Between 1915 and 1922, the Ottoman Turks executed a highly organized campaign to annihilate the Armenian people living in Ottoman Empire (now modern Turkey), systematically murdering 1.5 million men, women, and children. It is regarded as the first modern genocide, yet is remains unrecognized and unknown by many around the world. And this is no accident.
Over the past century, Turkey has undertaken a well-funded and highly sophisticated campaign of historical revisionism through a mix of academic suppression and diplomatic thuggery. Their geopolitical position has allowed them to leverage their version of history over the facts of the genocide, and strong arm the international community to accept their version of the events. With that, the memory of the Armenian Genocide has fallen into the historical black hole of cultural amnesia.
“Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
— Adolf Hitler
22 August, 1939
(on the eve of the German invasion of Poland)
The Armenian Genocide served as the blueprint for the Holocaust and over a dozen other mass atrocities in the 100 years since. And as a global community, we owe it to the Armenian diaspora to recognize the genocide and to learn from the past, lest the same actions continue to be repeated.
To this day, Turkey denies the genocide ever took place.
#1 History of The Armenian Genocide
The Republic of Armenia is a now-sovereign nation, established in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is bordered by Turkey, Iran, Georgia and Azerbaijan, and was the first nation to make Christianity its official religion.
Armenian history dates back thousands of years and is one of few ancient civilizations that remain intact today. The King of Armenia was the first ruler to adopt Christianity as the official religion of the state in 301 A.D, even before the Roman Empire. For centuries, the Armenians built a healthy and prosperous independent country that was rich with culture and tradition.
It was absorbed by the Turkish Ottoman Empire in the early 16th Century, which ruled the region for more than 400 years. The Ottoman Empire was under Muslim rule, and Christian Armenians were subjected to racial discrimination and unequal treatment. The newly subjugated Armenians were regarded as infidels. Despite these obstacles, Armenians thrived. Resentment grew from the Turks, who perceived their Armenian neighbors as wealthier and better educated. Influential Turkish leaders later used these perceptions as justification for eliminating the Armenians altogether.
#2 Paranoia Increases
In 1876, Turkish Sultan Abdul Hamid II became the 34th sultan of Turkey. During his rule, national paranoia regarding the Armenian population increased dramatically. Abdul Hamid II was obsessed with loyalty to the Turkish state, and feared that the Christian Armenians would turn on Turkey and join forces with political enemy, and Christian neighbor, Russia. In the late 1894, the Armenians organized and started to push for equal rights and freedom from their second-class status.
The Armenian demand for change was met with a lethal response from Sultan Hamid, earning him the moniker “Red Sultan”. Rallying his base, Hamid labeled the Armenians a dangerous force within his borders, dubbing them enemies of the state and further dehumanizing a population already considered to be infidels. From 1894-1896, the first seeds of the genocide were planted when Sultan Abdul Hamid II killed hundreds of thousands of Armenians in response to civil rights protests and political unrest.
Young Turks Offer New Hope
The Ottoman Empire began to crumble at the start of the 20th century, during which Armenian and Turkish relations steadily declined.
In 1908 a new political group, the Young Turks, forced the Sultan out of power. The Young Turks gained Armenian allegiance by initially supporting new rights for the oppressed segment of the population, creating excitement that reform was possible. Young Turks had a more modern idea of government, and the Armenians thought the new, progressive leadership would come to their aid. However, the Young Turks were even more extreme in their nationalist views than Abdul Hamid II, and life became far worse for the Armenians under their rule.
Coinciding with a period of decline for the empire, the sudden takeover by extremists created the perfect storm for a new wave of violence. Nationalism became a centerpiece of their platform, and Young Turks felt that Christians were a threat to their new government. The Armenians were targeted in April of 1909, when Turkish nationalists killed over 25,000 Armenians in Adana Vilayet, known as the Adana Massacre. Later, the Young Turks would perpetrate the Genocide.
#3 The Balkan Wars
During The Balkan Wars of 1911–1913, the Turks lost sizable chunks of the empire to Christian regions that were breaking away for independence. This period led to the emancipation of several East European countries further eroding the Ottoman Empire.
This was a devastating loss of power, sparking a more virulent form of Turkish nationalism and further ostracizing the Armenian population. What’s more, Muslim refugees from the Christian breakaway countries poured into Constantinople with stories of Christian murder and violence against their families and countrymen, perverting the events of the Adana Massacre to fit their own agenda. These stories became the basis for pro-Nationalist propaganda and would feed the national thirst for blood. One leader from the Young Turk government said, “Our anger is strengthening: revenge, revenge, revenge… there is no other word.”
#4 The C.U.P. & the Ruling Triumvirate
In 1914 Constantinople, the extremist faction of the Young Turks that was in control formed the Committee of Union & Progress (CUP) and adopted the slogan “Turkey for the Turks.”
