United Human Rights Council
March 23, 2004 6:15:02 AM
Armenian Genocide- 1915-1918 – 1,500,000 Deaths
The first genocide of the 20th Century occurred when two million Armenians
living in Turkey were eliminated from their historic homeland through forced
deportations and massacres.
For three thousand years, a thriving Armenian community had existed inside
the vast region of the Middle East bordered by the Black, Mediterranean and
Caspian Seas. The area, known as Asia Minor, stands at the crossroads of
three continents; Europe, Asia and Africa. Great powers rose and fell over
the many centuries and the Armenian homeland was at various times ruled by
Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs and Mongols.
Despite the repeated invasions and occupations, Armenian pride and cultural
identity never wavered. The snow-capped peak of Mount Ararat became its
focal point and by 600 BC Armenia as a nation sprang into being. Following
the advent of Christianity, Armenia became the very first nation to accept
it as the state religion. A golden era of peace and prosperity followed
which saw the invention of a distinct alphabet, a flourishing of literature,
art, commerce, and a unique style of architecture. By the 10th century,
Armenians had established a new capital at Ani, affectionately called the
‘city of a thousand and one churches.’
In the eleventh century, the first Turkish invasion of the Armenian homeland
occurred. Thus began several hundred years of rule by Muslim Turks. By the
sixteenth century, Armenia had been absorbed into the vast and mighty
Ottoman Empire. At its peak, this Turkish empire included much of Southeast
Europe, North Africa, and almost all of the Middle East.
But by the 1800s the once powerful Ottoman Empire was in serious decline.
For centuries, it had spurned technological and economic progress, while the
nations of Europe had embraced innovation and became industrial giants.
Turkish armies had once been virtually invincible. Now, they lost battle
after battle to modern European armies.
As the empire gradually disintegrated, formerly subject peoples including
the Greeks, Serbs and Romanians achieved their long-awaited independence.
Only the Armenians and the Arabs of the Middle East remained stuck in the
backward and nearly bankrupt empire, now under the autocratic rule of Sultan
By the 1890s, young Armenians began to press for political reforms, calling
for a constitutional government, the right to vote and an end to
discriminatory practices such as special taxes levied solely against them
because they were Christians. The despotic Sultan responded to their pleas
with brutal persecutions. Between 1894 and 1896 over 100,000 inhabitants of
Armenian villages were massacred during widespread pogroms conducted by the
Sultan’s special regiments.
But the Sultan’s days were numbered. In July 1908, reform-minded Turkish
nationalists known as “Young Turks” forced the Sultan to allow a
constitutional government and guarantee basic rights. The Young Turks were
ambitious junior officers in the Turkish Army who hoped to halt their
country’s steady decline.
Armenians in Turkey were delighted with this sudden turn of events and its
prospects for a brighter future. Both Turks and Armenians held jubilant
public rallies attended with banners held high calling for freedom, equality
However, their hopes were dashed when three of the Young Turks seized full
control of the government via a coup in 1913. This triumvirate of Young
Turks, consisting of Mehmed Talaat, Ismail Enver and Ahmed Djemal, came to
wield dictatorial powers and concocted their own ambitious plans for the
future of Turkey. They wanted to unite all of the Turkic peoples in the
entire region while expanding the borders of Turkey eastward across the
Caucasus all the way into Central Asia. This would create a new Turkish
empire, a “great and eternal land” called Turan with one language and one
But there was a big problem. The traditional historic homeland of Armenia
lay right in the path of their plans to expand eastward. And on that land
was a large population of Christian Armenians totaling some two million
persons, making up about 10 percent of Turkey’s overall population.
Along with the Young Turk’s newfound “Turanism” there was a dramatic rise in
Islamic fundamentalist agitation throughout Turkey. Christian Armenians were
once again branded as infidels (non-believers in Islam). Young Islamic
extremists, sometimes leading to violence, staged anti-Armenian
demonstrations. During one such outbreak in 1909, two hundred villages were
plundered and over 30,000 persons massacred in the Cilicia district on the
Mediterranean coast. Throughout Turkey, sporadic local attacks against
Armenians continued unchecked over the next several years.
There were also big cultural differences between Armenians and Turks. The
Armenians had always been one of the best-educated communities within the
old Turkish Empire. Armenians were the professionals in society, the
businessmen, lawyers, doctors and skilled craftsmen. And they were more open
to new scientific, political and social ideas from the West (Europe and
America). Children of wealthy Armenians went to Paris, Geneva or even to
America to complete their education.
By contrast, the majority of Turks were illiterate peasant farmers and small
shopkeepers. Leaders of the Ottoman Empire had traditionally placed little
value on education and not a single institute of higher learning could be
found within their old empire. The various autocratic and despotic rulers
throughout the empire’s history had valued loyalty and blind obedience above
all. Their uneducated subjects had never heard of democracy or liberalism
and thus had no inclination toward political reform. But this was not the
case with the better-educated Armenians who sought political and social
reforms that would improve life for themselves and Turkey’s other
The Young Turks decided to glorify the virtues of simple Turkish peasantry
at the expense of the Armenians in order to capture peasant loyalty. They
exploited the religious, cultural, economic and political differences
between Turks and Armenians so that the average Turk came to regard
Armenians as strangers among them.
When World War I broke out in 1914, leaders of the Young Turk regime sided
with the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary). The outbreak of war
would provide the perfect opportunity to solve the “Armenian question” once
and for all. The world’s attention became fixed upon the battlegrounds of
France and Belgium where the young men of Europe were soon falling dead by
the hundreds of thousands. The Eastern Front eventually included the border
between Turkey and Russia. With war at hand, unusual measures involving the
civilian population would not seem too out of the ordinary.
As a prelude to the coming action, Turks disarmed the entire Armenian
population under the pretext that the people were naturally sympathetic
toward Christian Russia. Every last rifle and pistol was forcibly seized,
with severe penalties for anyone who failed to turn in a weapon. Quite a few
Armenian men actually purchased a weapon from local Turks or Kurds (nomadic
Muslim tribesmen) at very high prices so they would have something to turn
At this time, about forty thousand Armenian men were serving in the Turkish
Army. In the fall and winter of 1914, all of their weapons were confiscated
and they were put into slave labor battalions building roads or were used as
human pack animals. Under the brutal work conditions they suffered a very
high death rate. Those who survived would soon be shot outright. For the
time had come to move against the Armenians.
The decision to annihilate the entire population came directly from the
ruling triumvirate of ultra-nationalist Young Turks. The actual
extermination orders were transmitted in coded telegrams to all provincial
governors throughout Turkey. Armed roundups began on the evening of April
24, 1915, as 300 Armenian political leaders, educators, writers, clergy and
dignitaries in Constantinople (present day Istanbul) were taken from their
homes, briefly jailed and tortured, then hanged or shot.
Next, there were mass arrests of Armenian men throughout the country by
Turkish soldiers, police agents and bands of Turkish volunteers. The men
were tied together with ropes in small groups then taken to the outskirts of
their town and shot dead or bayoneted by death squads. Local Turks and Kurds
armed with knives and sticks often joined in on the killing.
Then it was the turn of Armenian women, children, and the elderly. On very
short notice, they were ordered to pack a few belongings and be ready to
leave home, under the pretext that they were being relocated to a
non-military zone for their own safety. They were actually being taken on
death marches heading south toward the Syrian Desert.
Muslim Turks who assumed instant ownership of everything quickly occupied
most of the homes and villages left behind by the rousted Armenians. In many
cases, local Turks who took them from their families spared young Armenian
children from deportation. The children were coerced into denouncing
Christianity and becoming Muslims, and were then given new Turkish names.
For Armenian boys the forced conversion meant they each had to endure
painful circumcision as required by Islamic custom.
Turkish gendarmes escorted individual caravans consisting of thousands of
deported Armenians. These guards allowed roving government units of hardened
criminals known as the “Special Organization” to attack the defenseless
people, killing anyone they pleased. They also encouraged Kurdish bandits to
raid the caravans and steal anything they wanted. In addition, an
extraordinary amount of sexual abuse and rape of girls and young women
occurred at the hands of the Special Organization and Kurdish bandits. Most
of the attractive young females were kidnapped for a life of involuntary
The death marches, involving over a million Armenians, covered hundreds of
miles and lasted months. Indirect routes through mountains and wilderness
areas were deliberately chosen in order to prolong the ordeal and to keep
the caravans away from Turkish villages.
Food supplies being carried by the people quickly ran out and they were
usually denied further food or water. Anyone stopping to rest or lagging
behind the caravan was mercilessly beaten until they rejoined the march. If
they couldn’t continue they were shot. A common practice was to force all of
the people in the caravan to remove every stitch of clothing and have them
resume the march in the nude under the scorching sun until they dropped dead
by the roadside from exhaustion and dehydration.
An estimated 75 percent of the Armenians on these marches perished,
especially children and the elderly. Those who survived the ordeal were
herded into the desert without a drop of water. Being thrown off cliffs,
burned alive, or drowned in rivers, killed others.
The Turkish countryside became littered with decomposing corpses. At one
point, Mehmed Talaat responded to the problem by sending a coded message to
all provincial leaders: “I have been advised that in certain areas unburied
corpses are still to be seen. I ask you to issue the strictest instructions
so that the corpses and their debris in your vilayet are buried.”
But his instructions were generally ignored. Those involved in the mass
murder showed little interest in stopping to dig graves. The roadside
corpses and emaciated deportees were a shocking sight to foreigners working
in Turkey. Eyewitnesses included German government liaisons, American
missionaries, and U.S. diplomats stationed in the country.
The Christian missionaries were often threatened with death they and were
unable to help the people. Diplomats from the still neutral United States
communicated their blunt assessments of the ongoing government actions. U.S.
ambassador to Turkey, Henry Morgenthau, reported to Washington: “When the
Turkish authorities gave the orders for these deportations, they were merely
giving the death warrant to a whole race…”
The Allied Powers (Great Britain, France, Russia) responded to news of the
massacres by issuing a warning to Turkey: “…the Allied governments
announce publicly…that they will hold all the members of the Ottoman
Government, as well as such of their agents as are implicated, personally
responsible for such matters.”
The warning had no effect. Newspapers in the West including the New York
Times published reports of the continuing deportations with the headlines:
Armenians Are Sent to Perish in the Desert – Turks Accused of Plan to
Exterminate Whole Population (August 18, 1915) – Million Armenians Killed or
in Exile – American Committee on Relief Says Victims of Turks Are Steadily
Increasing – Policy of Extermination (December 15, 1915).
Temporary relief for some Armenians came as Russian troops attacked along
the Eastern Front and made their way into central Turkey. But the troops
withdrew in 1917 upon the Russian Revolution. Armenian survivors withdrew
along with them and settled in among fellow Armenians already living in
provinces of the former Russian Empire. There were in total about 500,000
Armenians gathered in this region.
In May 1918, Turkish armies attacked the area to achieve the goal of
expanding Turkey eastward into the Caucasus and also to resume the
annihilation of the Armenians. As many as 100,000 Armenians may have fallen
victim to the advancing Turkish troops.
However, the Armenians managed to acquire weapons and they fought back,
finally repelling the Turkish invasion at the battle of Sardarabad, thus
saving the remaining population from total extermination with no help from
the outside world. Following that victory, Armenian leaders declared the
establishment of the independent Republic of Armenia.
World War I ended in November 1918 with a defeat for Germany and the Central
Powers including Turkey. Shortly before the war had ended, the Young Turk
triumvirate; Talaat, Enver and Djemal, abruptly resigned their government
posts and fled to Germany where they had been offered asylum.
In the months that followed, repeated requests by Turkey’s new moderate
government and the Allies were made asking Germany to send the Young Turks
back home to stand trial. However all such requests were turned down. As a
result, Armenian activists took matters into their own hands, located the
Young Turks and assassinated them along with two other instigators of the
Meanwhile, representatives from the fledgling Republic of Armenia attended
the Paris Peace Conference in the hope that the victorious Allies would give
them back their historic lands seized by Turkey. The European Allies
responded to their request by asked the United States to assume guardianship
of the new Republic. However, President Woodrow Wilson’s attempt to make
Armenia an official U.S. protectorate was rejected by the U.S. Congress in
But Wilson did not give up on Armenia. As a result of his efforts, the
Treaty of Sevres was signed on August 10, 1920 by the Allied Powers, the
Republic of Armenia, and the new moderate leaders of Turkey. The treaty
recognized an independent Armenian state in an area comprising much of the
former historic homeland.
However, Turkish nationalism once again reared its head. The moderate
Turkish leaders who signed the treaty were ousted in favor of a new
nationalist leader, Mustafa Kemal, who simply refused to accept the treaty
and even re-occupied the very lands in question then expelled any surviving
Armenians, including thousands of orphans.
No Allied power came to the aid of the Armenian Republic and it collapsed.
Only a tiny portion of the easternmost area of historic Armenia survived by
being becoming part of the Soviet Union.
After the successful obliteration of the people of historic Armenia, the
Turks demolished any remnants of Armenian cultural heritage including
priceless masterpieces of ancient architecture, old libraries and archives.
The Turks even leveled entire cities such as the once thriving Kharpert, Van
and the ancient capital at Ani, to remove all traces of the three thousand
year old civilization.
The young German politician Adolf Hitler duly noted the half-hearted
reaction of the world’s great powers to the plight of the Armenians. After
achieving total power in Germany, Hitler decided to conquer Poland in 1939
and told his generals: “Thus for the time being I have sent to the East only
my ‘Death’s Head Units’ with the orders to kill without pity or mercy all
men, women, and children of Polish race or language. Only in such a way will
we win the vital space that we need. Who still talks nowadays about the