“I have placed my death-head formation in readiness – for the present only in the East – with orders to them to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language. Only thus shall we gain the living space (Lebensraum) which we need. Who after all speak nowadays of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
The Armenian genocide was the first in modern history and the 20th century, a century awash with the blood of millions of innocent people. During the First World War the Commitee of Union and Progress utilised technological assets such as railway and telegraph poles and prepared the Turkish military and gendarme for the extermination of a minority. This minority were the Armenian Christians and out of a population of 2,133,190 only 387,800 (18.2% of the pre-war population) survived the massacres, executions, mass starvation, systematic rape and the deportations into the arid and unforgiving territories of Anatolia and Northern Syria . Over 1.5 million people perished.
Genocide may not be identical in nature, however there are harrowing parallels in how they are conducted as illustrated by Genocide Watch. Classification. Symbolisation. Dehumanisation. Organisation. Polarisation. Preparation. Extermination. Denial. ‘İttihat ve Terakki Cemiyeti‘ or as it known in the western world ‘The Committee of Union and Progress’ (CUP) and the Ottoman Empire followed these precise and familiar steps.
The origins of the genocidal violence perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire are predominantly rooted in nationalism, class-warfare, imperialism, and war. By the late 19th century the Ottoman Empire, established in 1453, was ravaged, over-stretched and on the verge of extinction. Revolutionary turmoil, western imperialism and ill-fated foreign wars had plunged the empire into chaos with entire regions and peoples in rebellion and/or demanding autonomy. It was in this atmosphere that the seeds for genocide were planted and rationalised.
The world’s oldest Christians, the Armenians by the beginning of 20th century numbered around two million based in eastern Anatolia. In the predominantly Muslim society Christians were permitted a degree of religious freedom in Ottoman society. However they were also required to pay a special tax in exchange for religious worship and to some extent were granted limited autonomy. Despite this they were routinely discriminated against, did not have the same rights as Muslims and were treated as second-class citizens by their imperial governors. Despite the discrimination and limitations imposed on the population, a prosperous middle-class emerged in the Armenian quarters in major cities and towns across the provinces.
As the Ottoman empire began to shrink in the 19th century anti-Christian pogroms were frequently conducted to keep the minorities in their place. These spiked dramatically between 1894 – 1897 where it was estimated that some 200,000 – 250,000 Armenians, Christian Assyrians, and Syrians were indiscriminately slaughtered and starved.
These massacres, conducted by Sultan Abdul Hamid II, were caused by defeat in the Russo-Turkish War conjoined with Armenian demands for improved civil rights, reform, and respect for their human rights. However the protests against the state as well as violent Armenian resistance against heavy taxation and Ottoman persecution culminated in a stand-off with the Turkish army at Sasan. This became the pretext for empire-wide atrocities to be conducted.
The Hamidian massacres bore two-fold significance. Firstly the Armenians and Christian minorities were scapegoats for the Ottoman empires struggles. Secondly it was clear that decades before the 1915 genocide, extreme state-sponsored violence against Christians, particularly the Armenian population had become second nature to the imperial government.
Nevertheless while the 1894-1896 massacres marked a significant deterioration between Armenian and Turk, the 1915 genocide was far from a certainty. Too often genocide is regarded as an inevitable historical process, a unique set of circumstances where unique and unimaginable violence is perpetrated. While the atrocities perpetrated by the Ottoman empire in 1894 and 1915 rightly incurred both contemporary and modern-day revulsion from numerous onlookers, including war-time allies Germany, it is important to remember the context of the late 19th century and early 20th century.
This was the time of empire. Irrespective of the introduction of the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, state-sponsored repression and slaughter of imperial subjects, ‘natives’ and ethnic and religious communities frequently occurred.
Between 1895 – 1910 King Leopold II was responsible for the death of eight million Congolese through forced labor, exploitation, torture and massacre in Africa while gathering a huge fortune in the Congo Free State. Between 1880 and 1920 Tsarist and Bolshevik Russia’s persistent persecution of the Jews living in their empire resulted in thousands of deaths and the mass exodus of two million. The reduction of the North American Indian population from an estimated 12 million in 1500 to barely 237,000 in 1900 remains a disputed chapter in North America’s harrowing history. The British Empire have countless atrocities under their belt. For example between 1899 – 1902 they established the infamous term “concentration camps” during the Boer War when they incarcerated and starved 27,927 Boer civilians to death.
The list is endless. Extreme violence and empire walked hand in hand, had done for centuries and imperial violence was peaking in a time of revolution, proto-nationalism, and war. When placed in context Ottoman policy while utterly abhorrent by modern standards was hardly unique when measured against Western/European imperialism. Empire and colonialism was cruelty.