Within this newly formed political party a “dictatorial triumvirate” came together, forming the brains and brawn behind the Armenian Genocide: Mehmed Talaat Pasha rose through the ranks of the Young Turk party and became the Minister of the Interior; Ismail Enver Pasha, a young soldier became Minister of Defense; and Ahmed Djemal Pasha became the Minister of the Navy. These three men formed a dangerous and deadly coalition called the “Three Pashas” that reigned and solidified their power through the purging of the Armenians until the end of World War 1 in 1918.
#5 Onset of World War I & the Genocide
At the onset of World War 1, the CUP brought pro-Turkey nationalism to new heights throughout the empire. Turkey, having suffered decades of slow economic and geopolitical decline, sided with Germany in hopes that their alliance could defeat the Russians and they could rebuild and expand their empire.
In December of 1914, the Ottoman Turks suffered a devastating defeat in their first offensive, invading Russia. More than eighty percent of the Turkish forces were destroyed turning the entire campaign into a national humiliation. In the days following this disastrous operation more than 100,000 Russian troops stormed across the border into Turkey, and with them an estimated 5,000 Armenians, took up arms. Once those Armenian soldiers joined forces with the Russian Army, all Armenians were seen as an enemy of the state.
The Turkish government took immediate action and the Three Pashas put their devastating plan into motion.
#6 Mechanisms of the Genocide
The Armenian members of the military, who had already been conscripted into the Ottoman ranks, were disarmed and moved into labor battalions to build infrastructure for the war effort. Ultimately, these work groups would be executed en masse over the next year, effectively removing those physically able to defend themselves from the ranks of the Armenian population.
In tandem, the entire Armenian population was ordered by government decree to disarm as well, further weakening the Armenians’ tenuous position.
Then on April 24th 1915, a group of 250 Armenian intellectual and cultural leaders in Constantinople, were rounded up, transported to a camp and killed. This date is recognized as the start of the Armenian Genocide. At this point, Turkey had killed off the Armenian soldiers and the cultural elite, separated the men from their families and disenfranchised the entire population. All that remained was to demand the remaining population to comply with a “relocation” order that would prove for most to be a death sentence.
On May 29th, 1915 the Temporary Law of Deportation was voted into effect, legalizing the forced deportation of Armenians from their homes. Subsequently the CUP also passed the Temporary Law of Expropriation and Confiscation under the guise of registering the properties of the deportees and safeguarding them. This was a law to categorize and confiscate all Armenian goods and dissolve them into Ottoman coffers. Systematically the Armenian population throughout the empire was forced to relocate to Deir el-Zor, a concentration camp isolated in the desert, via the railways that their own men had been forced to construct. But many, by design, would not arrive.
During the summer of 1915, many Armenians were unaware, the genocide was set in motion. Over the next 7 years, over 1.5 million Armenians civilians would be annihilated by organized Turkish forces and populace.
#7 The Special Organization
Enver Pasha oversaw the Special Organization (SO). This secret security network was a shadow government that oversaw the formation and implementation of killing squads operated by violent criminals and Pan-Turkish nationalists. The sole purpose of these Chetes, or roving death squads, was the eradication of the Armenian population and the confiscation of their land and goods.
Over 1 million Armenians died that summer alone. With the full power of the central government behind it and the support of the Turkish public, the events of 1915 were a fully bureaucratized and legislated act of mass killing. For the next 7 years, the Young Turks would carry out an uninterrupted campaign of deportation, confiscation and violence against the Armenian population in every corner of the Empire. Entire villages were razed and millions were killed in death marches and highly coordinated attacks against the unarmed minority.
#8 The End of World War I & the Treaty of Sevres
In October 1918 the Armistice of Mudros was signed, marking the defeat of the Ottoman Empire at the hands of the Allied forces. With this armistice the victorious allies took control of Constantinople and reinstalled the Sultanate, putting Mohammed VI in power.
Facing the threat of military intervention by the British, French and Americans, Turkish War Tribunals were held in 1919 to bring the architects of the Genocide to justice. In these tribunals many of the crimes carried out by the Young Turks were officially recognized and over 100 members of the CUP were imprisoned. At the same time, the League of Nations enacted legislation to partition Turkey, giving back to the Armenians their historical homeland as an independent nation. Sultan Mohammed VI and the Grand Vizier accepted these terms at the Treaty of Sevres in 1920, ceding millions of acres of the Ottoman Empire to independent Armenian rule.
