The Armenian Genocide of 1915-1917 was carried out by the Ottoman Empire, spearheaded by the ruling Committee of Union and Progress (CUP). A major component of the genocide were death marshes to the Syrian Desert. Roughly one million Armenians were killed in this genocide.
In addition to killings, CUP also forced Armenians to convert from Christianity to Islam and be placed in Turkish households as domestic slaves. This part of the effort to eradicate Armenian culture and identity chiefly targeted women and children.
The Armenian genocide is an example of a fairly common genocidal strategy, where an initial targeting and killing of adult males is followed by a root-and-branch extermination of other members of the undesirable group.
According to modern estimates, roughly 2.5 million Armenians lived in the Ottoman Empire at the onset of the slaughter in 1915. In 1915-1917, somewhere between 1.1 million and 1.8 million of them were killed.
As of 2021, the Turkish government maintains that the actions were legitimate and should not be described as a genocide. Around the world, the governments of 31 countries have recognized the events as genocide.
Armenians are an ethnic group from southern Caucasus, and the heartland of Armenian culture are the Armenian Highlands of Western Asia. The known history of the Armenian people goes back for thousands of years.
Christianity spread in Armenia through the apostles St. Thaddeus and St. Bortholomew, and the Armenians were one of the first ethnic groups to undergo widespread conversion to Christianity. Before this, the Armenians had been adherents to Armenian paganism, which was partly influenced by Zoroastrianism and some elements of Greco-Roman religion.
In the early years of the 4th century CE, probably in 301 CE, the Arsacid Kingdom of Armenia became the first state in the world to announce Christianity as its official state religion.
Today, most Armenians still adhere to the Armenian Apostolic Church, which is an ancient non-Chalcedonian Christian church. It is one of the Oriental Orthodox Churches.
Lead-up to the Armenian genocide of 1915-1917
As the 19th century began, the Armenians formed the largest non-Muslim population in the Ottoman Empire. For a long time, the relationship between the Ottoman Muslims and the Christian Armenians had been peaceful, although discrimination against non-Muslims occurred within the empire. The Armenian´s enjoyed a special status within the empire as a recognized religious minority and had a reputation for higher levels of both education and wealth compared to many other groups in the empire. This made them a target for envy and hatred, and many scholars have pointed out the similarities between the position of the Armenian´s in the Ottoman Empire and the position of the Jews in Europe.
As the Knights of Vartan Armenian Research Center points out: “Both people adhere to an ancient religion. Both were religious minorities of their respective states. Both have a history of persecution. (…) Both are talented and creative minorities who have been persecuted out of envy and obscurantism.”
The 19th century became marked by nationalism among the various groups living in the Ottoman Empire and several regional revolts, secessions and emigration-waves took place. This caused the non-Muslim population of the Ottoman Empire to decrease, chiefly due to secession and emigration.
In 1820, the empire´s population had been approximately 60% Muslim. In the 1890s, the Muslim portion exceeded 75%. By 1914, over 80% of the empire´s population were Muslim. The largest non-Muslim groups were Jews, Christian Greeks, Christian Assyrians, and Christian Armenians.
Calls by European Christian powers to protect the Armenians had the opposite effect, as the crumbling empire – now governed by Sultan Abdul Hamid II – saw them as outside intervention. In 1869, he launched a massive anti-Armenian campaign which caused the deaths of at least 200,000 Armenians. Large-scale massacres of Armenians also occurred in the 1890s.
The Committee of Union and Progress
In 1908, the Ottoman Sultan was deposed by a group of modernization-minded officers known as the Young Turks. The Armenians, who had suffered through a genocide by Ottoman hands, generally saw the change of leadership with optimistic eyes. This optimism would soon prove to be unfounded, as the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) – the political party affiliated with the Young Turks – quickly became dominated by a group of fanatical nationalists. At the helm was a triumvirate consisting of Enval Pasha, Cemal Pasha and Talat Pasha. In 1909, a new large-scale massacre of Armenians took place.
1915-1917 Armenian genocide
The Ottoman Empire had began to crumble in the 19th century, and CUP was not able to turn the tide. Under CUP, the empire suffered a series of military defeats and loss of territory, including some serious losses of land in the 1912-1913 Balkan Wars. In this situation, CUP strongly feared that the Armenians – whose heartland was in the eastern provinces – would attempt to break free from the empire. This was considered especially horrible for CUP, as the eastern provinces were also the heartland of the Turkish nation.
As they invaded Russian and Persian land in 1914, Ottoman paramilitaries massacred Armenians living there. When the Ottoman authorities noticed isolated Armenian acts of resistance, they interpreted it as evidence of a widespread large-scale rebellion just waiting to happen, and decided that mass deportation of Armenians was required to prevent the Armenians from breaking free of the empire and taking the eastern provinces with them.