Turkey is one amongst many former imperial powers that have to reconsider and reevaluate its past. The genocide, while horrific, should not be evaluated purely through the narrow scope of Christian/Muslim divide. Hard-line and calculated nationalists played to passions of the greater population to meet their political goals.
The Young Turks played a crucial role in exacerbating anti-Armenian sentiment. ‘A group of reformers who called themselves the “Young Turks” overthrew Sultan Abdul Hamid and established a more modern constitutional government. At first, the Armenians were hopeful that they would have an equal place in this new state, but they soon learned that what the nationalistic Young Turks wanted most of all was to “Turkify” the empire.’
The Young Turks were central in the debate about how to save the empire from its destruction. According to Taner Akcam ‘various ideological currents came to the fore, whether Turkish nationalist, Ottomanist, Westernist, Islamic or some combination of these’ came to the forefront of the political debate ‘and each one had its own answer to the question.’
The CPU/Young Turks ‘wanted to create a modern state in which all citizens would be bound by a shared identity and on the basis of universal equality.’ This in essence created a forced assimilation program with the objective of holding together the fracturing Ottoman society. Realistically ‘these policies implemented under the rubric of an “Ottomanism”…were an effort to homogenize society culturally around an Islamic-Turkish identity’ (this was seen in how school pupils were educated) which directly attacked minorities’, such as the Armenians, Albanians and Greeks, sense of identity.
It needs to be said very clearly though the CUP’s ideology did not envisage a return to imperialism in its traditional form. It was strongly influenced by western ideological currents and Balkan nationalism which had emerged in the late 19th century. The latter heavily influenced the various rebellions in Macedonia, Albania, and Serbia, tit-for-tat massacres between Muslims and Christians enclaves in the Balkans, and intrigued and influenced Turkish and Tartar intellectual thinking in the late 19th century and early 20th century.
The Balkan Wars (1912-1913) led to a significant deterioration in the position of Armenians within the Ottoman state. These wars eliminated the Ottoman Empire from Europe, except for the eastern corner of Thrace, and disarranged the borders of the Balkan Peninsula. Islamic Slavs and Turks were either butchered or driven from their homes by Balkan and Eastern European nationalists (who were predominantly Christian).
Hundreds of thousands of refugees arrived in Turkey telling tales of slaughter and desperate for revenge. Paranoia and bitterness gripped an empire humbled by defeat and the refugees were resettled in central Turkey where the majority of the Armenian population dwelt. The refugees would come to play a pivotal role in the killings of the Armenians and seizing their property during the genocide became a crucial component part in the ability of Turkish officials to whip up the passions of Ottoman and Turkish Muslims to conduct atrocity during the First World War.
In this poisonous atmosphere, ultra-nationalism began to take root in Turkish society with nationalist groups spouting out increasing violent and racist language against minorities across the empire on the eve of the First World War. Talat Pasa proposed that the country be “cleansed of its treacherous elements.” whilst Kuscubasi Esref, who later play a significant role in the slaughter, stated that anti-Ottomans were to be regarded as the empire’s “internal tumors“. In the name of nationalism the CUP began to construct solutions to the “The Armenian Question” as a national threat and security agenda.
Concurrently the Armenians and affiliated revolutionary organisations continued to make demands for reforms to the disjointed power-structure established by the CUP. Such reforms which were once again done between Armenian officials and European powers from a Turkish perspective envisaged the creation an autonomous Armenian state in Anatolia. This would in effect be a death-blow to the empire and a psychological blow to the Young Turks nationalist ideology. This national security threat, in their minds, came to legitimise genocide.
The Turkish military firstly target the Greeks and cleansed the Aegean region both massacring and deporting hundred of thousands of them. Wide-spread ethnic cleansing. This was done on the eve of war. Plans to remove the Armenians were drawn up, yet they could not be implemented through fear of foreign intervention, as European powers constantly demanded the Ottomans upholded their agreements to respect the rights of minorities.
The outbreak of the First World War lifted all these treaties and pressures on the Ottoman empire. The Ottomans entered the war on the side of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Propaganda took hold across Europe and Turkey was no exception to that. The humilation and slaughter of Muslims by Balkan nationalists remained a fresh wound and it was utilised to ferment fanaticism and hatred against minorities. In an article titled “The Awaited Day“, Huseyin Cahit Yalcin stated that:
“The war had come like a stroke of good fortune upon the Turkish people, who had been sure of their own decline…the day had finally come…to make an historical accounting with those…whom they had been previously unable to do so (and) revenge the horrors of which had not yet been recorded in history.”
