Wer redet heute noch von der Vernichtung der Armenier?
(Who still talks nowadays of the extermination of the Armenians?)
Adolf Hitler, 22 August 1939
Of all the burning questions still smoldering in the unresolved coals of The Great War, none glows so brightly as the events surrounding what most of the non-Turkish, non-Arab world calls “The Armenian Genocide.” Depending on which source one consults, somewhere between 500,000 and 1,500,000 ethnic Armenians perished during World War I beginning in 1915 and continuing even after the official Armistice in 1918. These deaths were not from enemy attack but were carried out by the military and cooperating civilians of the Ottoman Empire.Under the cover of a world wide conflict, the Ottoman Empire sought to finally and definitively find an answer to what a long line of sultans referred to as “The Armenian Question.”
This “question” began plaguing the Ottomans during the 16th century when they first annexed the ancient kingdom of Armenia into their growing empire. At the heart of the issue lies the fact Armenia is the oldest officially Christian nation-state in world history. Way back in 301 AD, just when Christianity was still kicking off in the Middle East, King Tiridates III made it the one official state religion. Throughout the next seventeen centuries, the Armenian heartland remained a stronghold of Christianity if not always an independent nation. When the Ottomans took over from the Persian Empire around 1600, trouble for the Armenians began in earnest. The Ottomans were strongly, almost militantly, Islamic; thus the Christian Armenians came to be seen as a possible “fifth column” for any invader. Beginning almost immediately, the Armenians became a persecuted minority.
The fate of the Armenians in Anatolia throughout the centuries leading up to World War One was not dissimilar to the position European Jewry found itself in for most of its history leading up to World War Two. Just as the Jews in Eastern Europe suffered almost cyclical pogroms and faced constant discrimination, so to the Armenians were the targets of raids and even massacres from time to time. The worst violence occurred during a two year period from 1894-1896 when the Armenians asked for more autonomy from the ruling Ottomans. The Ottoman monarch at that time, Sultan ‘Abdu’l-Hamid II, disagreed with the Armenians’ request and responded to their push for limited independence by slaughtering somewhere between 80,000 to 300,000 people in state sponsored massacres. With this type of persecution in their history, the Armenians couldn’t have been surprised when, in another eerie foreshadowing of events of the Holocaust, the Armenian elites and intellectuals were arrested en masse beginning in April 1915; however, their fate was a new twist on an old persecution and signaled the beginning of the Armenian Genocide.
Instead of the usual period of threatening and roughing up, the jailed intellectuals were summarily executed. In May 1915, the roundup of the Armenians began in earnest. Grand Vizier Mehmet Talaat Pasha colluded with the other two members of the ruling Young Turk triumvirate to institute a version of martial law and stated anyone “suspected” of “possibly” giving aid to the enemy would be detained. Within weeks, soldiers and paramilitary guards began marching any Armenians they could find towards a final concentration point at Dir ez-Zor in what is now Syria. Men, women, and children, infant and elderly alike herded into the small town and the desert surrounding it. Contemporary sources note the Turks provided no shelter or provisions for the detainees despite the insufferable conditions. It was a de facto death camp with thirst, heat, and starvation doing the work gas chambers would later perform.
The Armenians died by the thousands at Dir ez-Zor, but the Ottomans had only begun their cruelty. From the Syrian desert town, groups were force marched to a network of around 25 concentration camps near the present day Iraqi border. These camps for the most part became the final destination for the flower of Armenian Christianity and here many reports of the worst atrocities originated.
One of the most notorious camps was Ra’s al-‘Ayn which I feel could be called the Auschwitz of Armenia. Only women and children went to Ra’s al-‘Ayn — on foot. Those who did not die in the desert along the way entered the camp ragged, dirty, and suffering with disease. It was not unusual for an entire group of refugees to arrive at the camp completely naked, having been stripped and repeatedly raped by their guards during the march. Unfortunately, reaching the camp brought less safety than the desert. Unlike their Nazi counterparts two decades later, the Turks made no pretext of using the gathered people for even slave labor. The Armenians had one job to do from 1916 to 1918 — die, as quickly as possible. To this end, groups of as many as 300 souls were herded out of the camps daily and butchered in the nearby desert after a 20 mile march. More than once, the entire camp would be exterminated at once in order to “prevent the spread of typhus.”
In other camps, high ranking officials perused the arriving refugees as a buyer would cattle. They were representatives of local emirs and dignitaries whose task was to pick out the most beautiful and healthiest of the young women to increase the size of the eminent men’s harems so those poor girls survived hellish conditions only to secure a position where they would be repeatedly raped begging the question, is rape on a Persian rug atop silk pillows any different than rape in the open desert?
Besides rape, the Armenians were subjected to other brutalities of the most uncommon violence. Some commanders did not wish to overload their caravans so entire villages would be herded into the church, the doors would be nailed shut, and — like something out of a Dante’ passage — the building set afire. One Turkish soldier reported seeing as many as 5000 people at once thus burned alive. In other places, water was the preferred means of execution with entire families loaded onto small boats under the pretext of taking them across the Black Sea and giving them to the Russians. The Armenians were justifiably terrified of the water since, originating in a high, cold, and rocky climate, precious few of them ever learned to swim. Their fears came true more often than not as the boats would be purposely capsized once out of sight of land and in this way many more thousands died.
No blog post, indeed no book or series of books, can adequately describe the events of the Armenian Genocide. It stands beside the Holocaust as an example of the supreme hatred of one group of people for another. Ironically, several Germans who were advisers to the Ottoman government during the Great War and witnessed the atrocities committed by the Turks would later go on to hold high positions in the Nazi government of Germany and more than one would become an architect of the German “Final Solution” to the “Jewish Question.”
Love y’all, and as you keep your feet clean . . . remember.