Was there genocide in early 20th century Armenia?

Dear Cecil:

I keep hearing about the Armenian genocide that happened early in the 20th century. The Turkish have done a good job of denial, and there doesn't seem to be that much public recognition of the deed. So, what's the real scoop--genocide or not?

Cecil replies:

It tells you something about human nature and the century just past that the typical response to this question is: What Armenian genocide? Hardly anyone remembers this appalling crime, even though at a million-plus deaths it was the first modern holocaust, ranking eighth on the list of high-body-count butcherings 1900-’87 compiled by genocide historian R. J. Rummel.

Few can even tell you where Armenia is. (The traditional Armenian homeland covers the modern republic of Armenia plus some of Turkey, Iran, and Iraq, but the killings were confined to Turkey and other parts of the old Ottoman empire.) It’s not like the murders were conducted in secret or were over before anybody noticed — on the contrary, they spanned 30 years and received sustained worldwide publicity. So why the amnesia? Turkey’s adamant refusal to acknowledge the massacres is part of it, but equally important is the West’s agreement to forget.

The story of the Armenian extermination has filled books and resists easy summary. Suffice it to say that successive Ottoman and Turkish governments using the machinery of state organized a campaign of ethnic cleansing in which hundreds of thousands of Armenian men, women, and children were shot, beheaded, burned alive, or otherwise done away with. Thousands more succumbed to starvation or disease, and still more were driven into exile.

What had the Armenians done to deserve all this? Not much — their main offense was to be a Christian minority in a crumbling Islamic empire. Like another much-persecuted Middle Eastern ethnic group whose sufferings are better known, the Armenians had an ancient language and culture plus a reputation for clannishness and a knack for finance, and they became the target of a similar type of unreasoning bigotry.

After years of low-level harassment by the Ottoman regime, the first large-scale killings took place from 1894 through 1896, when by conservative estimate 200,000 Armenians died, half murdered by Ottoman forces and the balance dying in the subsequent chaos. The “starving Armenians” became a cause celebre among European and U.S. humanitarians. (Sixty years later your columnist’s guilt-tripping great aunts were still admonishing their young relations to eat their veggies because the starving Armenians didn’t have any.) To no avail — the British government found the Ottomans a useful ally against the Russians and refused to impose sanctions.

When a 1908 revolt by the Young Turks, secular modernizers with a support base in the Turkish army, forced the Ottoman sultan to cede power to a constitutional government, the Armenians thought they might get a break, but the new nationalist leaders proved no more tolerant than the old religious ones. A massacre of 15,000 to 25,000 Armenians in 1909 set the table for the main event during World War I. Blaming the supposedly disloyal Christian minority for an early defeat by the Russians, the Turkish government starting in 1915 rounded up Armenians throughout the country, murdered vast numbers outright and deported the rest, with many dying on forced marches or in refugee camps. The brutal work was carried out by an elaborate bureaucracy that some historians consider a model for the extermination program of the Nazis. Add in a couple of additional massacres in the early 1920s and the Armenian death toll for 1915-1922 totals a million to a million and a half.

For a time after the war it seemed that the surviving Armenians would get a homeland protected by an American mandate, but resurgent U.S. isolationism doomed the effort. (Russian Armenia wound up as a Maryland-sized republic in the Soviet Union; it’s now the site of present-day Armenia.) Attempts to try the Ottoman officials responsible for atrocities came to little. In the 1923 Lausanne treaty, the Western powers abandoned the Armenians in return for commercial guarantees from Turkey, where the no-longer-so-young Turks under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk had consolidated their power.

Though Congress never ratified the treaty, the U.S. made its peace with the Kemal government and Turkey has been a reliable ally in a volatile part of the world ever since. For that reason the U.S. has remained largely silent in the face of Turkish insistence that the Armenian genocide is a myth, was the Armenians’ fault, etc. (One difficulty in researching this topic now is that much of what’s written about it is the work of Armenian or Turkish partisans and so of uncertain reliability. For this column I’ve relied on The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response by Peter Balakian, a persuasive 2003 account by an Armenian-American university professor.) One understands the political realities; still, it’s creepy that a million deaths could be expunged from human memory so thoroughly that 90 years later barely anyone would know.

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