The Armenian Genocide, 1915

Protestors Rally in Los Angeles on 99th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. Getty Images

Background to the Genocide:

From the fifteenth century on, ethnic Armenians made up a significant minority group within the Ottoman Empire. They were primarily Orthodox Christians, unlike the Ottoman Turkish rulers who were Sunni Muslims.  Armenian families were subject to the and to heavy taxation. As "people of the Book," however, the Armenians enjoyed freedom of religion and other protections under Ottoman rule.  They were organized into a semi-autonomous millet or community within the empire.

As Ottoman power and culture waned in the nineteenth century, however, relations between members of the different faiths began to deteriorate. The Ottoman government, known to westerners as the Sublime Porte, faced pressure from Britain, France, and Russia to improve treatment of its Christian subjects.  The Porte naturally resented this foreign interference with its internal affairs. To make matters worse, other Christian regions began to break away from the empire entirely, often with aid from the Christian great powers. Greece, Bulgaria, Albania, Serbia...  one by one, they broke away from Ottoman control in the last decades of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries.

The Armenian population began to grow restless under increasingly harsh Ottoman rule in the 1870s.  Armenians started to look to Russia, the Orthodox Christian great power of the time, for protection. They also formed several political parties and self-defense leagues. The Ottoman sultan Abdul Hamid II intentionally provoked uprisings in Armenian areas in eastern Turkey by raising taxes sky-high, then sent in paramilitary units made up of Kurds to put down the revolts. Local massacres of Armenians became commonplace, culminating in the Hamidan Massacres of 1894-96 that left between 100,000 and 300,000 Armenians dead.

The Tumultuous Early 20th Century:

On July 24, 1908, the Young Turk Revolution deposed Sultan Abdul Hamid II and installed a constitutional monarchy. Ottoman Armenians hoped that they would be treated more fairly under the new, modernizing regime.  In the spring of the following year, a counter-coup made up of Islamist students and military officers broke out against the Young Turks. Because the Armenians were seen as pro-revolution, they were targeted by the counter-coup, which killed between 15,000 and 30,000 Armenians in the Adana Massacre.

In 1912, the Ottoman Empire lost the First Balkan War, and as a result, lost 85% of its land in Europe. At the same time, Italy seized coastal Libya from the empire. Muslim refugees from the lost territories, many of them victims of expulsion and ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, flooded into Turkey proper to the discomfort of their fellow subjects. Up to 850,000 of the refugees, fresh from abuse by Balkan Christians, were sent to Armenian-dominated regions of Anatolia. Unsurprisingly, the new neighbors did not get along well.

Embattled Turks began to view the Anatolian heartland as their last refuge from a sustained Christian onslaught.  Unfortunately, an estimated 2 million Armenians called that heartland home, as well. 

The Genocide Begins:

On February 25, 1915, Enver Pasha ordered that all Armenian men in the Ottoman armed forces be reassigned from combat to labor battalions, and that their weapons be confiscated. Once they were disarmed, in many units the conscripts were executed en masse.

In a similar trick, Jevdet Bey called for the muster of 4,000 men of fighting age from the city of Van, a walled Armenian stronghold, on April 19, 1915. The Armenians quite rightly suspected a trap, and refused to send their men out to be slaughtered, so Jevdet Bey began a month-long siege of the city.  He vowed to kill every Christian in the city. 

However, the Armenian defenders were able to hold out until a Russian force under General Nicolai Yudenich relieved the city in May of 1915. World War I was raging, and the Russian Empire was aligned with the Allies against the Ottoman Empire and the other Central Powers. Thus, this Russian intervention served as a pretext for further Turkish massacres against the Armenians all across the remaining Ottoman lands. From the Turkish point of view, the Armenians were collaborating with the enemy.

Meanwhile, in Constantinople, the Ottoman government arrested approximately 250 Armenian leaders and intellectuals on April 23 and 24, 1915. They were deported from the capital and were later executed.  This is known as the Red Sunday incident, and the Porte justified it by issuing propaganda accusing the Armenians of potentially colluding with the Allied forces that were invading Gallipoli at the time.

The Ottoman Parliament on May 27, 1915 passed the Tehcir Law, also known as the Temporary Act of Deportation, authorizing the arrest and deportation of the country's entire ethnic Armenian population.  The law went into effect on June 1, 1915 and expire on February 8, 1916. A second law, the "Abandoned Properties Law" of September 13, 1915, gave the Ottoman government the right to confiscate all land, homes, livestock, and other property belonging to the deported Armenians. These acts set the stage for the genocide that followed.

The Armenian Genocide:

Hundreds of thousands of Armenians were forcibly marched out into the Syrian Desert and left there without food or water to die. Countless others were crammed onto cattle cars and sent on a one-way trip on the Baghdad Railway, again without supplies. Along the Turkish borders with Syria and Iraq, a series of 25 concentration camps housed starving survivors of the marches. The camps were in operation for just a few months; all that remained by the winter of 1915 were the mass graves.

A contemporary New York Times article titled "Exiled Armenians Starve in the Desert" described the deportees "eating grass, herbs, and locusts, and in desperate cases dead animals and human bodies..." It went on, "Naturally, the death rate from starvation and sickness is very high and is increased by the brutal treatment of the authorities... The people coming from a cold climate are left under the scorching desert sun without food and water."

In some areas, the authorities didn't bother with deporting the Armenians. Villages of up to 5,000 people were massacred in situ. The people would be packed into a building which was then set on fire. In Trabzon province, Armenian women and children were loaded onto boats, taken out into the Black Sea, and then thrown overboard to drown.

In the end, somewhere between 600,000 and 1,500,000 Ottoman Armenians were killed outright or died of thirst and starvation in the Armenian Genocide. The government did not keep careful records, so the exact number of victims is unknown. German Vice Consul Max Erwin von Scheubner-Richter estimated that only 100,000 Armenians survived the massacres. (He would later join the Nazi Party and die in the Beer Hall Putsch, shot while walking arm-in-arm with Adolf Hitler.)

Trials and Aftermath:

In 1919, Sultan Mehmet VI initiated courts-martial against high military officers for involving the Ottoman Empire in the First World War. Among the other charges, they were accused of planning the elimination of the empire's Armenian population. The sultan named more than 130 defendants; several who had fled the country were sentenced to death in absentia, including the former Grand Vizier. They did not live long in exile - Armenian hunters tracked down and assassinated at least two of them.

The victorious Allies demanded in the Treaty of Sevres (1920) that the Ottoman Empire hand over those responsible for the massacres. Dozens of Ottoman politicians and army officers were surrendered to the Allied Powers. They were held on Malta for about three years, pending trial, but then were returned to Turkey without ever being charged.

In 1943,  a law professor from Poland called Raphael Lemkin coined the word genocide in a presentation about the Armenian Genocide. It comes from the Greek root genos, meaning "race, family, or tribe," and the Latin -cide meaning "killing." The Armenian Genocide is remembered today as one of the most horrific atrocities of the 20th century, a century characterized by atrocities.