What was the Armenian Genocide?
One of the most brutal massacres in history was the Armenian genocide, involving the deaths of 1.5 million ethnic Armenians at the hands of the Turks of the Ottoman Empire and many more removed from the country. The genocide lasted more than 5 years, ending in the early 1920s.
History of the Armenians
The kingdom of Armenia has a rich history, beginning some three thousand years ago in the Caucasus region of Eurasia. The Armenians were independent for a period of time, becoming the first nation in the world to make Christianity its official religion in the fourth century AD. However, a thousand years later in the 15th century, Armenia became part of the Ottoman Empire, which was governed mainly by Muslim rulers. As a religious minority in the Empire, the Armenians were viewed as inferior and subjected to much discrimination and prejudice. For instance, the Christians had fewer political and legal rights, and they had to pay higher taxes than the Muslims.
Unrest in the Ottoman Empire
However, the Armenian people flourished in the Ottoman Empire despite these circumstances. They were in fact better educated and wealthier than the local Turkish, which only fueled the Turks’ hatred towards the Armenians. Additionally, the Turkish suspected that the Armenians would be more loyal to Christian governments due to their common religion than the Muslim rulers in the Ottoman Empire. They became worried that the Armenians may prefer the Christian rulership of the Russians just next door, and this was made worse by the fact that the border between the Ottoman Empire and Russia was unstable. To make matters worse, the Ottoman Empire soon began to fall at the end of the 19th century. As a result of all these, the Turkish Sultan Abdul Hamid II decided to put his foot down and settle the frequent Armenian campaigns for their basic civil rights, claiming that the Armenians were only a minority in the country and their reports of abuses were falsified. Abdul Hamid stated in 1890 that he would give the Armenians “a box on the ear which will make them…relinquish their revolutionary ambitions.”
Following this, Hamid created a paramilitary outfit called the Hamidiye, allowing its members to “deal with the Armenians as they wished”. During this period, the unrest in Armenian towns was already nearing its peak as the residents became unhappy with the constant over-taxation. They began to rebel against the officials, giving the Hamidiye a reason to retaliate with the first massacre which took place from 1894 to 1896. In the Hamidian massacres, the Turkish military and common folk raided the Armenian villages in response to the growing large-scale protests for human rights. Over hundreds of thousands of Armenians were slain. Despite the killings, not all was dire, as some Armenian towns successfully repelled the forces and brought this situation to the attention of the Great Powers.
In May 1895, the Powers made it mandatory for Abdul Hamid to state how much authority the Hamidiye had over the people in an effort to curb the massacres. However, this measure was never implemented, sparking rallies and petitions from the Armenians for the authorities to implement the reforms. The superior police force managed to break these rallies up, following which a massacre of Armenians occurred in Constantinople and spread to the rest of the Armenian-populated provinces of Bitlis, Diyarbekir, Erzurum, Harput, Sivas, Trebizond and Van. It was estimated that between one to three hundred thousand Armenians were killed during the Hamidian massacres.
In 1908, just before the first World War, a group of reformers called the Young Turks came into power and overthrew Sultan Abdul Hamid. They worked on establishing a more modern constitutional government, but the Armenians soon realized that there was still no place for them in this new empire. In fact, the Young Turks sought to “Turkify” the country and regarded non-Turks as a threat to their well-being. Christian non-Turks – which the vast majority of the Armenians fell under – were seen as the largest threat to the new government.
World War I erupted in 1914 and the Ottoman Empire entered the fray allied with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Turkish government sought to expel the Armenians from their land and declared war on all Christians except their allies. The Armenians were pegged as traitors based on the belief that they may defect to the enemy’s side if it meant they would be able to win independence. This opinion was only amplified by the volunteer battalions sent by the Armenians to aid the Russian army in their fight against the Turks. Eventually, the Turks began to push for the removal of the Armenians in the empire, especially in the war zones along the Eastern Front.
On April 24, 1915, the Armenian genocide began with the arrest and execution of about 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders by the Turkish government. Other Armenians were removed from their homes and sent on death marches across the Mesopotamian desert with nothing on them at all – not even the clothes on their backs. The majority of them were stripped naked and made to march in the scorching heat of the desert until they succumbed. If they stopped to rest, they were immediately shot.
However, that was not the full extent of the genocide. The Young Turks also created a group called a Special Organization whose purpose was to organize “killing squads” or “butcher battalions” to remove the last of the Christian presence from the land. The members of the killing squads were murderers and ex-convicts who had been freed from prison for the purpose of forming this group. They took to cruel methods of slaying their victims, including drowning them, burning them alive, throwing them off of cliffs and crucifying them.
While most of the reported casualties of the genocide were men, the women and children were not spared either. Records have shown that they were also burned, drowned or killed by physicians as part of human experiments. The officials in some towns raped the women and either enslaved them or forced them to join Turkish harems. Some children were taken from their families and given to Turkish families, where they were converted to Islam. Additionally, once the Armenians were gone, their belongings and houses were ripe for the taking by the Turkish folk.
It is estimated that more than one and a half million Armenians fell victim to the massacre. Just before the killings, there were two million Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire – and only 388,000 of them survived the genocide.
The Aftermath of the Genocide
The Ottoman Empire surrendered in 1918, forcing the leaders of the Young Turks to flee to Germany where they were promised they would be pardoned for the genocide. However, some of the remaining Armenians in the Armenian Revolutionary Federation came up with Operation Nemesis – a plan to hunt down and assassinate the leaders of the Young Turks. On March 15, 1921, the former Grand Vizier Talaat Pasha, widely considered to be the main perpetrator of the genocide, was assassinated in broad daylight in Berlin, Germany.