Today, April 24th, is the centennial of the beginning of a genocide forgotten by many and denied by some. Some estimates put the death toll above one million, and there was an organized effort to eliminate a ethnic group. In fact, the very word ‘genocide’ was created by Raphael Lempkin, who was motivated by the Armenian Genocide to create a word to describe what happened. And many people have never heard of it.
The Ottomans aimed to destroy the entire Armenian population. And they nearly succeeded. And, since the Armenians were also Christians, the Armenian Genocide was one of the largest persecutions of Christians. in the last century.
So we should know more about the Armenian Genocide, but I’m embarrassed to say that I knew very little about it. So I’ve read around the last couple of days, and I thought I would summarize some of the basic details for you. I encourage you to read more about it.
Who Were the Armenians?
The Armenians are an ethnic group which, at that time, primarily lived in what is now eastern Turkey, Armenia, and neighboring countries. They were a Christian population living under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, which was an Islamic State that rule a large part of the Middle East, Northern Africa, the Balkans, and more. It lasted for centuries. (A well-written book on the Ottoman Empire is Alan Palmer’s The Decline and Fall of the Ottoman Empire.)
According to Wikipedia, they were mostly an impoverished people. Some wealthy and educated Armenians did live in Constantinople, though, and some held high position within the government of the Ottoman Empire.
Why Did the Ottomans Dislike Them?
The Armenians were not treated well prior to the genocide, partly because they were Christians living under Muslim rule, and partly because they pushed for reforms of the laws. From what I’ve read, they were subject to sporadic and capricious violence, and several European nations became concerned about how they were treated. In fact, Russia occupied their lands for a brief period, supposedly to protect them (but also to be antagonistic toward the Ottoman Empire).
One thing to know ––and the above-mentioned history by Alan Palmer does a good job of tracing this––is that the Ottoman Empire had been in decline. This stressed its resources and created great instability for its leaders. There were coups and countercoups, rebellions and reforms. The great European powers threatened the Ottomans several times, and the crumbling financial health of the Ottoman Empire made it increasingly reliant upon loans from some of these countries.
So tensions were high because of the circumstances. This is in addition to the ethnic, religious, and political tensions that already existed. The Ottoman Empire came to view the Armenians as a threat to the empire’s security and stability, especially due to the perceived (and real) siding of the Armenians with the Russians.
There were some conflicts that lead up to the events on April 24th, but April 24th is seen as the official start of the genocide. (April 24th is now the day that Armenians celebrate Genocide Remembrance Day.) On April 24, 1915, in the midst of the First World War, 250 Armenian leaders in Constantinople were arrested and detained. Nearly all of them were eventually killed.
The Ottoman Empire then began mass deportations of the Armenian population, moving them from their homeland to the deserts of Syria. You can read more about these deportations, which are often described as death marches. Thousands died from starvation, disease, or just the violence of the Ottoman forces that accompanied them.
Those who survived the deportations were put in concentration camps with little or no water or food. As you could imagine, disease and starvation were rampant.
The forces carrying out the genocide, some of whom were released from prison to form these military units, were free to rape and murder. Women were sold into sex slavery or forced to convert to Islam and marry Muslim men.
The methods of killing the Armenians were similar to what the Nazis were to use two decades later. There were reports of poison gas being used. Entire villages were corralled into buildings and burned. Women and children were put into boats and capsized in rivers and the Black Sea. Children were given lethal doses of medicine. People were injected with a diseased person’s blood to spread the disease.
The Armenians that survived were penniless, as the government declared that all their property and belongings were to confiscated.
In short, the violence that lasted for more than a year was devastatingly brutal and designed to eradicate the entire Armenian ethnic group.
As with other massacres and genocides, there are only approximations of how many people were killed. It was certainly in the hundreds of thousands, with some careful estimates putting the number killed close to 1.5 million.
Those who lived through it were left scarred. The Chicago Tribune reports on a man whose family survived the genocide. He said of the survivors: “They never smiled.”
(I should also mention that those killed were all, or almost all, Christians, while their killers were Muslims. The tensions and motivations were without doubt largely political, but in such a society political motivations and religious motivations are not easily separated. And so this genocide was also a massive persecution of Christians. In fact, some non-Armenian groups were massacred too; these groups were also Christians. The Christian faith was a common thread between those killed in the genocide. We who are Christians should never forget what our brothers and sisters in the faith have experienced due, in part, to their faith.)
