The great column of humanity stretched to the horizon. Exhausted, starving – with fading hope – they staggered on under the watchful gaze of their captives, step by step under the brutal desert sun. Where they were going, nobody quite knew, but why the reason they had been chosen for this relentless death march was perfectly clear.
The Armenian Genocide, which began in 1915 and finished anywhere between 1917 and 1923 depending on who you ask, remains a highly contentious topic. While Turkey, where the events took place, continues to deny that a genocide ever took place, it has long passed into the realm of fact for many around the world. For those, the question is not whether a genocide happened, but rather just how many died.
The estimated number of deaths during the Armenian Genocide varies massively, with the low end 600,000 and the high end 1.5 million through executions, forced marches, starvation or disease. It fundamentally reshaped the social fabric of the majority Christian Armenian East Anatolia and eventually forced the disbursement of millions of Armenians around the world – even today, less than one-third of Armenians actually live in Armenia.
Armenians are an ethnic group originally native to the Armenian Highlands of Western Asia. Armenia as an independent kingdom, of sorts, first appeared around 8th Century BC, but considering its locations at the crossroads between the East and West, it was always surrounded by powerful nations – with Rome and Parthia, in particular, both lurking with intent.
The first few centuries of the new millennium saw the Golden Age of Armenia during which the Kingdom was predominantly Christian, but eventually, the nation was split in two, with the west becoming Byzantine Armenia in 387 AD and the east becoming Persian Armenia in 428 AD. Over the next thousand years, Armenia was fought over and traded back and forth between major powers in the region but Armenian identity remained strong and distinct.
In the 16th Century, both East and West Armenia fell under Iranian rule, but over time West Armenia came under the control of the Ottoman Empire, with East Armenia eventually becoming part of Russia after the Russo-Persian War between 1826 and 1828.
Now, I know we moved through that at an extraordinary pace, but believe me, we could fill several videos on the staggeringly complex history of Armenia and its people. As we near the end of the 19th Century, ethnic tensions were rising and with the Ottoman Empire waning, the first wave of terror was about to begin.
The Hamidian Massacres
Perhaps one of the most notable facts about the Armenian Genocide is that it didn’t even really begin at the point where people still argue about whether it actually happened or not. While the vast majority of deaths occurred in and after 1915, it was the events of 1894 to 1896 – known as the Hamidian Massacres – that lay the foundations for the genocide.
As the world inched towards the end of the 19th Century, the Ottoman Empire, a once-mighty presence, was struggling. Many areas within its vast territory were now demanding self-determination and greater freedoms while growing nationalism in Europe had already led to the end of Ottoman rule in parts of the Balkans. The Empire had grown to an enormous 5.2 million square kilometres (2 million sq miles) at its peak, but with its glory days now well behind it, the future was far from clear.
One such group demanding greater degrees of autonomy were the Armenians whose calls for better living conditions, lower taxes, and generally, the right not to be murdered with impunity by people who pray to a different god were long ignored by Ottoman rulers. But as calls gradually grew louder, small-scale skirmishes began, often between armed Armenian liberation groups, along with the everyday men and women who were sick of being classed as second class citizens and the Ottoman army and Kurdish bandits who were often called in to do the dirty work.
In 1895, large Armenian protests broke out in Constantinople most of which were put down brutally, but with anti-Armenian and anti-christian sentiment running high – and most certainly encouraged by the highest level of the Ottoman government – violence quickly erupted in the city and spread quickly to other towns and cities.
Armenians were targeted by both the regular Ottoman army, but also their Muslim neighbours, often incited by the Sultan’s clumsy attempt to assert pan-Islamism as a state ideology. The violence had a savagery to it, with bodies of the dead often mutilated. By far the worst atrocity occurred in the town of Urfa, where an estimated 3,000 Armenians had taken refuge in the town’s cathedral. If anything this just made the job even easier for the Ottoman troops prowling for blood and the cathedral was burned to the ground with everybody still inside.
It’s difficult to say exactly when the Hamidian Massacres came to an end. Most point to 1896, though there were certainly still instances of violence the following year. This had become a region uncomfortably used to random, sporadic violence. It’s thought that between 100,000 and 300,000 Armenians died in this precursor to the events that would begin in 1915.
The Turn of the Century
As the century that would quickly define itself by colossal wars and murder on a previously unheard of scale began, the area in and around what is modern-day Turkey was in dangerous flux. Sultan Abdul Hamid II, who came to power in 1876, was essentially overseeing the slow collapse of the Ottoman Empire while viciously lashing out in futile attempts to steady the ship.
