The Armenian Genocide
World War I and The Young Turks’ Final Solution to the Armenian Question
In the summer of 1914 Europe was engulfed in the greatest conflict up to that time – World War I. The Young Turks Party leaders were now the real rulers of the Ottoman Empire. They had come to power as reformers in a Turkish Spring movement. Enver Pasha was Minister of War, controlling the armed forces. Jamal Pasha was Military Governor of Constantinople. Later he held other key posts. Talaat Pasha became Minister of the Interior. This triumvirate, especially Talaat, perceived the world war as an opportunity to settle some major national problems – especially the Armenian question: How should they deal with the presence of some two million Armenian Christians within the Ottoman Empire? Despite frequent protestations of friendship, they had never been at ease with such a large unassimilated minority. Interference by great powers had prevented Turkish authorities from dealing with Armenians as they saw fit. Germany promised Turkey freedom from foreign involvement in its affairs. In August 1914 the Turkish government made an alliance with Germany.
Early developments involving Turkish forces in World War I gave Turkey’s leaders a purported excuse for what they perceived as their Armenian problem. They devised plans for a final solution which was nothing less than the first (and precedent setting) genocide of the Twentieth Century.
In the winter of 1914 Turkey launched a massive invasion of Russia in the Caucuses. This became a military disaster for Turkey. Between 75,000 to 90,000 Ottoman troops were lost, either killed or died in the harsh conditions of the region. As Russian armies poured toward heavily Armenian populated territory, Turkish leaders blamed the disaster on Armenians rather than their own military incompetence. They said that the local Armenians represented a security risk as they may assist Russian invaders. That hazard could be eliminated by eliminating the Armenian population in the war zone.
However, there was danger of allied intervention to protect Armenians. Another wartime development seemed to remove that potentiality.
During 1915 the British attempted to conquer Gallipoli from which they could be able to take the imperial capital of Istanbul. This turned into a military disaster for the United Kingdom. Its forces withdrew, thus freeing Turkey from fear of imminent western attacks on its center of power. The two war developments worked in tandem. British historian Lord Kinross wrote:
“The British failure at Gallipoli gave a breathing space to the Young Turk triumvirate, leaving it free to pursue, without external interference, a premeditated internal policy for the final elimination of the Armenian race. Their proximity to the Russians on the Caucasus front furnished a convenient pretext for their persecution, on a scale far exceeding the atrocities of Abdul Hamid, through the deportation and massacre of one million Armenians, more than half of whom perished.”
Taner Akçam, a Turkish historian, has documented that the Young Turk leadership made a clear cut plan for genocide against the Armenians.” “We have many indications that the decision for genocide was made by the CUP [Committee of Union and Progress] Central Committee deliberately and after long consideration.”2/ Others have presented more undeniable evidence, including a document from a secret Young Turk leadership meeting in December 1914 or January 1915. Talaat Pasha, the Minister of the Interior, presided. The plan agreed upon at the conference was published by Peter Balakian. It is nothing less than a blueprint for genocide. Its main points included a proposal to excite Moslem hatred of Armenians in several regions to provoke massacres and “apply measures to exterminate all [Armenian] males under 50, priests and teachers, leave girls and children to be Islamisized”…”kill off in an appropriate manner all Armenians in the army…”
The young Turks also set up a plan for mass deportations of most Armenians from their homes in Anatolia and elsewhere. A special organization was established to carry out these plans.
They were quickly implemented.
Armenian men in the military were among the first major targets by the end of February 1915. They were disarmed and placed in so called labor battalions. There they were massacred by the tens of thousands eliminating them as possible protectors of their people. U.S. Ambassador Henry Morgenthau wrote of the mass executions of Armenian soldiers after they were disarmed:
“In almost all cases the procedure was the same. Here and there squads of 50 or 100 men would be taken, bound together in groups of four, and then marched out to a secluded spot a short distance from the village. Suddenly the sound of rifle shots would fill the air those sent to bury the bodies would find them invariably stark naked, for, as usual, the Turks had stolen all their clothes.”
