If you were to overhear the words "extermination of about 50%
population" in a conversation you would probably think that they were talking
about "the" holocaust in Nazi Germany. You probably would not suspect that
they were talking about Turkey and the Armenians. During the First World War,
the Turks set out to annihilate the entire population of Armenians living
within their borders (they almost did).
An area known as Historic Armenia lies right in the middle of what is now
modern day Turkey. This is where the Armenian's ancestors began one of the
first civilizations thousands of years ago. Historic Armenia has proved to be
an important strategical location for the many empires that have taken control
of it over the centuries since it is the bridge between three continents,
Europe, Asia, and Africa. It has been conquered by King Darius I of Persia in
521 B.C., by Media in 612 B.C., by King Cyrus of Persia in 549 B.C., by
Alexander the Great, by King Antiochos III of Syria in 212 B.C., By the Arabs
in 642 A.D., by the Mongols in 1240, by the Ottoman Empire in the 16th
century, and most recently by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR)
1922. During most of the time in between the Armenians had their
independence. Despite or perhaps because of the constant warfare and conquest
of that region and the oppression that the Armenians have faced over time they
have developed into a "… strong-willed people, self reliant and fiercely
independent"… The Armenians were the first country in the world to make
Christianity their country's official religion (20 years before St.
Constantine the Great in Rome). They also played an important role in the
crusades. Ever since then, the Muslim Turks (the vast majority in Turkey)
have not gotten along with the Armenian Turks.
When the Ottoman Empire took control of Turkey, they tried to assimilate the
Armenians by forbidding them to speak their native language in some places and
imposing an extortionary tax on them. They were sometimes called gavurs,
which means less than human. They were, however, allowed to attend their own
churches (The Armenian Apostolic Church).
In spite of the oppression that they faced they were able to adapt to Western
capitalism faster than their Muslim neighbors. More and more the Armenians
became the manufacturers, doctors, and teachers in Turkey. They had more
children in schools than before and their overall status in society was
beginning to rise. By the late 19th century, they began to understand the
concept of human rights. That is, people are people and one person should not
be treated better or worse than another because of their race, color, or
It was about that time, in 1891, that Sultan Abul-Hamid created the Hamidiye.
The Hamidiye were groups of Kurds armed by the government. Their official
duty was to protect the Russian border, but they spent most of their time
plundering and looting Armenian villages instead. The Armenians created
revolutionary groups called fedayees in response to this abuse.
In 1894, Armenians in Sassun refused to continue paying the extortionary tax
to the Kurdish. So Abdul-Hamid ordered Turkish along with Kurdish soldiers to
go over to Sassun and to put an end to the insubordinate uprising. The death
toll has been estimated at as low as 900 and as high as 60,000 Armenians.
International missionaries stationed in Turkey at that time reported these
atrocities to the European and American media. They (the media) in turn
demanded that Abdul-Hamid stop abusing the Armenians. Abdul-Hamid agreed to
stop, but instead he encouraged the Hamidayee to loot and kill Armenians. In
one reported incident 3,000 men, women, and children came to a fiery death
while huddled inside of a church for (ironically enough) protection. Between
1894 and 1896 about 200,000 Armenians were slaughtered. The primary goal of
these massacres was not for extermination however, but rather to teach the
Armenians that they had no choice but to accept their unequal status.
Of course Armenians didn't like the cruel and unjust rule of Abdul-Hamid, but
surprisingly some of the Muslim Turks didn't like him either. In 1908 Abdul-
Hamid was overthrown by The Young Turks (A.K.A. Committee of Union and
Progress) a rising group of liberals who were dissatisfied with Abdul-Hamid's
political repression. The new government brought with it new hope for both
Turks and Armenians. It was this hope that may have led the Turks to adapt
the philosophy of a homogeneous (of one race) nation. The Idea was to create
an empire that would unite Turks from the Mediterranean coast to central Asia.
This would exclude all non-Muslim minorities including the Armenians
In 1913 the triumverant of Enver Pasha (minister of war) Jalaat (minister of
Internal Affairs) and Jemal (minister of the navy) came into power under the
homogeneous nation ideality.
That same year ex-Sultan Abdul-Hamid attempted to regain power through a
short-lived counter-revolution. It was during this time that more than 20,000
Armenians were killed again.
The First World War began in August of 1914. Turkey entered the war and
sided with Germany and the central powers Nov. 2 of that year. The Turks
offered the Armenians a deal; if they would attack Russia, when the war was
over they would be rewarded with land. The Armenians refused saying that
there were a lot of Armenians in southern Russia; attacking them would be like
attacking their brothers. The Turks viewed this as a treasonous act. As of
August 3, 1914 however, men both Turkish and Armenian men were drafted to
fight in the war.
