Most know of the Jewish Holocaust, committed by Nazi Germany during World War II. But many are oblivious to Armenian Genocide, the 1st modern atrocity of the 20th century. It occurred 30 years earlier during World War I. In 1915, leaders of the Ottoman Empire began the systemic expulsion and extermination of Armenian Christians living in what is today eastern Turkey. Somewhere near 2 million Armenians (10% of the Empire) were forcibly deported from their homeland, resulting in 1.5 MILLION Deaths.
Call it a holocaust, genocide or ethnic cleansing – it was an attempt to exterminate an entire people.
Armenians have been in the Caucasus mountains of the northern Middle East for millennia. Armenia was an independent kingdom in the 4th century and became the first nation to make Christianity its national religion. Ruled at various times by Persians, Romans, Arabs and Mongols, it was eventually absorbed into the mammoth Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. At its peak, the vast Ottoman Empire included much of southeastern Europe, ALL of the Middle East, and North Africa.
While the Sultans permitted Armenian Christians to maintain autonomy, they also treated them as infidels, with few rights. In spite of this, Armenians tended to be wealthier & better educated than Turks: businessmen, lawyers, and doctors, educated in Europe. The Ottoman Sultans, however, resented their success.
By contrast, the majority of Muslim Turks were poor and illiterate. The Sultans had placed little worth on education, valuing blind obedience instead. Layered on this were long held suspicions that Armenians were more loyal to Christian nations, like their nearby enemy Russia. They shared a disputed border with the Russian Empire, including Crimea on the Black Sea.
By the beginning of the 20th century, nationalist reformers called “Young Turks” overthrew Sultan Hamid and established a modern constitutional government. Unfortunately, 3 Pashas within the Young Turks soon assumed dictatorial control, just like the Sultans had. They promised a pure Muslim state, and again viewed Armenian Christians as a threat. Anti-Armenian demonstrations were staged in Istanbul, often leading to violence.
In 1914, the Ottoman Empire entered WWI on the side of Germany and Austro-Hungary.
The Eastern Front eventually included the disputed border with Russia. Since Christian Russia was now the enemy, the 3 Pashas argued that Armenians were traitors who could not to be trusted and would if fact fight for the Allies. This led the dictators to push for the complete removal of Armenians from the Empire. About 40,000 Armenian men were serving in the Ottoman Army in the war. However they were quickly disarmed and switched to labor battalions, building roads or carrying supplies.
In April 1915, the government executed 300 Armenian intellectuals in Istanbul. Next came mass arrests of Armenian men for treason throughout the country. The 3 Pashas created a ‘Special Organization’ which organized ‘Killing Squads’ to deal with deported Armenians. Men were taken to the outskirts of their towns and shot. Armenian women, children, and the elderly were ordered to leave their homes and villages for ‘relocation’ to non-military zones for their own safety. Ottoman families quickly moved into the homes of deported Armenians and seized their property.
The Armenians were actually being taken on what became Death Marches, walking hundreds of miles into the scorching Syrian desert. When food or water ran out, they were given nothing more by their guards. Some were stripped naked and forced to walk under the desert sun until they dropped from dehydration. Any who stumbled from exhaustion were beaten or shot. Gendarmes pushed them off cliffs, or burned them alive. Soon, the Empire’s roadsides to the south were littered with unburied corpses, shocking foreign diplomats at the time. Young girls were raped, killed or forced to become sex slaves in harems. Children were made to denounce Christianity and forcibly converted to Islam.
By the end of WWI, there were only 390,000 Armenians remaining in the Ottoman Empire, 75% of them had been killed. Newspapers like the New York Times published reports with shocking headlines like: “Armenians Are Sent to Perish in the Desert – Turks Accused of Plan to Exterminate Whole Population” (18 August 1915). The Ottoman government in Istanbul denied there was an Armenian Genocide, but rather the killing of an enemy force within their borders during wartime.
World War I ended in 1918 with the defeat of Germany and the Ottoman Empire.
The 3 Pashas fled to Germany where they were offered asylum. Turkey’s new, post-war government asked Berlin to extradite the Pashas. But all requests were turned down. A separate Armenian nation was briefly created after the war. Then Turkey’s new nationalist leader refused to accept the post WWI treaty. He instead re-occupied Armenian lands in 1920. Sadly, no Allied powers came to aid the fledgling republic.
Two years later, Armenia was absorbed into the Soviet Union. Armenian activists took matters into their own hands, located 2 of the Pashas responsible for the Armenian genocide living lavishly in Germany and assassinated them both with a bullet to the head. The third was killed by the Russian military in 1922.
The half-hearted reaction of the world’s major powers, including Britain and the U.S., to the Armenian Genocide was duly noted by none other than a young Adolf Hitler as he dreamt up the Jewish Holocaust. After becoming Germany’s Fuhrer in 1934, Hitler told his Nazi generals: