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Who speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?

The first genocide of the 20th century gains scattered remembrance 100 years later


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Who speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?
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Warning: this article contains graphic detail.

According to documents exhibited at the Nuremberg Tribunal following World War II, Adolf Hitler wrote on August 22, 1939: “I have placed my death-head formations in readiness—for the present only in the East—with orders to them to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language. Only thus shall we gain the living space which we need. Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

Thankfully, some today do speak of the killing of 1 million or more Armenians that began on April 24, 1915. Pope Francis on April 12 called it “the first genocide of the 20th century.” The parliament of Sao Paulo, Brazil’s biggest state, passed a resolution declaring April 24 “Armenian Genocide Recognition and Remembrance Day.” The German government, which for years had refused to use the word “genocide,” changed its position on April 20. Two dozen countries and 43 states have declared the mass murder to be “genocide.”

Candidate Barack Obama in 2008 pledged, “as president I will recognize the Armenian Genocide”; but Turkey’s government wishes to suppress the story, and President Obama once again this year refused to use the word “genocide.” On April 21 Ken Hachikian, chairman of the Armenian National Committee of America, said, “President Obama’s surrender to Turkey represents a national disgrace. It is, very simply, a betrayal of truth.”

To understand what happened in 1915, we should start with what happened 20 years earlier in eastern Turkey, where Christians had lived for almost two millennia. Here’s part of a missionary’s letter published in the June 1895 Woman’s Journal: “The less horrible outrages were some of the following: bayoneting the men … outraging [a euphemism for raping] women and then dispatching them with bayonets or swords; ripping up pregnant women; impaling infants and children on the bayonet, or dispatching them with the sword; houses fired and the inmates driven back into the flames.”

A British couple described numerous Armenians walking around “mutilated, hands and right arms cut off, and eyes gouged out,” with Turks taunting them: “Where is your Christ now? Where is your Jesus? Why does he not save you?” British consul Henry Barnham visited the town of Aintab and described its massacre: “The butchers and the tanners, with sleeves tucked up to the shoulders, armed with clubs and cleavers, cut down the Christians with cries of ‘Allahu Akbar!’ … when midday came they knelt down and said their prayers, and then jumped up and resumed the dreadful work.”

Imams incited mobs, and mosques became places of mobilization, especially on Fridays. Under Ottoman law churches were to be respected as places of refuge, but one survivor, Abraham Hartunian, wrote about what happened in the town of Severek: “The blows of an axe crashed in the church doors. The attackers rushed in, tore the Bibles and hymnbooks to pieces, broke and shattered whatever they could, blasphemed the cross. … The leader gave the order to massacre. The first attack was on our pastor. The blow of an axe decapitated him. His blood, spurting in all directions, spattered the walls and ceiling.”

British ethnographer William Ramsay, who spent more than a decade in Turkey and was fond of the Turks, noted that in some cases Ottoman officials were “especially merciful [and] offered their victims an escape from death by accepting Mohammedanism.” British Counsel G.H. Fitzmaurice told of how on December 28 and 29, 1895, some 10,000 Armenians died in Urfa, known in ancient times as Edessa. Survivors of an initial Turkish attack sought refuge in their cathedral, but Turkish troops broke down the iron door, shot or bayoneted everyone on the floor of the church, blocked up the staircases leading to the gallery, and set the church on fire.

Eyewitness accounts in The New York Times and other newspapers around the country prompted an outpouring of contributions to help Armenians. Officials allowed Clara Barton to come with an American Red Cross relief squad in spring 1896. The Republican Party platform in 1896 declared, “The massacres in Armenia have aroused the deep sympathy and just indignation of the American people, and we believe that the United States should exercise all the influence it can properly exert to bring these atrocities to an end.”

