Armenians say up to 1.5 million of their kin were killed between 1915 and 1917 as the Ottoman Empire was falling apart and have long sought to win international recognition of the massacres as genocide.
Turkey rejects the claims, arguing that 300,000 to 500,000 Armenians and as many Turks died in civil strife when Armenians rose up against their Ottoman rulers and sided with invading Russian troops.
The killing of 1.5m Armenians by the Ottoman Turks during World War I remains one of the bloodiest and most contentious events of the 20th century, and has been called the first modern genocide. Chillingly, Adolf Hitler used the episode to justify the Nazi murder of six million Jews, saying in 1939: “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
Just as Hitler wanted a Nazi-dominated world that would be Judenrein – cleansed of its Jews – so in 1914 the Ottoman Empire wanted to construct a Muslim empire that would stretch from Istanbul to Manchuria. Armenia, an ancient Christian civilisation spreading out from the eastern end of the Black Sea, stood in its way.
At the turn of the 20th century, there were two million Christian Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire. Already, 200,000 had been killed in a series of pogroms – most of them brutally between 1894 and 1896. In November 1914, the Ottoman Empire entered World War I against the Allies and launched a disastrous military campaign against Russian forces in the Caucasus. It blamed defeat on the Armenians, claiming they had colluded with the Russians.
A prominent Turkish writer at the time described the war as ‘the awaited day’ when the Turks would exact ‘revenge, the horrors of which have not yet been recorded in history’.
Through the final months of 1914, the Ottoman government put together a number of ‘Special Organisation’ units, armed gangs consisting of thousands of convicts specifically released from prison for the purpose.
These killing squads of murderers and thieves were to perpetrate the greatest crimes in the genocide. They were the first state bureaucracy to implement mass killings for the purpose of race extermination. One army commander described them at the time as the ‘butchers of the human species’.
Some died from torture in custody, while many were executed in public places. The resistance poet, Daniel Varoujan, was found disembowelled, with his eyes gouged out. One university professor was made to watch his colleagues have their fingernails and toenails pulled out, before being blinded. He eventually lost his mind, and was let loose naked into the streets.
There were reports of crucifixions, at which the Turks would torment their victims: ‘Now let your Christ come and help you!’ So began a carefully orchestrated campaign to eradicate the Armenians. Throughout this period, Ottoman leaders deceived the world, orchestrating the slaughter using code words in official telegrams.
At later war crimes trials, several military officers testified that the word ‘deportation’ was used to mean ‘massacre’ or ‘annihilation’. Between May and August 1915, the Armenian population of the eastern provinces was deported and murdered en masse.
In urban areas, a town crier was used to deliver the deportation order, and the entire male population would be taken outside the city limits and killed – ‘slaughtered like sheep’. Women and children would then be executed, deported to concentration camps or simply turned out into the deserts and left to starve to death.
Walking skeletons begged for food, and women threw their babies into lakes rather than hand them over to the Turks. There was mass looting and pillaging of Armenian goods. It is reported that civilians burned bodies to find the gold coins the Armenians swallowed for safekeeping.
Tales of atrocity abound. Historians report that the killing squads dashed infants on rocks in front of their mothers. At the horrific Ras-ul-Ain camp near Urfa, two German railway engineers reported seeing three to four hundred women arrive in one day, completely naked. One witness told how Sergeant Nuri, the overseer of the camp, bragged about raping children.
In the desert regions, the Turks set up primitive gas chambers, stuffing Armenians into caves and asphyxiating them with brush fires. Everywhere, there were Armenian corpses: in lakes and rivers, in empty desert cisterns and village wells. Travelers reported that the stench of death pervaded the landscape.d.’
By 1917, the Armenian ‘problem’, as it was described by Ottoman leaders, had been thoroughly ‘resolved’. Muslim families were brought in to occupy empty villages.
Even after the war, the Ottoman ministers were not repentant. In 1920, they praised those responsible for the genocide, saying: ‘These things were done to secure the future of our homeland, which we know is greater and holier than even our own lives.’
Watch this clip about THE ARMENIAN GENOCIDE: