Most folks are reasonably knowledgeable, or at least familiar with the Nazi Holocaust in Germany, Poland and elsewhere throughout Europe. And that is as it should be. But mention the Armenian Holocaust perpetrated by the Turkish government (Ottoman Empire) during World War I and you might get a few blank stares. Why? Partially because Jews are very adept at storytelling and their plight at the hands of Hitler’s regime is very compelling in many dimensions, including the fact that it happened within the last 70 years, not over a century ago.
But the other factor may be that Armenians are an ethnic minority that have maintained a low profile in comparison to that of Germany’s holocaust victims. Beyond that, the mass extermination of Armenians, together with Greek and Assyrian ethnics, took place on a somewhat smaller scale – an estimated 1.5 million compared to the 12 million victims of the Nazis. Even so, it should be taken into account that this campaign of terror put to an end over three millennia of Armenian civilization in historic Anatolia.
The Armenian genocide is also distinctly an extermination of Christians, which is not to say that the religion of the victims makes the atrocities committed against them any more or less significant. The historical fact and the experiences of the Armenian people in this genocide is every bit as harrowing and gut wrenching as what the Jews and other opponents of the Third Reich suffered.
Just as Nazis and their sympathizers viewed Jews, blacks, homosexuals and those with congenital deformities as less than human, the Turkish saw Armenian, Greek and Assyrian Christians as less than human. Another commonality is that just as the Nazi holocaust has its wretched and insidious deniers, so does the one committed by the Turks.
A point of distinction between the two events is that while some Germans were not aware of the full extent of the butchery committed by their government and others were indifferent, a large segment of the Turkish population was not only enthusiastic about the cruelty and brutality, but relished the opportunity to participate in it.
This is an advertisement for the showing of a 1918 MGM film titled “Auction of Souls”, which was based on the accounts of mass rape and genocide reported by a survivor – Arshaluys (Aurora) Mardiganian, who appeared in the silent movie and assisted in the production. Unfortunately film archivists believe that the original reels are lost.
To set the background on this, historians are in general agreement that the genocide conducted by the Turks, commenced on April 24, 1915 (Genocide Remembrance Day), beginning with the arrest and deportation of prominent Armenian citizens of the country. But it should not be supposed that such an event was a sudden development. The Ottoman Empire had been mistreating Armenians and other ethnic minorities within its boundaries for over 400 years prior.
There had been numerous well documented massacres of Armenians, a number of which took place in the half century prior to the mass genocide that began in 1915. One such event in 1896, typifies the nature of such terror filled attacks and illustrates the religious motivation of Islamic fanaticism behind the persecution. In a diplomatic dispatch, Henry Barnham, a British Consulate official, gave his personal description of events:
“The butchers and tanners, with sleeves tucked up to the shoulders, armed with clubs and cleavers, cut down the Christians with cries of ‘Allahu akbar!’ (Allah is great!) (and) broke down the doors of their houses with pickaxes and levers, or scaled the walls with ladders. Then when mid-day came they knelt down and said their prayers, and then jumped up and resumed the dreadful work, carrying it on far into the night. Whenever they were unable to beat down the doors they fired the houses with petroleum…”
In the Hamidian massacres of the late 19th century, as many as and possibly more than a quarter million Armenians were slaughtered. Another bloodbath committed against Armenians took place in Adana province in 1909.
Soon after the deportations of August 24, began the organized mass deportations, starvation, forced death marches, rapes, tortures, killing of infants, burning alive, fatal morphine injections, drownings, injections of deadly diseases (Typhoid), gassings and countless other unimaginable brutalities that even shocked the sensibilities of Germans working on railroad construction in the country.
The Encyclopedia of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity, provides a sense of the calculated mayhem executed by the Turks against their disarmed prey:
One of the most distinguishing, if not singular, features of the Armenian Genocide is the array of methods and instruments employed. To spare powder and shells, for example, the perpetrators mostly used daggers, swords, scimitars, bayonets, axes, saws, and cudgels, as attested to by wartime U.S. Ambassador Henry Morgenthau.