By 1915, the Turkish government had decided that they wanted to get rid of
the Armenians once and of all. They had constructed a 4-step plan that would
mean the end for 1,500,000 Armenians in Turkey: 1. Destroy all men physically
capable of fighting: 2. Confiscate all weapons which could be used to revolt:
3. Kill the political leaders, religious leaders, the educated, and anybody
else that was capable of leading: 4. "Deport" the remaining Armenians.
Early 1915 the Armenians that had been drafted and were serving in the
Ottoman army were stripped of their arms (guns not limbs) and placed in "labor
battalions" were they would build roads and carry supplies. They were poorly
fed and clothed and most died from starvation. Those that did not were taken
out by the hundreds, made to dig their own graves, and then shot.
Mean while, in the Armenian communities, no one knew that anything was wrong
because of the poor communication and the general chaos of the war. The
Turkish government then announced that they were in need of guns for the war,
and that they would take them from the Armenians. In some places Armenians
were given quotas; they had to produce so many guns or they would be
prosecuted (tortured and killed). It was not uncommon for Armenians to have
to buy guns from their Turkish neighbors in order to meet these quotas. In
some cases Armenian revolutionaries hid guns in their houses or buried them.
Armenian political leaders were tortured until they surrendered the location
of those weapons. If they did not then their families were tortured. The
guns confiscated from these people were photographed and used as "evidence"
(actually just propaganda to elevate the public's hatred of Armenians) of the
Armenians involvement in treasonous and insubordinate activities.
Leaders in Armenian communities were then asked to report to government
headquarters. They never suspected that when they reached the government
headquarters they would be either shot on the spot or imprisoned where they
would be tortured and then killed. Turkish torture included the pulling out
of nails, teeth and beards, and driving of nails through the feet and hands.
Again, this was possible because of the lack of communication between Armenian
On April 24, 1915 several hundred Armenian leaders from Constantinople were
arrested and put in prison where they could do no harm. The only reason they
were able to live was because of the many foreign offices in Constantinople.
April 24 is now the day that Armenians around the world commemorate the
The end of May 1915 the Temporary Law of Deportation was inacted. This
authorized the deportation of any individuals who might be guilty of treason
or espionage. Criers were sent to the villages where they announced that the
Armenians were to be deported "temporarily". Sometimes they were given a week
or more to prepare for the journey, but they usually only had 1 or 2 days.
They sold all of their valuables for a fraction of their original cost out of
desperation. Officially Armenian homes were "safe guarded" by the government,
but once the deportees left town their homes were looted and anything on the
house made of wood would be used in fires to heat the homes of Turks during
When the day of the departure came police like figures called gendarmes
gathered the deportees in the town center. The gendarmes then led the
caravans out. Once they reached the city limits the men were usually
separated from the group and then shot. After that, the Women children and
the elderly proceeded to their destination, usually the deserts of Syria or
Allepo (city in Syria). Caravans would begin the voyage with one to three
thousand and reach their destination with less than one hundred.
A special organization was created by the Turkish government called the
Special Organization. The Special organization was made up of criminals from
Ottoman prisons including rapists and murders, and was led by officers of the
Ottoman War Academy. They were first used to fight against Russia but were
later used to attack the caravans of deportees. They attacked in ravines, and
narrow mountain passes. They raped the women and stole what few possessions
they still had. While this happened the gendarmes who were supposed to defend
the caravans mysteriously disappeared and some times even participated in the
As the marchers continued on their journey, sometimes for as long as seven
months, the people who had not died of starvation saw rotting carcasses of the
people who had been before them. Survivors sometimes had to eat grass or
picked grains out of animal manure in order to stay alive.
During the deportations Armenians were very desperate. Women often had to
leave their small children at the side of the road in order to increase their
own chances of survival. Others with more than one child would leave the
One boy tells of the treacherous gendarmes. When they were on their way in a
caravan the gendarmes told them that that a group of Kurds was advancing
toward them. He told the group to leave behind all their valuables in order
to appease them. So they did. Later they were attacked by a group of Kurds
and the boy later learned that the gendarme actually orchestrated the attack.
Their was an estimated 1.5 million Armenians that were killed between 1915
and 1923, half of the Armenian population in Turkey, and a third of the
Armenian population in the world, but perhaps what's scarier than the
statistic itself is the fact that very few people know it happened. If you
type the word genocide into an online search engine you would probably get a
couple of thousand results about the Jewish Holocaust in Germany, and only a
couple about the Armenian genocide. This is way out of proportion to the
actual deaths that each of theses events has accounted for: The proportion is
actually less than 6 to 1. Never have these events been taught in our public
schools, never have politicians addressed this issue in a serious manner,
never has the media done any meaningful coverage of these tragedies, and never
has Hollywood created a movie about the mass murders of these innocent people.
What else could we have forgotten about the past, and what else will we forget
in the future.