On May 27, 1915 the temporary Law of Deportation was proclaimed, setting the stage for a mass forced exodus, mostly of Armenians but also of a large number of Greeks. The Turkish government ordered the removal of almost all Armenians from their homes in the traditional Ottoman Empire, especially in Anatolia. Some exception was made for residents of Constantinople, Smyrna and other limited areas. This was probably due to commercial motivations and the fact that atrocities in those major cities were too visible to representatives of foreign powers, including Turkish allies. However, as described by Father Grigoris Balakian, himself expelled from Turkey, hundreds of prominent Armenians in the Constantinople area were arrested. Many were eventually executed. These included writers like Khachadour Maloumian and Sempad Pivrad, physician-scholar Dr. Nazareth Daghavarian, Krikor Torosian, famous editor of a satirical paper, Adom Yarjanian, poet and national assembly member, as well as many other notables.
The publicized policy regarding Armenians was just to relocate them from most of Anatolia for national security reasons. It was never stated that a genocide was intended. However, Turkish historian Taner Akçam in his 1999 book concluded that genocidal extermination of Armenians was the real plan of the ruling Young Turk party. He presented evidence that, while publicized orders were for only the deportations of Armenians, “there were separate, unofficial orders for the annihilation of the deportees, issued by the CUP Central Committee and conveyed to the provinces through party channels.”
Akcam also argued that the mass expulsion of Armenians under hazardous conditions without real preparation to provide necessities for their exceedingly difficult journey, shows that the intention was to kill them and not to just expel them. He noted that initial foreign offers of aid for the victims were often routinely rejected. Akcam observed that the general lack of protection for the refugees against frequent government aroused attacks by Kurds and other Muslims also indicated a plan for extermination.
The expulsions had started before the general orders were issued, but now they went full force, in the spring of 1915 until early 1916. It became a massive exodus of a Biblical scale like that of the ancient Israelites. The Armenians were sent to wander in the wilderness. U.S. Ambassador Henry Morgenthau received numerous diplomatic reports on the sufferings deported Armenians faced and described how “for the better part of six months, from April to October, 1915, practically all of the highways in Asia Minor were crowded with these unearthly bands of exiles."
They faced the hardships of the journey, heat, exhaustion, lack of food and water, but pushed on with inadequate rest. Accompanying guards often murdered them. They underwent massacres by Kurds and Turks. Survivors were often robbed of everything, including all their clothes to stagger in a state of full nudity like animals. Many of the prettiest girls, though still children, were taken as sex slaves. The London Times reported children of both sexes subject to sexual defilement, being sold to houses of ill repute as well as to individuals.
Morgenthau noted how, in a short time on the road, the effect on the people was devastating:
“The hot sun of the desert burned their scantily clothed bodies, and their bare feet, treading the hot sand of the desert, became so sore that thousands fell and died or were killed where they lay. Thus, in a few days, what had been a procession of normal human beings became a stumbling horde of dust-covered skeletons…”
Turkish authorities also pioneered in the use of cattle cars for the transportation of Armenian men, women, and children. The conditions were such that many died in the transport. Nazis were able to learn from this experiment in inhumanity.
Camps were set up for the expelled Armenians. Leslie A. Davis, U.S. Consul in Turkey from 1914 to 1917 made many official reports thoroughly documenting the atrocities he eyewitnessed. He described a camp for Armenians that he personally visited in 1915:
“The most horrible scene I have ever witnessed, one not surpassed by any in Dante’s ‘Inferno’, was the group of those who remained at the first large camp after the majority of the exiles had gone. The first time I saw this group was in the dusk of the evening. There were several hundred of the dead and dying scattered about the camp, the most of whom were under a guard, but they made no objection to my walking among them. Right in the road, stretched flat on his back, lay the body of a middle-aged man who had apparently just died or been killed. A number of dead bodies of women and children lay here and there, while all around were the sick and dying. Old men sat there mumbling incoherently. Women with matted hair and sunken eyes sat staring like maniacs. One, whose face has haunted my memory ever since, was so emaciated and the skin was drawn so tightly over her features that her head appeared to be only a lifeless skull. Others were in the spasms of death. Children with bloated bellies were on the ground wallowing in filth. Some were in convulsions. All in the camp were beyond help. Within a few feet of them was a long trench and each day those who were dead, or thought to be dead, were gathered up by the gendarmes and dumped into it.”