THE ATROCITIES DID END—then. But in 1915, during World War I, ostensibly concerned that Armenians would give aid and comfort to potential Russian invaders, Ottoman leaders decided to complete the job begun two decades before. Mustafa Hayri Bey, the Ottoman Empire’s leading Sunni authority, urged his followers to commence jihad. One pamphlet declared, “He who kills even one unbeliever … shall be rewarded by Allah.” The Ottoman Ministry of the Interior gave instructions to exterminate all males under 50, all priests, and all teachers—but leave girls to be Islamized.

The Ottoman government set up special killing squads and developed techniques later used by the Nazis, such as piling those to be killed into train cars—90 in a car with room for 36—and leaving them locked in for days, starving and terrified. U.S. Consul Jesse B. Jackson in 1916 described the results: Armenians for five days “did not receive a morsel of bread, neither a drop of water. They were scorched to death by thirst, hundreds upon hundreds fell dead along the way, their tongues turned to charcoal. … On the seventy-fifth day when they reached Halep [Aleppo] 150 women and children remained from the whole caravan of 18,000.”

The governor of Van province, Jevdet Bey, gained the nickname “the horseshoe master” because he nailed horseshoes to the feet of Armenians. I visited Lake Van a decade ago and saw its beautiful deep blue, but a century ago the shore turned red. Consul Jackson described what he saw: “The sides of the roads are strewn with the bones of decaying bodies.”

Since some of the Armenians, like Jews in Germany, were often richer than the majority populations, Jackson called the jihad a “giant plundering scheme as well as a final blow to extinguish the race.”

Henry Morgenthau, the American ambassador to Turkey, later described what the rare survivors had told him: Those torturing a man would pull off his fingernails and toenails, then “tear off his flesh with red-hot pincers, and then pour boiled butter into the wounds. In some cases the gendarmes would nail hands and feet to pieces of wood—evidently in imitation of the Crucifixion, and then while the sufferer writhes in his agony, they would cry, ‘Now let your Christ come help you.’”

MORGENTHAU, moved by what he heard, tried repeatedly to get Ottoman officials to call off their assassins. Interior Minister Mehmed Talaat once asked him, “Why are you so interested in the Armenians anyway? You are a Jew; these people are Christians.” Morgenthau replied, “My country contains something more than 97,000,000 Christians and something less than 3,000,000 Jews. So, at least in my ambassadorial capacity, I am 97 per cent Christian.” Talaat later asked if American life insurance companies that had written policies for Armenians could be pushed to name as beneficiaries the Ottoman government, since they will “have left no heirs to collect the money.”

One survivor’s story became a hit book, Ravished Armenia, that was then turned into a silent film. Aurora Mardiganian had made it to Ellis Island in 1917 following the deaths of her mother, father, brother, and sisters. British authorities allowed showing of the film in their country only after producers deleted a scene of Armenian women being crucified—but the story behind that scene shows how today’s Islamic State is not setting the record for barbarism.

Mardiganian acknowledged that the scene, which showed the women crucified on large crosses with their long hair covering their nude bodies, was inauthentic. She said, “The Turks didn’t make their crosses like that. The Turks made little pointed crosses. They took the clothes off the girls. They made them bend down. And after raping them, they made them sit on the pointed wood, through the vagina. That’s the way they killed.”

She said Americans had made a more civilized movie: “They can’t show such terrible things.”

For a further study ...

The Burning Tigris Peter Balakian (Harper, 2004)

They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else Ronald Grigor Suny (Princeton, 2015)

Armenian Golgotha Grigoris Balakian (Vintage, 2010)

Ravished Armenia Aurora Mardiganian (Indo-European Publishing, 2014)

Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story Henry Morgenthau (Cosimo Classics, 2007)

Forgotten Fire Adam Bagdasarian (Laurel Leaf, 2002)

My Grandmother Fethiye Çetin (Verso, 2008)

“100 Lives” (100lives.com), an online, ongoing documentary project collecting stories of “survivors and saviors” of the Armenian Genocide.


Marvin Olasky

Marvin is the former editor in chief of WORLD, having retired in January 2022, and former dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.

@MarvinOlasky

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