The underlined politics of the Armenian Genocide. What have we learned?
Updated: Nov 10, 2021
Throughout history, humanity has brought about suffering, mostly among itself. But there are very few, if any, occurrences so terrible as Genocide. The idea of calling for and carrying out the murder of thousands (and sometimes millions) of people by merit of their race or ethnicity alone is appalling and unimaginable for most. What is worse is that the way many genocides are carried out makes them more terrifying in practice than in mere principle. Many times these genocides aren’t executed frankly: they are done slowly and methodically, with each detail planned. In the discussion of genocides, it is impossible to ignore the worst Genocide in history: the holocaust, in which six million Jews were imprisoned and killed. But, in the remembrance of genocides, the holocaust seems to be discussed so often we lose sight of other genocides in history. The Armenian Genocide is what I’ll be discussing in this paper.
To understand the complex factors that brought about this Genocide, we must examine the sociopolitical environment over the years leading to the event. In the 15th century, after Christ, the Ottoman Empire began to expand very rapidly. By 1520, it had already conquered significant amounts of territory in Greece, Egypt, Arabia, and what is known today as Iraq. As part of that expansion, the Caucasus Region, which lies northeast of Turkey, was conquered. The Caucasus was home to many ethnic Armenians, who had lived there for 3,000 years. The Ottoman Empire, Muslim, labeled the Armenians “infidels” because they were primarily Christian. In combination with the belief that the Armenians would side with Russia (because they were also Christian), their religious beliefs led to systemic discrimination. They had few rights and were forced to pay significantly higher taxes than their Muslim neighbors.
In 1887, in response to the unfair treatment, Armenian revolutionary parties formed and demanded reforms. Alarmed by these sentiments, Sultan Abdülhamid II began to raise the rates at which Armenians were taxed. This treatment progressively worsens until a group of Armenian villages in the Susan Region refused to pay these taxes. The Sultan was enraged, sending troops to burn down the villages and massacre its residents, resulting in thousands dead. A year later, a major demonstration was held in Istanbul, protesting for more rights and freedoms. Turkish troops dealt with these demonstrations, and the situation escalated until the troops massacred the protestors. This period was known as the Hamidian Massacres, in which more than 200,000 Armenians were massacred between 1894 and 1896.
In 1908, a Turkish revolutionary party known as The Young Turks dethroned Sultan Abdülhamid II, establishing a constitutional government. At first, Armenians were excited at the idea of elections and a constitution, hoping to gain more rights and freedoms, so they supported the new government. In reality, The Young Turks considered Christians and non-Turks a threat to the new government and sought to “Turkify” the Empire. As a result, the unfairness went largely unresolved. Anti-Christian sentiments increased further after a humiliating defeat in the First Balkan War (which occurred from 1912-1913), which led to a loss of much of the Empire’s territory in Europe. The government blamed the defeat on Christians, believing that they had betrayed them to Europe, predominantly Christian.
In 1914, World War I began, and The Ottoman Empire ended up siding with Austria-Hungary. They suffered several embarrassing defeats in World War I, the most notable at the Battle of Sarikamish in 1915. The reasons behind their losses were most unfortunate conditions and poor leadership, but the government shifted the blame once again to Christians in an attempt to save face. These failures led to a climax of Christian hatred in the Empire, which triggered the Armenian Genocide.
With Anti-Christian sentiments at an all-time high, the Armenian Genocide started. Ottoman forces massacred people in Armenian villages at the Russian border. On April 24, 1915, the Turkish government rounded up and executed thousands of Armenian intellectuals, marking the official start date of the Armenian Genocide. Killing squads were also organized, the majority of which were composed of Turkish criminals. Armenian and non-muslim soldiers were placed into labor battalions and were later systemically murdered. Soon, forces of Ottoman troops started massacring Armenian villages that bordered Russia. What was unusual was that they didn’t go for efficiency in their killings but rather employed terrifying methods of killing. Armenians were drowned, thrown off cliffs, burned alive, and taken as sex slaves. A prevalent form of mass execution was in death marches through the desert, where victims were forced to strip naked and march through the desert until they either dropped dead from heatstroke or were shot for stopping. There were also a few instances of mass burning, specifically of children, the most notable of which occurred in the province of Bitlis. In May of 1915, The Ottoman Parliament authorized the mass deportation of Armenians and other non-muslims. Hundreds of thousands were taken from their homes and forced to march to concentration camps in the Syrian desert. Thousands died on the way to these concentration camps, and those that made it ended up starving to death.
