April 2015 marks the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. More precisely, on the 24th April 2015 is Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day. The murder of nearly 1,5 million Armenians had been forgotten for a long time but is now acknowledged by all states except Turkey. With an additional 250,000 Assyrians and 350,000 Pontic Greeks killed in this genocide, it counts itself amongst the three big genocides of the 20th century, along with Ruanda and the Holocaust.
Today’s State of Armenia lies in the Caucasus Mountains between Georgia, Azerbaijan, Iran and Turkey. The Armenian people boast a 3,000-year long history. Armenia was autonomous at times and was the first country in the world to make Christianity their state religion. It was often occupied by other great powers, such as the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Mongolians and, finally, the Ottomans. In spite of these occupations, they have never lost their culture and identity. The Armenians were a scholarly people, successful tradesmen and businessmen, lawyers or doctors. They were said to be cosmopolitan, and many of them sent their children to study in Europe or America.
With a population of between 25 and 40%, they were the largest non-Muslim community in Eastern Anatolia. Nevertheless, they were still discriminated against. Christians had to pay more taxes than their Muslim neighbours and had fewer rights. Therefore, Armenian nationalists formed a sort of Armenian renaissance and demanded more rights, self-government and full equality. They tried to achieve their demands through robberies and terrorism, causing anger and hatred amongst the Muslims who, in turn, planned for a severe revenge. The first massacres happened between 1894 and 1896, with an estimated 80,000 to 200,000 Armenian victims.
#How the genocide began
At the end of the 19th century, the Ottoman empire began to fall apart due to civil wars and wars for independence. In 1908, the Young Turk Revolution began and the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) assumed political leadership. The CUP mainly consisted of modern military officials, but split in two, becoming liberal-democratic and nationalist-authoritarian factions. In 1913, the so-called triumvirate of the CUP, consisting of Minister of the Interior Mehmed Talât, War Minister Ismail Enver and Naval Minister Ahmed Cemal, came into power. They established a de facto dictatorship and a Turkish racial theory to help overcome the people’s shame and the downfall of the Ottoman Empire. According to their racial theory, the Turks were superhuman and therefore superior to the Armenian, Greek, Christian and Jewish races.
The Young Turks wanted to found a new Ottoman Empire in order to unite all Turks from Constantinople (now Istanbul) to Central Asia. However, non-Muslim minorities were not to be accepted.
Photo: Armenian Genocide Museum
#The Armenian Genocide
The Young Turks sided with the German Reich in 1914, and presumed that the Armenians fought alongside the Christian Orthodox Russians. Despite there being a few guerilla factions that supported the Russian enemy, the majority of the Armenian population remained true to the Ottoman Empire.
However, the war catalysed the violence and gave the Young Turks the ideal opportunity to solve the Armenian problem for good, without fear of outside intervention. The CUP founded the special unit Teşkilât-ı Mahsusa to plan, monitor and perform the genocide against Christians. During a CUP conference, a confidential document authorised the closure of all Armenian companies and the arrest of all those working against the government. All Armenians were to be sent to the farthest provinces of the empire (Baghdad and Mosul). They were then to be eliminated either mid-journey or upon arrival. Additionally, all soldiers and men under the age of 50 were to be killed, and all women and children were to be Islamised – all part of the makings of a genocide.
On the 24th April 1915, the first coordinated attack on the Armenian people took place: between 200 and 300 intellectuals were either arrested, killed, tortured or worked to death in Constantinople. All Armenian soldiers had to hand in their weapons, and were then either shot or deported to concentration camps. In order to ensure that nobody would be left to defend the community, all battle-able men were killed first. The remaining women, children and elderly were then easy prey.
The Armenian city of Van was able to mount a defence against the attacks by the Young Turks for a couple of weeks, but even their resistance was shattered. This incident was confirmation for the government that the Armenian people sympathised with the Russian enemy and therefore had to be destroyed.
“It appears that a campaign of race extermination is in progress under a pretext of reprisal against rebellion” – Henry Morgenthau, eye witness and then US Ambassador
The CUP enacted a provisional deportation law, commonly known as Tehcir Law, to allegedly bring the Armenian people to safety in non-military zones. At the same time, they started to destroy Armenian cultural assets. Monuments and churches were blown up, graveyards were converted into fields, and cities were either razed or occupied.
