In WWI there was another genocide against an ethnic group like the Jews that caused the death of around 600,000 and 1.5 million people in the early 1920s. That genocide is known as the “Armenian Genocide”. Unlike the holocaust, this genocide isn’t even recognized by many countries of the world.
Christian Armenians within Ottoman Caliphate:
The Armenian people always had a place within the Caucasus region since the early medieval age. They even had their own independent kingdoms in different stages of history. With the subsequent mass migration of Muslim Turks in Anatolia and the eventual rise of the Turkic Sultanate, the Armenian people later became subject to the rising Ottoman Empire. Although the Ottomans had various subjects with different ethnic identities, there was a slight problem with the Armenians. Unlike most other Muslim Ottoman subjects, the Armenians were Christian and they proudly kept that identity against all obstacles.
Growth of Armenian elite and subsequent resentment within the Turks:
At the beginning of the 20th century, about 2.5 million Armenians were living in the Ottoman Empire. Most Armenian settlements were within the six provinces of Eastern Anatolia. Because of the religious discrimination, the Armenians had very little presence within the administration and no power within the Ottoman military. Moreover, under the laws of the Islamic Caliphate of the Ottomans, they had to pay more taxes than their Muslim counter-part. Ottoman Empire was known for its forced Islamization process within its subject in Eastern Europe but within its core territory, the Armenians kept their own religion and culture quite fiercely.
On top of that, they actually started to take a more prominent position within the Empire despite many obstacles. Although most of their population were peasants, eventually some of them started to become artisans and merchants. Armenian merchants became so significant that they started establishing settlements in Istanbul and even had a presence within Ottoman ports in Europe and far away in India. A highly educated class within the Armenian people started to evolve. Even the chief architects of the Ottoman court were part of the Armenian Balian family (Suny, 2020).
The rise of the elite Armenian class within the primarily Muslim Ottoman Empire started to draw the ire of the general Muslim population. As the European power started dominating the world, the influence of the Ottoman Empire started to diminish significantly by the mid-19th Century. Many Turkic people started to view the rise of Armenians as a sign of the decline of Ottoman supremacy and Turkic hegemony. The success of the Armenian elite class resulted in jealousy and resentment within the Turkic people as they didn’t want to see non-Muslim Armenians in the position of power.
Armenian liberation Front and first massacre of Armenians:
Despite the growing resentment within the Turks against the Armenians, the general Armenian population was loyal to the Ottoman Empire. But the same wasn’t the case for the Armenians within Russia. The growing power of the Russian Empire was an existential threat to the Ottomans. Many of the eastern Europeans who were Ottoman subjects, revolted against the Ottoman with support from Russia. As an Orthodox Christian country, Russia was viewed highly by the Christian population within the Ottoman Empire. They looked towards Russia as their savior from Islamic repression at the hand of the Ottoman. That’s why many Armenian people within the Caucasus region of Russia were actively trying to create a liberation movement among the Armenian people of Anatolia. They formed two revolutionary parties called Hënchak (“Bell”) and Dashnaktsutyun (“Federation”) in 1887 and 1890. But, the Armenians within Anatolia remained loyal to the Ottoman. They hoped that modern reform would soon take place through pressure from the European power and soon they would be relieved from discriminatory rules and excessive taxation of non-Muslims.
Unfortunately, the growing resentment among the Turkic people was too much. The wish of reforms of the Armenian people was an insult to the traditional Ottoman rules. By the end of the 19th Century, the Ottoman Empire lost most of its holding in Eastern Europe and they feared the same would follow in Eastern Anatolia because of the Armenians. The despotic Turkish Sultan Abdul Hamid II became infuriated by the Armenian campaign to win basic civil rights. He would later publicly declare that he would solve the “Armenian question” once and for all. “I will soon settle those Armenians,” he told a reporter in 1890. “I will give them a box on the ear which will make them…relinquish their revolutionary ambitions.” (History.com, 2019)Eventually, mass attacks would take place against the Armenian settlements and villages in Eastern Anatolia. This state-sanctioned program aimed to destroy the Armenian resistance. It resulted in the looting and burning of Armenian houses by Turkish officials and local people. In all, hundreds of thousands of Armenians were killed in these massacres between 1894 and 1896, which later came to be known as the Hamidian massacres. (Suny, 2020)
The Young Turks and the start of Armenian persecution:
In the early 20th century, the Ottoman Empire lost nearly all of its territory in Europe and North Africa. It was barely holding onto its territory in the Middle East. During such turmoil, in 1908 a small group of Ottoman revolutionaries called “the Committee of Union and Progress” (CUP) came to power. This organization was part of the broader Young Turks movement. Many considered it a sign of the decline of the traditional Islamic Caliphate and the creation of a modern state. As such, the regular Armenian population welcomed it.
But, very quickly the Young Turks movement got filled with extreme nationalist sentiment. Many of its leaders were wary of the non-Turks, especially Non-Muslim non-Turks such as the Armenians. They considered them collaborators with European powers and feared that they would cause a massive revolution that would break apart their already fragile empire. More radical members of the party EnverPaşa and TalatPaşa came to power in a coup d’état in 1913. They sidelined the other more liberal members and took full control.
Animosity towards the Christian increased even more so when the Ottoman Empire suffered a humiliating defeat in the First Balkan War (1912–13). Young Turks blamed this defeat on the Christians who rebelled against them in Eastern Europe. After losing those territories, many Muslim refugees started flooding into Anatolia. This caused various clashes among the Muslim refugees and the Christian peasants in Eastern Anatolia. The nationalist government did nothing to prevent that.