One of the leading ideologues of CUP was Dr. Nazim. In a closed session of the CUP Central Committee in February 1915, he said that “if this purge is not general and final, it will inevitably lead to problems. Therefore it is absolutely necessary to eliminate the Armenian people in its entirety, so that there is no further Armenian on this earth and the very concept of Armenia is extinguished. We are now at war. We shall never have a more suitable opportunity than this.” (Source: Quoted in G.S. Graber, “Caravans to Oblivion: The Armenian Genocide, 1915”, pp. 87-88.)
On April 24, 1915, the Ottoman authorities arrested circa 600 of Armenian intellectuals and leaders in Constantinople. All of them were males. This “elitocide” was to be the start of the largest of the Armenian genocides.
Each year, April 14 is commemorated by Armenians worldwide as “Genocide Memorial Day”.
Men and older boys
By 1915, a majority of the able-bodied Armenian men of “battle-age” had been conscripted into the army, although some had stayed out by paying a special exemption tax or by hiding/deserting. In addition to the normal dangers of war, Armenian soldiers had to face danger from within, as they were deliberately worked to death or simply executed outright during their military service. Hundreds of thousands of Armenian males died in this fashion, in a deliberate attempt by the Turkish government to make it less possible for the Armenian population to successful mobilize and defend themselves.
The researcher Vahakn Dadrian explains:
“Though [the] mobilization had many other objectives, it served a major purpose for the swift execution of the plan of genocide. By removing all able-bodied Armenian males from their cities, villages, hamlets, and by isolating them in conditions in which they virtually became trapped, the Armenian community was reduced to a condition of near-total helplessness, thus an easy prey for destruction. It was a masterful stroke as it attained with one blow the three objectives of the operation of trapping the victim population: a) dislocation through forcible removal; b) isolation; c) concentration for easy targeting.” (Source: Vahakn Dadrian, The “History of the Armenian Genocide”, Berghahn Books, 1995, p. 226.)
When the 1915 mass deportation of Armenians started, the men (who were not in the army) were typically separated from the other Armenians during the first few days of arrest and executed. In this context, Armenian boys above the age of either 12 or 15 were considered adult males (different age limits were employed for different events).
The executions of Armenian men were normally carried out in spots selected for their logistic advantages: they should be close to a major road but also have rugged terrain, lakes, wells, cisterns or similar that could be used to dispose of the corpses. One especially famous execution location is a spot near Lake Hazar, where thousands of Armenians were pushed off the cliffs by paramilitaries.
A fairly common method for killing Armenian men was to tie them together back-to-back before throwing them into water. There is no evidence of this method being used to kill women.
Rivers were a convenient way to get rid of bodies, but it eventually resulted in widespread pollution, and epidemics occurred downstream. So many bodies floated down Tigris and Euphrates that blockages formed, and explosives were required to clear them.
Women and young children: Death marches and concentration camps
Since most able-bodied men were in the army, the great majority of the Armenian deportees were women and children. They were usually not executed outright; they were send on death marshes instead.
In 1915-1916, an estimated 800,000 – 1.2 million Armenians were sent on death marches into the Syrian Desert. The people selected for these marches were chiefly women and children, but also elderly or infirm individuals of both genders. Paramilitaries followed the marching people, to drive them on and prevent escapes. Many Armenians perished along the way, but those that did not were put into concentration camps in the desert.
“Women who lagged behind were bayoneted on the road, or pushed over precipices, or over bridges,” writes the historian Arnold Toynbee. He also explains how it wasn´t unusual for those few who actually managed to get to Aleppo (Syria) to arrived naked, as “every shred of their clothing had been torn from them on the way. Witnesses who saw their arrival remark that there was not one young or pretty face to be seen among them, and there was assuredly none surviving that was truly old (…)” (Source: Quoted in Leo Kuper, “Genocide”, p. 111).
A new wave of massacres were ordered in 1916, after which roughly 200,000 deportees were still alive.
Interestingly, many Armenian deportees from western Anatolia were permitted to travel by train instead of walking. While the deportees from eastern Anatolia were almost entirely eliminated, the deportees from western Anatolia made up the bulk of those who survived long enough to reach Syria.
Forced conversion and domestic slavery
Prior to the forced death marshes into the Syrian desert, some Armenian women and children were given the option of converting to Islam and be sent as domestic slaves to Turkish homes. It is generally held that around a thousand or so accepted.
Henry Morgenthau´s account
One of the most detailed descriptions of the Armenian genocide comes from U.S. Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Henry Morgenthau, who was there during parts of World War I. Originally reports produced for his superior´s eyes only, his later published his accounts. He was horrified by the treatment of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire and resigned from the ambassadorship in 1916.
Morgenthau published his conversations with Ottoman leaders and his account of the Armenian genocide in 1918 under the title “Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story”, followed up in 1974 by the book “The Murder of a Nation”.
In the 1974 book, which was published after his death, he explains that when he resigned as ambassador, he had come to see the Ottoman Empire as ”a place of horror. I had reached the end of my resources. I found intolerable my further daily association with men, however gracious and accommodating (…) who were still reeking with the blood of nearly a million human beings”.
