Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The greatest genocide of the 20th century

bones of killed Armenians and Greeks near Smyrna, around 1916-1920
The Armenian Genocide took place under cover of World War I and had four major stages. In the first stage, all able-bodied Armenian men aged 20 to 45 were conscripted into the Ottoman army. They served as soldiers at first, but in early 1915 they were disarmed and reduced to laborers toiling under brutal conditions, even working as pack animals. Many were bound and shot. In the second stage, Armenian politicians, community leaders, educators, intellectuals, and leading priests were arrested in April 1915 and soon deported and executed. In the third stage, beginning in May and June of 1915, the remaining Armenian population was deported, supposedly for relocation in the deserts of Mesopotamia, then part of the Ottoman Empire. Large numbers of the deportees in the eastern and central provinces of Trabzon, Sivas, Harput, Erzurum, Van, and Bitlis were killed at the outset in mass executions. Others died on the forced marches due to exposure, starvation, dehydration, or mistreatment. But contrary to expectations, about 200,000 to 300,000 Armenians-mainly from Turkey's western, northwestern, and southwestern provinces-survived the long trek. These wretched survivors, reduced by starvation to skin and bones, faced another series of massacres in the areas of Dayr az Zawr and Ra's al 'Ayn in Syria. Three primary methods were used in the massacres: blunt instruments; mass drownings in the Black Sea and tributaries of the Euphrates River; and incineration in stables, haylofts, and specially dug large pits in the provinces of Bitlis, Harput, and Aleppo.

A group of turkish party functionaries, mostly former military officers, were given sweeping authority to organize and supervise the killing of Armenians, including veto power over provincial governors who might object. Local party leaders and hardened criminals assisted party functionaries in this task. The criminals, released from the empire's several prisons for massacre duty, functioned as an indispensable instrument in carrying out the Armenian Genocide.

The main rationale of the perpetrators was that the Armenians were internal enemies of the Ottoman Empire, had engaged in acts of sabotage and espionage, had rebelled in Van province, and were fighting against the Turks as volunteers in Russia's Caucasus army. In April 1915 the Armenians had risen up in Van province in a desperate last-ditch attempt to resist deportation and certain destruction, as they also had resisted in Mussa Dagh (now Musada?i), Shabin Karahisar (now Kara Hissar Sahib), and Urfa. Successive military setbacks prevented the Young Turks from completing the deportations and massacres in the rest of the country, mainly Constantinople (Ystanbul), Smyrna (now Yzmir), and Aleppo.

Surviving official Ottoman documents as well as documents from the archives of the empire's wartime allies-Germany and Austria-Hungary-indicate that the extermination of the Ottoman Armenians was premeditated and centrally organized by the Young Turk regime. As many as 1.2 million Ottoman Armenians perished, out of a prewar Armenian population estimated at 1.8 million. A postwar Ottoman interior minister revealed in 1919 that 800,000 of the Armenian victims were killed outright. Of the survivors, some 250,000 managed to escape to the Caucasus, primarily to what is now Armenia but also to Georgia, and about 100,000 women and children were forcibly converted to Islam. The remaining survivors dispersed in every direction. Many immigrated to the United States. Today, about 60,000 Armenians live in Turkey, most of them in Istanbul.

Despite the Allies wartime pledges, at the end of World War I they failed to prosecute and punish the authors of the Armenian Genocide. A Turkish military court held a series of courts-martial from 1919 to 1921 that sought to hold the CUP responsible for the massacres. Although the court convicted a number of officials, including cabinet ministers, many of those involved escaped punishment or fled the country. The sentences of the court, mostly rendered in absentia, bore little relationship to the enormity of what British historian Arnold Toynbee called "this gigantic crime." The United States ambassador to the Ottoman Empire Henry Morgenthau described that crime as "the murder of a nation." With the triumph of Turkish wartime hero and nationalist insurgent Mustafa Kemal, later known as Ataturk, the Republic of Turkey was created and the courts-martial were abruptly discontinued.

