The Armenian Genocide is considered by scholars to be the first modern genocide, predating the Holocaust by over 20 years. The term “genocide” was created to describe the systematic extermination of the Armenian people, yet many people have never heard of the Armenian Genocide. Over the course of seven years, between 1915–1922, the Ottoman government attempted to eliminate the Armenian people, murdering nearly 1.5 million people. Conflict between the Muslim Turks and the Christian Armenians goes back hundreds of years, culminating in the first of what has resulted in nearly a dozen genocides in the past 100 years.
This atrocity is not taught in schools and is rarely discussed outside of the Armenian community today. Even despite immense public pressure, the Armenian Genocide remains unacknowledged by the Turkish government.
An Oppressed People
The Republic of Armenia is a now-sovereign nation, established in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is bordered by Turkey and Russia and was the first nation to make Christianity its official religion.
Armenian history dates back thousands of years and is one of few ancient civilizations that remain intact today. It was absorbed by the Turkish Ottoman Empire in the 15th Century, which ruled the region for more than 800 years. The Ottoman Empire was under Muslim rule, and Christian Armenians were subjected to racial discrimination and unequal treatment. Despite these obstacles, Armenians thrived. Resentment grew from the Turks, who perceived their Armenian neighbors as wealthier and better educated. Influential Turkish leaders later used these perceptions as justification for eliminating the Armenians altogether.
In 1828, Turkish Sultan Abdul Hamid II became the 34th sultan of Turkey. During his rule, national paranoia regarding the Armenian population increased dramatically. Abdul Hamid II was obsessed with loyalty to the Turkish state, and feared that the Christian Armenians would turn on Turkey and join forces with political enemy, and Christian neighbor, Russia. Armenians began to fight for their civil rights in 1894. From 1894-1896, the first seeds of the genocide were planted when Sultan Abdul Hamid II killed hundreds of thousands of Armenians in response to civil rights protests and political unrest.
The Ottoman Empire began to crumble at the start of the 20th century, during which Armenian and Turkish relations steadily declined.
Young Turks Offer New Hope
In 1908, a group of rebels called Young Turks overthrew the Sultan, offering a glimmer of hope for the oppressed Armenians—however briefly. Young Turks had a more modern idea of government, and the Armenians thought the new, progressive leadership would come to their aid. However, the Young Turks were even more extreme in their nationalist views than Abdul Hamid II, and life became far worse for the Armenians under their rule. Nationalism became a centerpiece of their platform, and Young Turks felt that Christians were a threat to their new government. It was the Young Turks who perpetrated the genocide against the Armenians.
WWI and Holy War
In 1914, Turkey entered World War I with Germany. The Armenians—tired of centuries of Turkish abuse—formed volunteer armies and joined Russia on the opposing side. As a response, Turkish religious leaders declared holy war on all non-allied Christians. This included the Armenians, who were deemed traitors by Turkish military leaders. The Turkish government then pushed for the “removal” of Armenians from war zones, foreshadowing the unthinkable atrocity to follow soon after.
The Armenian Genocide
April 24th, 1915 is recognized as the start of the Armenian Genocide. On this day, several hundred Armenian intellectuals were sent on a death march through the desert without food or water, killing hundreds. Over the course of the next seven years, the Ottoman government was responsible for the murder of 1.5 million people. Killing squads were assembled to drown and burn Armenians alive, throw them off cliffs, and slaughter them in other horrific ways. Children were kidnapped, converted to Islam and given to Turkish families. Armenian civilians were subjected to medical experimentation and given dangerous drugs or poisoned. Others were deported from the region entirely or sent to concentration camps—it is estimated that there were around 25 concentration camps throughout the country. The military group carrying out these atrocities was called The Special Organization.
1922 is considered the formal end of the Armenian genocide and only 338,000 Armenians remained in the region. The Young Turks, the perpetrators of the genocide, fled to Germany, where they were given protection from the prosecution of these crimes.
To this day, the Armenian genocide is rarely talked about or recognized as such. The perpetrators never faced punishment for their crimes and even the word “genocide” is controversial—a recent poll shows 91% of Turks do not agree that the slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians was a genocide. Turkey acknowledges the genocide only as a massacre, and many citizens of Turkey refuse to acknowledge it at all. The Turkish government persists in saying that it was simply a religious conflict between Muslims and Christians, not the systematic murder of innocent Armenian men, women and children. Turkey also reports the death toll much lower than 1.5 million—claiming only 300,000 lives lost. The current president of Turkey calls for “healing all wounds” between Turkey and Armenia, but still claims that Armenia is using the genocide as an excuse for “blackmail.”
The United States and the Armenian Genocide
During the Armenian Genocide, U.S. missionaries played a crucial role in helping save orphans and victims of violence. In 1916, the United States Congress created the Near East Relief organization (currently known as the Near East Foundation) which raised the equivalent of over $2 Billion (in current day dollars) to help survivors of the Genocide.
The United States first recognized the genocide in 1951, but due to a combination of political expediency, the political relationship with Turkey, and continued pressure from Turkey, the U.S. Government has remained complicit in the denial of this crime over the past 30 years. Acknowledging and honoring the millions lost in the Armenian Genocide matters to the Armenian community and to those who value truth and justice.
The Promise, and this related social justice campaign, can and will play an important role in the ongoing broader efforts to help bring the U.S. back to the right side on this issue.