A Genocide and Its Aftermath

To some, the Armenian Genocide, or Great Catastrophe, is a side story to the main fighting in The Great War. Looking closer, the genocide was more a direct result of the war. The Ottomans used their war with Russia as an excuse to deal with the Armenians in East Anatolia. In the decades following, the massacres played a role in the Cold War, diplomatic affairs, and assassinations. It is an event that still resonates in the region and affects relations with Turkey.

Several events at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century led up to the massacre of the Armenians in 1915. In the late 19th century, Russia managed to conquer the southern Caucasus, present-day Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. This effectively divided the Armenian homeland, and further weakened the already crumbling Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans wanted to purge all non-Muslims in an effort to restore some of the former glory back to the empire. In 1909, an attempted counter-revolution against the Young Turks government in Constantinople failed. The government blamed the Armenians, leading to the massacre of 15,000 by Muslims at Adana, in south-central Turkey. The victims were raped and mutilated, their property destroyed. Following the Balkan wars in 1912-1913, Muslims flooded into Turkey. They government sent them east, to Armenia; giving them license to take whatever they wanted by any means, even if it meant killing Armenians.

It should be noted that Armenia was the first nation to make Christianity its official religion. Once the Young Turks came into power, they sought to modernize Turkey, politically and economically, while creating an ethnically homogenous empire, albeit one that was entirely Muslim.[1] Prior to that, the Ottoman government dealt with the non-Islamic populations by imposing ruinous taxes and encouraging the Kurds of the region to enrich themselves at the expense of the Armenians.[2] It should also be noted that the Russians saw themselves as liberators of Christians as they conquered lands, including the Armenians of the Caucasus. By the time the war reached East Anatolia, the Armenian nation was effectively split in two between Russia and Turkey.

The Caucasus campaign at the end of 1914 became a significant event leading to the massacres; it was then that the Young Turks brought the Ottoman Empire into the war. In October of that year they had joined an alliance with Germany, and therefore against their centuries old enemy, Russia. In December, an Armenian division organized by the Russians was sent across the border into Eastern Anatolia and killed nearly 120,000 non-Armenians, mostly Turks and Kurds.[3] The Turks then attempted a push into the Caucasus, and were soundly defeated. Using the fear of traitorous Armenians among the ranks as an excuse, the Young Turks began to disarm Armenian soldiers in the Ottoman army and assigned them to labor battalions.

The final step on the way to the massacre was the occupation of Van. In April 1915, a large group of Armenians took over the town. The Armenians were anticipating a Russian offensive that would ultimately arrived at the end of May. For over a month, the Armenians held off the Ottoman attackers, but there were heavy losses on both sides. The Armenians defended their city against the Ottoman threat. However, the Turks saw the occupation as the result of an Armenian rebellion, orchestrated by those who wished to join forces with the Russian army. They viewed the Armenians as traitors who needed to be punished. Then-US Ambassador Henry Morgenthau recounted the “revolution” at Van “not only because it marked the first stage in this organized attempt to wipe out a whole nation, but because these events are always brought forward by the Turks as a justification of their subsequent crimes.”[4]

Once the deportations – and the massacres – began, the Turks showed no mercy. Mass deportations began in the summer of 1915, after the battle for Van. The Turks sent armies into the Armenian lands, gathering up all males over the age of twelve and killing them. Women were raped, some even being sold into slavery.[5] The remaining Armenians – elderly, women and children – were marched across the deserts to Syria. In the heat of the summer, many died of exposure or starvation, and some were just stripped of their clothes and shot. One boy, Karnig Panian, recalls walking for several weeks to Hama, where the Turkish government set up camps for the deported Armenians. The camp residents were denied water and food, buying bread from locals charging exorbitant prices until it was forbidden. Local men offered families food in exchange for marrying their daughters. Many refused, and the young girls were kidnapped anyway. While scores were dying of starvation or disease, many believed rumors that the war would be over soon and they could return home.[6] Although deportations and killing had been going on for years, the worst began in the summer of 1915 and lasted well into 1916. It is estimated that over a half a million Armenians were killed in 1915 alone. In 1919, the Ottoman government itself had estimated that 800,000 had died.[7]

In the years following the war, the new Turkish leader Kemal Atatürk called the deportations both a shameful act that belonged in the past, and a regrettable episode. It was part of his quest to modernize the country. Under Atatürk, history was almost rewritten; the sultan was exiled, the alphabet was changed, and the history of the Ottoman Empire – especially the Christian element – was nearly glossed over. Despite Atatürk’s ambiguous attitude toward the deportations, Kemal still thought of the Armenians as a threat. He argued that the Armenian’s allies contributed to the deportations, and that the Armenians engaged in equal actions. This was to shift blame from the Turks for the massacres, as well as to prevent the Armenians from making claims on the property and businesses they had lost because of the deportations.[8]

