a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

90 years ago: Armenian genocide begins

Posted by Thomas Nephew on April 24th, 2005

The Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) remembers:

During the night of April 23-24, 1915, Armenian political, religious, educational, and intellectual leaders in Istanbul were arrested, deported to the interior, and mercilessly put to death. Next, the Turkish government ordered the deportation of the Armenian people to “relocation centers” – actually to the barren deserts of Syria and Mesopotamia. The Armenians were driven out brutally from the length and breadth of the empire. Secrecy, surprise, deception, torture, dehumanization, rape and pillage were all a part of the process. The whole of Asia Minor was put in motion.

The greatest torment was reserved for the women and children, who were driven for months over mountains and deserts [see map], often dehumanized by being stripped naked and repeatedly preyed upon and abused. Intentionally deprived of food and water, they fell by the hundreds of thousands along the routes to the desert.

Historians estimate one and a half million people died.

No doubt this seems long ago and far away. But if you’re tempted to think you don’t “have a dog in this fight,” one of the interesting — in a bad way — things about this is how one element of this genocide lives on and on.

That element is denial. The Turkish government continues to fight any characterization of what happened in 1915-16 as a genocide. Think what your opinion would be of Germany if its leadership denied the Holocaust had ever happened, or that it was genocidal in intent and execution. In my opinion, that’s thankfully not the case; as a whole, German society and its state continue to acknowledge and wrestle with this dark past, rather than deny it or cover it up.

That’s pretty much the opposite of what the Turkish government is doing; sadly, denying the Armenian genocide seems to be one of the unifying principles of its political leadership, no matter whether Muslim or secular parties are in power.

A recent case in point: the German Bundestag debate this week about a resolution remembering the events of 1915-1916. The statement, introduced by CDU opposition member Christoph Bergner, was phrased and debated in exceedingly mild terms. It acknowledged German wartime official neglect of the horrors,* and even avoided the words “genocide” or its German equivalent Voelkermord — perhaps to avoid coloring the debate about Turkey’s application for European Union membership. But even this met with vehement Turkish opposition. As German newsweekly SPIEGEL’s Severin Weiland reported:

One day before the Bundestag debate, Turkish ambassador Mehmet Ali Irtemçelik commented again about the Armenia debate in the mass periodical “Hürriyet.” He repeated the Turkish position that it was not the job of parliaments to make judgements about historical events. Should the sponsors of the Bundestag resolution “and the organizations behind it succeed in attaining their goal, it will be unavoidable that Turkey and the nearly three million Turks living here will draw the consequences of this position.”

The ambassador continued that he feared that if “this resolution or one like it is adopted, despite official efforts to prevent it, the damage to [Turkish-German] relations will be of a scope and dimension that can not be foreseen at this time.”

The Turkish position is that Armenians constituted a fifth column for the Allies inside the Turkish Empire, and that the entire population therefore had to be relocated from near the Russian front, with most arriving safely at their destinations in present-day Syria.

This is untrue. There were isolated anti-Turkish Armenian groups and actions, but none justifying the scale of slaughter that Turkish government and local tribesmen committed during 1915-1916. The sheer scale of the exodus gives the lie to military necessity at the Turkish northeastern front.** Whole towns like Musa Dagh — where Armenians waged a heroic resistance immortalized by Franz Werfel’s The Forty Days of Musa Dagh — were besieged by the Turkish military and their inhabitants massacred. Refugee columns from elsewhere in eastern and central Turkey were effectively defenseless, by design, and were attacked mercilessly by soldiers and locals alike, by design. Turkish leader Talaat Pasha launched the genocide with an unambiguous command:

Kill every Armenian woman, child, and man, without concern for anything.

Despite being on the losing side of World War I, Turkey avoided facing any consequences for what happened. One world leader took note — Adolf Hitler. In 1939, he remarked:

Who today remembers the extermination of the Armenians?

What happened was genocide, and Turkey needs to face both that and its coverup to earn a place in civilized society. It appears that will not happen any time soon.

Further resources:
Armenian Genocide Institute-Museum, Armenia
the forgotten (ABC news program with survivor eyewitness accounts, and photos smuggled out of Turkey by German soldier/observer Armin Wegner)
Armenian Genocide Contemporary Articles: news reports in the New York Times and other papers at the time
— Hye Etch (Armenian internet site): Armenian genocide;
— Selected prior posts on this site: Armenian genocide: now it’s fit to print; Genocide: “Never again” or “Again: whatever”?
Stop the Genocide in Darfur (Armenian National Committee of America)

* Resolution sponsor Bergner cited a message by then German chancellorTheobald von Bethmann-Hollweg to the German ambassador to Turkey: “our single goal is to keep Turkey on our side until the end of the war, regardless whether the Armenians are destroyed because of that or not.”
** Maps: ANCA,

2 Responses to “90 years ago: Armenian genocide begins”

  1. » Blog Archive » You’d think this would get more attention Says:

    […] often about the Armenian Genocide and the struggle to have it acknowledged as such. (See, e.g., 90 years ago: Armenian Genocide Begins and Another Day, Another Turkish New Lira for the Washington Post) While I like to think I’d […]

  2. » Blog Archive » Department of followups Says:

    […] Jackson Diehl’s “The House’s Ottoman Agenda”, 03/05/07; 90 years ago: Armenian genocide begins, 04/25/05 — Back in March, the Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl wrote an exceptionally […]

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