1915, exactly 100 years ago, marked the beginning of a tragic event known today as the Armenian Genocide, which was the extermination of the Armenian people in the Ottoman Empire. This occurred from 1915-1923 and led to the death of approximately one and a half million Armenians, while those that lived were forcibly Islamized or exiled.
This horrific event was begun by a group of Turkish extremists who gained power of the Turkish government in the early 1900s. Known as the Young Turks, this group was determined to create a new Ottoman empire called Turan, with one language, religion, and culture. The only thing standing in their way were the two million Armenians who had dwelt on the land they wanted to expand into for over three thousand years.
The Armenian people were not only Christian, while the Turks were Islamic, but they also had their own distinct language and cultural identity which differed from that of the Turks. Another source of contention for the Turks were that the Armenians were typically more educated and wealthier than their neighbors. The government of the Young Turks moved against the Armenians to try to “cleanse” the land in preparation for their empire. They branded the Armenians as infidels and anti-Armenian demonstrations were held, exploiting the cultural and religious differences between the two groups of people to try to turn each and every Turk against the Armenians.
The actions taken by the Turkish government during these times are shocking. They began by forcibly disarming the entire Armenian population and reducing those Armenians serving in the Turkish military to slave laborers, if not just killing them outright. The real horror began on April 24th, 1915, though, when 300 Armenian citizens were hanged and shot in Constantinople. Afterwards, soldiers scoured the countryside, arresting Armenian men, tying them together, and murdering them with death squads.
Moving to the remaining Armenians, namely women, children, and the elderly, they grouped them together and sent them on death marches into the Syrian Desert. If the marches didn’t kill the Armenian citizens, then the bandits or government units tasked with raiding the groups of wanderers would assuredly do the job. Many of the women were forced to work in brothels while others were drowned, thrown off cliffs, or even burned alive. It is estimated that 75% of the Armenians forced to march did not survive the journey.
Not only did the Turks murder the vast majority of the American population, but they attempted to erase them from history, much as Hitler intended to do with the Jewish population just a few decades later. They destroyed anything of Armenian cultural and historical significance, including artistic masterpieces, old archives, and even entire cities, including their ancient capital of Ani.
These horrific crimes did not go unnoticed by the rest of the world, however. Among others, U.S. diplomats, German government liaisons, and missionaries saw the corpses of the thousands of Armenian people scattered about the countryside. Henry Morgenthau, who was a U.S. ambassador in Turkey reported that “when the Turkish authorities gave the orders for these deportations, they were merely giving the death warrant to a whole race.” The Allied Powers held the Ottoman government responsible for the massacres if the Armenian people and signed the Treaty of Servers in 1920, which gave the Armenian people their own republic, free and independent of outside rule.
However, soon a new Turkish Empire arose and again tried to occupy the Armenian lands. What stands now as Armenia is a small fraction of those who survived the genocide and later Turkish invasion by becoming a part of the Soviet Union.
To this day the Turkish government denies any allegations of genocide, instead arguing that the Armenians were enemies and the massacre was a necessity of war. Despite global pressure from social justice advocates as well as the Armenians themselves, Turkey refused to acknowledge the slaughter that occurred for what it was, a genocide. It is even illegal in Turkey to say the word ‘genocide’ when referring to the mass murder of the Armenian population.
April 24th, the date of the arrest and murder of several hundred Armenians, is recognized worldwide as a day to commemorate the genocide and the hundreds of thousands who died — it is known as Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day.
Here in Minnesota there are several events being held to both educate people about what happened 100 years ago and to honor those who perished. The Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota is holding events for three days to honor the centennial, from Thursday April 23rd to Saturday April 25th. The events, which include a lecture and a student conference are open to the public.
St. Sahag Armenian Church is St. Paul will be hosting guest speaker Steve Hunegs, who is executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas (JCRC) at 7 p.m. on April 24th.
For more information and additional local events, visit the church’s website.
Check out this link for information about the upcoming U of M events.