By definition genocide is the organized killing of a people for the express purpose of putting an end to their collective existence (Webster s dictionary). As a rule, the organizing agent is the nation, the victim population is a domestic minority, and the end result is the near total death of a society. The Armenian genocide generally conforms to this simple definition. The Armenian genocide is a hidden, almost lost part of world history, pretty much eclipsed by the more publicized genocide of the twentieth century, the Holocaust. The question is why.
I could take a poll of this room and I am willing to bet that 95% of the students have ever even heard of the Armenian Genocide and those who have couldn t tell me more than a couple sentences about it. This is pretty scary, considering the statistics of the Armenian Genocide. The Ottoman Empire was ruled by the Turks who had conquered the land from across West Asia, North Africa to Southeast Europe. The Ottoman government was based in Istanbul and was headed by a sultan who was given absolute power. The Turks were Islamic and were a harsh disciplinary civilization.
The Armenians, a Christian minority, lived as second class citizens subject to legal restrictions (Graber 119). These restrictions denied them normal safeguards. Neither their lives nor their properties were guaranteed security. As non-Muslims they were also obligated to pay discriminatory taxes and denied participation in government. In its prime of the sixteenth century the Ottoman Empire was a powerful state. Its minority populations really benefited with the growth of its economy, but by the nineteenth century, the empire was in serious decline(Graber 121).
It had been reduced in size and by 1914 had lost virtually all its lands in Europe and Africa. This decline created enormous internal political and economic pressures which contributed to the increasing tensions among the races (similar to Germany s way of blaming the Jews for their economic decline). Armenian aspirations for representation and participation in government worried the Muslim Turks who had never shared power in their country with any minority. Demands by Armenian political organizations for administrative reforms in the Armenian-inhabited provinces and better police protection only invited further repression.
During the reign of the sultan Abdul Hamid, a series of massacres throughout the empire meant to dampen Armenian expectations by frightening them, cost up to three hundred thousand lives by some estimates and resulted in enormous material losses on a majority of Armenians. In response to the crisis in the Ottoman Empire, a new political group called the Young Turks seized power by revolution in 1908. From the Young Turks, the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) emerged at the head of the government in a coup staged in 1913.
It was led by a triumvirate: Enver, Minister of War, Talaat, Minister of the Interior, and Jemal, Minister of the Marine (Hovanissian 15). The CUP spewed ultra-nationalistic culture which promoted the establishment of an exclusively Turkish state. It also promoted thoughts of conquering other regions inhabited by Turkic peoples, almost like our “Manifest Destiny. ” When World War I broke out in August 1914, the Ottoman Empire formed part of the Triple Alliance with the other Central Powers, Germany and Austria-Hungary, and it declared war on Russia and its Western allies, Great Britain and France.
The Ottoman armies initially suffered a string of defeats. Whether retreating or advancing, the Ottoman army used the occasion of war to wage a “scam” campaign of massacre against the civilian Armenian population in the regions in which warfare was rampant. These measures were part of the genocidal program secretly adopted by the CUP and implemented under the cover of war. They coincided with the CUP’s larger program to eradicate the Armenians from Turkey and neighboring countries. Through the spring and summer of 1915, in all areas outside the war zones, the Armenian population was ordered deported from their homes.
Convoys consisting of tens of thousands including men, women, and children were driven hundreds of miles toward the Syrian desert. In April of the young Turks convinced leaders of the Armenian population to meet to discuss the new orders for all Armenians to march. This meeting attracted political leaders, church leaders and other intellects of the community(Graber 130). Sadly but planned by the Turks, the leaders were all killed and the poplulation was left leaderless. Leaderless, the Armenians knew that they were in trouble but had no one to turn to. With no other choice, the towns and villages were forced to listen to the Turks.
The Turks followed a textbook strategy of annihilation; destroy the leaders, disarm the populace, and use the big lie. For a number of reasons they did not know what was planned for them and went along with their government s plan to relocate them for their own good. First the Armenians were asked to turn in their hunting weapons for the war effort. Communities were often given quotas and would have to buy additional weapons from the Turks to meet their quota. Later, the government would claim these weapons were proof of the Armenian plans to rebel. The able- bodied men were drafted o help in the wartime effort.
These men were either immediately killed or worked to death. Now the villages and towns, with only women, children and elderly left, were systematically emptied. The remaining residents would be told to gather only what they could carry for a temporary relocation. The Armenians, again, obediently followed instructions and were escorted by Turkish gendarmes in death marches. The death marches would lead across Anatolia and the purpose became clear as soon as the Armenians hit the trail. Along the way the Armenians were being raped, starved, dehydrated, murdered and kidnapped.
The Turkish gendarmes either led these atrocities or turned a cold shoulder. Their eventual destination for resettlement was supposedly the Syrian Desert. Those who miraculously survived the march to the bleak desert were either killed upon arrival or somehow found a way to survive until escape was found. Usually those few that survived received assistance from friendly Turks. When I started to develop an interest in this topic I was discussing it with a teacher from my highschool who, in all honesty, thought that I would have trouble accessing information on such a limited issue.
At first, I was startled by their comment and asked them to tell me all they knew about the Armenian genocide. This person wrapped up the one-minute discussion by suggesting that I choose a different topic. As I began to research, though, I realized that they were way off, and that all that I had to do was dig a little deeper. I scratched the surface of a major issue that is still the hot topic of many heated debates to this day. Only adding to my interest, I discovered that several of the textbooks of my girlfriends textbooks used in her history classes do not make any significant mention or reference to the horrible massacre.
In fact, if it weren t for some relatives that are active in the Armenian community of my home town I would have never heard of it either. Now, more than ever, awareness and respect for all those that died and for those that helped the survivors escape can be expressed on April 24 remembering the initial day that the political and intellectual Armenian leaders were murdered. There is no doubt that the Turkish authorities made a deliberate decision to exterminate the Armenians, that they sent this decision to involved officials, political, administrative, and military.
Those who did not comply were removed from their duty. When all was said and done, approximately 1. 5 million out of a total of 2. 5 million Armenians were killed. This would be like someone killing nearly 60% of all Americans living today. That would put a significant dent in our population. This incomprehensible number and the fact that such an act could have been carried out by the institution that was implemented to protect and to guide them is pretty profound.
What is most appalling is the idea that anyone could justify such an act. Throughout my research I came to the frightening assumption that somehow there are Turkish historians who maintain that the Young Turkish government is innocent of any charges of genocidal actions. For anyone to believe that such organized mass murders of the sort that went on in the Ottoman Empire could be executed by any such institution other than the government itself is totally unfounded and irrational.