenian refugees.
Between 1919 and 1920, a series of Turkish court cases issued guilty verdicts to the Three Pashas, three senior officials and orchestrators of the genocide. These convictions were for naught, as all three had left the country. One hundred and fifty Turkish men implicated in the genocide were arrested by Allied authorities and sent to Malta for trial. All the detainees would eventually be returned to Turkey without trial. In the end, there was no punishment for those involved with the Armenian Genocide.
The lack of justice inspired Polish law student Raphael Lemkin to begin his work defining the term genocide. The massacres against Armenians influenced Lemkin’s drafting of a law to punish and prevent genocide. Although it would take more than 20 years, Lemkin would eventually see the crime of genocide made illegal by the international community when the United Nations passed the Genocide Convention in 1948.
The Armenian Genocide, Denial, and Memory
As the first of the modern genocides, the Armenian Genocide holds a complicated place in world history. For decades, the Armenian community, dispersed throughout the globe, struggled with recognition. Today, more than twenty countries officially acknowledge the atrocities as genocide. Uruguay was the first to officially recognize the genocide back in 1965. Several countries, including Austria, Switzerland, Slovakia and, most recently, Cyprus in early April 2015, have gone as far to make genocide denial a crime.
The topic of recognition is a largely political issue in the United States. Turkey is seen as a strategic ally, especially post 9/11, making leaders in Washington, DC cautious about officially recognizing the genocide. However, 48 states have taken steps to officially call the massacre of the Armenians genocide, the latest state to do so being Indiana. In Minnesota, the genocide was first marked by a proclamation by Governor Jesse Ventura.
Two countries officially deny the Ottoman government’s role in the elimination of the Armenian community—Azerbaijan and Turkey. Turkey has taken a far more aggressive approach to genocide denial, threatening lawsuits and calling into question the authenticity of academic research into the Armenian Genocide. One famous example is Dr. Taner Akçam, a Turkish scholar. Dr. Akçam has written extensively on the Armenian Genocide, and came under harsh criticism by Turkish or pro-Turkish scholars. In 2007, while a guest lecturer at the University of Minnesota, Dr. Akçam was sued under Turkey’s laws that forbid ‘insulting Turkish-ness.’ The lawsuit was eventually thrown out. The University of Minnesota itself was sued by a pro-Turkish American organization which questioned the authenticity of materials found on the Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies website. In 2011, this suit was also dismissed.
Besides lawsuits, threats of lawsuits, and public denunciation by Turkish officials the denial of the Armenian Genocide has also academic dimensions with studies designed to cast doubt on the veracity of eyewitness reports, consular dispatches from sites of massacres, and relativization of the numbers of persons killed. Despite the persistence of denial, the overwhelming majority of historians and genocide scholars agree that the massacres of the Armenian citizens of the Ottoman Empire cannot but be classified as genocide, given the intent of the perpetrators, the scope of the massacres, and their social, demographic and cultural consequences.
Beyond the reach of international politics, the legacy of the Armenian Genocide continues to be explored by a new generation of Armenians and Armenian-Americans through film, music, and literature.
For more information on the Armenian Genocide denial and memory, check out:
- Killing Orders: Talat Pasha’s Telegrams and the Armenian Genocide, by Taner Akçam. This new book by acclaimed Turkish historian offers a fresh new take on documents showing criminal intent on the part of the Turkish rulers during the Genocide and refutes contemporary denial of the Armenian Genocide through primary sources and meticulous research.
- Denial of Violence: Ottoman Past, Turkish Present, and Collective Violence Against the Armenians, 1789-2009, by Fatma Müge Göçek. University of Michigan sociologist Fatma Müge Göçek tackles the Armenian Genocide and its denial in this groundbreaking study of original Turkish sources by tracing the emergence of the official Turkish narrative from its origins to its present-day form.
- “Professional Ethics and the Denial of Armenian Genocide,” by Roger W. Smith, Eric Markusen, and Robert Jay Lifton. In this article published in the Journal of Holocaust and Genocide studies, a trio of American genocide scholars unveil the secret correspondence between former Princeton University historian Heath Lowry and the Turkish Ambassador to the United States wherein Prof. Lowry offers to ghost-write a letter on behalf of the Turkish ambassador to Robert Jay Lifton and protest latter’s inclusion of the Armenian Genocide in his book on Nazi doctors. It tackles the broader issue of professional ethics and genocide denial in the academia.
- My Grandmother: An Armenian-Turkish Memoir, by Fethiye Çetin. This book by Turkish human rights activist and prominent lawyer Fethiye Çetin details her discovery of her Armenian roots, which had been an elaborate and decades-long family secret.