before the genocide
The Armenians are an ancient people whose home has been in the southern Caucasus since the 7th century BC. Mongol, Persian, Russian and Ottoman (Turkish) empires have fought on and over this region for many centuries.
A major obstacle for wider recognition of the genocide in the world is the official position of Turkey, which states that there was no will to exterminate Armenian population and the 1915 massacres were the consequences of Tehcir Law and World War I.
In the 4th century AD one of Armenia’s kings became a Christian, and Christianity has been the Armenian state religion ever since. After Islam was founded in Arabia in the 7th century AD, it became the state religion in all the countries surrounding Armenia (including Iran, which was the strongest influence on Armenian culture). But the Armenians continued to cherish their Christian church, although politically they lived under a series of foreign regimes and as a result often experienced hardship, persecution, discrimination and abuse.
At the end of the 19th century, Turkey and Russia were recovering from a war with each other. In the west, 2.5m Christian Armenians were governed by the Turks; eastern Armenia was in Russian hands. A surge in Armenian nationalism gave the Armenian leaders confidence to demand political reforms. This was unwelcome to both Ottoman and Russian powers, afraid of armed partisan resistance or even the revival of interstate war.
They began to repress Armenians even more harshly. In some Turkish Armenian provinces large-scale massacres were carried out from 1894 to 1896. In Russian Armenia, the Tsar closed hundreds of Armenian schools, libraries and newspaper offices, and in 1903 confiscated the property of the Armenian church.
In 1909 the Ottoman Sultan was overthrown by a new political group: the ‘Young Turks’, eager for a modern, westernised style of government. When the First World War broke out, the Young Turks supported Germany, which brought the country into conflict with Russia once again. It was easy for the Young Turks to expect Turkish Armenians to conspire with pro-Christian Russians against them (though many Turkish Armenians denied any such intention). As far as the Young Turks were concerned, what had long been ‘the Armenian Question’ had to be answered, now.
In 1915, under the cover of the war, the Ottoman government resolved to expel Turkey’s Armenian population (at the time about 1.75m) entirely. Their plan included deportation to the deserts of Syria and Mesopotamia (now Iraq). Hundreds of thousands of Armenians were driven out of their homes and either massacred or force-marched into the desert until they died. The German ambassador to Turkey wrote home: ‘The government is indeed pursuing its goal of exterminating the Armenian race in the Ottoman Empire’. Between 1915 and 1923 the western part of historic Armenia was emptied of Armenians. The death toll is reliably estimated to be over a million. Those who did not die fled to the Middle East, Russia or the USA.
The genocide was conducted in a well-organised way, making use of new technology available. Orders to begin the operation were sent to every police station, to be carried out simultaneously at the same time on the same day: April 20, 1915. Once it had begun, the perpetrators kept in touch by telegraph. They also made use of the Istanbul- Baghdad railway: the new line had already been laid as far as the Syrian desert. Tens of thousands of Armenians were packed into railway wagons and sent down the line into the desert, where they were left without shelter, water or food. Many of the workers laying the railway were Armenian, and thought they would escape; their turn for the death trucks came in 1916.
Genocide in wartime is relatively easy to conceal. When Hitler was planning the invasion of Poland in 1939, he gave the order to ‘kill without mercy men, women and children of the Polish race or language. Only in this way will we get the living space we need. Who after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?’
after the genocide
After the First World War efforts were made to restore Armenian territory, but without success. Even USA’s President Wilson did not stop the Turks from ignoring all treaties and hanging on to the Armenian provinces it had cleared. In 1920 Armenia finally renounced its claim to them. It took some time for the political status (and the boundaries) of Armenia to be sorted out. In 1922 Armenia became part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, under central Soviet rule, where it remained for 71 years. During this time Armenia was protected from hostile neighbouring countries, but the Soviet government (especially under Stalin) was harsh. Politicians, intellectuals and churchmen were suppressed. Workers on the land were forced to take up the communist ‘collective farming’ policy, becoming badly-paid labourers on the land they were no longer allowed to own individually.
In the 1920s, despite overwhelming evidence of the genocide provided by Western and Armenian eyewitnesses, Turkish officials effectively created a fog of denial. After a surge of American interest in the fate of Armenia during the 1914-18 war, there was post-war international reluctance to rock the boat, even when treaties were broken – after all, the Ottoman Empire had just been dismantled, and modern Turkey was not created until 1923.