Even within the Muslim population, things were becoming fragmented. The Young Turks was a political reform movement looking to replace the Ottoman monarchy with a constitutional government that emerged in the late 19th Century, which eventually led to the Young Turks Revolution of 1908, which forced Abdul Hamid to restore the Ottoman Constitution and recall the parliament – leading to a branch of the Young Turks, the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), taking power.
Now at this point, it’s worth highlighting that the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), despite having some serious reservations about growing Turkish nationalism, had allied themselves with the CUP. They were considered a far better proposition than the Sultan’s tyrannical ways and memories of the Hamidian Massacres still burned painfully.
But the collapse of the Ottoman Empire was unravelling a twisted story of deep, often religious, hatred. After a countercoup against the CUP broke out in 1909, which was quickly put down, violence was once again directed at the Armenian population, with around 25,000 people murdered.
In 1913, after the First Balkan War, in which the combined forces of the Balkan league smashed the ailing Ottoman army and forced the Empire to cede almost all of its European territory, mass expulsions of Muslims from the newly formed Balkan states began, with many travelling into present-day Turkey. The Ottomans were outraged, blindly skipping over the decades of persecution they had handed out to the Armenians, and anti-Christian sentiment intensified to a deafening roar. As is often the case when governments or countries begin to fall apart, the fingers were pointed anywhere but the ruling government with the Armenians and other non-Muslim groups receiving the majority of the blame.
World War I
Of all of the catastrophic events that would eventually help to bring down the Ottoman Empire, its decision to ally itself with Germany during World War I proved to be the final nail in the coffin.
In the lead up to war, the Ottoman government, fearing that Armenians with Russian heritage would break away and even fight against them, appealed to the ARF in an attempt to deter such actions. The official reply given was that Armenians should fight for the countries of their citizenships – an ambiguous, hazy response that no doubt set fears wrangling. Soon after, the government began recruiting prisoners to join the paramilitary Special Organization unit, with its first objective being to stir up Muslims residing within Russian territory.
When the Ottomans joined the war on 29th October 1914 by attacking Russian ports on the Black Sea, it immediately divided Armenians. Many of those with Russian descent welcomed the attack and hoped that it would eventually lead to Russia pushing its border further south. Ottoman Armenians, however, were more wary, fearing they would be caught by Russian retaliation. A heavy fear hung in the air.
Suspicions over who the Armenians would support quickly grew. Many Armenian men were hurriedly conscripted into the Ottoman army, leaving many communities painfully lacking in able-bodied defenders. Yet while the Ottomans were happy to send Armenian men to the front lines, behind the scenes they were gradually eroding their place in society. In late 1914 and early 1915, Armenians working as civil servants were dismissed and Armenian men in the army were quietly transferred to labour battalions, where many were eventually executed.
On the battlefield, the Ottoman Empire’s awful, disorganised performances continued. A failed attempt to encircle the Russian army led to the loss of 60,000 men and Minister of War Enver Pasha, in charge of the operation, publicly placed the blame for the defeat firmly at the feet of the Armenians. It provided the factually corrupt excuse to begin mass deportations and commence a genocide.
Now, we’re going to use the word deportation quite a bit in this next section, but the word itself in the context of the Armenian Genocide is somewhat misleading. Deportation often brings to mind the physical and forced transportation of a person from one place to another, but in the Ottoman Empire, what happened to the Armenians was more of a case of being forced to move from one place and continuously moved again and again, often in barely hospitable environments and with little to no food or water, until you dropped dead – or could go now further at which point you would probably be shot.
As I mentioned earlier in the video, the Turkish government have always denied that a genocide took place. They concede that many died during the war, but this was in no way a coordinated campaign to exterminate the Armenians. If that’s true, I dread to think what a properly orchestrated campaign would look like. What is clear is that there appears to have been two separate communication lines coming down from the CPU. The first, and official, was that all Armenians should be deported, first from Eastern Anatolia, then from other sections of the country, and sent south into what is present-day Syria.
The second level of messaging, often destroyed after reading, emphasised that the fewer that actually survived the better. On 21st June 1915, the Ottoman government approved the Temporary Law of Deportation, which could be brazenly applied to anybody considered a ‘suspect’.
The initial focus was in Eastern Anatolia, close to the front lines and the Russian border. Those deemed too close to the fighting were immediately executed by the Special Organisation, while those further back were grouped together in large groups and forced to travel west then south escorted by gendarmes or local militia. The government was eager to stir up the local population against the Armenians and Imams began angrily denouncing the Armenian people. People who joined the attacks were motivated by numerous factors including political or religious ideology, revenge, careerism and desire for Armenian property, spurred on by the government’s pledge that killers were entitled to a third of Armenian movable property (another third went to local authorities and the last to the CUP).
