Revisiting the Armenian, Assyrian and Greek genocides a century later

Revisiting the Armenian, Assyrian and Greek genocides a century later

Photo Credits: Wiki Commons / Courtesy

Through a deliberate decades-long campaign of ethnic cleansing, Turkey eradicated its minority communities and denied their history. Now it’s time to speak up.

Deep in the heart of the Syrian desert, some 280 miles east of Damascus, lie the ruins of the Armenian Genocide Martyrs’ Memorial. Constructed in 1990, the memorial long served as a sight of pilgrimage for thousands of Armenians, descendants of a systematic genocide that once drove their ancestors into these same desert sands over a century ago. With its beige marble walls and pointed domes, the building was a premier example of Armenian architecture in a country where so many members of the diaspora now live. 

Tragically, the complex was destroyed at the hands of ISIS in 2014 — perhaps indicative of a cultural cleansing that never really ended.

The deserts of Deir ez-Zor, where the Ottomans marched thousands of Armenians until they died of starvation or disease, is just one of many open-air killing grounds that were utilized by the empire against its Christian minorities. In his memoir “Black Dog of Fate,” author Peter Balakian notes that so many Armenians died at Deir ez-Zor that, when visiting the region in 2009, he was able to easily dig up some of the bones of the victims, relics of just some of the roughly 1.5 million Armenians who were killed by their Ottoman oppressors from 1915 to 1923. 

Yet, despite its significance, the Armenian Genocide continues to remain largely an afterthought in our understanding of world history. Despite this, the blowback from these same mass killings shaped the geopolitical world we know today and served as a preview to the great massacres of the 20th Century that would follow. Understanding the complexity and impact of the Armenian Genocide is thus not only important from a historic context but also as a means of understanding the human capacity for evil. 

But before you can grasp the magnitude of the Armenian Genocide, you must first understand the backdrop on which it occurred.

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“The attack on the Armenian people, which soon developed into a systematic attempt to exterminate the race, was a cold-blooded, unprovoked, deliberate act, planned and carried out without popular approval, by the military masters of Turkey.”

Henry H. Riggs, American missionary in Kharpert during the Armenian Genocide

If memory of the Armenian Genocide has been forgotten in time, then the concurrent Greek and Assyrian genocides have similarly vanished from our recollection. 

The history of the Armenian Genocide does not solely begin with the Armenians themselves. Rather, there is a greater context in which these killings began. Indeed it has been argued that the Armenian Genocide was not purely a distinct event, but part of a much broader, decades-long genocidal policy aimed at other Christian peoples as well, such as the Greeks and Assyrians. This is the argument brought forward by Israeli historians Benny Morris and Dror Ze-evi in their extensive book “The Thirty Year Genocide,” released in April of 2019, and history shows that it is one with much credence. 

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“This business will end in blood.”

— Sultan of the Ottoman Empire Abdul Hamid II, 1895, in reference to a reform package issued by European powers to protect the Armenian people

Christian populations in the Ottoman Empire long played the role of second-class citizens to the ruling Turkish Muslim elite. The Ottoman dhimmi system permitted the Christian Armenian people a fairly large degree of autonomy, but also enforced upon them a different set of standards as their counterparts. They were referred to in Turkish as giaours, meaning “infidel” or “unbeliever,” and were unfairly levied higher taxes and given stricter legal restrictions. The so-called “Armenian Question” came into conversation in the late 19th Century, as European powers began to observe the Ottoman Empire’s mistreatment of its Christian minorities. Around the same time, Armenian leaders began to hear increased reports of crimes directed at their community, such as land seizures, forced conversions, rape and murder.

A turning point in the treatment of Armenians came in the aftermath of the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–1878. Armenians in the eastern provinces of the Ottoman Empire often saw the largely-Orthodox Russian invaders as liberators. Accordingly, Kurdish and Circassian tribes razed Armenian communities during the war, leaving them devastated and pushing survivors toward an ideological movement in favor of liberation and self-determination. While efforts at independence following the war failed, the brewing revolutionary fervor among Armenians began to stoke great fear and suspicion among their neighbors.

The first set of mass killings of Ottoman Christians occurred soon after, with the Hamidian massacres of 1894–1896. Distraught by increasingly nationalistic sentiments and pushes for civil rights by the Armenian people, Sultan Abdul Hamid II sought to put down a potential rebellion by creating a paramilitary group known as the Hamidiye, whose sole task was to harass the Armenian population. Hamid II was especially irritated by the Armenian community’s pleas to Europe, including efforts in 1895 to pursue a new reform package aimed at limiting the Sultan’s power.

 After violently suppressing an uprising by Armenians who refused to pay an oppressive tax in the Sasun region in 1894, the Hamidiye and a handful of other Ottoman Muslims began to indiscriminately attack Christian communities. An estimated 100,000 to 300,000 Armenians were then killed, in addition to roughly 25,000 Assyrians. The massacres led to Sultan Hamid II becoming internationally dubbed “Hamid the Damned,” and served as a precursor to the Armenian Genocide.

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“A large segment of the Young Turk party maintains the viewpoint that the Ottoman Empire should be based only on the principle of Islam and Pan-Turkism. The non-Muslim and non-Turkish inhabitants should either be forcibly Islamized (converted to Islam) and follow Turkish customs, or otherwise they ought to be destroyed. These gentlemen in Turkey believe that the time is now for the realization of this plan.”

Report from German Vice Consular to the Ottoman Empire, Max Erwin von Scheubner-Richter

Anti-Christian and pro-Turkish nationalist sentiment in the Ottoman Empire continued well into the early 20th Century as the country took steps to modernize amid a visible geopolitical decline. In 1908, a small group of ambitious political revolutionaries known as the Young Turks gained power of the empire through their political party, the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP). The Young Turks sought to modernize Turkey and, through a coup d’état by military officers that same year, they removed Abdul Hamid II from power. 

An ideological struggle between nationalists and decentralization-focused liberals emerged in the CUP, however, even as the organization was pushing the country toward modernization. Ultimately, in 1913, the fight came to an end when the nationalistic wing seized control of the party, appointing a triumvirate of Grand Vizier Mehmed Tallat Pasha, Minister of War Ismail Enver Pasha and Minister of the Navy Ahmed Djemal Pasha to head the government — a group collectively known as the Three Pashas.

The trio came to lead what was now a crumbling eastern empire. Nationalist aspirations were fermenting among Arab intellectuals to the south, and a series of brutal defeats against Christian subjects in the Balkan Wars of 1912–1913 lost them what little European territory they had left. This resulted in an increased antipathy toward the Ottoman Christian population as well as a mass influx of Muslim refugees into historically Christian territories.

Seizing on the political opportunity of a recently defeated and rapidly collapsing Ottoman Empire, the oppressed Armenians appealed to Europe for help, hoping to secure greater international oversight regarding their treatment. Meanwhile, in 1914, the Ottomans entered World War I on the side of Germany. In January of 1915, Enver Pasha was soundly defeated by Russian forces at the Battle of Sarikamish. Ill-equipped for the freezing conditions of the Russian winter, Ottoman forces were routed in what was one of the most humiliating battles of the war. The presence of Armenian volunteers fighting alongside the Russian military also proved particularly enraging to Ottoman military leaders. As a result, Enver Pasha returned to Turkey, publicly blaming the loss on all Armenians and stoking ethnic tensions in the months preceding the genocide.

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Turkey is taking advantage of the war in order to thoroughly liquidate its internal foes, i.e., the indigenous Christians, without being thereby disturbed by foreign intervention. ” 

— Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire Talaat Pasha to Dr. Mordtmann of the German Embassy, June 1915

After the defeat at Sarikamish, Enver Pasha declared the removal and demobilization of all Armenian and other Christian soldiers from the Ottoman military. Enver sought to move the Christian soldiers into unarmed labor battalions, claiming it was a preventive measure against the possibility of them siding with the Russians. Many members of these units were ultimately executed by Turkish soldiers, the transfer of Armenians into an unarmed capacity serving as a preliminary run of the genocide that was yet to come.

Relations between the Armenians and the new Ottoman government took a turn for the worse on April 20, 1915 in the city of Van. The day before, an Ottoman official had demanded the conscription of 4,000 able-bodied Armenian men, a deliberate ploy aimed at pre-emptively executing a possible resistance force. The community resisted and eventually took up defensive arms. A siege by Ottoman forces ensued. Portraying the event as an insurgency, Ottoman officials used this as an opportunity to finally initiate the forced deportations and killings of their Armenian subjects. The decision to eradicate the Christian population, of course, had already been made well before this.