#9 The Rise of Kemal Ataturk
Like the Balkan Wars before, this territorial loss resulted in a resurgence of Nationalism, elevating the power of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, a general who had become a national hero by defeating the British at Gallipoli in 1915. Though initially in support of the Tribunals, Atatürk quickly reversed his position when Armenia was granted independence. In retaliation, Kemal founded the Defense of the Rights of Eastern Anatola, a political party that was fiercely nationalistic. Tens of thousands of Turks flocked to Kemal’s cause seeking redemption by spurning foreign influence. Kemal and his forces quickly overthrew the Sultanate and, once in power, undermined the authority of the Tribunals.
In the summer of 1919, three quarters of the imprisoned CUP members were freed without any protest from the Allied administration overseeing the trials. The newly empowered Kemalist government then adopted The Nationalist Pact, an international decree demanding that all of Turkish Armenia be returned to them. Again, the international community acquiesced. The tides of international favor were changing and the writing was on the wall for Armenia.
#10 The Disintegration of the Armenian State
In 1919, the newly founded Armenian state did not have the means to protect themselves. Their male population had been targeted during the Genocide and their armories ransacked by the death squads. The Armenians turned to the European powers and America for support, but they would find none.
Kemal Atatürk, aware of America’s booming economy and the international desire for oil, used his Empire’s reserves as political capital to curb America and other foreign power’s influence in the area. To the dismay of the newly founded Armenian government, neither America, Britain nor France would commit to protecting the Armenian borders at the risk of losing access to Turkish oil reserves. Nor could Armenia count on their historic ally, Russia. With the fall of the Czar in 1917, the Bolsheviks took control of Russia and, by 1919 they had formed an alliance with Turkey over their shared distrust of Europe. In the fall of 1920, Kemalist forces marched on independent Armenia and began a new campaign of genocidal violence, indiscriminately slaughtering thousands of Armenian civilians.
#11 The Treaty of Lausanne
The Turks simultaneously began a diplomatic assault on the charter passed at the Treaty of Sevres. Unwilling to recognize the borders the treaty set, the Kemalist government used their oil reserves to strong arm the world powers back to the negotiating table.
At the Lausanne Conference of 1922, the Turks renegotiated the terms of their World War 1 surrender and refused any discussion on the “Armenian question”. Turkey regained nearly all of the territory granted to Armenia in 1920 and was under no obligation to stop their violent campaign against the defenseless Armenian population. The Armenians accepted a treaty created from Turkish and Russian negotiations, and joined the USSR. Thus, the Treaty of Moscow (March 16, 1921) and the Treaty of Kars (October 13, 1921) formed the boundaries of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic.
#12 The New Turkey
After withdrawing their troops from Armenia, the Turkish government began a new propaganda campaign dedicated to eradicating any mention of the Genocide in international discourse.
Encouraged by their previous diplomatic success, the Kemalist began to force their revisionist version of events on the international community; and they were remarkably successful. Only a decade after the actions of 1915, the Kemalist regime propagated a new foundation myth for Turkey, erasing any mention about the actions of the Young Turks. This new mythology pointedly listed “There was no Armenian Genocide” as it’s fourth and final point. The vast majority of the international community accepted this narrative and have fallen in line ever since.
With the birth of modern Turkey, the memory of the Armenian Genocide fell into the historical black hole of cultural amnesia. The truth laying buried beneath Turkey’s oil and the promise of political alliances in the post-WWI structured Middle East.
To this day, the Armenian genocide is rarely talked about in international discourse. As of 2017, only the governments and parliaments of 29 countries, have recognized the events as a genocide. Turkey acknowledges the genocide only as a massacre, or conversely a wartime conflict and many Turkish citizens simply do not acknowledge it at all.
Turkey also reports the death toll much lower than 1.5 million—claiming only 300,000 Armenian lives were lost during the period that the genocide took place. President Erdogan of Turkey calls for “healing all wounds” between Turkey and Armenia, but it is difficult to achieve when his official stance is that Armenia is using the genocide as an excuse for “blackmail” to retrieve reparations and their ancestral homeland.
The United States and the Armenian Genocide
During the Armenian Genocide, U.S. missionaries played a crucial role in helping save orphans and victims of violence. Never officially at war with Turkey, the US maintained a diplomatic presence in Turkey during the genocide. Ambassador Morgenthau and other diplomats were present during the events and were integral in documenting the atrocities.
In 1916, the United States Congress created the Near East Relief organization (currently known as the Near East Foundation) in response to the atrocities in 1915. The Near East Relief Organization raised the equivalent of over $2 Billion (in contemporary dollars) to help survivors of the Genocide. “Remember the starving Armenians”, a charitable rallying call, became a popular and well known slogan throughout America.
The United States first officially recognized the genocide in 1951, but due to a combination of diplomatic pressure, geopolitical demands and international economic interests, the U.S. Government has become complicit in promulgating the denial of this crime for the last three decades.