World War I (Part 35): The Armenian Genocide
During the time of the Roman Empire, Armenia was the most most powerful kingdom on its eastern border. In 301 AD, it became the first country to make Christianity its official religion.
In the 1300’s and 1400’s, the Turks were advancing northwards, and the Byzantine Empire collapsed. Armenia, and the Christian Balkan nations, were conquered by the Turks and became persecuted subject nations.
In the centuries after that, Armenia was caught up in the conflict between Turkey and Russia (which was advancing southwards). By the late 1800’s, Armenia was divided between the two nations. 1.5 million Armenians were living under the Turks, and a million under the Russians.
Russia claimed, as always, the position of champion (or sometimes liberator) of the Turks’ Christian subjects. The Turks treated the Armenians dreadfully – they raised taxes to insupportable levels, and encouraged the Kurds to use force to enrich themselves at the Armenians’ expense. Radical Armenian groups formed in response to this, demanding autonomy; and further Turkish oppression followed.
In the 1880’s and 1890’s, Turkey’s oppression of the Armenians became so bad that it became an international issue, and a focus of the American Red Cross. Turkey saw this as international interference. When Armenians in Constantinople caused a disturbance, the government responded by murdering tens of thousands of people, driving many others from their homes, and destroying whole towns.
The Young Turks took power in 1908. Some of them wanted the Ottoman Empire to be multicultural, and respect the rights of ethnic & religious minorities. Unfortunately, these men were pushed aside, and fanatic nationalists dominated the new government. The Armenians were a perfect target for their hatred.
In 1909, there was a counter-revolution against the Young Turks, but it failed. The Armenians were chosen as scapegoats, and at least 15,000 were murdered in the city of Adana (in southern Turkey). Still others were raped or mutilated; and destruction of property was widespread.
The Balkan Wars of 1912-13 made many people refugees; a huge number of Muslim refugees arrived in Turkey, and the government sent them to Armenia, where Christians had no legal rights and were ruled over by Kurdish chieftains. The refugees were told they could take what they wanted, and kill anyone who tried to interfere.
When Turkey entered WW1, 100,000 Armenians joined the army. But on the Russian side of the border, Armenians joined the Russian army, and encouraged the Turkish Armenians to do so as well. In December 1914, an Armenian division organized by the Russians crossed to the Turkish side of the border, and killed 120,000 non-Armenians (mostly Turks and Kurds).
In the generation leading up to WW1, nationalist Turks and Islamic extremists had been calling for the Ottoman Empire to be purified, in order to save it. Above all, non-Muslims must be purged. In the first months of the war, with the failure in the Caucasus and the Entente attacks on Gallipoli, it became clear that the empire was in great danger. The Russian Armenians’ actions in December were taken as the justification for the Armenian genocide, which began in April 1915.
Turkey disarmed their Armenian soldiers, and assigned them to labour battalions, which they then worked & starved to death. This got rid of those who were best able to defend themselves and others. Then an army was sent onto the plateau where most of the Turkish Armenians had lived for a long time. All males over 12yrs old were murdered, by being shot or hacked to death en masse. Women were raped and mutilated; those who survived were sold into slavery. 100,000’s of Armenians were sent into the Syrian & Mesopotamian deserts, where many died of exposure, starvation, exhaustion, or being murdered by their Kurdish escorts.
In Constantinople, thousands of convicted criminals were organized into death squads, and ordered to kill every Armenian they could find. They were to prioritize any intellectuals, professionals, political leaders and religious leaders who had the potential to be leaders. Turkish officials’ families took the best of the spoils; the death squads and other people took the rest.
Over 500,000 Armenians were killed during 1915. The genocide continued the next year, with more forced death marches in Syria.
When Russia withdrew from the Caucasus region, the Armenians living there became the next targets. The genocide didn’t fully end until 1922, when the Turkish government took the Greek city of Smyrna, set it on fire, and systematically murdered its Armenian & Greek inhabitants – tens of thousands of them.
There were never any punishments or repercussions against Turkey for the genocide. Rear Admiral Mark Bristol, the American high commissioner in Istanbul from 1919-27, said that the Armenians were “a race like the Jews; they have little or no national spirit and have poor moral character.” Even into the 2000’s, the Turkish government had continued to deny that a genocide ever occurred; Turks who wrote about it have been prosecuted.