Ziya Gokalp wrote a poem calling for Turks to “Run, take the standard and let it be planted once again in Plevna (modern day Bulgaria)…let the waters of the Danube run red with blood…” whilst Galip Soylemezglu (a diplomat) stated: “350,000 Muslims were murdered in 1912-1913….those who committed atrocities were partially subject to feelings of revenge.”
At the same time, Ottoman religious authorities declared jihad (political rhetoric used by the government) against all Christians except their allies who, for the sake of wartime objectives, turned a blind eye to the atrocities. Propaganda demanding religious war and most importantly revenge in an atmosphere of war played into the hands of those wishing to commit genocide. It was no secret that many officials and many amongst the population desired the extermination of the Armenians. The war also presented a chance for the Ottoman Turks to reclaim territories lost in the 19th century from the Western powers.
These hopes were dashed fairly swiftly following a series of damaging military setbacks. These setbacks, particularly the catastrophe at the Battle of Sarikamish (22nd December 1914 – 17th January 1915) in the Allahüekber mountains and the Caucasus campaign, placed the Ottoman empire largely on the defensive throughout the rest of the conflict as exemplified by the Turkish victory over the British offensive in Gallipoli. Armenians volunteer units fought with the Russians against the Ottomans which convinced the latter (shaped by events at the siege of Van) that their annihilation was to be completed to preserve the empire’s internal security and the future of a Turkish nation.
After losing 90,000 soldiers in a single campaign the Turkish government blamed the defeats on a Russian-Armenian conspiracy and that Armenian soldiers fighting for the Ottomans had defected. Thousands of Armenian soldiers were tortured and executed for acts of ‘treason’ against the empire.
24th April 1915 symbolised the official beginning of the Armenian genocide and the radical realisation of the Young Turks ambitious social engineering process which began in 1908. Կարմիր կիրակի (Red Sunday), the day before the British landed at Gallipoli, began with Minister of the Interior Talaat Pasha giving the order for Armenian intellectuals in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) to be placed under arrest.
The Tehcir Law, a temporary law passed by the Ottoman Parliament on May 27, 1915 authorizing the deportation of the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian population, authorised that the Armenian leadership (an assortment of clergymen, physicians, editors, journalists, lawyers, teachers, politicians, and activists) be deported and executed. By August 1915, 2,345 Armenian notables were detained, deported and eventually most were slaughtered in gorges near Ankara. The Armenians had been tarred with the same brush.
The destruction of the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian leadership deprived the wider Armenian population of any effective leadership. The introduction of the Tehcir Law sealed the fate of the Armenians and began the process of an empire-wide program of deportation and extermination.
Telegrams were cycled around the empire to provincial and local governors instructing them to carry out the deportation and ‘resettlement’ of Armenians to Ottoman-controlled Syrian deserts around Deir ez-Zor and the surrounding desert. Those who refused to carry out these instructions were replaced and military and public officials who protested were terrorised by hard-liners.
Men, women and children were seized from their homes, schools and workplaces, evicted and their property on which they had ‘enriched’ themselves was redistributed to the Turkish population. Entire provinces were emptied of Armenian people between 1915-1916. Widespread destruction of the Armenian culture and heritage took place. ‘The Young Turks created a “Special Organization,” which in turn organized “killing squads” or “butcher battalions” to carry out, as one officer put it, “the liquidation of the Christian elements.”
These death-squads escorted the Armenians to their doom or they were deported by carriages designed for goats and sheep on the railway to Aleppo and Urfa. The Armenians, naturally, had to pay for the tickets. Those who died on the journey without food or water were discarded on the railway to the horror of railway engineers who would discover the decomposing corpses.
From there the Armenians would be forced into the harsh deserts of Syria and steppes of Mesopotamia. The death marches were carried out with utmost brutality according to missionaries, diplomats and other eyewitnesses. Torture and executions (beheading, burning and drowning, death by clubs, swords, and pistol) were frequent.
“Here they died-slain by Kurds, robbed by gendarmes, shot, hanged, poisoned, stabbed, strangled, mowed down by epidemics, drowned, frozen, parched with thirst, starved-their bodies left to putrefy or to be devoured by jackals. Children wept themselves to death, men dashed themselves against the rocks, mothers threw their babies into the brooks, women with child flung themselves, singing into the Euphrates. They died all the deaths on the earth, the deaths of all the ages…”
This is one of innumerable testimonies by witnesses to the Armenians massacres. Elderly, children, wounded, and those unable to continue on the march were executed or abandoned at the roadside. The scourge of rape was perpetrated on a harrowing scale. Young girls drowned themselves to escape the soldiers and bandits who had forced themselves on others, those who escaped faced starvation in the mountains. Grotesque acts of sexual violence were committed as innocent women and children were humiliated by Turkish soldiers and police. The only refuge for the orphans populating the countryside were various orphanages, missions and hospitals dotted across the country.
