By the spring of 1915, much of Europe was engulfed in The Great War, and much of America was determined to stay out of it and in its growing prosperity. Few in either place were concerned with affairs that would lead to what some historians consider the first genocide in the 20th century. Armenians call it “Medz Yeghern,” or “Great Crime.” Before it was over, 1.5 million Armenians were killed, and hundreds of thousands of others were driven from their ancestral homeland.
The roots of this tragedy reach into the 19th century. Armenians, though treated as second-class citizens, were integrated in Ottoman culture, along with other ethnic minorities including Greeks, Assryians, Kurds and Arabs. When Sultan Abdul Hamid II took power in 1876, that began to change. Abdul Hamid ignored Armenian appeals for political equality. He replaced the old model of ethnic diversity with a new state policy of ethnic “purification.”
From 1894-96, full-scale massacres were carried out by Ottoman troops and the Kurdish militias causing the deaths of about 200,000 Armenians, along with several thousand Assryians. With earlier hopes for reform lost, Armenians turned to others. In 1908 a group calling themselves Young Turks deposed the Sultan, with the enthusiastic support of Armenians. But within a year, Armenians suffered more massacres. The new government was just as determined as the old one to have a new nation that was Islamic and Turkish. Christian Armenians had to be eliminated.
The Turkish government has maintained for 100 years that what happened to the Armenians was not genocide, that is, not a deliberate, systematic effort to exterminate an ethnic group or nation. The evidence says otherwise. Historians have recently discovered, in the Ottoman archives in Istanbul, government-made ethnographic maps and census documents that were used to alter the ethnic composition of certain regions by eradicating certain groups and replacing them with others.
There were well placed witnessess as well. Johannes Østrup, a professor at the University of Copenhagen, spoke on several occasions with Talaat Pasha, widely considered the mastermind of the genocide. In the autumn of 1910, during a tour of the Ottoman Empire, Østrup wrote, “among many other things, we also talked about the Armenians. ‘You see,’ he said, ‘between us and this people there is an incompatibility which cannot be solved in a peaceful manner; either they will completely undermine us, or we will have to annihilate them. If I ever come to power in this country, I will use all my might to exterminate the Armenians.’” A few years later, U.S. ambassador Henry Morgenthau, who was in frequent personal contact with Talaat, wrote that Talaat made similar comments to him.
In February, 1915, the Turkish Minister of War ordered that all Armenian soldiers serving in the Third Ottoman Army in Turkey be disarmed and executed, or assigned to labor battalions, where most soon died of exhaustion or disease. On April 24, the government arrested about 250 of the leading Armenian men in Constantinople. Most were soon murdered. In May, mass deportations and massacres began.
Ottoman archives contain extermination orders from a paramilitary committee called the Special Organization and transmitted to regional governors. The pattern was consistent, much like the massacres in the 1890’s. Usually, all Armenian males, ages 16 to 60 were marched outside of town and executed. Turkish militias and Kurdish militias evicted the remaining women, children and old men on predetermined routes toward the Syrian Desert. Hundreds of villages, cities and provinces were systematically emptied of once peaceful, thriving Armenian communities.
Rather than protect the convoys, the militias functioned as hired gangs that preyed on the deportees at will, robbing them of the meager possessions they carried, shooting or bayoneting them when they faltered, and raping the women when they pleased. They also notified Turkish and Kurdish communities in advance that the convoy was coming and invited them to join the carnage.
Within weeks after the deportations began, German, Austrian, Hungarian, American and Swedish ambassadors began receiving chilling reports from their consuls all over the country about the unfolding travesty. The consuls described lakes and gorges filled with hundreds of thousands of bodies. Henry Morgenthau also received anguished pleas from American missionaries, who sent or personally brought reports of mass atrocities they could hardly bear to describe. The German consul from Mosul related that, in many places on the road from Mosul to Aleppo, he had seen children’s hands lying hacked off in such numbers that one could have paved the road with them.
Christian missionaries in Aleppo, cooperating with American and German diplomats, began operating a secret network to aid the refugees. The Ottoman government reacted in 1916 by massacring hundreds of thousands of the refugees in the camps. In 1917-18 British troops discovered survivors living in appalling conditions.
Scores of reputable eyewitnesses from more than 15 countries are on record describing the massacres and confirming that they were a deliberate attempt to exterminate the Armenian people. They include high-ranking Ottoman officials, ambassadors from Ottoman allies—Germany, Austria and Hungary—as well as military officers, scholars, and missionaries from Ottoman allies and from neutral countries, including American diplomats and missionaries. Also among them are physicians who treated Armenian torture victims, a Nobel prize-winning scientist from Norway, and respected journalists.
Armenians also honor those who at great personal risk acted to save Armenian lives. Here are a few of the hundreds.
Henry Morgenthau—American ambassador, who personally confronted the main perpetrators, and mobilized American relief efforts for surviving Armenians.
Anna Hedwig Büll —Estonian missionary who saved 2000 women and children
Max von Scheubner-Richter—German vice-consul in Erzurum
Faik Ali Ozansoy—Turkish governor of Kutahya, saved thousands
Jakob Künzler—Swiss surgeon, saved thousands
Leslie Davis—American consul in Kharput; also provided important photo documentation in The Slaughterhouse Province
Bodil Katharine Biørn—Norwegian missionary, saved thousands
Süleyman Nazif—Turkish governor of Baghdad, refused to obey deportation orders and urged other governors to do the same
Ernest Jakob Christoffel—German pastor, saved thousands
Hasan Mazhar Bey—Turkish governor of Ankara who refused to obey deportation orders and headed the post-war commission that documented the genocide
Maria Jacobson—Danish missionary, saved thousands through relief
Armin Wegner—German soldier, stationed in Syria, who disobeyed orders intended to smother news of the massacres; his photos comprise the core of witness images of the genocide.
Celal Bey—Turkish governor of Aleppo and Konya, saved thousands
Giacomo Gorini—Italian consul in Trabzon, saved about 50,000
Ordinary Turks who protected their Armenian friends, neighbors and business partners
Today Armenians around the world met to honor the lives of those who lived and suffered nobly against galling injustice, and to witness to the truth about what was done. Though Armenians were deeply wounded by the genocide, we are not defined by it. We are defined by a settled trust in a source that transcends governments, armies and ourselves.
If Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was right, and I believe he was, when he said that “the arc of history bends toward justice,” it must be because God is bending it that way. How could there be such a thing as justice if it were not so? Those who work for justice, such as those mentioned above, participate with God in bending that arc. That is why their efforts matter, why the suffering of those they could not save matters, why all genocides matter, and why our witness matters.