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“I am confident that the whole history of the human race contains no such horrible episode as this. The great massacres and persecutions of the past seem almost insignificant when compared to the sufferings of the Armenian race in 1915.”

Henry Morgenthau Sr., U.S. Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire

And so it began. 

The start of the Armenian Genocide itself is frequently cited as April 24, 1915, a date sometimes referred to as Red Sunday, when 235 Armenian intellectuals in the Ottoman capital of Constantinople were rounded up and deported in a preemptive decapitation strike aimed at stifling any form of organized Christian resistance. The total detainees eventually numbered 2,345, the vast majority of who were murdered following their deportation.

Starting in the summer of 1915, Armenians in eastern Anatolia were forcibly removed from their homes and marched toward concentration camps in the Syrian desert. Insufficient rations were given to displaced Armenians, who were frequently subject to disease, starvation and mass-killings, along the treacherous journey. The death marches were organized by Ottoman military leaders, who utilized irregular military forces to lead the Armenians to their deaths. Local Kurdish and Circassian tribes frequently attacked and looted the prisoners along the way.

Rape and murder were commonplace among these marches. Turkish soldiers, having been told, “Do to [the women] whatever you wish,” took advantage of defenseless women. In cities along the route, such as Damascus and Mosul, female deportees were frequently displayed naked and sold as sex slaves or forced into marriages. Most of all, food was scarce and shelter was non-existent, with many prisoners falling victim to the brutal, scorching conditions of northern Arabia.

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“The roads and the Euphrates are strewn with corpses of exiles, and those who survive are doomed to certain death. It is a plan to exterminate the whole Armenian people.”

Report from The New York Times, August 18, 1915

Those who did survive the death marches, who were few and far between, found themselves in concentration camps in Iraq and Syria. The Empire’s Greek and Assyrian populations did not fare much better.

The Ottoman massacres of its Pontic Greek began first with the government’s policy of population transfer, which frequently relocated Greeks through violent intimidation and fueled ethnic tensions. Coinciding with the timeline of the Armenian Genocide, the Greek population transfers gradually evolved into outright death marches. In total, anywhere from 450,000 to 750,000 Greek civilians were killed from 1913–1922. 

The Assyrians, a distinct ethnic group of Aramaic-speaking Christians, meanwhile, suffered a similar fate as their Greek and Armenian counterparts. The mass killings of Assyrians by Ottoman forces took a number of forms, deportations sometimes among them, but also through other strategies, such as forced famine and the direct destruction of villages. Ultimately, scholars place the total death toll at anywhere from 150,000 to 300,000 Assyrians, out of a pre-war population of around 600,000. 

“The Ottoman Empire should be cleaned up of the Armenians and the Lebanese. We have destroyed the former by the sword, we shall destroy the latter through starvation.”

Enver Pasha, Minister of War of the Ottoman Empire, May 19, 1916

Occurring adjacently, but oftentimes left out of the history of the Ottoman killings, was the deliberate mass starvation of the largely Maronite Christian Lebanese population of Mount Lebanon. Through a blockade of supplies from 1915–1918, an estimated 200,000 Lebanese in the Mount Lebanon Mutasarrifate starved to death, out of a pre-existing community of 400,000. This massacre was further worsened by a siege of international trade routes by the Allied powers, which additionally isolated the communities. The killings implemented on the Armenians were thus becoming the preferred strategy against Ottoman enemies everywhere.

In regards to the Armenians, other forms of mass killing were utilized as well. Mass burnings were a frequent strategy of the Ottoman military; some 80,000 Armenians in 90 villages across the Muş plain were killed by this technique alone. Drownings occurred in the Black Sea, where thousands of Armenian children and women were rounded up and placed on boats that were later capsized — around 50,000 Armenians drowned to death in just the Trabzon province. 

Lesser known and more infrequent incidents of medical killings also occurred. Cases of poisonings (particularly among children and infants), gassings and deliberate typhoid infections were reported as well, techniques that have been argued to have served as inspiration for Nazi human experimentation decades later. Regardless of the manner, the goal was always the same — the deliberate destruction of the Armenian people.

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“The Armenians’ horror shook the world,

The Turkish throne fell to the ground,

Let me tell you about the death of Talaat.

