Looking beyond the centennial: the Armenian genocide

The contribute is written by Anahit Khosroeva, Ph.D, Senior Researcher in the Institute of History, Armenian National Academy of Sciences.

They tried to bury us; they didn’t know we were seeds”

Mexican Proverb

Where the term ‘genocide‘ comes from

Throughout the history of the world namely the 20th century, there have been numerous wars and much genocide to go along with them. 

The term “genocide” first appeared in scientific literature and political lexicon in 1944 with the right of authorship pertaining to Raphael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer of Jewish descent. This invention of Lemkin is mainly due to the two tragedies of the 20th century: the genocide of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire during World War I and the holocaust of Jews in Nazi Germany during World War II. As he has truly noticed, those were not an ordinary carnage or slaughtered but a qualitatively a new phenomenon which required a fundamentally new approach and assessment, and a new scientific definition.

As a term and definition of crime, genocide was accepted by various international organizations, and first and foremost by the United Nations which is the most authoritative international body of today.

On December 9th, 1948 the General Assembly of UN adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide which is an international document of historical significance. In it genocide is qualified as a policy, aimed to exterminate specific groups of people for racial, ethnic and religious motives either directly, by way of killing, or through inflicting serious bodily and mental harm to members of the mentioned groups. Also, the concept involves premeditated creation of life that would exterminate the groups in whole or in part; taking measures which prevent births within the environment, i.e. in that particular group of people; forcible transfer of children from one group to another, etc.

So, the first genocide of the 20th century which took place one hundred years ago was the Armenian Genocide in the Ottoman Empire perpetrated by Young Turks’ government during the First World War.

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Historical background

At the end of the 19th century the Ottoman Empire was a multinational state in which along with Turks lived Armenians, Assyrians, Greeks, Jews, Arabs, Bulgarians, Kurds and other nations. All the political, military and religious power belonged to the Turks and only served towards their interests. The Turks only managed to maintain the authority by violence. It was not accidental that the policy of massacres and slaughters which scope enhanced in the 19th century and rose to the level of state policy, presented the most critical feature of the internal political and national life of the Ottoman Empire and the principal weapon in solving the national problems. Hence, the history of the Ottoman Empire of the 19th – early 20th centuries appears an infinite series of massacres, tortures, slaughters and demeaning the dignity of Armenians, Assyrians, Greeks, even Arabs and other non-Turkish peoples of the state. During the above mentioned period near 30 ethnic slaughters and mass butchers of the non-Turkish peoples were committed. The final chord of the slaughters which preceded the Armenian genocide was the Adana massacre in 1909: 30 thousand Armenians got killed.

Turkish sultan Abdul Hamid II was ruling the Ottoman Empire with iron hand for 30 odd years, up until 1909. He kept in fear and horror everyone: his advocates and opponents, all the peoples, even the Turks. The years of his reign are known in the history of the Ottoman Empire as years of horror and autocratic dictatorship. Unfortunately, the Armenians were among the first to fall victims of the sultan’s policy. The slaughters of the Armenians, executed by Abdul Hamid II were not accidental. They were conceptual by nature. Abdul Hamid was the one to adopt the theory: “The best way to solve the Armenian Question is the physical extermination of Armenians”. The apex of the Armenian massacres perpetrated by the “bloody sultan” was the mass killing of 1894-1896 which claimed 300 thousand Armenians. Almost 100 thousand Armenians were forcibly converted to Islam, and about the same number were forced out of their homeland. It was a total massacre, genocidal by nature.

The Ottoman Empire entered the 20th century as a backward dictatorial state. The crisis which involved the political, economical and social systems still deepened. In the eyes of all the people of the Empire, even in the eyes of the Turks the sultan Abdul Hamid II was the symbol of their misfortunes, tortures and violence. The idea of riddance of the bloodthirsty sultan was growing and maturing. The Young Turks were the ones to go for it. On July 23rd, 1908, the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) organized a coup. Sultan Abdul Hamid II was deprived of power, in 1909 he was dethroned.