Davis found more evidence of mass extermination of Armenians. He observed numerous dead in other areas. These were often bodies often grotesquely mutilated. Davis reported seeing “dead bodies all along the way. Some were directly in the path so that the horses were obliged to step over them….At one place on the mountain my Turk companion pointed to a valley alongside of the path and said a great many Armenians had been killed in that valley…we could smell the dead bodies…I visited the place, however, a year and a half later and saw the bones of hundreds of people in that valley in the fields between the mountain and the village of Keghvenk. We saw where thousands of people had been killed. Most of them had been buried in shallow graves but we saw many of their bones.”
Davis was repeatedly told that many of the killings were arranged by the Turkish police. When a camp for Armenians was set up, he wrote: “The gendarmes summoned the Kurds…as this old man told us, and ordered them to kill the Armenians, telling the Kurds they could make money in this way but would have trouble, if they refused.”
Other diplomatic reports tell a similar tale of horrors. British Consul Stevens reported “that the Turkish troops have completely ravaged Sassoon, killing the majority of the inhabitants and defenders of the town.” Some Armenians had started to fight back, an inexcusable offense for the Young Turks. Turkish excess bred at times Armenian excesses, which created a cycle of blood and violence. In some areas the refugees suffered so much from hunger and disease that about 100 a day died. The killings spread throughout much of the Ottoman Empire. Near Baghdad about 1000 Armenians were slaughtered. A great variety of methods were used for the executions, including large scale drownings.
Some were burned alive. The number of dead victims soon reached staggering proportions. Turkish official Huseyin Kazim Kadri said that the toll was 200,000 in Lebanon alone.
Massive massacres took place in many regions. Only a few can be described here. Father Grigoris Balakian reported a massacre of Armenians in the district of Yozgat. He was given information on it by boastful Turkish officers. A captain of the Yozgat police told of the methods used to “cleanse” the area of Armenians. Turkish officers told how the Armenian men were killed first, then some younger women were picked for a marriage or harems. Thousands of other women and children were murdered. Father Balakian wrote: “The police soldiers in Yozgat and Bogazliyan who accompanied us would even boast to some of us about how they had committed tortures and decapitations, cut off and chopped up body parts with axes, and how they had dismembered suckling infants and children by pulling apart their legs, or dashing them on the rocks.”
Religious hatred was a major motivation for the persecution of Armenians. Talaat, the Interior Minister, had the Shekh-ul-Islam, or head Muslim cleric, issue a Fatwa declaring the Armenians to be enemies of Islam and the Fatherland.
This caused many fervent Muslims to feel justified in killing those enemy Christians. A substantial number of others now believed forced conversions to Islam were also desirable.
Consequently the campaign against Armenians also involved significant pressure for Islamization. Most frequently this was imposed on the women and children. U.S. Consul Davis wrote regarding his district: “The policy that is being pursued openly here in regard to women and children is to compel them to become Moslems.”17/ He added that the government’s goal was that Turkey “is to be purely Moslem and nothing else.”
The policy of forcing Armenian children to become Muslims was denounced even by Turkey’s ally Germany. In October 1916 German Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs, Zimmerman, while criticizing murders of Armenians, also specifically condemned “’forcible’ mass conversions” of the resulting orphans.
Quite a few Turks did not support the extermination policy of the government and took substantial risks to protect Armenians. Father Grigoris Balakian described how a local Turkish official warned an Armenian friend about the planned holocaust and told him to leave with his family.
Many Armenians were saved by Turkish dissidents Taner Akçam wrote of one such dramatic case. Haji Halil, a Muslim Turk, hid eight members of an Armenian family in his home for six months. This was at a time when a Turk protecting Armenians was subject to hanging in front of his house. The house would be burned as an additional penalty.
The Turks of Aintab would not permit the exile of local Armenians. At least one provincial governor took measures to save many Armenians from starvation. Rahmi Bey, the Vale of Smyrna, repeatedly spoke against the anti-Armenian policy and refused to hand over Armenian suspects. Djahid Bey and Djavid Bey also protested the genocide.
There were other Turkish leaders who tried to oppose the genocidal policies of the Young Turks. Some did so privately and others publicly. However, the massacres continued well into 1916. The suffering of Armenians shocked the civilized world. Protests from many sources poured into Turkey. In October 1915 Pope Benedict sent a letter to the Sultan interceding for “the unfortunate Armenian population.”
