On 24 April 2021, the American President Joe Biden formally recognised the Armenian Genocide. It had only taken 106 years to the day. April really is the cruellest month, as TS Eliot wrote in The Waste Land. The Armenian Genocide is crucial in understanding other genocides that followed. Until the Nazis, it was the high watermark of mass murder in the 20th century.
The world watched the genocide of 1915 unfold almost in real-time in what was then the Ottoman Empire, as the Turkish authorities systematically deported and killed most of the empire’s Armenian population. Over nearly two years of death marches, massacres and forced conversions, the New York Times published more than 140 articles on the subject. Here are some of the terms used to describe the “unparalleled savagery” and “acts of horror”: “young women and girls appropriated by the Turks, thrown into harems, attacked or else sold to the highest bidder”, “endure terrible tortures”, “revolting tortures”, “their breasts cut off, their nails pulled out, their feet cut off”, “burned to death”, “helpless women and children were roasted to death”, “1,500,000 Armenians starve”, “dying in prison camps”, “massacre was planned”, “most thoroughly organised and effective massacres this country has ever known”.
Three years later, at the end of World War One, in 1918, the Hearst newspapers serialised the biographical account of a young orphaned girl: Arshaluys Mardiganian. She had witnessed the murder of her entire family. In 1919, Hollywood made a silent movie, Ravished Armenia/Auction of the Souls, where she played herself. She changed her name to Aurora Mardiganian. Like Anne Frank decades later, both young women crystallised the horrors of the war from their personal accounts.
Donald Bloxham, a professor of modern history, wrote, “The genocide carried out on the Armenians was not only the first of its type but also the most successful. [The 1904-1908 genocide of Namibia’s Nama and Herero people is now considered the first.] Having wiped out a population, the perpetrators then succeeded in virtually erasing any memory of its destruction.”
The Armenian Genocide may have been the “forgotten genocide” in the 1950s during the Cold War. Still, since the 1960s and especially from 2015 onwards, genocide studies, which grew out of Holocaust studies, expanded. The Holocaust is the most frequently described genocide, but the Armenian one is probably a distant second.
When Hitler was planning to invade Poland in 1939, he wanted to send Polish intellectuals and opposition figures to a concentration camp. When someone objected, referring to the Armenian slaughter, he was reputed to have replied, “Who remembers the Armenians?” This was the lesson the Nazis had learned. Nations could get away with mass murder.
There was a long and slow build-up to the 1915 genocide by the Muslim Ottomans against the Christian Armenians. After five centuries of dominance, the Ottoman Empire was in decline. The elites were desperate to save the empire and hold on to their power, status and privileges. The Armenian reformers and revolutionaries were looking for political and social justice and equality, and sovereignty, which they didn’t have under the Ottomans. Non-Muslims were second-class subjects in the Empire.
When the “Bloody Sultan” Abdul Hamid II came to power in 1876, it was at a time of rebellions. He believed that Turkification was the answer to Ottoman woes. He is best remembered for overseeing the decline of the Empire and the Armenian massacres of the 1890s. These “infidels” were labelled with the conventional tropes of alienation. Armenians were called disloyal, ungrateful and accused of profiteering from others, all of which began a justification for the violence.
The Turkish bourgeoisie grew as it acquired Armenian possessions, property and status during the 1908 Young Turk revolution and later in World War One. Local elites played a crucial role in creating the atmosphere. “They incited and provoked people and created this hateful, hostile atmosphere between Muslims and Christians,” says Dr Umit Kurt, an academic and author of The Armenians of Aintab. The Ottomans created false rumours. “They said that Armenians were attacking mosques and raping women. They handed out pamphlets about the threat of an independent Armenia.”
In 1913, the most militant faction, the Young Turks, who believed the Armenians were collaborating with foreign powers, took over the Ottoman Empire in a coup d’etat. Mehmet Talaat (pictured below) came to power, the de facto leader of the Government and one of the architects of modern Turkey — but also of the Armenian Genocide, which he ordered as Minister of the Interior.
1915 was a catastrophic year for the Ottomans. Fighting on the side of the Central Powers (Germany, Austro-Hungary) and against the Entente (France, Britain, Russia), they suffered their worst defeat. In January, the Ottomans were defeated by the Russians at Sarikamish in the Caucasus Mountains. The Young Turk-led government blamed the Armenians and scapegoated them.
Most historians date the final decision to exterminate the Armenian population from March or early April 1915. Talaat began by arresting Armenian intellectuals on 24 April 1915. That was and is the first step to destroying a community and making it headless. The responsibility for the deaths of more than one million Armenians, probably closer to 1.5 million, out of an Ottoman population of three million, rests primarily with him. By May 1915, the Entente powers were noting that the Young Turks had committed “crimes against humanity” against the Armenians.
A month later, the Ottoman Young Turks issued a Law of Confiscation, which allowed them to confiscate and then liquidate Armenian assets and properties, just as the Nazis would later do. The Ottomans in Aintab, now Gaziantep, would lay out the plundered goods of the Armenians in the middle of the street, and everything would be sold at ludicrously low prices.
This massive transfer of economic wealth was like winning the lottery for the local Muslim population. The material gain was a great motivator in perpetuating the genocide. The Young Turks benefited when they killed their neighbours and found willing executioners, eager to slaughter their Armenian neighbours, friends and countrymen for gain as much as revenge.
Some Muslims may have tried to help the Armenians, but to do so was illegal. Families were threatened, and they chose not to see what was going on in front of them. They said nothing because of fear, greed or both. Most people were afraid, and there was substantial resentment of the Armenians and economic opportunity for the perpetrators and collaborators. Still, the sense of terror can’t be underestimated, especially when your family is at risk.
Like their Nazi counterparts, too, Ottoman doctors experimented on children. They murdered those with learning difficulties by injecting them with poison, and they carried out experiments on others using typhus injections. Turkish doctors killed infants at the Red Crescent Hospital in Trabzon, used morphine to murder others, and gassed children in school rooms. Local officials used Armenian women and girls as prostitutes.
According to Paul G Pierpaoli Jr in The Armenian Genocide Encyclopedia, Dr Mehemet Reshid, who hated all Christians without distinction, treated Armenian patients as inferior. The atrocities were so horrific you have to ask what is wrong with the human race. He “devised brutal ways in which to treat Armenians. These included nailing horseshoes to their feet and forcing them to walk through Ottoman streets. He nailed Armenians on crosses to mimic the fate of their pre-eminent religious symbol, Jesus Christ. Dr Reshid also engaged in bizarre human experimentation on Armenians, resulting in his victims’ deaths…Their eventual mass extermination eerily anticipated how Nazi doctors attempted to justify their brutal treatment and mass killing of European Jews during WWII.”
Mass deportations began in June 1915. By the time of the death marches, most of the men were dead, either shot or bayonetted. The youngest and most attractive women were raped and young children taken as sex or military slaves. Older women, men and children were sent in cattle cars or on marches in the desert in caravans of death. They went without provisions in the scorching heat while paramilitary killing units followed behind. Marauding gangs robbed and raped. And typhus, pneumonia and dysentery killed as efficiently as hunger, thirst and exposure.
Armenians deported to the deserts of Syria in June 1915 were forced to walk over the dead bodies of Armenians towards the concentration camps where they were expected to die. Instead, 400,000 deportees arrived in Aleppo, a surprise for Talaat. “It was from this moment that they began to establish the series of concentration camps, which were in effect death camps as they had no food or provisions for survival.” Although a few Turkish officials were taken to court after the war, most were acquitted or not put on trial.
While the Americans have finally acknowledged the Armenian Genocide, the Turkish government still denies it. The Armenian Genocide scholar Professor Alan Whitehorn, Professor emeritus at the Department of Political Science and Economics at the Royal Military College of Canada, explains.
“There are often many reasons; one is psychological,” says Professor Whitehorn. “It’s tough for you to say: you know, my father, my grandfather or my uncle participated in mass murder. It’s even harder to acknowledge that your relative has done harm, to have been a murderer who’s killed or engaged in sexual abuse. Perhaps there’s embarrassment or family guilt. You don’t want to pass on the bad news about an elderly relative to your children.”
He adds: “The psychological is quite important. If you’re a product of ultra-nationalism and the Ottoman Empire was under the influence of the Young Turks, you don’t want to acknowledge mistakes. I mean, it’s the nature of nationalism to be proud of your country and critical of other countries. There’s a sense of self-superiority and subordination of the others. This is doubly so when you’ve had a history of an empire, where the subject peoples are considered inferior and need to show deference and subservience. So I think that historic nationalist sense of ‘we’re superior and we don’t acknowledge our mistakes to supposed inferiors’ is germane.”
Also, as soon as you acknowledge your collaboration, there could be penalties and demands for compensation — reparation is the obvious one, as is the restitution of land and buildings.
“The politics of genocide is not without long-term financial cost to the perpetrator state,” says Professor Whitehorn. Apart from making postwar Turkey a less ethnically diverse nation, “in slaughtering the Armenians, a key segment of its merchant class was wiped out.”
The Austrian-born Jewish author Franz Werfel wrote about the Armenian Genocide in 1933. His fact-based novel, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, was an international success. It also became a cause célèbre in Hollywood, when the Turkish Ambassador to the US before World War Two prevented its filming. The State Department supported the decision to keep good relations with the Turks.
The story is a fictionalised account about a cluster of Armenian villages that held out against Ottoman troops in 1915 for 40 days. The survivors escaped to French naval ships that took them to safety in Egypt.
Werfel wrote: “The book was conceived in March 1929, during a stay in Damascus. The miserable sight of some maimed and famished-looking refugee children working in a carpet factory gave me the final impulse to snatch time from the Hades of all that was, this incomprehensible destiny of the Armenian nation. The writing of the book followed between July 1932 and March 1933.”
The Jews in the Warsaw ghetto and in other Jewish ghettos read and re-read Werfel’s novel. In the Holocaust, they were looking for inspiration to fight against the Nazis. It was an inspirational and almost unique case of resistance and survival.
Professor Whitehorn’s metzmama, his Armenian grandmother, survived the Young Turks’ genocide. She was one of 100,000 orphans who did. She spent ten years in refugee camps and orphanages, including ones in Corfu and Greece, until an Egyptian Armenian family adopted her. In his work, Whitehorn has often wondered where she found the will to survive. Her first husband, whom she met in Egypt, had survived the genocide but couldn’t cope, and killed himself while she was pregnant.
Professor Whitehorn’s work on genocide and human rights is a way of saying thank you to his metzmama and those who need help today. He works at night when all is quiet — “except for the voices of the past who whisper their haunting words. Remember us . . . Please remember us.”
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