To memorialize this important event there is an Armenian Genocide Museum in Armenia and another in Washington, D.C. soon to be opened, together with exhibits hosted by the Museum of Tolerance (Simon Weisenthal Center) in Los Angeles, where you can see the visual documentation of the inhumanity if you have the courage to look at it. The Turks were so proud of their atrocities that they even captured images of them.
Wikipedia recounts the reaction of Major General Otto von Lossow, acting military attaché and head of the German Military Plenipotentiary in the Ottoman Empire, speaking of Ottoman intentions in a conference held in Batum in 1918:
The Turks have embarked upon the “total extermination of the Armenians in Transcaucasia … The aim of Turkish policy is, as I have reiterated, the taking of possession of Armenian districts and the extermination of the Armenians. Talaat’s government wants to destroy all Armenians, not just in Turkey but also outside Turkey. On the basis of all the reports and news coming to me here in Tiflis there hardly can be any doubt that the Turks systematically are aiming at the extermination of the few hundred thousand Armenians whom they left alive until now.
Wiki further discloses the testimony of Dr. Walter Rössler, the German consul in Aleppo during the genocide, heard from an “objective” Armenian that around a quarter of young women, whose appearance was “more or less pleasing”, were regularly raped by the gendarmes, and that “even more beautiful ones” were violated by 10–15 men. This resulted in girls and women being left behind dying.
And in similar fashion to the Nazi holocaust, concentration camps were organized by the Ottoman government. The killing fields where many Armenians were slaughtered? Ironically, incredibly so – it was within the present day footprint of the slaughter taking place today in Syria.
Turkish government maintains position of denial.
Unlike the Nazi holocaust, which the post war German government never officially attempted to claim was fictitious – the only “deniers” being some individual flat earth type historical revisionist cranks and the recalcitrant East German government – the Turkish government to this very day maintains the position that no such policy of extermination ever took place. This, despite – as is also the case in the murders of millions of Jews, Christians and objectors of the Hitler regime, copious amounts of evidence to the contrary.
The modern Turkish government throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, have based the denial of the events on their contention that there existed no documentation linking Turkey to the exterminations. Critics of the government attribute that circumstance to the deliberate destruction of the original records used by Allied military tribunals to convict the planners of the killings.
Now, thanks to the work of Dr. Altug Taner Akçam – a historian at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts – (himself of Turkish heritage), the Turkish government no longer has that excuse to rely on.
Dr. Akçam is a long time student and researcher of the Armenian genocide and has been approaching it as a detective story for decades. Akçam achieved a breakthrough recently in his discovery of what historians call the “smoking gun” in the investigation – an original telegram related to the court proceedings against the government and military officials responsible for the mass murders.
He traced the telegram to an archive that had been stored for safe keeping by the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem.
Dr. Akçam called the discovery “an earthquake in our field” and said he hoped it would remove “the last brick in the denialist wall.” He does not, however, anticipate that Turkey, under the authoritarian regime of nationalist president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, will acknowledge that the ethnic cleansing and atrocities were state sponsored, organized and executed.
“My approach is that as much proof as you put in front of denialists, denialists will remain denialists,” said Bedross Der Matossian, a historian at the University of Nebraska and the author of “Shattered Dreams of Revolution: From Liberty to Violence in the Late Ottoman Empire.”
And the New York Times notes that two years ago, Pope Francis referred to the killings as a genocide and faced a storm of criticism from within Turkey. Many countries, including France, Germany and Greece, have recognized the genocide, each time provoking diplomatic showdowns with Turkey.
A copy of the telegram in question was intercepted by Allied war crimes investigators at the time of the trials. When decoded, the communication revealed that an Ottoman official requested particulars on the deportations and killings of Armenians in eastern Anatolia – now eastern Turkey. The telegram led to the conviction of Behaeddin Shakir for his participation in the planning and organizing of the holocaust.
Dr Akçam, who has been dubbed the “Sherlock Holmes of the Armenian Genocide” by colleague, Eric D. Weitz, a history professor at the City College of New York – has written a book titled, “A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility”.