The Young Turks came onto political arena under the slogans of the French Revolution: “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”. All the nations of the Empire, Muslims or Christians vigorously welcomed the overthrow of the “red sultan”. The people believed in that a new era in the history of the Ottoman Empire had dawned. Shortly after, it turned, that the Young Turks were well disguised ardent nationalists who continued the policy of oppressions, mass slaughters and killings carried out by the preceding sultans. They were advocates of the idea of assimilation of all the nations of the Empire to create a “pure” Turkish nation, never even stopping for mass massacres in order to achieve that goal. As Henry Morgenthau, the American Ambassador to Turkey 1913-1916, says: “The Young Turks were not a government; they were really an irresponsible party, a kind of secret society, which by intrigue, intimidation, and assassination, had obtained most of the state”1.

It was stated in the Young Turks’ party program: “Sooner or later all the nations under Turkish control will be turned into Turks. It is clear that they will not convert voluntarily and we will have to use force2. During one of the secret meetings a Young Turkish ideologist Dr. Nazeem said: “The massacre is necessary. All the non-Turkish elements, whatever nation they belong to, should be exterminated. I want Turks and only Turks to live on this soil and be in full possession of it”3.

So, the figures changed, new rulers came, the policy persisted. The problem of minorities: racial and religious had been to a “large extent solved by the simple method of extermination”4.

On August 1, 1914 World War I broke out. World War I was a most tragic episode in the history of mankind, which, certainly, didn’t go past the Armenians.

The first genocide of the 20th century was committed during the First World War.

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What was the cause of the Armenian genocide and was it possible to avoid it?

The Ottoman Empire officially joined to the Great War on October 29, 1914. Turks thought that participation in the war will considerably raise Turkey’s authority, satisfy their vanity and dignity. In fact this war was a good opportunity for Young Turks to test the viability of the all-Turkish ideas in practice, to realize their aggressive and wild plans, which met with support among the military-feudal, bourgeois, ittihatic-chauvinistic elite. Talaat Pasha, the Minister of Interior, in a conversation with Dr. Mordtman, the dragoman of the German Embassy in Istanbul, said: “Turkey is intent on taking advantage of the war in order to thoroughly liquidate its internal foes, i.e., the indigenous Christians, without being thereby disturbed by foreign intervention”5. Executive Committee member of the CUP, said almost the same thing: “We are in war, there is no threat of intervention by Europe and the Great Powers, and the world press either will not be able to voice a protest. Even if we do not succeed, the problem will become an accomplished fact, the voices will calm down, and no one will dare to express a protest. We should make use of this exceptional situation as much as possible. This kind of opportunity is not always available …”.

The Armenian Genocide was by no means accidental or unexpected. It logically derived from the brutal and nationalistic policy pursued by the Turkish sultans and later, the Young Turks against the non-Turkish nations during the preceding decades. It was not a policy of individuals, but an official state policy which included persecution and carnage.

Upon the Young Turks’ coming to power, the Ottoman ideologists flung out the theory of Turkism-Turanism. This ideology is double-faced. One is turned inside – towards all the nations in the Ottoman Empire. Its task was to prepare political, military and social conditions, a favorable physiological and moral atmosphere to convert all the Muslims and Christians into Turks. They wouldn’t be merely announced Turks but converted into Turks. This is a most critical distinctive aspect, since it inevitably implied a resort to violence. It was planned to be carried out by three levels:

  1. Forcible Turkization of the Muslim and Christian nations, and forcible conversion of Christians into Muslims

  2. Ethnic cleansing which assumed forcible deportation of all the ethnic groups which would reject Turkization

  3. Extermination of entire ethnic groups and peoples, i.e. genocide.

Thus, the purpose pursued by this policy was to create a “pure” Turkish state based on the racist principles of superiority of the Turkic ethnos.