Because of the sudden development, the Armenian people feared that another massacre of their population might soon follow. So they demanded certain reforms and even appealed to the European power to pressure the Young Turks government to accept it. They thought it might work because of the recent Ottoman defeat. But, it only made the Young Turks even more furious. The fact that Armenian elites tried to negotiate with the European power was a sign of treachery to the new Turkish government. They were now sure that the Armenians would soon try to revolt against the Ottoman Empire. As such the new regime started to make drastic plans to pacify the situation.
WWI and the start of the Armenian genocide:
In 1914, WWI began in Europe. The Ottoman Empire joined the Central Powers (Germany and Austro-Hungary) against the Triple Entente (Great Britain, France, and Russia). Russia was their historical enemy who took away several territories from them, so the choice for the Turks was quite simple. They hoped to regain some of those lost territories from the also failing Russian Empire.
This ambition of the Turks put the Armenians in a troublesome position. Their population was divided into two parts. One part of them lived within the Caucasus as Russian subjects and the other part lived within Eastern Anatolia as Ottoman subjects. The main battle line between Russia and Ottoman was in the region where the Armenians were. So both powers wanted their support. During that time the main Armenian political power was the Dashnaktsutyun party. The Young Turks petitioned to them, asking for full support of not just Ottoman Armenians but also Armenians within Russia. But they refused. The Dashnaks replied that Russian Armenians and Ottoman Armenians would remain loyal to their respective empires. The Young Turks saw this as a sign of complete treachery. Many within the Turkic regime started to believe that if the Allied force won the war then they would break away from the Ottoman Empire and create a new Armenian nation in Eastern Anatolia.
In January 1915, the Ottomans attempted to push back the Russians at the battle of Sarıkamış, only to be defeated decisively. This was the worst defeat in Ottoman history. The main causes behind it were poor generalship and the harsh conditions of the terrain. However, the Young Turk government tried to shift the blame to Armenian treachery. These tactics worked and the Muslim Turks started to view the Christian Armenians as collaborators of Russia. Prejudice and religious discriminatory behavior became rampant. After that defeat, Armenian soldiers and other non-Muslims in the army were demobilized and transferred into labor battalions. The disarmed soldiers were quickly killed by the Muslim Ottoman troops, this would become the start of the Armenian genocide.
The bloody tales of the Armenian genocide:
On April 24, 1915, approximately 250 Armenian intellectuals and politicians in Istanbul, including several deputies to the Ottoman Parliament. Later most of them were killed and thus the Armenian genocide began.
Soon after the defeat at Sarıkamış, the Ottoman troops moved to Eastern Anatolia and forced all the Christian Armenians to leave their home. They considered the Armenians as a liability in the border territory. Armenian men, women, children, and the elderly were forced out of their homes with little to no belongings. They were ordered to march through the Mesopotamian desert or else they would get shot. Without food and water, the Armenians were forced to go on what eventually became their death march.
To oversee this operation, the Turkic government created special “killing squads” or “butcher battalions” full of murderers and other ex-convicts. Their main objective was “the liquidation of the Christian elements.” As one Turkish officer puts it (History.com, 2019). They often forced the marchers to strip naked and walk the scorching desert in bare feet. Anybody that disobeyed them was drowned in rivers, threw off cliffs, some were crucified and even got burned alive. The Armenian people were forced to go on this death march for the sole purpose of putting them in a “concentration camp”. The land they marched through was littered with Armenian corpses.
The Young Turk regime also carried out a “Turkification” campaign. To do this, they kidnapped Armenian children, converted them to Islam, and gave them to Turkish families. Many Armenian women were raped and forced to join Turkish “harems” or serve as slaves. The old homes and properties of the Armenians were given to many Muslim families that moved in there. Soon the Christian Armenian population in the Ottoman Empire was mostly replaced.
Based on various sources around two million Armenians were living in the Ottoman Empire before the massacre. In 1922 when the genocide was over, the Armenian population in the Ottoman Empire was only 388,000.
The aftermath of the genocide:
After WWI ended, the Treaty of Sèvres took place. It allowed the creation of an Armenian state in northwestern Anatolia and the Caucasus region. The Ottoman Empire was gone and a new nation called Turkey was born; led by Mustafa Kemal Pasa also known as Atatürk. He wanted to establish a more secular and modern country. But Turkey refused to acknowledge the Armenian genocide and in the post-war trials, no Ottoman officers were charged for their war crimes. (HolocaustEncyclopedia, 2020)
Most scholars consider the massacre a deliberate action to eliminate and remove the Christian Armenian population from Turkey. However, Turkey and its allied scholar believe that it was taken as a necessary war effort against a rebellious Armenian population. Although they do admit some atrocities took place, they refuse to acknowledge the massacre as genocide and consider it as wartime violence which wasn’t the Turkic government’s intention. Armenia would later be part of the USSR and Turkey would be a regional ally of Western power against the Soviets after WWII. As such many western power also refused to acknowledge the Armenian massacres as a genocide despite it being quite similar to the holocaust of WWII.
Even to this day, the relationship between Turkey and Armenia remains quite heated. It still creates tension in the geopolitics of the Caucasus region. Turkey’s full support to Azerbaijan in its war against Armenia is a sign of that grievance. Based on Turkey’s current president Erdogan’s rhetoric, the chance for any kind of reconciliation between both countries isn’t possible in near future.
History.com. (2019, 10 31). Armenian Genocide. Retrieved from History.com: https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-i/armenian-genocide
HolocaustEncyclopedia. (2020). WORLD WAR I AND THE ARMENIAN GENOCIDE. Retrieved from Holocaust Encyclopedia: https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/world-war-i-and-the-armenian-genocide
Suny, R. G. (2020). Armenian Genocide. Retrieved from Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/event/Armenian-Genocide
Author: Partha Pratim Barua. He is one of the content creators of Beyond Peace.