How a Wrong Turn Started World War I
Kingdom of Armenia
The Armenian people have called the Caucasus region of Eurasia home for approximately 3,000 years. For part of this time, the Kingdom of Armenia was an independent entity: in the early 4th century AD, for example, it became the first nation in the world to make Christianity its official religion.
But for the most part, control of the region shifted from one empire to another. In the 15th century, Armenia was absorbed by the powerful Ottoman Empire.
The Ottoman rulers, like most of their subjects, were Muslims. They allowed religious minorities to maintain a certain autonomy, but they also subjected Armenians, whom they considered “infidels,” to unequal and unjust treatment. Christians paid higher taxes than Muslims, for example, and had very few political or legal rights.
Despite these obstacles, the Armenian community thrived under Ottoman rule. They tended to be more educated and wealthier than their Turkish neighbors, who, in turn, were unhappy with their success.
This resentment was compounded by the suspicion that Christian Armenians would be more loyal to Christian governments (that of the Russians, for example, which shared an unstable border with Turkey) than they were to the Ottoman Caliphate.
These suspicions grew as the Ottoman Empire began to collapse: in the late 19th century, the despotic Turkish Sultan Abdul Hamid II – obsessed above all with loyalty and exasperated by the burgeoning Armenian campaign for rights fundamental civilians – declared that he would resolve the “Armenian question” once and for all.
“I will soon settle these Armenians,” he told a reporter in 1890. “I will give them a blow on the ear that will make them… abandon their revolutionary ambitions.”
First Armenian massacre
Between 1894 and 1896, this “ear box” took the form of a state-sanctioned pogrom.
In response to large-scale protests by Armenians, Turkish military officials, soldiers and ordinary men ransacked Armenian villages and towns and massacred their citizens. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians were murdered.
In 1908, a new government came to power in Türkiye. 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 hoped that they would have an equal place in this new state, but they soon realized that what the nationalist Young Turks wanted above all was to “Turkify” the empire. According to this way of thinking, non-Turks – and especially Christian non-Turks – posed a serious threat to the new state.
World War I begins
In 1914, the Turks entered First World War on the side of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. (At the same time, Ottoman religious authorities declared a holy war against all Christians except their allies.)
Military leaders began to claim that the Armenians were traitors: if they believed they could achieve independence if the Allies were victorious, the Armenians would be eager to fight for the enemy.
Indeed, as the war intensified, Armenians organized volunteer battalions to help the Russian army fight against the Turks in the Caucasus region. These events, along with Turkey’s general suspicion of the Armenian people, led the Turkish government to push for the “withdrawal” of Armenians from war zones along the Eastern Front.
The Armenian genocide begins
On April 24, 1915, the Armenian genocide began: that day, the Turkish government arrested and executed several hundred Armenian intellectuals.
After this, ordinary Armenians were expelled from their homes and sent on death marches across the Mesopotamian desert, without food or water.
Often, protesters were stripped naked and forced to march under the scorching sun until they dropped dead. People stopping to rest were shot.
At the same time, the Young Turks created a “Special Organization,” which in turn organized “death squads” or “butcher battalions” to carry out, as one officer put it, “the liquidation of Christian elements.” “.
These death squads were often made up of assassins and other former inmates. They drowned people in rivers, threw them off cliffs, crucified them and burned them alive. Before long, the Turkish countryside was littered with Armenian corpses.
Records show that during this “Turkification” campaign, government teams also kidnapped children, converted them into Islam and gave them to Turkish families. In some places, they raped women and forced them to join Turkish “harems” or serve as slaves. Muslim families moved into the homes of deported Armenians and seized their property.
Although reports vary, most sources agree that there were approximately 2 million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire at the time of the massacre. In 1922, at the end of the genocide, only 388,000 Armenians remained in the Ottoman Empire.
Did you know? The American media is also reluctant to use the word “genocide” to describe the crimes committed by Turkey. The phrase “Armenian genocide” did not appear in the New York Times until 2004.
Consequences and legacy
After the Ottomans surrendered in 1918, the Young Turks’ leaders fled to Germany, which promised not to prosecute them for genocide. (However, a group of Armenian nationalists devised a plan, known as Operation Nemesisto track down and assassinate the leaders of the genocide.)
Since then, the Turkish government has denied the existence of a genocide. The Armenians were an enemy force, they assert, and their massacre was a necessary war measure.
Turkey is an important ally of the United States and other Western countries, and so their governments have been slow to condemn the long-ago killings. In March 2010, a US Congressional panel voted to recognize the genocide. On October 29, 2019, the US House of Representatives passed a resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide. And on April 24, 2021, President Biden released a statement saying: “The American people honor all Armenians who perished in the genocide that began 106 years ago today. »
The Armenian genocide (1915-1916): overview. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: Holocaust Encyclopedia.
Armenian genocide (1915-1923). Armenian National Institute.
Armenian genocide. Yale University: Genocide Studies Program.