Kemal Atatürk’s attitude toward the Armenians set the tone for the century to follow. During the Second World War, the Armenians partnered with the Soviet Union, who had plans to annex parts of Turkey and return part of the land to the Armenians. Because of the location and position against the Soviet Union, the United States and other countries couldn’t risk angering or alienating Turkey by recognizing the massacres as genocide, then a new concept. Turkey controlled the important Bosphorus Strait, the link between the Black Sea, home to a Russian fleet, and the Mediterranean. Since Turkey was a NATO member, and on the front line of the Cold War, any threats to cease cooperation were taken seriously.

For much of the second half of the 20th century, Turkey has actively campaigned to prevent any country from formerly recognizing the massacres as genocide. Threats against international relations are common, and its embassies disseminate alternative viewpoints in the media. In the 1970s and early 1980s, a series of assassinations of Turkish diplomats by Armenian radicals took place. In trying to exact their revenge, the Armenians – supposedly funded by the USSR – managed to cause the world to side with Turkey. The Turkish government has even gone so far as to offer collegiate grants with the expectation of casting Turkey in a better light.[9] Even the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs has a web page dedicated to the issue of the massacres.

While the Turkish government does not deny the suffering of the Armenians in the First World War, it insists the Armenians share the blame for the events, and that a greater number of Turkish people lost their lives in the war.[10] The Turks claim the number of Armenians who died during that time was much less than the Armenian estimate of nearly 1.5 million, and that the estimated dead include Kurds and Arabs, as well. What Turkey does deny is the label of genocide; they argue there was no intent to wipe out the Armenians, and that it was just a circumstance of the war. In 1948, the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the crime of Genocide, which included in the definition the language of the crime being committed with the intent to destroy a group of peoples. Turkey was one of 20 UN nations to ratify the convention, believing it could not be applied retroactively.[11]

The genocide still affects relations with Turkey today. In June 2016, Germany’s government passed a resolution recognized the actions of the Young Turks against the Armenians as genocide. This angered the Turkish government, who recalled their ambassador to Germany, and caused several Turkish politicians to denounce Germany’s move. This resolution came at a delicate time, when Europe was seeing the largest mass migration of refugees in recent memory. Most of those migrants and refugees were leaving war zones in the Middle East, and heading toward Germany, using Turkey as a major route. Turkey was in a position to stem the flow, and Germany’s resolution could have caused Turkey to cease cooperation, allowing hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants to flood Europe unabated.

In the United States, forty states recognize the genocide, but it is not an official policy of the government. Currently, the US uses Incirlik Air Base as its base of operations for its fight against Islamic State. Should the US take the step of officially recognizing the genocide perpetrated by one of its NATO allies, Turkey could pull out of the agreement to use Incirlik, causing a serious blow on America’s War on Terror. In recent months, Turkey’s relations with Russia have been thawing, and the US cannot risk angering Turkey at a time when Russian aggression is at near-Cold War levels.

The Armenian Genocide, or Great Catastrophe, is a delicate subject that, though taking place over 100 years ago, still affects relations with Turkey. Turkey has been a key ally to the West for over half a century and many nations do not want to risk that relationship. But unless the Turkish government admits to its role in the massacres, the controversy surrounding it will continue on, leaving the Armenians out in the cold.

[1] Michael Howard, The First World War: A Very Short Introduction. (Oxford:Oxford University Press 2002) pg 43

[2] G.J. Meyer, A World Undone. (New York: Bantam Dell, 2006) pg 335

[3] Ibid., pg 336

[4] Henry Morgenthau, Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story. (Garden City: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1918)

[5] Meyer, A World Undone. pg 336

[6] Karnig Panian, Goodbye, Antoura. (Stanford: Stanford University Press,2015) pg 54

[7] Thomas de Waal, Great Catastrophe. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015) pg 35

[8] Ibid., pg 99

[9] Rouben Paul Adalian. “Turkey, Republic of, and the Armenian Genocide.” Armenian Genocide. Accessed on November 27, 2016. http://www.armenian-genocide.org/turkey.html

[10] “The Events of 1915 and the Turkish-Armenian Controversy over History: An Overview.” Republic of Turkey Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Last modified 2011. http://www.mfa.gov.tr/the-events-of-1915-and-the-turkish-armenian-controversy-over-history_-an-overview.en.mfa

[11] De Waal, Great Catastrophe. pg 136