Most know of the Jewish Holocaust, committed by Nazi Germany during WWII. But many are oblivious to the first modern atrocity of the 20th century, occurring 30 years earlier during WWI. 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, resulting in 1.5 million deaths.
Call it a holocaust, genocide or atrocity–it was a modern attempt to exterminate an entire people.
Armenians have been in the Caucasus of the 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 Empire included much of southeast Europe, all of the Middle East, and north Africa.
While the empire permitted Armenian Christians to maintain some autonomy, they also treated them as infidels, with far fewer rights. In spite of this, Armenians tended to be wealthier & better educated than the Turks: businessmen, lawyers, and doctors educated in Europe. The Ottoman Empire, however, resented their success. By contrast, the majority of Turks were illiterate. The Sultans had long placed little worth on education, valuing blind obedience instead. Layered on this were long held suspicions that Armenians were more loyal to Christian governments, like nearby Russia, who shared a disputed border with the Empire.
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. They promised a pure Muslim state, and viewed Armenian Christians as a threat. Anti-Armenian demonstrations were staged, 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 border with Russia. Since Christian Russia was now the enemy, the 3 Pashas argued that Armenians were 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. Ottoman military forcible disarmed the entire Armenian population. About 40,000 Armenian men were serving in the Ottoman Army, however they were quickly switched to labor battalions building roads or carrying supplies.
On 24 April 1915, the government executed 300 Armenian intellectuals in Istanbul. Next came mass arrests of Armenian men 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 dead. Armenian women, children, and the elderly were ordered to leave their homes and villages as they were being ‘relocated’ to non-military zones for their own safety. Ottoman families moved into the homes of deported Armenians and seized their property.
They were actually being taken on what became death marches, walking hundreds of miles into the hot Syrian desert. When food or water ran out they were given no more. Some were stripped naked and forced to walk under the desert sun until they dropped from dehydration. Any who stopped from exhaustion were beaten or shot. Gendarmes drowned people in rivers, pushed them off cliffs, or burned them alive. Soon, the empire’s roadsides were littered with unburied corpses, shocking foreign diplomats. Young girls were raped, killed or forced to become sex slaves in harems. Children were made to denounce Christianity and converted to Islam.
By the end of WWI, there were only 390,000 Armenians remaining in the Ottoman Empire, 75% 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 denied it was genocide, but rather the killing of an enemy force within their borders during wartime.
WWI 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 Germany to extridite the Pashas back to stand trial. But all requests were turned down. Hope of an Armenian Republic were dashed when a new nationalist leader refused to accept the post war treaty and re-occupied Armenian lands. Sadly, no Allied powers came to the aid of the fledgling republic. Armenian activists took matters into their own hands, located the Pashas in Germany and assassinated all three.
The half-hearted reaction of the world powers was duly noted by Adolf Hitler. After becoming Germany’s Fuhrer, Hitler told his generals: ‘I have sent to the East my Death’s Head Units with the orders to kill without pity or mercy all men, women, and children of Jewish blood. Only in such a way will we win what we need. After all, who still talks of the Armenians?’