The reverse of the theory of Turkism was turned towards all the peoples beyond the Ottoman Empire – in the Caucasus, Central Asia, Uralic territories in Russia, the Crimea, and so forth which spoke the Turkic language. The idea was to create a “Great Turanian Empire” that would embrace an enormously big territory from the eastern coasts of Asia Minor to western Siberia and as far as the Chinese frontier.6 Geographically, Armenia lay on the crossroads of pan-Turkism. So, the Armenians were offered a dilemma: to adopt Turkism or to get out of the way of pan-Turkism.

As we see, the Armenian Genocide perfectly fits in the bounds of creation of a “pure” Turkish state, maintaining the territorial integrity of the Ottoman Empire, as well as in the bounds of the Young Turks’ plans of Turanism or pan-Turkism. Turkey undertook and succeeded in committing that horrible crime during the First World War.

There is one more factor to mention – the failure of the Young Turks’ policy to forcibly turn the Armenians into Turks. The bonds of Armenians with their national identity, values, language religion, and culture were so strong – there was no way for them to become Turks neither willingly, nor forcibly. The Young Turks’ leadership determinedly oriented towards the physical extermination of the Armenians through genocide.

The policy of genocide was successful because all the prerequisites were present: a state system capable for repressions, tyranny and mass bloody slaughters, extensively experienced and skilled in perpetrating them, adequate ideology, mechanisms, methods and favorable conditions. However, these prerequisites wouldn’t have been brought to life, had it not been for the “comfortable” international conditions, formed due to World War I.

The decision of the Young Turks to solve the Armenian Question by way of genocide was finalized in early 1910s, at a series of secret sessions and conferences of the Central Committee of the Union and Progress Party. At the consecutive congress of the CUP Party in Salonika in 1911 a quite definitive decision was passed on forcible Turkization of the non-Turkish nations of the Empire which certainly involved the Armenians.

In 1914 with the signature of minister of Interior Talaat Pasha secret decrees were dispatched to the local governors about special preparatory measures to be taken for the extermination of Armenians, all to a man.

The Young Turks’ Triumvirate – Talaat, Enver and Djemal – acted through the CUP which assumed full responsibility for organizing and perpetrating the deportation and massacres of all Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. The Committee endowed with the most extensive powers meticulously elaborated every technical detail of the deportation and annihilation of the Armenians, such as time frames per region, routes and final destinations of the deported, sites for concentration and further extermination, etc.

The “Teshqilati Mahsuseh” – Special Organization was founded by the Young Turks’ Party. It was comprised of criminals, gangsters, bandits and other dregs of the society who were set free from jails and prisons to that end, and were capable of most violent crime.

When Ottoman Empire joined in the war and mobilization was announced Western Armenians like the other people of the Empire were called to army. Near 60 thousand Armenian men aged 18-45 were enlisted. They were mostly used in construction work.

By the decree of Turkey’s minister of war Enver Pasha issued in February, 1915 all the Armenian soldiers were disarmed, split into groups by 50-100 and killed. As a result from the very beginning Armenians were deprived of any military force, capable to defend their lives, houses, property and settlements. Back home, only the old and sick men, women, children and adolescents were left.

The second heavy blow was struck at Armenian on April 24, 1915. In Constantinople with no official charge leveled arrested and evicted the selected elite of the Armenians: members of the Turkish Parliament, lawyers, teachers, writers, journalists, physicians, clergy men, public figures, etc. They were killed on the road to exile, or upon reaching the destinations. Armenian party and political figures were arrested and killed as programmed.

The intention was to behead Armenians, to leave them without military support, political and intellectual leadership, to disorganize and demoralize Armenians. Having done that, the executioners cleared the way for arresting, evicting and slaying Armenians in their own homeland – Western Armenia. The Armenian slaughters and deportations caught the entire Ottoman Empire from west to east, from north to south. From May, 1915 mass murders and deportation of the Armenians began in the provinces of Bitlis, Diyarbekir, Erzerum, Kharberd, Sebastia and Van. This was a total slaughter – genocide due to ethnic distinction.

