Most of us are familiar with the holocaust in WW2 enacted by Nazi Germany against Jewish people, Gypsies, communists and the mentally ill but this week sees the 100th anniversary of another holocaust or Genocide, the Armenian Genocide in Turkey.
Historically The Ottoman Empire had far outshone most European states for centuries in terms of arts, racial and religious equality, technology, civil institutions and warfare and their Empire stretched from the walls of Vienna all the way to Yemen and across North Africa. Over the 19th Century though the subjected Christian nations of Eastern Europe gradually fought to gain their independence against an old Empire that hadn’t kept up with technological or societal reform.
When WW1 was declared, The Ottomans quickly sided with Germany and Austro-Hungary in the belief it would be a quick war but they miscalculated on almost every front. A number of newly built and powerful warships about to be sailed from Great Britain to Turkey were impounded in the first days of the war and that set the tone for the war to come.
Though Ottoman Turkey did have some relative successes in the war especially for a time in Iraq against the British, the writing was on the wall for them and for the next few years with the help of such luminaries as Lawrence of Arabia, the British with the support of Arab nationalists pushed the Turks entirely out of Arabia, Egypt, Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. To the North-East Russia had for a century or two been conquering Ottoman lands around the Black Sea and the Caucuses and had a long term ambition to make Istanbul once again a great Orthodox city but this time not a Greek but a Russian city and only British support had kept the Russian wolves at bay in the interests of not rocking the boat too much and now that was no longer the case. In a World War though, Turkey was clearly dependent on German aid but not only might it not be enough, midway through the war their land connections to Germany were broken by the newly independent Allied nations.
The Christian Armenians came under Muslim Ottoman rule in the 15th Century and lived both in Istanbul and in eastern Anatolia. Though allowed to practice their religion, they increasingly were treated as second class citizens. Whilst other Christian groups rebelled following Turkish attempts at reform, the 3 million Armenians stayed loyal. However, it did them little good and up to 300,000 were massacred under the tacit approval of the Bloody Sultan, Abdul Hamid II. In 1909 a further 30,000 were massacred at Adana.
Following the loss of most of their European territories, the Ottomans saw Anatolia (modern day Turkey) as their final refuge and many took the view that minorities should be expelled or eliminated to ensure the stability of the homeland. Around 850,000 Muslim refugees were re-settled from Europe to Armenian homelands and they were keen to get revenge on Christian minorities, something which was encouraged by government propaganda and later revelations of military orders to massacre civilians.
When war came, many Armenians were naturally sympathetic to Russian forces who they hoped might win them their freedom. Fearful of an uprising from those armed Armenian units in the Ottoman Army, the Armenians were disbanded into labour squads.
On the 19th April 1915, Jevdet Bey arrived at the city of Van and ordered that 4,000 Armenian men be handed over under the pretext that they would be conscripted. The reality was that they were likely to be massacred, an idea made more likely by the Turk announcing he would kill every Christian man, woman and child above knee height as he had done in small villages nearby. The city of Van went under siege, defended by 1,500 Armenian riflemen who held off the Ottomans until the Russians arrived on 17th May.
It is generally assumed that this policy started on 24th April 1915 when 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders were arrested in Istanbul. Ottoman military forces then forced Armenians from their home and marched them hundreds of miles to the Syrian Desert without food, water or supplies. On the way there were massacres and sexual abuses regardless of age or sex.
One terrible occasion saw 5,000 Armenian villagers rounded up and burned alive, something that shocked even Turkish witnesses many of whom reported it drove them mad and that the air smelt of burning flesh for days afterwards. In the city of Trabzon, thousands of Armenians were sent out into the Black Sea on wooden boats that were then deliberately capsized with their inhabitants drowning. Others were killed by morphine injections or poison gas.
As early as the May 1915, the Allies condemned the genocide that was occurring and issued a statement that those responsible would be held accountable after the war.
On 29th May the Temporary Law of Deportation was passed and soon laws were passed to appropriate abandoned property even though not all Turks agreed with it. Some such as Ottoman parliamentarian Ahmed Riza protested that the laws were unconscionable and illegal. German engineers working on train lines protested at having to work amongst such awful events. Concentration style camps were established in the Ottoman borderlines with Syria and Iraq though some were only temporary transit camps or places of mass-graves.