Death marches, mainly consisting of women, children and the elderly were led through rough terrain to Aleppo, which is located in Syria’s desert. Along the way, many died of starvation, thirst, exhaustion or disease – or even from attacks by Kurdish soldiers and chetes who continuously attacked and massacred the caravans. The chetes were violent criminals who had been released from prison by the government to kill the Armenians and other Christians – thereby avoiding blame for the act and covering their tracks.
Those who were deported were robbed, beaten, raped or kidnapped to be later sold as servants or sex slaves. The children were often forced to convert to Islam, and were raised as Turks. Others had their clothes stripped from them so that they would die slowly of thirst or heat exposure. Some were thrown into rivers to drown; and those who tried to swim away were shot. If people became too weak to walk, they were beaten until they continued walking – and those who did not were shot immediately. Women who gave birth on the marches were forced to continue walking immediately after their child was born. Out of the 18,000 people who began the march, only about 150 people arrived in Aleppo – most of whom died shortly after.
During the last months of the First World War the Young Turks invaded the Russian border regions, killing another 20,000 Armenians there. Many Armenians wanted revenge. To do so, they raided and massacred Turkish villages in order to cause as much damage as possible.
The German Reich and Turkey’s defeat finally brought an end to the genocide and gave the Armenians right to self-determination. They founded the First Republic of Armenia but went on to endure two more massacres in 1920 and 1923. By the end of 1922, only 400,000 of the former 2 million Armenians remained.
Before the end of the war, the three principal offenders Talât, Enver and Cemal fled to Germany where they were granted political asylum. Every demand for extradition was rejected, leading Armenian activists to take justice into their own hands. On the 15th March 1921, Mehmed Talât was shot in Berlin in the middle of the street by the Armenian organisation Operation Nemesis; on the 25th July 1922, Ahmet Cemal suffered the same fate in the Georgian city of Tbilisi. Only Ismail Enver was able to avoid his Armenian pursuers: he died on the 4th August 1922 in a fight with Red army soldiers near Dushanbe, in Tajikistan.
“The events of 1915”, as the Turks call the massacre of the Armenians, is a very emotional topic in Turkey. To declare the crimes a genocide and to admit that they happened would amount to an insult of the Turkish nation. According to the Turkish people, it was merely a matter of relocating people during the course of the First World War. The tragic consequences of these actions are, apparently, only collateral damage and an unfortunate part of a terrible war.
Scientific opinion states that these events were in fact a genocide. Turkey, however, has national-political and political identity problems with this view, since the modern Turkish nation state is the result of a population homogenisation: the genocide accusations simply do not fit the Turkish self-image. Even the German government refuses to use the word genocide in connection with these massacres, fearing this might strain German-Turkish relations.
Meanwhile in Turkey people are endeavouring to broach this polemic subject through exhibitions, conferences, exchanges and civic dialogues. Officially, however, the subject is still taboo – despite the fact that the recognition of the genocide is one of the conditions of Turkey’s admission into the EU.
“The Armenian Genocide has not been acknowledged 100 years after it happened. Part of this is acknowledging what happened before. We cannot just ignore the history” – George Clooney
Armenian National Institute (2015) Frequently Asked Questions. Abrufbar unter: www.armenian-genocide.org/genocidefaq.html (Stand: 22.03.15)
EyeWitnesstoHistory.com (2008) The Massacre of the Armenians, 1915. Abrufbar unter: http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/pfarmenianmassacre.htm (Stand: 22.03.15)
CNN (2015) Abrufbar unter: http://edition.cnn.com/videos/world/2015/03/11/orig-oth-george-clooney-power-couple-zef.cnn (Stand: 22.03.15)
Jones, A. (2010) Genocide – A comprehensive Introduction. 2nd Edition. London and New York: Routledge.
Kifner, J. Armenian Genocide of 1915: An Overview. The New York Times Abrufbar unter: http://www.nytimes.com/ref/timestopics/topics_armeniangenocide.html (Stand: 22.03.15)
Pawlitzki, H. (2011) Hintergrund: Der Völkermord an den Armeniern 1915 – 1917. Abrufbar unter: https://www.planet-schule.de/wissenspool/menschenlandschaften/inhalt/hintergrund/voelkermord-an-den-armenien.html (Stand: 22.03.15)
The History Place (2000) Genocide in the 20th Century: Armenians in Turkey: 1915- 18. Abrufbar unter: http://www.historyplace.com/worldhistory/genocide/armenians.html (Stand: 22.03.15)