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  • Writer's pictureBishop Mesrop Parsamyan

The Armenian Genocide: A Brief Historical Overview

Genocide History

Genocide: “Any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group, such as: (a) killing members of the group, (b) causing serious bodily harm to members of the group, (c) deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part, (d) imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group, and (e) forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

The United Nations formulated this definition of genocide in 1948, in response to the still fresh and horrifying revelations of the Nazi attempt to wipe out Europe's Jewish population. What has come to be known as the Holocaust of World War II remains the most widely known example of genocide: an archetype of evil in the popular mind. But the use of genocide as a policy of state has roots reaching even further back in the 20th century: to the genocide of the Armenians perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire, ancestor of today's Republic of Turkey.

The Armenian Genocide of 1915 to 1923 was the culmination of the increasing oppression Armenians had suffered in Ottoman Turkey throughout the 19th century. Natives of Asia Minor for several thousand years, Armenians had been incorporated into the Empire in the 16th and 17th centuries, but remained ethnically and religiously distinct from the majority population of ethnic Turks and other Muslim Ottomans. As non-Muslims, Armenians were burdened with an inferior status in Ottoman society. Their testimony in court was given less weight than that of Muslims. They paid extra taxes. They had to wear distinguishing clothing, and were restricted in building new churches and using church bells. They were not allowed to bear arms.

As the 19th century wore on, and the Ottoman Empire watched its influence and territory recede, it increasingly placed its hopes for survival on the eastern provinces of Turkey—the region largely inhabited by Armenians. At the same time, Armenians were becoming more conscious of their own national identity, and as Christians felt religiously and culturally close to Europe. Politically, too, Armenians advocated governmental reforms in the empire based on European models, and their involvement in trade made Armenians appear, in distant Ottoman provinces, as symbols of European capitalism. The European powers were not unresponsive to such ties, and were motivated by them—along with their own political and economic interests—to intervene in the affairs of the Ottoman Empire. This added fuel to the anti-Armenian resentment already at work in the empire. Armenians were seen by some Ottomans as avatars of an ever-encroaching West (the hated “Other” of Muslim societies down to the present day) seeking to alter or end the Ottoman Muslim social order.

The backlash against Armenians was intense. From 1894 to 1896, several hundred thousand Armenians were massacred throughout the empire; another twenty to thirty thousand fell in Cilicia (today part of southeastern Turkey) in 1909. Such violent outbursts succeeded in weakening Armenians politically and economically, and there is some evidence that the Ottoman government was itself involved in these massacres. Some understand the massacres of the 1890s as a deliberate warning to Armenians, to avoid any further political action that would invite the attention of the European states.

Beginning in 1908, a group of Ottoman politicians known as the “Young Turks” made an attempt at constitutional reform, modeling their efforts on European ideas which (at least in theory) would have alleviated some of the social and administrative biases against Armenians. Taking their cue from European conceptions of the nation state, some Young Turks wanted to encourage the middle class to play a more prominent role in society. But that very middle class was mainly composed of Armenians, Greeks, Jews, and other non-Muslim, non-Turkic peoples, and attempts to change this—through boycotts of non-Muslim merchants, and special Muslim cooperative organizations—were dismal failures. One clique of Young Turk dictators envisioned an imperial future built around “Pan-Turkism”: the uniting of Ottoman Turks with the Turkic peoples in Central Asia, who lay beyond the Caucasus. But once again, Armenians were an obstacle—this time a geographic one, as their ancestral homeland lay in a direct path to Central Asia. In general, the Ottomans came to resent such reforms, viewing them as European interference in internal affairs implemented on behalf of the Armenians, and as scarcely disguised steps towards the dismemberment of Ottoman territories.

By the eve of World War I, it was clear that the Young Turks' effort had failed to stem the disintegration of the empire; and this failure exacerbated popular fears that the Armenians, like other Christian peoples in the empire before them, would eventually attain their own independence. A grim solution to the “Armenian problem” began to dawn on the Ottoman leadership, for which the encroaching war would provide both opportunity and cover: the physical annihilation of the Armenians. The full resources of the Ottoman bureaucratic state would be employed to this end, augmented by the “high-tech” advances of the day, such as the telegraph and railroads.

