April 24, 1915: the Armenian Genocide began, the Armenian diaspora was created, and Ottoman Turkey sought to destroy the Christian minorities centralized in Eastern Anatolia, what was once Western Armenia. To this day, this crime goes unpunished and unacknowledged.
In the 14th century, Cilicia, Armenia’s last kingdom, crumbled, and Armenia’s territory became a highly-contentious crossroad as it split into Eastern and Western Armenia, eventually between the Russian and Ottoman Empires, respectively. To maintain their language, culture, and Christianity within the Ottoman Empire, Armenians established a millet under the Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople, rendering themselves second-class citizens, taxed for being religious minorities.
Fast forward to the 19th century, and nationalism was on the rise in Europe. In the wake of the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, the Ottoman Empire lost its control over Eastern Anatolia, the Balkans, and Cyprus, and after a request from Armenians, the Congress of Berlin ordered that the Ottoman Empire resolve the “Armenian Question” in order to ensure that the minority would be protected. However, the international powers never enforced this, and in turn, the Hamidian Massacres began. Contrasting the protests Armenians led for civil reform, Sultan Abdul Hamid II labeled Armenians as the scapegoats, causing the empire’s decline to further alienate Armenians from the majority of the Turkish population. In a desperate attempt to halt the Ottoman Empire’s dissolvement, Turks and Kurds, with the government’s permission, raided, looted, and murdered 100,000-300,000 Armenians from 1894-1897 in the Hamidian Massacres. Any thoughts of gaining self-determination were crushed as the Armenian revolutionaries had either escaped to Russia or been killed, leaving Sultan Hamid to declare the “Armenian Question” closed in 1897.
Seeing the sultan’s abuse of power, both Turks and Armenians began supporting the opposing government, the Young Turks, specifically the faction Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), who would come to power. However, the CUP became increasingly more repressive, and after the Ottoman Empire lost the the 1912 Balkan War, forfeiting its holdings in Europe and causing an influx of Muslim refugees, Armenians and other Christians again became a scapegoat for the empire’s failures, but this time under the regime of the Young Turks.
In 1914, the Ottoman Empire attacked Russian ports in the Black Sea, marking its entrance into WWI. As Armenia was split between the Russian and Ottoman Empires, the latter grew increasingly worried that Armenians of Turkey would use this as an opportunity to reunite with their brethren under Russian rule. And thus, the Ottoman Empire began disproportionately recruiting men to join their army to weaken future resistance of Armenian men when the genocide would begin. After significant losses against the Russians, public hatred for the scapegoats grew into massacres and deportations of Armenians across Eastern Anatolia by the orders of the Minister of War Enver Pasha.
Map of Armenian deportation and massacres sites during the Armenian Genocide
And so the Hamidian Massacres were the precursor to something far worse: the complete and utter destruction of the Armenian race through genocide. On April 24, 1915, Talat Pasha ordered the arrest and execution of all leaders of the Armenian population, be they political, religious, or cultural. Guns and weapons were collected, men and boys from age 12 were taken and killed, and Turkish gendarmes forced women, children, and the elderly to march with no bread or water through the deserts of Deir ez-Zor toward Syria. Local militias, bandits, and Kurdish tribes attacked Armenians until each village of historical Armenia had no Armenians; soon, ditches were filled and rivers were blocked with the bodies of Armenians. What man did not murder, disease soon conquered, as the unsanitary conditions of the camps the exiled people were sent and transferred to were a haven of Cholera and starvation. Even arriving in Syria brought little peace, for the camps were often shut down, and very little food and water reached the survivors.
Armenian militants did organize in a few regions to hold off the massacres. Notably, the community of Musa Dagh protected the town for 53 days until French ships rescued the 4000 villagers. But still, 1.5 million Armenians were killed in Ottoman Turkey from 1915-1923.
Genocide consists of not only the physical destruction of a people but also the cultural. To escape this predetermined death, young children, particularly girls, were sent away as brides to Turkish families, and babies raised by Turks never learned of their Armenian roots. During the Genocide, an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 Armenians were Islamized, and today, up to 2 million Turkish citizens may have Armenian ancestry, marking them as crypto Armenians. Those fortunate enough to escape the region created the Armenian diaspora, leading to why today, there are 8 million Armenians worldwide with only 3 million living in Armenia.
This is not to say that Armenians were the only targeted population during the Armenian Genocide. Christians, specifically 250,000 Assyrians and 300,000 Greeks, as well as Yazidis, were killed for not being Turkish.
After the genocide, the government held a trial for its perpetrators, including Talaat, Enver, and Djemal Pasha, in order to alleviate international pressure on post-war Turkey. However, with the 1920 Treaty of Sevres, Armenia was still assigned to receive a region of eastern Anatolia, Western Armenia, but after the Turkish War of Independence, President Mustafa Kemal “Atatürk” revoked the signatories’ citizenships to void the document.
As Turkey has grown out of the Ottoman Empire, the government still denies that these mass killings were Genocide, and those who publicly oppose this stance face the consequences of imprisonment...of imprisonment—and even murder— as per the provisions of Article 301 for “insulting Turkishness.” In 2007, Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink was assassinated in Istanbul for doing nothing but speaking about the Genocide. In response, authorities did little to punish the murderers, and investigations found links between the two. But instead, the people of Turkey choose to unite with Armenians in a movement of justice; a hundred thousands citizens marked in a demonstration to protest the unjust killing.
Banner reads, “we are all all Hrant. We are all Armenian.”
However, the Armenian Genocide is not an event of the past, for the successors of its perpetrators chose to once again bring suffering upon the Armenian people as Turkey allied with Azerbaijan in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War. In a fiery speech of support for Azerbaijan during the July Clashes of Tavush in July of 2020, president of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced “we will continue to fulfill this mission, which our grandfathers have carried out for centuries in the Caucasus again,” just a few months after having referenced survivors of the Christian Genocide as being “leftovers of the sword." Thus, rather than sending Kurds to carry out the Genocide, Turkey controlled Bayrakrar drones and transported Syrian mercenaries to Artsakh to once again void Armenian settlements of its inhabitants. Where Ottoman mobs yelled “death to Armenians!” in 1915, members of the Turkish diaspora of Lyon, France, chanted the same in 2020. And just as the ancient Armenian lands of Kharpert and Van were wiped of their Armenian culture in 1915, Turkey and Azerbaijan hand-in-hand cleansed Shushi and Hadrut of Armenians during the Artsakh War, thereby acting on their self-imposed nickname of “one nation, two states” (said by the former president of Azerbaijan Heydar Aliyev). With Turkish generals at the helm of the Azerbaijani army during the second Artsakh War, the wounds of the Armenian Genocide were reopened.
In 2022, talks between the Armenian and Turkish governments are re-emerging to establish diplomatic relations, but with Turkey’s continuous denial of the 1915 massacres and their military support to Azerbaijan, it is difficult to remain hopeful that the Turkish stance on Armenia and the Armenian Genocide will change. The only way toward stability is acknowledgment and change, but Turkey’s denial of the Armenian, Assyrian, Greek, and Yezidi Genocide, in addition to the consistent support of Azerbaijan’s removal of Armenians from Artsakh, highlights an evident lack of concern. If a crime against humanity is silenced, it will only be repeated; evidently, Hitler was once quoted saying, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” prior to his invasion of Poland; interestingly, Israel too has yet to recognize the Genocide.
The Kurdish groups that participated in the Genocide acknowledged their wrongdoings, and with world powers increasingly recognizing the genocide as such, just as the U.S. did in 2021, there is an indication of a gradual shift to supporting justice. In this, the world must apply pressure and demand that Turkey rise and acknowledge its past in order to make amends for the future. With such concrete steps, the descendants of the Ottoman Empire can come to be a strong voice of peace in Eurasia and the Caucasus.
As Armenians commemorate April 24 year after year, often heard are the words, “never again,” “never forget.” For the sake of humanity, may both ring true.
Anti-war protest from 2020 (left) and comparison of Armenian populations pre and post genocide (right)