History of the massacres

By the late 1800s the Ottoman Empire was seriously weakened. Various Haemus (Balkan) Christian peoples under Ottoman rule had gained independence as a result of a series of Greek and Serbian insurrections and the Russo-Turkish war of 1877 and 1878. Russia, the victor in that war, had imposed harsh terms on the Ottoman Empire in the peace treaty. Alarmed at Russia's growing strength, other European powers, notably Austria-Hungary and Britain, insisted upon a new treaty. In doing so they invoked the 1856 Treaty of Paris, which ended the Crimean War. That treaty stipulated that all six Great Powers must be involved in negotiations with the Ottoman government. The Great Powers met in 1878 at the Congress of Berlin to draw up a new treaty. Article 61 of the Treaty of Berlin called for the Ottoman sultan to immediately put into effect reforms needed to protect the security of Armenians. It also authorized the European powers to "superintend the application" of these reforms.

Despite pressure from Britain, reforms were not undertaken by the defeated Ottoman Empire, which protested that an empty treasury prevented it from policing its eastern provinces. The sultan, however, strongly opposed these reforms on behalf of Armenians in the belief that they would lead to autonomy (self-government) and ultimately to independence for the Armenians. This process had been the pattern in the Haemus (Balkan)s.

At this time Muslim Kurdish tribes, spurred by the sultan's policy of Islamic patriotism, were raiding Armenian villages in the eastern provinces of the empire. Corrupt tax collectors also harassed villagers. Conflict with the Armenians intensified when certain Armenian groups that despaired of peaceful reforms abandoned that quest and resorted to confrontation. Three revolutionary parties sprang up as a result. Ottoman Armenians led one party, the Armenakans, which formed in 1885 in the eastern Van province. The other two were rather militant and combative parties founded by Russian Armenians. In 1887 emigrants from Russian Armenia founded the Hunchak party in Geneva, Switzerland. Three years later Russian Armenians in Tbilisi, Georgia, founded the Dashnak party.

Armenian demonstrations against Ottoman authorities took place in 1890 and 1895 in the Ottoman capital, Constantinople (now Istanbul). The Hunchaks organized uprisings in the towns of Sason, in 1894, and Zeytun (now Suleymanl?), in 1895. The Dashnaks mounted an unsuccessful expedition across the Russian border into Ottoman territory in 1890 and occupied the Ottoman Bank in 1896. These revolutionary undertakings led to counterattacks against the empire's general Armenian population. Empire-wide massacres of Armenians from 1894 to 1896 claimed approximately 200,000 victims, either directly or as a result of associated hardships. Under the banner of Islam, Sultan Abd al-Hamid II had enlisted the help of several Kurdish tribes in the eastern part of the empire. They acted as quasi-military detachments and played a critical role in the destruction of property and lives. These attacks became known as the Sultan Abd al-Hamid-era Armenian massacres.

Some of the Armenian revolutionaries and others hoped that the massacres would provoke the intervention of the European powers (Britain, France, Austria-Hungary, and Germany). Although the leaders of the European powers publicly condemned the actions of the sultan, they failed to intervene. Mutual rivalries and suspicions, as well as the imprecise terms of Article 61 of the Treaty of Berlin, helped produce this inaction. But these bloody episodes soon paved the way for the rise of a new nationalist movement in the Ottoman Empire that would displace Islam as the main rallying force.

Upset by Abd al-Hamid's increasingly autocratic rule and alarmed by threats to the empire's survival, a group of civilian and military revolutionaries known as the Young Turks, combined their resources and efforts, inside and outside the empire, to overthrow the sultan and his regime. The Young Turk Revolution of 1908 and 1909 restored the empire's constitution and parliament and deposed Abd al-Hamid. By ending the sultan's 33-year despotic reign, the Young Turks hoped to stop the empire's decay and disintegration.

Although Abd al-Hamid's brother retained the title of sultan, a group of Young Turks operating under the name Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) dominated the government in one way or another, except for a brief period. Eager to infuse the empire with a new, progressive spirit, the CUP embraced the ideals of the French Revolution: liberty, equality, and fraternity. Despite success in enacting certain legal and administrative reforms, however, the CUP's foreign policies and domestic nationality policies soon drove the empire into an abyss.