As a prelude, the autumn of 1914 saw small-scale killings of Armenians throughout the Ottoman Empire, and Armenians appear to have been subjected to greater requisitions and forced labor than their Muslim neighbors. By the spring and summer of 1915, the Ottoman army was directly massacring entire populations in Armenian villages near the Russian border. The majority of Armenians, however, were targeted for elimination in a more elaborate manner. Vigorous adult males were killed first, so that popular resistance would be extremely difficult. Young Armenians drafted into the Ottoman army at the onset of World War I were disarmed by January of 1915, and joined with Armenians already serving in labor battalions; over a period of months, these men were either worked to death or killed in small groups.

Then, in the spring of 1915, notable Armenians and leaders of their local communities were arrested under various pretexts, rounded up, and killed shortly thereafter—usually in secret. The most infamous example of this elimination of the Armenian leadership is the arrest of the Armenian intellectuals of Constantinople, which began on the night of April 24, 1915. Today, Armenians around the world have consecrated that date for their yearly commemoration of the sorrowful, tragic fate of their ancestors.

With their communities effectively decapitated, the remaining Armenian populations were easy targets for a state intent on organized murder. Armenians of a given locality would be given a brief notice of two or three days—sometimes only a few hours—in which to prepare for a journey. They were grouped into caravans, and if there were any adult males left, they were separated from the main group and executed immediately. Women, children, and the elderly formed the bulk of the caravans, which wound their way tortuously without shelter, proper nutrition, or water, until they reached camps in the Syrian and Mesopotamian deserts. Along the way bands of released convicts, Kurdish, Circassian, and Turkic tribesmen, and local Muslims attacked the defenseless people, usually with the encouragement and participation of the gendarmes supposedly appointed by the state to protect the deportees. Rape, torture, murder, and enslavement were daily occurrences. Famine and disease ran rampant. Human tragedy attained indescribable proportions.

Those who survived the initial deportations were placed in concentration camps, only to face another set of brutal massacres in late 1915 and 1916, when the Young Turk leaders realized that too many Armenians had survived. In 1918, the Turkish army intensified its massacring of civilian Armenians on the Caucasian front. Only the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I saved the Armenians from utter destruction.

Even after the fall of the Young Turks, however, their policy of destroying Armenians continued, on a lesser scale, at the hands of the Turkish Nationalist movement, which in 1923 established the Republic of Turkey under the leadership of Kemal Ataturk. The destruction of port city of Smyrna (Izmir), massacres in Marash and elsewhere in Cilicia, the killing of thousands in territory taken from the Republic of Armenia in 1920, and isolated killings throughout Anatolia of Armenian captives and repatriates after World War I, made the desolation of Ottoman Armenia final. In the end, between one million and one and a-half million Armenians—over half of the Ottoman Armenian population—had been killed or driven to their deaths.

As with most crimes, denial of culpability—denial even that a crime itself had been committed—began almost immediately. This denial, orchestrated by the government of the Republic of Turkey, the successor state of the Ottoman Empire, continues to this very day. In the 1930s, Turkish political influence halted the production of an MGM film dealing with the Armenian Genocide, based on Austrian-Jewish writer Franz Werfel's novel, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. Similar lobbying efforts have attempted to halt the erection of monuments to the Genocide in the United States, France, and other countries. The Turkish government has underwritten a series of publications sent to American and European libraries and politicians, purporting to “prove” that no genocide occurred, and Turkey still sponsors lobbying in the U.S. Congress against resolutions to commemorate this Genocide; at times the U.S. State Department, bowing to NATO-member Turkey, has joined forces with the Turkish ambassador to squelch such Congressional resolutions. Even the state of Israel, despite its sensitivity to the implications of genocide denial, has periodically collaborated in Turkey's efforts for reasons of realpolitik.

And yet—despite incredible resources devoted to this denial effort, the vast majority of scholars in comparative genocide studies, as well as many scholars in related fields, continue to acknowledge the historical importance of the Armenian Genocide—not only as a watershed event in history, but also as a paradigm for later genocides. In recent years, efforts of the now independent Republic of Armenia and a resurgent Armenian diaspora—in fortuitous conjunction with changes in world dynamics associated with the end of the Cold War, the expansion of the European Union, and the start of a new conflict between the West and the Muslim Middle East—have led to greater international awareness of the Armenian Genocide. The number of governments officially recognizing the Genocide has dramatically increased, though issues of justice and compensation remain unresolved. New creative works—novels, films, and works of art by Armenians and non-Armenians alike—have received critical acclaim, and new information technologies have made the history of the Armenian Genocide accessible to a vast, global audience.

(Adapted from “Remember the Armenian Genocide”: a pamphlet to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide of 1915. By Aram Arkun; ed. Chris Zakian. Diocese of the Armenian Church of America, New York, 2005. Source:

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