Many foreign diplomats also tried to use their influence to ameliorate the situation. On August 31, 1915 Turkish allies, Germany and Austria-Hungary, through their Ambassadors in Constantinople protested “against the massacre of Armenians.” They requested a written acknowledgement from the Turkish government that they had no connection with the atrocities.
Germany and Austria also gave substantial aid to surviving Armenians, often in the face of Turkish Resistance to such efforts. Father Grigoris Balakian quoted a Turkish officer saying that the protests of the German Embassy against the genocide did slow down some of the extermination. However, the effect was only temporary.
U.S. Ambassador Henry Morgenthau was extremely active in trying to protect Armenians through diplomatic means. His book on his tenure as Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire is an invaluable record of the Armenian holocaust. He repeatedly pressured Talaat to stop the genocide. Even though the U.S. was neutral in the war at the time and had no real power to do anything to stop the killings, the Ambassador tried to reason with the Turkish leader about the wrongfulness of Young Turk actions. Talaat brushed aside Morgenthau’s criticisms and suggested that since the diplomat was Jewish and Turkey had a long lasting good relationship with Jews, he should not be concerned with Christian Armenians. Morgenthau replied that he was not there as a Jew but as the American Ambassador:
“My country contains something more than 97,000,000 Christians and something more less than 30,000,000 Jews. So, at least in my Ambassadorial capacity, I am 97% Christian, but after all, that is not the point. I do not appeal to you in the name of any race or any religion, but merely as a human being.”
Talaat was not moved. He justified the expulsion and genocide of Armenians for three basic reasons. First, “they have enriched themselves at the expense of the Turks. In the second place, they are determined to domineer over us and establish a separate state. In the third place they have openly encouraged our enemies. They have assisted the Russians in the Caucasus and our failure there is largely explained by their actions.”
Talaat was particularly upset by Armenian armed resistance like at Musa Dagh, and retaliatory killings by Armenians of Turks. Morgenthau reasoned with Talaat, saying that even if a few Armenians did “betray” the Ottoman state that would not justify destroying the entire Armenian race. Talaat did not agree. He explained his views to a German paper, saying that “Those who were innocent today might be guilty tomorrow.”
This concept of punishing possible future guilt runs counter to all civilized concepts of justice.
Turkish leaders continued attempts to justify their policy towards Armenians. A March 1916 white paper sent to foreign governments restated the Young Turk positions. It emphasized the allegedly generous treatment of Armenians by Turks, saying that Armenians had profited “…from the benevolent and trustful attitude of the Ottoman government toward them…and the majority of them had acquired large fortunes.”
Armenians were accused of not valuing the wonderful prosperity received under Ottoman rule, but were ungrateful and “…not only failed to appreciate the benefits of the justice and well-being they enjoyed, but, on the contrary…did not fail to profit from every opportunity to create problems and difficulties at home and abroad…”
Armenian revolutionary committees were said to have “succeeded in enlisting practically all Armenians in their organizations…”
Armenians were again charged with cooperating with Russians on the Caucuses front. Therefore their removal was declared a strategic necessity during the war. Armenian massacres of Muslims were alleged as another justification of their persecution.
The White paper admitted that “Armenians were sometimes victims of regrettable abuses and violence; but however deplorable they might be, they were inevitable because of the profound indignation of the Moslem population against the Armenians who tried by revolution and treason to place in danger the existence of the very country of which they were citizens.”
The clear implication of this is that Armenians deserved what they got because they brought it on themselves.
Despite the alleged multiple wrongdoings by Armenians, the White papers claimed that Turkish leaders tried to safeguard them, declaring that “the Imperial Government took all possible measures to protect the lives and property of Armenians whose place of residence was changed, and never ceased to respect their legal rights.”