One determined American nurse did persist in making her experiences known; she also exposed the new callousness at Istanbul’s American Embassy (which in 1915 had tried hard to intervene). The new ambassador, driven ‘obsessively’ by commercial interests, was willingly colluding in Turkish denial. Allen Dulles, US Eastern Affairs chief (later to become director of the CIA), had a problem meeting the ambassador’s urgent desire for cover-up. ‘Confidentially,’ said Dulles, ‘the State Department is in a bind. Our task would be simple if the reports of the atrocities could be declared untrue or even exaggerated but the evidence, alas, is irrefutable. We want to avoid giving the impression that while the United States is willing to intervene actively to protect its commercial interests, it isn’t willing to move on behalf of the Christian minorities.’ But few moves were made beyond offering a refuge for dispossessed Armenians.
Armenia has persistently called for the massacres of 1915 and after to be acknowledged as genocide. They have also asked Turkey to apologise for it. Turkey, however, has continued to deny genocide, claiming that the figures given are false: instead, 300,000 Armenians (and many thousands of Turks) were killed in the general carnage and turbulence of internal fighting during the First World War, with local massacres carried out by both sides. Both Armenia and Turkey have collected extensive documentary evidence to support their respective cases (with mutual accusations of forgery).
In 2001, when the first Holocaust Day took place in the UK, the national Assembly of France formally decided to acknowledge the Armenian killings as genocide, though not mentioning Turkey by name. All the same, it provoked a substantial row with Turkey, which suspended diplomatic relations, called off trade deals, toyed with imposing sanctions, and contemplated formally accusing France of genocide during Algeria’s 1955-1962 war of independence.
The 70,000 or so Armenians who live in Turkey today have distanced themselves from the arguments, saying that the dispute should be left to historians.
from a letter sent by an American observer in Constantinople (Istanbul) in 1915:
‘ “Armenia without the Armenians” – that is the Ottoman Government’s project. The Muslims are already being allowed to take possession of the lands and houses abandoned by the Armenians. The exiles are forbidden to take anything with them. In the districts under military occupation there is nothing left to take, as the military authorities have carried off, for their own use, everything that they could lay hands on. The exiles have to traverse on foot a distance that involves one or two months’ marching and sometimes even more, before they reach the particular corner of the desert destined to become their tomb. We hear, in fact, that the course of their route and the stream of the Euphrates are littered with the corpses of exiles, while those who survive are doomed to certain death, since they will find in the desert neither house, nor work, nor food. It is simply a scheme for exterminating the Armenian nation wholesale, without any fuss. It is another form of massacre, and a more horrible form.
When nation oppresses nation, it stores up a future of oppression. It may well become oppressed itself. Here’s an account of the attempt in Bulgaria to erase everything Turkish from its history:
‘If there is one thing missing in Bulgaria, it is any sense of the country’s Ottoman past. Even the word “Ottoman” is “not really one to use in Bulgaria”. The centuries of Ottoman rule (1393-1878) are portrayed as Bulgaria’s dark ages, “slavery under the Turkish yoke”. This emotive, nationalistic spirit takes stone form at the Freedom Monument, which commemorates the decisive victory over the Turks at Shipka Pass. It can be seen for miles around from the surrounding plains, and it is here that we begin to understand how historical hatreds can be kept alive.
The denial of people’s language, as a means of oppression, has been practised officially and unofficially in many other places – including the UK (Ireland and Wales).
No act of oppression is without long-term effects, including prejudice and tension between nationalities. This means that the chances of different national, religious and cultural groups living together are much lower, the likelihood of tension much higher. Consider what conflicts are taking place between Muslim and Christian communities in European countries today.
Mutual tolerance is threatened wherever there is a history of mutual conflict. There’s a difficult balance to be reached: if people are ‘assimilated’ in a country not their traditional home, is there a line to cross beyond which their individual histories and heritage are, in effect, exterminated? How far can racial, religious, national observances be maintained without seeming defiant and aggressive?
People also become victims of conflicts between wider communities, as the Armenians became the victims of conflict between two rival empires, both requiring Armenian loyalty and support. On a small scale, in local communities, it is the same. Allegiances to factions and power groups always carry risks of bitter hostility that may break out in violence and the use of force.