April 24, 2015, marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Armenian genocide. Much of the world considers the massacre to be the first genocide of the 20th century. According to a majority of historians, between 600,000 and 1.5 million Armenians were murdered or died of starvation at the hands of the Turkish government.
At a mass commemorating the 100th anniversary of the massacre, Pope Francis referred to the slaughter as the first genocide of the 20th century. About 20 countries, the Council of Europe, and European Parliament have formally acknowledged the genocide. The U.S. refers to the mass murder of Armenians as "one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century," but has stopped short of calling it a genocide. Turkey denies that a genocide took place and claims that a much smaller number died in a civil war, and it remains illegal to even discuss the persecution of Armenians in Turkey.
Armenians experienced discrimination, suppression, and persecution long before the genocide of 1915. They had been conquered by Greeks, Romans, Persians, Byzantines, Mongols, Arabs, Ottoman Turks, and Russians over the centuries. From the 16th century through World War I, major portions of Armenia were controlled by their most brutal invader, the Ottoman Turks. The Turks massacred thousands of Armenians in 1894 and 1896.
Fall of the Ottoman Empire Leads to Atrocities Against Armenians
The Armenians lived in Anatolia, also called Asia Minor, in the Ottoman Empire. They enjoyed a degree of autonomy and were allowed some religious and cultural freedom. However, the Muslim Ottomans considered the Christian Armenians to be infidels, and subjected them to higher taxes than Muslims in the empire. The Armenians thrived as an educated, financially prosperous population. This became a source of resentment for the Turks.
By the 1800s, the Ottoman Empire was in serious decline, a result of regional wars, revolts, and its failure to accept modernization. Most of its subjects had gained independence, leaving only Armenians and Arabs under its control. In the 1890s, educated Armenians began calling for democratic reforms, and the autocratic Sultan Abdul Hamid responded by executing about 100,000 Armenians in a pogrom that lasted from 1894 to 1896.
Armenians were optimistic that their fate would change with the rise of the Young Turks, in 1908. The Young Turks, a group of young, liberal nationalists, forced the implementation of a constitutional government, instituted a modernization program, and deposed the sultan. However, three leaders of the Young Turks, Mehmed Talaat, Ismail Enver and Ahmed Djemal, known as the Three Pashas, proved to be despotic and set out to create a new, expansive Turkish empire where all Turks would live, speak the same language, and adhere to Islam. That empire included the land inhabited by the Armenians. Islamic fundamentalism grew out of the Young Turk's philosophy, and violence against Armenians occurred regularly throughout Turkey. The anti-Armenian sentiment was fueled by the Muslims' belief that Christians were infidels and a threat to the "Turkification" of the empire and the Armenians' relative prosperity compared to that of the Turks.
World War I Begins and the Genocide Follows
The Ottoman Empire allied with Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I. Fearing that Armenians would side with Russia, a Christian nation, the Turks disarmed the Armenian population. When the Russians handed the Turks a crushing defeat at the battle of Sarikemish in the Caucuses, the Turks accused the Armenians of fighting for the Russians and blamed them for the loss. In response, the Young Turks ordered the execution or deportation of the Armenian population. The genocide began on April 24, 1915, when the Turkish government arrested and executed about 300 intellectuals. Turks went door to door, rounding up male Armenians. They shot and killed them. Women, children, and the elderly were sent on death marches through the Syrian desert to concentration camps. Hundreds died of thirst, starvation, and exposure along the way. Those who stopped to rest were shot. Many Armenian children were spared death, but were forced to convert to Islam and join Turkish families. The government passed legislation to confiscate Armenian property. As many as 2 million Armenians were living in the Ottoman Empire just before the outbreak of World War I. At the end of the genocide, there were just 388,000 Armenians remaining there.
Turks Ignore Warning to End Genocide
Western diplomats and missionaries stationed in Turkey witnessed the decaying corpses that covered the Turkish countryside and reported the atrocity to their governments. "When the Turkish authorities gave the orders for these deportations, they were merely giving the death warrant to a whole race," Henry Morgenthau, the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, informed the U.S. government. In response, the Allies announced "that they will hold all the members of the Ottoman Government, as well as such of their agents as are implicated, personally responsible for such matters." The warning was ignored, and the killing continued.
The Three Pashas fled to Germany after Turkey surrendered. Turkey and the Allies made several requests for their return, which Germany refused. A group of Armenians formed an underground group, called Operation Nemesis, and hunted down and assassinated Talaat.
After the Turkish defeat in World War I, the independent Republic of Armenia was established on May 28, 1918.
Genocide Is a Modern Concept
After learning the extent of Nazi atrocities against the Jews in World War II, Winston Churchill called it "a crime that has no name." Despite history's numerous precedents, the word genocide did not exist until legal scholar Raphael Lemkin originated the term in 1943. As as an internationally sanctioned, legal definition, genocide was not accepted until 1951.
As a consequence of the Nuremberg trials, in which top Nazi leaders were tried for "crimes against humanity," the United Nations drew up a treaty defining and criminalizing genocide. Called The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, it was adopted by the General Assembly on December 9, 1948, and came into effect on January 12, 1951.
The treaty defines genocide as the destruction of "a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group." Whereas the Nuremberg trials were conducted by an international military tribunal and specified that "crimes against humanity" related to war crimes, the 1951 U.N. Treaty encompasses war and peace.