The expelled Armenians attended by armed detachments of Turks, were exiled to the deserts of Syria and Mesopotamia. Many died of hunger, thirst, emaciation, illnesses, violence, the unbearable climate and weather conditions. According to eyewitnesses, the Euphrates was full of killed and drowned Armenians.

During the Great War all over the Ottoman Empire 1,5 million Armenians were killed by Young Turks’ government and hundreds of thousands forcibly deported. The native land of the Armenians was desolated of its native inhabitants – Armenians. Armenia lost the biggest portion of their homeland – Western Armenia which presented 9/10 of the Armenian Highland. The deportation resulted in that Armenians scattered over countries and continents – Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and America (North and South), where they formed Armenian communities with their national, cultural, educational and religious structures. The Armenian Diaspora formed.

After the Armenian Genocide a whole century has passed. Avoiding responsibility, today the Republic of Turkey has stubbornly repudiated this undeniable historical fact through all these years.

Armenian genocide: Taking it to the streets

In 2009, the Armenian and Turkish national football teams met during the World Cup qualifiers. At the same time the two countries attempted to normalize their relations under the mediation of Switzerland. In a historic visit to Armenia attending the first of the two matches, the Turkish President Abdullah Gul invited his Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sargsyan invitation to the travelled to the Armenian capital Yerevan to watch the match between Armenia and Turkey. Later the Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan travelled to Turkey to attend the return game. This eventually led to the signing of the famous Protocols that were meant as an important step towards normalization of the relations between the two countries. The protocols caused major protests among so well the Armenian Diaspora as among the international academic community, who argued that Armenia had agreed to history revisionism. This was accusation based on a clause in the protocols which stated that the two countries would set up a commission that would among others “implement a dialogue on the historical dimension with the aim to restore mutual confidence between the two nations, including an impartial scientific examination of the historical records and archives to define existing problems and formulate recommendations”. This was interpreted by many as a direct reference to the issue of genocide. It was not long before the protocols were put on hold when Turkey, under pressure from Azerbaijan, declared that it requires an Armenian withdrawal from the Armenian-populated enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh as a precondition for normalization of relations with Armenia. Meanwhile, Armenia’s Constitutional Court, in early 2010, ruled that the protocols do not conflict with Armenia’s constitution or its declaration of independence and in particular to paragraph 11, which states that “Armenia supports the quest to achieve international recognition of the 1915 genocide in Ottoman Turkey and Western Armenia”. Ankara interpreted this as a violation of the protocol item about the creation of the Historical Commission to investigate the matter. In February 2015, the Armenian president Sargsyan decided to withdraw the protocols from of Armenian Parliament’s agenda, arguing that Turkey lacked the political will to recognize the truth about the genocide.

Which country officially recognized the genocide?

So far, the following countries and organizations have officially recognized the 1915 Genocide: Uruguay (1965), Cyprus (1982), United Nations Human Rights Committee (1985), European Parliament (1987), Russia (1995), Greece (1996), International Association of Genocide Scholars (1997), Lebanon (1997), Belgium (1998), France (1998), Italy (2000), Vatican City (2000), International Center for Transitional Justice (2002), Switzerland (2003), Argentina (2003), Canada (2004), Slovakia (2004), Netherlands (2004), Poland (2005), Venezuela (2005), Germany (2005), Lithuania (2005), Chile (2007), Sweden (2010), and Bolivia (2014).

1 Morgenthau H., Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story, New York, 1918, p. 11.

2 Lepsius J., Bericht über die Lage des Armenischer Volkes in Türkei, Potsdam, s. 220.

3 Rifat Mevlan Zade, The Dark Pages of the Ottoman Revolution and Ittihat’s Plans of Extirpating Armenians, Yerevan, 1990, pp. 98-99

4 Marriott J.A.R., The Eastern Question, An Historical Study in European Diplomacy, 4th ed., Oxford, Clarendon, 1958, p. 536.

5 Dadrian V., Documentation of the Armenian Genocide in Turkish Sources, London-New York, 1991, p. 112.

6 Hovhannisyan N., The Armenian Genocide, Yerevan, 2005, pp. 34-35.