2011-05-04 / Front Page

The Armenian Genocide, The Forgotten Genocide-Part II

In the early twentieth century a new dawn seemed to be rising over the Ottoman Empire. Abdul Hamid II was still on the throne. However, his power was increasingly limited by the rise of support for constitutional government, especially as advocated by the Young Turk reform movement.
The Young Turks represented the elite of the well educated young generation of civilian and military professionals.  They advocated western style reforms of a secular political nature. 
The Committee of Union and Progress led the movement.  Its leaders worked hard to get the support of Christian groups and the West.  Democracy was stated as a goal in opposition to a long time dictator.
In 1902 a Young Turk Congress was held in Paris with a majority of Turkish, but also Armenian, Greek, Jewish and other representatives.  The Congress issued a resolution denouncing the oppression and misdeeds of the Sultan’s regime and calling for the establishment of a constitutional government “which would guarantee rights for all peoples of the Empire”.
The Young Turks stated policy was also to put an end to all massacres of Armenians.
The main Armenian groups, including the popular Dashnak Party, issued declarations of support for the Young Turks’ program.  They stated that their goal was also constitutional reform rather than opposition to the unity of Turkey.  Expecting a birth of freedom, Armenians actively joined the struggle against the longtime dictatorial regime.  Many were enthusiastic in hoping for a brotherhood of Turks, Armenians and others within the Empire.  Even some revolutionary Armenian groups agreed to work peacefully with the Young Turks as hope for a bright new future for Armenians seemed realizable. Many idealists among them trusted the promises of the Young Turks and were ready to forgive the past.
The West applauded the Young Turk movement, which by July 1908 broke into an open military insurgency.  Though this occurred over a century ago it had remarkable similarities to the uprising against the Shah of Iran and recent insurgencies, especially Egypt where many Coptic Christians joined the anti-Mubarak forces with expectations of a better future.
The western press was enthusiastic about the growing allegedly democratic Turkish insurgency.  European and American journals and newspapers eagerly anticipated that a modern westernized Turkey would develop because the reformers proclaimed that their goal was a constitutional government.  
Sultan Abdul Hamid resisted the demands for reforms and the insurgency spread among the military.  Efforts by the government to stop the insurrection failed.  On July 21, 1908 the Committee of Union and Progress sent a telegram to the Sultan requesting the restorations of the constitution and other changes.  There was a threat of military occupation of the capital if the Sultan did not give in.  On July 24, Abdul Hamid accepted the demands and agreed to a constitutional government similar to those in Western Europe.  Abdul Hamid would continue as Sultan and Caliph, or religious leader, but became essentially a figurehead.
The new regime was celebrated by many Christians and Muslims. It would be controlled by the Committee of Union and Progress and so came in with very high expectations. Henry Morgenthau, United States Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, described the era of good feelings that then seemed to be germinating between Young Turk leaders and Armenians, demonstrating once again how hope springs eternal in the hearts of men.
However, everybody was not happy.  Fundamentalists, especially the conservative  Society of Mohammed, wanted an end to liberal reforms and a re-imposition of strict Islamic Law with real Sultanic rule. By April 1909, there was an outbreak of a military and civilian traditionalist insurgency.  After a bloody struggle, the Young Turks quickly prevailed in Istanbul and forced Abdul Hamid’s abdication.  Meanwhile fundamentalist Muslims decided to target Armenians again.  By now, they were the favorite scapegoats of fanatical Muslims and supernationalist Turks.  Most affected were Armenians in the rich agricultural district of Adana and the region of Cilicia.  They were blamed for the support that Armenian leaders had given to the reform movement.  There was also jealousy of the wealth of many Armenians. Some held Muslim mortgages, causing anger that Armenian merchants and craftsmen in the area were more prosperous than the local Turks.  Adana exploded in an orgy of blood and violence around the Paschal period in April 1909.
Turkish mobs rampaged in Adana, killing thousands of Armenians and looting their property.  They claimed that Armenians were revolting and that they were saving the state.  Of course, there was no such revolt, though some Armenians did fight back to save their lives.  But self defense was looked upon as a rebellion.  Many of the zealots seemed to believe that if they wanted to kill or enslave Armenians, the latter must submit like sheep to the slaughter. 
Resistance inflamed the attackers’ passions even more. Women and children were targeted in large numbers.  An Armenian boy could grow to be a fighter.  A woman could give birth to enemies of the Ottoman Empire.  That many of the attackers were also anti-Christian is indicated by their making churches and clerics a frequent target.  Two American missionaries were murdered. The New York Times reported that at least 19 Protestant ministers were killed.