The Death Marches
The overwhelming majority of those deported were women and children as most of the men and boys as young as twelve were usually the first to be executed. A twisted merry-go-round of deportation control centres and extermination sites began popping up across the country, all intricately linked by deportation routes where Armenians would be forced along until they could go no further – at which point they would be shot. It is important to reiterate again, it seems perfectly clear that the Ottomans didn’t just want to move the Armenians, they wanted as many as possible to die while walking. There were no provisions for food or water and those found helping the Armenians would be immediately shot.
Huge numbers were killed in this way and piles of bodies strewn by the side of the road or in large pits became a common sight, while many rivers became blocked due to the high number of corpses deposited in them.
The goal of this mass death drive may have been to kill as many as possible in transit, but people still began arriving in the desert region in huge numbers and by October 1915 an estimated 870,000 had survived the death marches, with dozens of concentration camps set up in Syria and Upper Mesopotamia to accommodate them.
But even here the actions of the Ottoman government and their lackeys were incomprehensible. Camps would be set up but once they had grown too large, they would be liquidated and the Armenians would be forced to match to another camp, where the entire process would begin again. Staggering numbers died of starvation, exhaustion, or disease, especially dysentery, typhus, and pneumonia.
By the beginning of 1916, there were an estimated 500,000 refugees in the Syrian area and the Ottoman government ordered another wave of persecution. Around 200,000 Armenians were killed between March and October 1916, often in remote areas near Deir ez-Zor and in parts of the Khabur Valley, while further campaigns to rid Anatolia of its few remaining Armenians also took place. It’s generally considered that the state-sponsored side of the genocide ended in January 1917, though massacres and starvation continued well after often carried out by militias or bandits.
For many, however, the horror was far from over. There were a simply staggering number of orphans throughout the area, with one particular orphanage in Alexandropol said to have 25,000 children under its care, while many more were sold or held captive for years. Women who survived the death marches suffered horribly, through mass rapes or being sold as sex slaves at Arab markets.
The First Republic of Armenia
When peace was signed with the Russians after the Bolshevik revolution, the Ottoman army occupied Eastern Anatolia, while the First Republic of Armenia was officially formed in May 1918 from what had been Russian Armenia.
The Armenian dream of many had been fulfilled, but disaster was waiting. With refugees flooding into the new country, conditions collapsed as the provisional government struggled to provide basic care. A Turkish blockade of food supplies and the wholesale destruction of crops in the area led to the deaths of 200,000 people in 1918 as Armenia as an independent country got off to a harrowing start.
And things got even worse when the young country was invaded by Turkey in 1920, followed by the Soviet Red Army several months later, leading to the annexation of Armenia and its incorporation into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics – where it remained until 1991 when Armenia finally gained its full independence.
The word genocide was first coined by Raphael Lemkin in 1944 as evidence of the Holocaust began to emerge and the word sought to grapple with the kind of state-sponsored mass murder that had never been seen on such a scale. It means the deliberate killing of a large number of people from a particular nation or ethnic group with the intention to destroy that nation or group.
For many, it’s clear that what happened in the Ottoman Empire from 1915 onwards was nothing short of a genocide of the Armenian people, yet Turkey, and Armenia’s mortal enemy Azaibajan, have long refused to acknowledge that a genocide took place. Successive Turkish governments have claimed that those killed were simply casualties of war, never mind that the overwhelming majority of them died hundreds of miles from the battlefield, and claim that the relocation of the Armenians was a legitimate state action in response to a real or perceived Armenian uprising that threatened the existence of the empire during wartime.
They also insist that the number of those who died, estimated by outsiders to be between 600,000 and 1.5 million, has been greatly exaggerated. And to really put the boot in, the Iğdır Genocide Memorial and Museum, the tallest monument in all of Turkey which was completed in 1999, acts as a memorial not to the Armenian Genocide, but to the “Turkish Genocide” carried out by the Armenians during World War I and the Turkish–Armenian War. This is a pseudo-historical narrative at its darkest and most perverse.
The fact that these events are still being argued over has left a raw wound that refuses to heal. The genocide scattered those of Armenian descent across the world and as I mentioned earlier, less than a third of Armenians now actually live in Armenia. This was the first major genocide of the 20th Century but sadly was almost entirely overshadowed by what happened during World War II. More than 100 years after it began, these events refuse to go quietly into the history books, with the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people still fought over bitterly to this day.
Q&A: Armenian genocide dispute – BBC News
Armenian Genocide (1915-1923) (armenian-genocide.org)
A Century After Armenian Genocide, Turkey’s Denial Only Deepens – The New York Times (nytimes.com)
Hamidian (Armenian) Massacres (1894-1896) (armenian-genocide.org)