Was It a Genocide?
So is it a genocide? I have freely referred to it as a genocide, because I am convinced it was a genocide. But there is some debate about whether it can be classified as such.
The very word ‘genocide’ was coined in part to describe the attrocity, but that doesn’t mean that, after the definition of the word was formalized in laws, it does meet the definition. However, leading organizations, law scholars, historians, human rights activists, and governments have recognized what happened as genocide.
Though I am not an expert in these matters––either historical or legal––it’s hard for me to understand why one wouldn’t regard it as a genocide. The evidence points towards the Ottoman Empire aiming to eradicate the Armenians. Additionally, hundreds of thousands of people were killed through efforts not too dissimilar from what the Nazis did two decades later.
It seems to me that any attempt to draw the boundaries of what constitutes genocide wide enough to include the Jewish Holocaust and the Rwandna genocide but small enough to exclude the Armenian Genocide needs more support than it seems to have. From what I’ve read, I haven’t seen any reason to deny that it is a genocide other than the pride of a people.
The Turkish government has denied it, and some organizations and nations are reluctant to take an official stance on it.
Recently, Pope Francis has called the massacre a genocide, which has angered Turkey. (Read more here.)
Furthermore, some countries, like Switzerland, has made the denial of the Armenian genocide a crime. And Umut Uras writes:
“The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) is to make its final judgement in the coming months on whether denying that the 1915 killings of Armenians was a “genocide” is a criminal offence.”
And The Guardian published an article two days ago that criticized Obama for not calling recognizing the killings as a genocide. In the article, Ali Gharib writes:
“n 2008, Obama was unequivocal about his plans to acknowledge that history: “As president I will recognize the Armenian genocide.”In the ensuing 7 years, he has yet to do so. What irks isn’t just that he broke a campaign promise – politicians do that all the time – but that he would refuse to acknowledge historical facts he’s already admitted to knowing.
“The reason for his studied ignorance is entirely too obvious: Turkey is a valuable NATO ally, and has been (sometimes) helpful in the fight against the Islamic State (Isis). Given Turkey’s attacks on the Pope and the European Union for recognizing the genocide, Obama is seeking to avoid a tiff with another ally.”
I know that Obama finds himself in a highly-charged situation with ISIS and desires to keep Turkey as an ally, but I have to agree with Ali Gharib. There’s no reason to deny historical fact. (And, as the article points out, Obama has been more than willing to take a stand on the Holocaust when Iran denies it, despite the political tensions between Iran and the U.S.)
Learning about the Armenian Genocide is frightening and depressing. I find it inconceivable that humans can treat one another this way. But they can, and we must always be watchful.
There are strains of political activism, both right-wing and left-wing, that are too suspicious. These conspiracy theorists attribute malice where ignorance or pure probability would suffice. We should not go to such extremes.
But that doesn’t mean that we should ever relax. Hatred and violence are all too tempting for humans, and atrocities like the Armenian Genocide remind us of that. Social divisions should be unwanted in society, not just because unity is a desirable, but because divisions so easily lead to sectarian violence. We should never relax in the belief that such violence and atrocities are things of the past, byproducts of less civilized or educated societies. This would be foolish.
The man who jumps at every shadow in his house is irrationally fearful, but the man who never locks a door is naive. We should not pretend as if mass persecution and oppession lurks behind every movement and statement from our political figures. But we must also never forget that unbearable violence can spring up in nearly any situation. (As Marilynne Robinson says in her essay “Darwinism” in The Death of Adam, Fascism took root in some of the most civilized countries in the world among some of the most educated groups in those societies.)
The Armenian Geocide arrests our attention because of its rare cruelty. It frightens because such cruelty, though rare, serves as a reminder that it can be repeated.
“Armenian Genocide”, Wikipedia.
“Turkey anger at Pope Francis Armenian ‘genocide’ claim”, BBC News.
“Armenians in the Ottoman Empire”, Wikipedia.
“Obama still won’t refer to the Armenian genocide by name. He should end the charade”,The Guardian.
“Q&A: The legal battle over ‘Armenian genocide'”, Al Jazeera.
“Judge whose family survived Armenian genocide: ‘They never smiled'”, Chicago Tribune.
“A Genocide Remembered and Denied”, First Things.
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