The few thousand that made it to the desert (largely women and children) who hadn’t yet succumbed to thirst, disease and hunger were then to march into the steppes of Mesopotamia. Walking skeletons (perhaps 60,000) were forced on the final march to the camps in the desert where even Turkish soldiers struggled to fill the mass-graves quickly and efficiently amidst the stench, depravity and horror in the scorching desert.
Skeletons littered the roadsides and deserts, mass-graves were frequently found, and corpses filled the gorges across the dying Ottoman empire. Turkey’s diversion of resources to exterminate the Armenians (like Hutu Power and Nazi Germany) partly cost them the war and invited international condemnation as the Allies entered Constantinople. The deed, nonetheless, had been completed. An empire had fallen, a people had largely been wiped out and Turkey barely survived the harsh post-conflict peace settlement at Sevres.
‘The Turkish government does not acknowledge the enormity or scope of these events. Despite pressure from Armenians and social justice advocates throughout the world, it is still illegal in Turkey to talk about what happened to Armenians during this era.’ It acknowledges that mass-violence took place, yet it does not want the shame of genocide being post stamped on the Turkish nation.
They are not the only nation in the world struggling to come to terms with the atrocities they inflicted on other people; The Japanese, once an imperial power, have largely failed to compensate the Chinese after cutting a bloody swath through China, Korea and Burma committing horrific atrocities.
When applied to current affairs what can we learn from the Armenian genocide? The Middle East is rapidly changing, the maps that were drawn a century ago by Western imperialists have largely disintegrated amidst a series of overlapping micro-conflicts catalysed by the Arab Spring. It is currently a battlefield between authoritarian regimes, different religious sects and Islamic extremist factions with both belligerent regional and international actors acting from numerous angles.
National identities are at odds with religious, sectarian and tribal differences whilst civil society in the majority of countries at the epicentre of the struggle, most notably Syria and Iraq, have disintegrated. Religious and nationalist fanatics continue to run amok in the Cradle of Civilisation. These are revolutionary times. The hyper-religious divisions, the assortment of warlords, and sectarian division in the Middle East has already culminated in bouts of genocidal violence and ethnic cleansing being perpetrated against variants of both Islam and Christianity (most notably Iraq’s Yazidi population).
These various acts of grotesque violence can often cement long-term animosity and reverberate if grievances are left to fester or are exacerbated by regional powers and parties seeking immediate political advantage. Overt focus on immediate security concerns and current affairs has somewhat distorted any sense of long-term strategy and impact as the crisis engulfing the Middle East continues to unfold.
The Middle East of the 21st century while partly resembling Europe during the Thirty Years War as supposed to the First World War is undergoing a similar transition. The United States’ declining influence in the region combined with the collapse of the traditional borders of Syria and Iraq established by the British and French empires has violently accelerated the process of fragmentation.
We may or may not live long enough to see the long-term impact current events may eventually have on relations between warring religious, nationalist and political groups and whether or not they may develop into a more sinister event in the future. Pessimistic no doubt, but the future is always unpredictable even if some do believe man has thoroughly ‘modernised’. That’s what some thought a century ago. The Balkans tragedy, while certainly not an inevitability, evolved overtime into genocide in the 1990s because socio-political figures failed to address the historic traumas and grievances present in the region at the beginning and end of the 20th century. The imposition of the Communist regime did not alleviate these ills and eventually men exploited these grievances and tragedies of distant past for Machiavellian ends in the present.
The Armenian genocide was the culmination of a variety of extremes plaguing a variety of regions across the Ottoman Empire. The empire’s extinction was inevitable before the First World War. With a rather simplistic interpretation empire is like baking a cake, it is relatively easy to put the ingredients together (if you can bake), however if you attempt to revert it to its original separate ingredients (never recommended) it becomes a prolonged, unpredictable, messy and pain-staking affair.
The Armenian extermination, the ethnic cleansing of Ottoman Greeks and the established ‘exchanges’ of Greek and Turkish populations after the sack of Smyrna illustrated that when a multi-ethnic empire’s key ingredients mutated into an assortment of national and religious communities motivated by identity politics, butchery was the endgame.