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Published:June 22nd, 2008 15:41 EST
The Armenian Genocide Mysteries of History

The Armenian Genocide Mysteries of History

By Krzys Wasilewski

This week our topic is the Armenian Genocide.

It is approximated that up to 1.5 million people lost their lives in a carefully planned operation - designed by Turkish officials and carried out by the police and army. Even though documents issued by local authorities and foreign diplomats alike unequivocally put the blame on the Turkish government, contemporary Turkish leaders deny any genocide ever took place.

First, let`s examine the word genocide. It was coined by a Polish lawyer, Raphael Lemkin, who immigrated to the United States shortly after the German armies rolled into Poland. He first used the term in his book, entitled Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, published in 1944 when the horrors of Nazi concentration camps began to unveil. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, genocide derives from the Greek word genos, meaning race, kind; and cidere, a Latin verb meaning to kill.

The Ottoman Empire, which once stretched as far north as what is now Bulgaria and Ukraine and as far south as Iraq, was a mosaic of nations and cultures that can only be compared to the melting pot of the United States. Unlike in America, however, the peoples of the Empire rarely lived in harmony, rebelling against the central government ever since they were squeezed in one country at the end of the thirteenth century. At the beginning of the twentieth century, it was just a matter of time when this cultural bomb exploded.

In 1915, Europe was too busy with her Great War to worry about the small Armenian nation somewhere on the outskirts of the continent. Still a partner of the Central Powers (the coalition led by Germany), the Ottoman Empire reduced itself to an object of war operations rather than their subject, striving to survive another year in one piece. This meant that no disobedience could be tolerated and the most susceptible to wage a domestic rebellion had to be eliminated - physically if necessary. Armenians with their Christian faith and Russian sympathies were the first on the list.

Following massacres of the Armenian groups in the first quarter of 1915, the Turkish government issued a decree in May that ordered the deportation of everyone suspicious. Moreover those forced to relocate were deprived of their possessions as abandoned properties. Only one member of the parliament opposed the move, saying, this is atrocious. Grab my arm, eject me from my village, then sell my goods and properties, such a thing can never be permissible. Neither the conscience of the Ottomans nor the law can allow it.  The decree was repeated on September 13, 1915.

Thousands of Armenians - women, children, old and young - were expelled from their homes and forced into a march southward that for many became the last in their lives. The New York Times from the period reported that the roads and the [River] Euphrates are strewn with corpses of exiles, and those who survive are doomed to certain death. It is a plan to exterminate the whole Armenian people.  Those who miraculously did not die were locked in one of some 25 concentration camps located in the area of present-day southern Turkey.

Such a large operation could not be concealed from foreigners present in the Ottoman Empire. Among them, perhaps the strongest opposition came from Hans Morgenthau Sr., the American ambassador stationed in Constantinople. Deportation of and excess against peaceful Armenians is increasing and from harrowing reports of eye witnesses it appears that a campaign of race extermination is in progress under a pretext of reprisal against rebellion, Morgenthau reported on July 16, 1915.

Journalists who managed to sneak in the surroundings of the concentration camps were even more appalled. According to reports filed by American correspondents, Turkish authorities granted immunity from prosecution to those guards who raped, beat, and even killed Armenian captives. With few exceptions no shelter of any kind is provided and the people coming from a cold climate are left under the scorching desert sun without food and water, the New York Times alarmed on August 8, 1916. Concentration camps quickly turned into death camps.

Despite widespread condemnation of its policies, Turkish officials obstinately claimed they were only retaliating against a pro-Russian fifth column. But inquires came not only from neutral countries such as the United States, but also from Turkey`s own allies: Germany and Austria-Hungary. Even Pope Benedict XV, who until then had refused to antagonize either of the warring sides in order not to undermine peace efforts, condemned the Turkish government.

Remember, Nations do not die, said the pontiff. Humiliated and oppressed, they bear the weight of the yoke imposed upon them, preparing themselves for their come-back and transmitting from one generation to the next a sad legacy of hatred and vendetta.

When the first pictures of hundreds of corpses scattered on the roads were published in American and British newspapers, Turkish officials had to admit that indeed some incidents involving Armenian nationals had happened. Hans Morgenthau Sr., who tirelessly telegraphed the State Department, saw it in quite a different light. Death in its several forms massacre, starvation, exhaustion ? destroyed the larger part of the refugees, wrote the American ambassador. The Turkish policy was that of extermination under the guise of deportation.

In Washington, DC, a number of former and present politicians decided to establish a committee that would work towards stopping the genocide. The American Committee for Armenian and Syrian Relief came to life in 1915 and grouped such big names as former US President Theodore Roosevelt and William Jennings Bryan, a three-time Democratic presidential candidate. Some $10 million were collected by 1918, which greatly eased the lives of thousands of Armenians.

Yet neither money nor political condemnation prevented the genocide. Various sources provide different figures but the most probable number speaks of at least 600,000 people shot, starved, buried alive, or left to die in the middle of the desert. None of the perpetrators went on trial - only several Turkish politicians and military men had been transported to the Mediterranean island of Malta where, unrestrained, they spent three years surrounded by beautiful beaches and cool forests.

The Ottoman Empire disappeared from the face of the earth after World War I - and so did the memory of those hundreds of thousands of Armenians who had perished in Turkish concentration camps. Days before attacking Poland, Adolf Hitler reportedly said in August 1939: Accordingly, I have placed my death-head formation in readiness...with orders to them to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language...Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?

Even now, at the onset of the 21st century, Turkey the Ottoman Empire`s successor refuses to acknowledge that the genocide ever happened. Anyone who dares to disobey the ban faces years in prison and public ostracism, often followed by death threats from ardent nationalists. Declining accusations of the genocide, one Turkish politician asked, would you admit to the crimes of your grandfathers, if these crimes didn`t really happen?

That`s all for this week`s edition of Mysteries of History. Next Sunday: Che Guevara a ruthless thug who murdered with no remorse yet is still revered by millions of people around the world. What`s the mystery behind his popularity?

Stay in touch and remember - you make history every day. And unlike the Turkish government, take responsibility for your past deeds!

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