This Friday marks the 100 year anniversary of the start of an extensive, year-long campaign by Ottoman Turks to root out ethnic Armenians from modern-day Turkey. Accounts of the genocide vary widely. Turkey has long maintained that half a million Armenians were killed after they rebelled against the Empire, while Armenian authorities hold that 1.5 million Armenians were killed as part of a coordinated and deliberate campaign against them.
According to the International Association of Genocide Scholars, “More than a million Armenians were exterminated through direct killing, starvation, torture, and forced death marches.”
The attacks on the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian population began with the arrest and incarceration of hundreds of Armenian intellectuals in the Ottoman capital of Constantinople (now Istanbul) on April 24, 1915. The arrests were led by the Young Turk government, a nationalist party that persecuted ethnic minorities including Assyrians and Greeks.
Armenians had for decades faced especially tough circumstances because they had sought autonomy from the Empire decades prior with the support of neighboring Russia. When World War I broke out and the Ottoman Empire joined Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, many Armenians volunteered to help Russian forces fight against the Turks.
In response, the Ottoman Empire ordered the deportation of all of its nearly two million Armenians. They were often forced to march east through deserts, where many hundred died or were massacred by Ottoman policemen and soldiers.
How were so many people killed?
According to Armenian National Institute, “deportations were disguised as a resettlement program,” and in turn, the “deportations were mainly intended as death marches.”
The Glendale, California-based Armenian organization, the United Human Rights Council, said that only a small fraction of deported Armenians survived:
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.
Should the mass killings be called a “genocide?”
According to the United Nations’ Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, “genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”
Since the Convention was adopted in 1948, well after the Armenian Genocide took place, it cannot be applied retroactively to the events in the Ottoman Empire. The word “genocide” wasn’t even coined until the mid-1940s. But, as the Armenian Genocide continued on, the U.S. Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire essentially called the persecutions of Armenians a genocide. Ambassador Henry Morgenthau wrote in a confidential telegram to the U.S. Secretary of State in July 1915, “It appears that a campaign of racial extermination is in progress under a pretext of reprisal against rebellion.”
To date, more than 20 countries have passed bills recognizing the mass killings of Armenians as “genocide.” The United States has not recognized it as such, and while President Barack Obama described the events 100 years ago as a genocide while on the campaign trail, he has not referred to the persecution of Armenians as a “genocide” since then.
Has anyone taken responsibility?
Turkish authorities have long maintained that the Armenians killed last century died as a result of civil unrest – not a genocide, and have put forth figures far below those which most historians cite as the number of Armenians killed.
Although he stopped short of using the word “genocide,” last year, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan offered his condolences for the mass killings of Armenians — the first time a Turkish leader has formally done so.
“Having experienced events which had inhumane consequences — such as relocation — during the First World War, [it] should not prevent Turks and Armenians from establishing compassion and mutually humane attitudes among towards one another,” he said.
Last week, the Pope slammed Turkey for its refusal to take responsibility for the mass killings of Armenians, which he referred to as “the first genocide of the century.”
“Concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it,” Pope Francis said at a Sunday mass.
Erdogan responded to the Pope’s comments with sharp words, saying, “I condemn the pope and would like to warn him not to make similar mistakes again.”
“It is impossible for Turkey to accept this accusation,” he said after the European Parliament passed a resolution to commemorate the centennial of the Armenian Genocide.
Still, there is some cause to believe that Turkey will, at some point, admit to and possibly even atone for its crimes 100 years ago. The phrase “Armenian Genocide” is, after decades, one that Turks can say without facing criminal charges and some government officials and individual towns have begun to admit to the culpability of their forebears in the killings. But taking full responsibility would mean, for many Turks, facing down crimes that would force them to re-imagine their own place in the world 100 years later – which is, according to Turkish writer Taner Akcam, no easy task.
“What happened in 1915 is the collective secret of Turkish society, and the genocide has been relegated to the black hole of our collective memory,” Akcam wrote in a forward to the book, Turkey and the Armenian Ghost. “Confronting our history means questioning everything — our social institutions, mindset, beliefs, culture, even the language we speak. Our society will have to closely re-examine its own self-image.”