Lacking leaders experienced in the art of government, the Young Turks continued to conduct themselves as a secret revolutionary organisation in the years following the revolution. They became increasingly intolerant of criticism and dissent and resorted to tactics of intimidation and terror. When rebellions broke out in various parts of the empire, the government responded with repression by military force. Their greatest blunders related to nationality conflicts, which culminated in the Haemus (Balkan) Wars in 1912 and 1913, conflicts that cost the Ottomans their remaining territory in the Haemus (Balkan)s. The First Haemus (Balkan) War (1912) was especially devastating to the empire. The substantial territorial and human losses from the war led to a national crisis during which the radical wing of the Young Turk party maneuvered itself into a position of party dominance in the spring of 1913. Thereafter, authoritarian elements of the Young Turk party controlled the central and provincial governments of the empire. A new policy of nationalism was adopted, which emphasized Turkism (the culture and traditions of the Turks) as a substitute for multiethnic Ottomanism. On the one hand it sought to replace Islam as the empire's unifying force, but on the other it used Islam as an instrument against non-Muslim elements. Christian minorities especially were viewed as an obstacle to Turkification.

As the Ottoman Empire crumbled under the pressures of spreading nationalism among its subject nationalities and as a young government took power, several factors favored targeting the Armenian community for destruction. The first factor was renewed pressure from the Great Powers in 1912 and 1913 for Armenian reforms to be carried out under direct European control. The Ottoman government resented this interference and blamed the Russians in particular for the initiative, but the Ottoman government found it more convenient to direct its anger at the vulnerable, essentially powerless Armenians. A second factor was the relatively dense concentration in the eastern provinces of Armenians who were clamoring for reforms. The Armenians were the last major non-Muslim nationality under Ottoman rule still seeking the types of reforms that the CUP government understood to mean autonomy and eventual independence. The Ottoman government subsequently declared the Armenians a danger to the empire's security and feared they might aid the Russians, with whom the empire was at war. A third factor was the 1909 massacre in the town of Adana and its environs, which had claimed some 23,000 Armenian victims. Because that massacre had been executed swiftly and without intervention from the Great Powers, whose warships stood idly by, it encouraged the Young Turks to contemplate a more radical and sweeping scheme.

Shortly before World War I began in 1914, the Ottoman Empire signed a secret treaty with Germany. Enver Pasha, a CUP leader who directed Ottoman military efforts, had faith in Germany's military prowess and ability to win a war against the other Great Powers. In addition, Germany and the Ottomans shared a long-standing hostility toward Russia. Three months after the outbreak of World War I the empire entered the conflict on the side of the German and Austro-Hungarian empires. Their crushing military defeat precipitated the Ottoman Empire's ultimate demise in 1922. But the war also provided the pretext for a campaign of extermination against the empire's Armenian population, which was denounced as a traitorous group.

Consequences of the Armenian Genocide

As the victim of the first major genocide of the 20th century, the Armenian nation not only lost nearly 60 percent of its population but also was shut out of its ancestral territories. Countless monuments and institutions testifying to the legacy of a several thousand-year-old civilization were obliterated in the process, as were thousands of churches and monasteries identified with the Armenian Church, one of the world's oldest Christian institutions. The persistence with which Turkish governments, past and present, deny the crime has severely aggravated the trauma of this catastrophe for the Armenians. The fact that the perpetrators escaped an international trial has made it easier for them to deny the crime. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) compounded the problem by imposing a decades-long silence on the subject upon Armenian survivors who had gathered in Soviet Armenia in the aftermath of the genocide. The Turkish government's success in escaping punishment for the Armenian Genocide likely contributed to German dictator Adolph Hitler's defiance in initiating his wartime crimes, including the Holocaust, during World War II (1939-1945). Shortly before the invasion of Poland in 1939, Hitler reportedly exhorted his military commanders to be merciless, saying to them, "Who, after all, speaks today about the annihilation of the Armenians."

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