It’s also important to note that two other genocides occurred in the Ottoman Empire simultaneously: The Greek Genocide and The Assyrian Genocide. The Greek Genocide was targeted at the Greeks in Anatolia and took place from 1914-1922, and it ended up killing anywhere between 300,000 to 900,000 people (at least 25% of Greeks in Anatolia). The Assyrian Genocide was targeted at Syriac Christians, occurring from 1915-1923, with a death count of 200,000-750,000. Both of these genocides were targeted at Christians within each ethnic group. The Assyrian Genocide targeted three churches: The Syriac Orthodox Church, The Church of the East, and The Chaldean Catholic Church. These genocides were executed similarly (but not identical) fashion to the Armenian Genocide and arose from the vast rise in anti-christian sentiments throughout the Ottoman Empire. By taking the median of each death count estimate, a total death count of about 2.3 million people murdered from 1914-1923.
So, what can be learned from this? I didn’t write this to prove that genocides are wrong (because that doesn’t need to be verified), nor to teach people a mass of useless information. History is anything but useless; in fact, it might be the most important subject of all. In analyzing history, we learn the complex pattern of behaviors that make up the past, and in doing so, we understand the outcomes of specific actions and attitudes. Our ancestors were sometimes wise beyond our comprehension, and we can learn a lot by researching them. At the same time, they could be unimaginably foolish, and we’d do well to stray from actions that have proven harmful. In keeping with that spirit, what things happened could be avoided, which caused these genocides. I could write pages about this topic, as it is very complex, but I’ll try to sum up my opinions on it for the sake of brevity.
Firstly, it speaks to humanity’s lust for power. A significant motivation for these Genocides was the political advantage of unifying the Ottoman Empire under Islam. When an empire is unified under the same religion, the empire leaders (as seen throughout history) can use (and usually misinterpret) teachings from that religion to fit their cause. Secondly, this teaches us (in my opinion, of course) the necessity of taking responsibility for things that are your fault. In the Ottoman Empire, Christians were often used as scapegoats when the government (or military leaders) failed. In shifting the blame, they robbed themselves of the opportunity to take responsibility and grow as a result. But, what’s more, when they blamed the Christians, they ruined their reputation, which fostered the environment that led to these tragic genocides. Thirdly, this teaches us that resentment impedes progress, both personally and culturally. A significant thing that led to The Armenian Genocide was the resentment that arose when the neighboring Kurds saw Armenians be comparatively more successful economically. When resentment fills our lives, it breeds a sense of hopelessness and victimization. These things, in turn, produce the idea that putting in the effort to improve is futile because, in the end, we will never be as well off as we would be if the thing (or things) that caused our resentment didn’t exist. Shame leads to an individual (and a society) that is bitter and unproductive and who erroneously believes that redemption will only come after eliminating the object of their resentment.
History may be a powerful tool as it gives us an idea of who we are as a society and what led to creating the community we are today. In telling history, excessive emphasis can be put on the bone-chillingly awful events that have occurred (as it often is) or the awe-inspiring things humans have done. Oddly, a species can do something so unthinkably horrible as Genocide while also creating artistic masterpieces, curing diseases, reaching other planets, and seeking to understand existence at a level without equality across all animals. That being said, it makes a certain degree of sense that creatures that possess so much intelligence can use it either to better the world in ways no one imagined or to inflict suffering creatively, methodically, and systematically. Beings that possess the most powerful tools can create either the most suffering or the most benefit. As I look at current events and write this, the present is unfolding and slowly turning again into the past; a small fraction of which will be remembered as history.