Pour the wine, dear friend, pour the wine,

Drink it nicely; drink it with delight.”

— “Pour the Wine,” Armenian revolutionary song

As is true with all empires, the Ottomans eventually fell.

The defeat and partition of the Ottoman Empire and its territories to the Allied Powers at the end of WWI marked the end of over 600 years of continuous Turkish rule. In its wake, its territories were divided among England and France, eventually becoming hotbeds for their own independence movements.

As for the Three Pashas, the Ottoman leaders who worked to orchestrate the great genocide, they fled the collapsing Turkish empire and found refuge in Germany, only to suffer a series of violent deaths. They were among the targets of Operation Nemesis, a covert mission by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation — known as Dashnaks — aimed at assassinating the masterminds of the Armenian Genocide. Naval Minister Djemal Pasha was killed in Tbilisi, Georgia in 1921.

Grand Vizier Talaat Pasha, widely considered the primary architect of the genocide, was assassinated in broad daylight in Berlin by a Dashnak named Soghomon Tehlirian. Tehlirian, whose parents died in the Armenian Genocide, was arrested and tried for murder — but was then acquitted in just over an hour after he pleaded temporary insanity caused by the trauma of his parents’ deaths. The trial became just as much about the atrocities committed in the genocide organized by Talaat as it did the crime by Tehlirian. The evidence presented in this testimony, in addition to witnessing the Holocaust first-hand two decades after, later motivated Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin to coin the term “genocide” in 1944. 

Interior Minister Enver Pasha escaped the wrath of Operation Nemesis only to die at the hands of a Red Army brigade while leading a revolt against Russian forces in Central Asia. Enver was killed during a counter attack led by Yakov Melkumov, an ethnic Armenian himself.

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“With the genocide of Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians, the culture of an entire region has been distorted, the ancient civilization of Asia Minor disappeared forever. Wasn’t this a crime against humanity?”

Nikol Pashinyan, 16th and current Prime Minister of the Republic of Armenia

In those 30 years between 1894 and 1924, Christians in Turkey declined from 20% of the population to just under 2%. Once home to a diverse population that included some of the world’s oldest Christian communities, Turkey’s population is now estimated at 99.8% Muslim. The ethnic cleansing of the country’s Christian population transformed what was once seen as the great cosmopolitan crossroad between east and west into a contemporary monoculture. Survivors of the great killings of the 20th Century have since become dispersed across the world, with the genocide serving as the primary catalyst for the formation of the Armenian and Assyrian diasporas. 

The Greek population of Turkey, which once numbered in the millions, has declined to the point of virtual extinction, with just around 2,000 ethnic Greeks remaining in the country. In addition to the deliberate massacres of Greek communities, fallout from the Greco-Turkish War of 1919–1922 resulted in the mass expulsion of the Anatolian Greek population. The Lausanne Convention, signed by both sides at the end of war, saw the exchange of some 1.5 million Greeks from Turkey and 500,000 Muslims from Greece. Attacks during the exchange were widespread, and committed by both groups. Around 200,000 Greeks were permitted to remain in Turkey, but decades of racist policies and violent pogroms saw the remaining Greek population decline to its miniscule numbers today. 

Armenians and Assyrians left Turkish territory en masse as well. Driven on death marches to the deserts of Syria, Armenians, in particular, found refuge among smaller, pre-existing communities in both Syria and Lebanon, where they developed into a numerically small, but socially prominent minority, living mostly comfortably among their Arab neighbors. Others fled to Russia, where they briefly formed the Republic of Armenia, later incorporated into the Soviet Union, before once again achieving independence in 1991.

Assyrians, meanwhile, did not fare nearly as lucky, failing to achieve statehood and remaining dispersed throughout the world. The largest populations of Assyrians are still found in their ancestral homelands in Syria and Iraq, where, in recent years, their numbers have continued to decline due to extemist Islamist violence, with BBC and The Atlantic both reporting last year that Assyrians in Iraq and elsewhere were on the verge of extinction. 

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“Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

Adolf Hitler, August 22, 1939, one week before the Nazi invasion of Poland

To this day, the Turkish government denies the role of the Ottoman Empire in the Armenian Genocide. 