After the war a number of Ottoman officials were taken to Malta whilst a thorough investigation was made, however they were all released after three years when Mustafa Attaturk held a number of British prisoners. One man was taken to trial in Berlin but assassinated by an Armenian group in protest at the genocide before he could be sentenced.
After the war some survivors tried to return home but were turned back. In addition to the many deaths, the Armenians lost their wealth and much of their culture. The peace treaty at the end of WW1 allowed the formation of a small Armenian nation-state but this was almost immediately attacked by the Ottomans and soon afterwards was subsumed by Russia until they again achieved independence in 1991.
The modern state of Turkey denies the Armenian Holocaust. It insists that no more than 500,000 Armenians died and that there was no grand plan to eliminate Armenians from the Turkish heartlands of Anatolia. It also argues that the very word Holocaust is inappropriate as it was first coined to describe the WW2 Holocaust and that there was no such concept 25 years earlier. Of course this is nonsensical, just because their wasn’t an official term around the time of the events, doesn’t mean that when one is created that it is not applicable.
Germany has of course fully apologised for its Holocaust and more recently even for throwing the world into war generally. There is a large memorial to the Holocaust right in the centre of Berlin rather like having Trafalgar Square in London or Time Square in New York dedicated to highlighting their own dreadful history. Even making jokes about aspects of WW2 are illegal.
Turkey though is different, they thoroughly 100% deny that any Genocide took place in WW1 and even its recent history is full of human rights abuses with ethnic groups such as the Armenians and Kurds denied being able to express and enjoy their cultural heritage and in some cases even speak their language in public. It is a sad state of affairs when for centuries The Ottoman Empire was much more tolerant about race and religion than the European states.
There are only very slow signs that change is occurring in Turkey which is being run by a President that famously said that democracy for him was like a bus ride “Once I get to my stop, I’m getting off.” The Turkish Prime Minister has expressed sympathies for the Armenian deaths and for the first time ever there will be a service of remembrance in Istanbul. Turkish Human Rights organisations and liberal minded people have recognised the Armenian Genocide though the Turkish President Erdogan has been reported as saying “Now, what will they do on the 24th; they are going to get together in Armenia, and they will play and dance on their own”.
Armenia can’t even remember at its national symbol of Mount Ararat as it lies inside modern day Turkey. Armenia didn’t just lose many lives but most of its rightful territories in WW1 and the Turkish government has said that Armenia should realise where its actual borders and forget its territorial claims on Eastern Turkey though even these are much less than they once were.
Many countries now recognise these events as genocide and in the last month The Pope has described the events as being what many would call genocide. Due to it’s geo-political importance for NATO against the Soviet Union and now Russia many countries have not put pressure on Turkey for an apology. The United States does not officially recognise the genocide and while the local governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland recognise it, the national UK government has not yet done so. In the last 24 hours a former ally of Ottoman Turkey in WW1, Austria, has seen their government issue a statement that it is it’s duty to recognise and condemn these horrific events as genocide and said of Turkey “It is Turkey’s duty to face the dark and painful chapter of its past and recognise the crimes committed against Armenians under the Ottoman Empire as genocide“.
Like most other historians, I think it is very much a genocide and all countries with a past should acknowledge and apologise for genocides and massacres without necessarily the current people of that country being somehow being legally punished for the crimes of their ancestors. The countries that tend to overlook the notorious parts of their history whether they be nations “unfriendly” nations like China and Russia or supposably democratic nations like Japan or Israel are greatly lessened in the eyes of the wider world if not by their spoon-fed citizens.
Most European nations including off the top of my head (Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Germany) committed at times reprehensible crimes by the standard of today and the entirety of North and South America was stolen from native peoples before and after Independence from Europe but that doesn’t take away the positive aspects of nations either and if you go back in time even Britain and France were occupied by foreign empires or civilians were massacred by invaders and at one time or other.
The Ottoman Empire and modern day Turks have a lot to be proud of but not in this instance. If Armenia can’t yet have it’s land back, its 1.5 million people who were systematically murdered should be remembered outside of the carnage of war as a separate war-crime and genocide.
The modern state of Turkey denies that the events were genocide even though many leading nations have officially backed the use of the term. Genocide Day is remembered in Armenia, the Armenian Diaspora and many others around the world annually on April 24th.
If you’d like to read more about WW1 and other often forgotten but important subjects that occurred 100 years ago then check out my concise history book Lest We Forget published by Endeavour Press of London and available in Kindle and Paperback formats.