Armenia – 1915-1916

Number of casualties: around 1,200,000 dead

Classification: Recognized genocide

Motives for the crimes: religion, ethnic origin, political beliefs, social conditions

The actors

Armenia (Hayastan) was founded in 782 BC, on the location of one of the oldest cities in the world, Yerevan (or Erebuni). At the height of its era, the Armenian territory extended over 300,000 km2, bordering Caucasus, Turkey (the former Ottoman Empire) and Persia (now Iran).

Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity as a state religion in 301 AD. Conquered by the Ottomans in 642, the Armenians became the largest Christian minority on Muslim soil.

The history of Armenia would become further complicated. During the first half of the sixteenth century, the Ottoman Empire and the Persian Empire divided the country among themselves, at which point, Armenia was stripped of its independence.

The Muslim Ottomans began subjecting the Armenians to Islamic law, requiring them to pay a tax (jiziah) if they wanted to practice Christianity.

The war resumed in 1827, when the Russian Christian Orthodox Empire began setting its sights on Ottoman Armenia.

In the late nineteenth century, what remained of the Armenian territory was once more divided between the Russian Empire and the declining Ottoman Empire.

The causes

The Armenian Christian minority became a source of concern for the Ottoman Muslim leaders, because of their age-old rivalry with their Russian neighbours, who were expansionist Christians.

Already in the late eighteenth century, Russia had granted itself the right by treaty to intervene on behalf of Orthodox Christian minorities (Armenians, Greeks, Chaldeans) if they needed protection from the Ottoman Empire, a reality that would quickly become untenable for the Ottomans.

In the late nineteenth century, Abdul Hamid, the “Red Sultan”, encouraged the massive settlement of nomadic Kurds in eastern Anatolia (what remaining Armenia was then called). The situation would awaken Armenian nationalism and eventually lead to an uprising.

The Sultan’s response was ruthlessly uncompromising: between 1894 and 1896, out of a population of two million Armenians, 80,000 to 100,000 people were massacred by the Kurds, who had been secretly mandated by the Ottoman power.

In 1909, taking advantage of the political turmoil unleashed by the sultanate, the nationalist government, dubbed the Young Turks (Committee of Union and Progress) took control of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans, which is part of Armenia. Theirs was a radical ideology: to build a modern homogeneous Turkish nation.

Such was the political situation when the First World War exploded in 1914. The Young Turk government was committed to fighting alongside the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy), against the Triple Entente countries (France, Russia, United Kingdom), with the pretext that Russian Armenians were fighting the Triple Alliance with the aim of accusing the Ottoman Empire of treason and conspiracy with an enemy power.

All Armenians were then declared enemies to be eliminated.

The crimes

The First World War would be the triggering event for the Armenian genocide, but the plan to carry out the crime had already been incorporated into the policy of the Young Turk government.

The following declaration, on the part of Talât Pacha, Minister of Interior Affairs, is explicit: “We will make sure that in 50 years time, the only Armenians that exist will be in history book.”

The extermination order arrived from Constantinople on September 15, 1915:

“The government has decided to completely destroy all the Armenians living in Turkey. Those who oppose this order and decision cannot remain part of the empire’s inner circle. An end must be put to their [the Armenians’] existence, however criminal the measure taken may be, and no regard must be paid to either age or sex, or to conscientious scruples.”

They targeted the Armenian elite, bringing them down by assassinations and massive public executions (crucifixions, burnings, etc.). The Turks (army, police and special units) then deported the surviving Armenians to the Syrian Desert, where they were decimated by hunger, thirst and massacres carried out by Kurdish tribes, Turkmen and Circassians.

Several thousand Armenian children would be placed in Muslim orphanages and converted to Islam.

From 1917 to 1921, other inter-community killings would ensue, rendering Armenians both victims and perpetrators after the military defeat and dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire by the major Allied powers. An amputated Turkey, now devoid of vast formerly Ottoman territories, was proclaimed by General Ataturk, who wanted the country to be secular.

The Armenian genocide resulted in about 1.2 million victims, two-thirds of them from Eastern Anatolia, where every single member was exterminated.

Justice and memory

Having fled abroad, leaders of the Young Turk government were sentenced in absentia in 1919 by an Istanbul court for the “crime of massacre” against the Armenians. Those responsible for genocide would be tracked down by Armenian “vigilantes”.

Talât Pacha, former Minister of Interior Affairs, was shot down in Berlin in 1921. The former War Minister, Ismail Enver Pasha, was killed by a commander of an Armenian faction within the Red Army in Tajikistan, 1922. The same year, Kemal Pasha, former Minister of the Marine, was assassinated in Georgia.

In the 1990s, the bodies of these three officials responsible for the genocide would be exhumed and then buried on Freedom Hill in Istanbul, with all of the honours accorded to national heroes: an affront to the Armenians.