Turkey has long questioned the scholarly consensus on the legitimacy of the Ottoman role in the genocide, instead claiming that the numbers are inflated and not the product of an organized killing, but rather the casualties of war. The Turkish lobby in the U.S., meanwhile, has spent millions of dollars in a decades-long campaign to ensure that the U.S. does not formally recognize the Armenian Genocide. Despite widespread pressure from the Armenian diaspora, the U.S. government still refuses to use the term “genocide” to describe the mass killings of Armenians from 1914–1920, due largely in part to worries over harming its strategic relationship with NATO ally Turkey.

Contemporary attempts at recognition and reconciliation between Turkey and its miniscule remaining Christian population have largely failed, with advocates of genocide recognition sometimes falling victim to violent retribution. In 2007, for example, Hrant Dink, the editor of the bilingual Armenian magazine “Agos,” was assassinated in Istanbul by Turkish nationalist Ogün Samast. Dink, an ethnic Armenian and long critic both of the country’s policy of genocide denial and of certain aspects the Armenian diaspora’s efforts at recognition, had previously been prosecuted three times for “denigrating Turkishness.” Controversy ensued when a photograph of the assassin — posing in front of the Turkish flag side-by-side with smiling police officers — surfaced, doing little to assuage concerns over a possible conspiracy or cover up. 

As Turkish ethnonationalism has risen and the country’s population has become more and more racially homogenized, the country’s religious minorities have found themselves in an increasingly hostile environment. And yet, ironically, many Turks themselves have a large degree of Greek or Armenian ancestry.

Some estimates place the number of self-identified Turks with Armenian ancestry to be as high as three to five million. The eradication and assimilation of the Ottoman’s religious minorities took a unique trajectory, with definitions of “Turkishness” combining different complex elements of religious, racial and national identity that were often contradictory. In the years coinciding with the genocide, Armenian women and children were frequently kidnapped and enticed into forced conversions, with the children adopted by Muslim families and the girls and women taken to harems to be married to new husbands. Armenian orphans were deliberately placed into Turkish orphanages where they were given news names, circumcized and forced to convert to Islam. Indeed, the eradication of the Armenians of Turkey can be understood as a deliberate ethnic cleansing, a product of the late Ottoman nationalistic government’s policy of Turkification, which sought to homogenize the empire’s population.

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“The Armenian massacre was the greatest crime of the war, and the failure to act against Turkey is to condone it […] the failure to deal radically with the Turkish horror means that all talk of guaranteeing the future peace of the world is mischievous nonsense.”

Theodore Roosevelt in private letter to Cleveland Hoadley Dodge, May 11, 1918

The legacy of the Armenian Genocide has thus been subject to scorn and debate. Efforts at lasting recognition have become a key goal of the Armenian community, both at home and abroad. In addition to attempts at raising awareness and lobbying the U.S. government to formally recognize the genocide, Armenians have used April 24 — Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day — as an opportunity to both mourn and educate. In 2015, on the 100th anniversary of the genocide, over 130,000 protestors marched from the Little Armenia neighborhood in East Hollywood to the Turkish consulate in Los Angeles, demanding recognition of the Armenian Genocide.

Such action has become replicated elsewhere, including at UC Davis. Every year, on April 24, members of the Armenian Student Association gather in the MU for a “die-in,” where protestors silently lie down or hold signs in commemoration of the genocide. Elsewhere, pushes by Armenian students and other allies have resulted in the implementation of legislation aimed at the recognition of these killings.

In 2015, the ASUCD Senate joined a number of other UC campuses in passing a bill calling for the UC Board of Regents to divest over $74 million dollars from the Republic of Turkey due to its continued denial of the Armenian Genocide. Three years later, in 2018, ACUSD passed Senate Resolution #12, which formally recognized and condemned the Ottoman government’s destruction of its Armenian community.

These sorts of maneuvers may seem insignificant initially, but they are the first small steps in establishing a formal recognition of one of the great crimes against humanity of the 20th Century. For it was the Armenian Genocide that partly inspired and enabled the slaughters that proceeded it. For it was this bloodshed that initiated the first mass exodus of Christians from the Middle East and empowered the ongoing one that followed. For it was this carnage and butchery, this deliberate eradication of an unjustly villainized people, that not only annihilated the presence of an ancient ethno-religious community in the very lands where it first took root, but also destroyed thousands of years of history in the process. 

Lest we forget.

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“I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia. See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.”

William Saroyan

Written by: Brandon Jetter — brjetter@ucdavis.edu

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