After prevailing in Constantinople, the Young Turks sent their army to quell the Adana fighting.  Armenians believed that they would now be rescued since the arriving military was commanded by their reformist Young Turk allies.  But their expectations were not fulfilled. The troops, upon arrival, claimed Armenians had fired on them.  This was unlikely as Armenians had accepted a ceasefire and surrendered many weapons at the instigation of the British. The Turkish army, together with mobs of Islamic hardliners now commenced an even greater cycle of slaughtering Armenians and destroying Christian schools and churches of all kinds.  Turkish soldiers set fire to the Mousheghian School, a Christian institution.  It housed students and two thousand refugees.  Many who sought to escape were shot by soldiers. The fires spread to the Armenian Church packed with many refugees.  To escape, a priest led them to the French College which was also set on fire.  Gregorian Catholic and Protestant Churches were also burned down.  
Taner Akcam, a Turkish historian wrote that after the slaughter was over, a Turkish soldier wrote in a letter, “We killed thirty thousand of the infidel dogs, whose blood flowed through the streets of Adana.” These infidels were of course Armenians.  U.S. Ambassador Morgenthau recorded that by the end of the murderous rampage at Adana “35,000 people were destroyed”. Nearly all were Armenians. The terror spread from Adana throughout many other areas occupied by Armenians in Asia Minor and parts of Syria. The New York Times reported that mobs rampaged through the ancient Christian city of Antioch and “practically wiped out” the Armenians of the city and the vicinity. Thousands of helpless Armenians – women and children were left as destitute survivors.
In Tarsus, the home of Saint Paul, the Armenian quarter was burned down and churches were sacked.  Massacres were “raging in the neighboring Armenian villages”.
In the Alexandretta district all the Armenian villages were being devastated.  Some 200 Armenian villages and small towns were reported destroyed in Anatolia. The death count overall was clearly much larger that the Adana toll. The true figures will never be known. Many western foreigners were caught up in the danger zones during the widespread massacres.  In Constantinople itself perhaps the most prominent was Mary Custis Lee, the daughter of General Robert E. Lee.  This prompted several countries including the United States and Great Britain to send warships to the area to protect their citizens.  The arrival of western naval forces was a clear potential threat to the Ottoman government that if the killings continued, military intervention would take place.  Much of the leading U.S. press, like the New York Times, was in fact calling for Western military intervention.  American and European public opinion became increasingly inflamed against the atrocities.  Even U.S. President [William Howard] Taft vigorously condemned them and the threat of intervention became more feasible.  Consequently, the Young Turks made certain to stop the killings.  In addition, for the first and perhaps last time, several Turkish government leaders publicly admitted and condemned the atrocities.  This is something they would not do today as denial of blame has been official Turkish policy for close to a century.  The Young Turk government also put on trial many men charged with the atrocities.  After conviction, one hundred twenty four Turks and seven Armenians were executed for crimes during the massacres. Despite the most recent horrors endured by Armenians, many of them hoped for peace and good relations between Turks and Christians, of whom they were still the largest remaining Ottoman group. For several years this seemed possible.  During World War I everything changed.  It had seemed that things could not get worse for Armenians, but they did.
About Miljan Peter Ilich
Historian and filmmaker, Miljan Peter Ilich has eight feature length films, many documentaries and a number of short subjects to his credit as producer. Among them is the controversial ArtWatch, a collaboration with the late Professor James Beck of Columbia University, Frank Mason of the Art Students League of New York and director James Aviles Martin and TCI: the First Hundred Years commissioned by Technical Career Institutes.   Other documentary film credits include Chios 1822: Martyrdom and Resurrection of a People and Cyprus: the Glory and the Tragedy. Feature film credits include the cult film classic, I Was a Teenage Zombie, Mothers; Unsavory Characters; What Really Frightens You, Soft Money and the New York 3-D Sensation, Run For Cover in 3-D.  
Peter Ilich has also produced for theatre and television in New York, most notably the acclaimed play Struck Down, about the 1994 Baseball season. He is the co-host, writer and co- producer of Orthodox Christian Television’s “Chios: the Island of Saints”; “Cyprus: the Glory and the Tragedy”; “The Sacred Land of Kosovo” and frequent panelist on Democracy in Crisis.
Dr. Ilich is a Juris Doctor, New York University and PhD. City University of New York and is a Professor of Law at Technical Career Institutes in New York City.

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