Seldom have official government pronouncements been so demonstrably untrue. It is certainly false that the treatment of Armenians had been generally benevolent before World War I. We have ample documentation of massive massacres of Armenians under Abdul Hamid. To claim that most Armenians were rich is ludicrous. Similar myths were stated about Jews. Just a small group of Turkish Armenians were revolutionaries, killed innocent Turks, or helped Russians. The vast majority only wanted survival. The Young Turks often cited the Armenians’ struggle in the district of Van as an example of revolutionary activity. However, Ambassador Morgenthau has shown that instead of an unprovoked uprising, it was a defensive mass action. Armenians there resisted known Turkish plans to kill thousands of their men folk under the guise of drafting them for the military.
A huge mass of documentation proves beyond a reasonable doubt that these excuses for atrocities were false. The Young Turks leadership planned genocide. There was no concern for the Armenians’ well-being at all.
Turkish authorities continued their genocide despite protests. The toll of Armenians was also joined by expelled Greeks and others. But Armenians continued as prime victims.
Well before the end of World War I, the number of Armenians killed or caused to die by the persecutions was monumental. Father Grigoris Balakian wrote that by the end of 1915 three quarters of the Armenians from historic Ottoman Armenia were “extinct.” For awhile the exceptions were only Armenians from Constantinople and Smyrna, but as mentioned, many of them would be killed later.
Estimates of the World War I Armenian genocide casualties vary. Father Balakian wrote that over “one million Armenian city dwellers and peasants were savagely slaughtered”…
Henry Morgenthau, based on official sources, estimated at least 600,000 Armenian dead, but possibly as many as 1,000,000.35/ This figure does not include a large number of Armenian deaths brought about by Turkish policies in the final phases of World War I and its aftermath. Vahakn Nidadrian has documented that several Turkish leaders, including the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal, have stated that 800,000 were directly killed. Many other thousands died as a consequence of their treatment.
The genocide was accompanied by massive expropriation and confiscation of Armenian property. This was done under the cover of laws that did not specifically name Armenians. However, it was clear which group was the target. American consul J.B. Jackson has indicated that the desire to obtain Armenian property was a major reason for their persecution.
Genocidal Young Turk policies were “a gigantic plundering scheme as well as a final blow to extinguish the [Armenian] race.”
By the end of World War I, the vast majority of Armenians of Turkey were dead. Most of their property was in Turkish hands. The Young Turks largely succeeded in their genocide and ethnic cleansing. But the hatred of major Turkish leaders towards Armenians was not quenched. After World War I more atrocities occurred. The Western allies and surviving Armenian leaders sought justice. This was never really obtained.
The Armenian genocide was one of the greatest tragedies of modern times. This was not only because of the disaster that descended on Armenians, but also because it set the precedent for other genocides to come – especially the holocaust of World War II.
Recently some Turkish historians, like Taner Akçam in his book A Shameful Act, have recognized that what was done to Armenians during World War I was a genocide orchestrated by Young Turk leaders. However, this position is still unacceptable in Turkey and could lead to severe criminal penalties if published there.
Most Turkish historians on the subject seem to echo the justifications given by Talaat and the White papers. Turkish historian Kamuran Gurun has expounded this more accepted view in his 1985 book, The Armenian File, the Myth of Innocence Exposed. He argued that the Armenians brought on themselves what happened to them and that Turkey is not responsible:
“The Armenians were forced to emigrate because they had joined the ranks of the enemy. The fact that they were civilians does not change the situation. Those who were killed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the Second World War were also civilians. Those who were killed during the First World War in France, Belgium, and Holland were also civilians. We gave above some examples as to how the civilians were killed. Turkey did not kill them, but relocated them. As it was impossible to adopt a better solution under the circumstances, it cannot be accepted that those who died because they were unable to resist the hardships of the journey were killed by the Turks.”
Gurun cherry-picks the evidence to support his thesis. His arguments are not very convincing. As long as the predominant Turkish opinion refuses to accept the national responsibility for the extremely well documented genocide, there will be no closure on what happened. Similar excuses as the ones expounded by Young Turks could easily be applied by others against their perceived enemies. The Armenian genocide achieved for its perpetrators most of what they sought to gain from it and has become the very prototype of a successful ethnic cleansing and mass murder.
After World War I, new Turkish leaders generated still another chapter in the Armenian tragedy, again achieving considerable success. These were lessons avidly learned by Hitler and the Nazis.
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.
Armenian Genocide Part III© Draft 2 2010 Miljan Peter Ilich January 5, 2012