For Morgenthau, what happened to the Armenians was almost unfathomable.
“Whatever crimes the most perverted instincts of the human mind can devise, and whatever refinements of persecution and injustice the most debased imagination can conceive, became the daily misfortunes of this devoted people,” he writes in one of his texts. I am confident that the whole history of the human race contains no such horrible episode as this. The great massacres of the past seem almost insignificant when compared with the sufferings of the Armenian race in 1915.”
Morgenthau on the gendercide against Armenian men
Regarding the gendercide against Armenian men in 1915-1917, Morgenthau describes how Armenian men in the army were turned from soldiers into unarmed workmen, and then either worked to death or executed.
“In the early part of 1915, the Armenian soldiers in the Turkish army were reduced to a new status. Up to that time most of them had been combatants, but now they were all stripped of their arms and transformed into workmen. Instead of serving their country as artillerymen and cavalrymen, these former soldiers now discovered that they had been transformed into road labourers and pack animals. Army supplies of all kinds were loaded on their backs, and, stumbling under the burdens and driven by the whips and bayonets of the Turks, they were forced to drag their weary bodies into the mountains of the Caucasus. Sometimes they would have to plough their way, burdened in this fashion, almost waist high through snow. They had to spend practically all their time in the open, sleeping on the bare ground — whenever the ceaseless prodding of their taskmasters gave them an occasional opportunity to sleep. They were given only scraps of food; if they fell sick they were left where they had dropped, their Turkish oppressors perhaps stopping long enough to rob them of all their possessions — even of their clothes. If any stragglers succeeded in reaching their destinations, they were not infrequently massacred. In many instances Armenian soldiers were disposed of in even more summary fashion, for it now became almost the general practice to shoot them in cold blood. In almost all cases the procedure was the same. Here and there squads of 50 or 100 men would be taken, bound together in groups of four, and then marched out to a secluded spot a short distance from the village. Suddenly the sound of rifle shots would fill the air, and the Turkish soldiers who had acted as the escort would sullenly return to camp. Those sent to bury the bodies would find them almost invariably stark naked, for, as usual, the Turks had stolen all their clothes. In cases that came to my attention, the murderers had added a refinement to their victims’ sufferings by compelling them to dig their graves before being shot.” (Source: The Murder of a Nation.)
One of the events that Morgenthau describes in more detail is the one that took place in July 1915, when approximately 2,000 Armenian men were dispatched from the city Harpoot and told they were to work on a road-construction project. These men were “amélés”, a Turkish term for soldiers who have been reduced to workmen. The amélés understood that they were in danger, and pleaded with the Governor fore mercy. The Governor insisted that there was no danger, and even gave the German missionary Mr. Ehemann his word of honour that the amélés would be protected. What actually happened was that nearly all the amélés were massacred and their bodies disposed of in a cave. A few managed to escape, and they were the ones who told the world about the massacre.
Just a few days after this massacre, another similar event took place, and Morgenthau has written about that too. Another circa 2,000 Armenian men in the army were dispatched to Diarbekir, in what is today south-eastern Turkey. Just like today, it was an area where a lot of Kurds lived. The Armenian´s were dispatched to this location to be massacred, and to keep them from resisting or escaping, they were deliberately starved. As the Armenians were approaching Diarkbekir, agents of the Turkish government went ahead and encouraged the Kurds to “do their congenial duty”, i.e. participate in the massacre of Armenian Christians. According to Morgenthau, both Kurdish men and women helped kill the Armenians, including women who used butcher´s knives to “gain that merit in Allah’s eyes that comes from killing a Christian”. (Source: Ambassador Morgenthau´s Story)
Once the “concription-as-gendercide” portion of the genocide plan was accomplished, the Turkish government turned their attention to the remaining Armenian men – those who had not been conscripted. The goal was now to get rid of all remaining able-bodied Armenian men, as they were seen as most likely to successfully mobilize and resist the Turkish onslaught.
Morgenthau explains the strategy as two-fold: “Throughout the Turkish Empire a systematic attempt was made to kill all able-bodied men, not only for the purpose of removing all males who might propagate a new generation of Armenians, but for the purpose of rendering the weaker part of the population an easy prey.”
Before the Armenian women, children, elderly and infirm were sent on the now infamous death marshes into the desert, the Turkish government embarked on a final attack on the few remaining Armenian men who were neither very old nor infirm.
Morgenthau paints a horrifying picture of the situation:
“The systematic extermination of the men continued; such males as the persecutions which I have already described had left were now violently dealt with. Before the caravans were started, it became the regular practice to separate the young men from the families, tie them together in groups of four, lead them to the outskirts, and shoot them. Public hangings without trial — the only offense being that the victims were [male] Armenians — were taking place constantly. The gendarmes showed a particular desire to annihilate the educated and the influential. From American consuls and missionaries I was constantly receiving reports of such executions, and many of the events which they described will never fade from my memory. At Angora all Armenian men from fifteen to seventy were arrested, bound together in groups of four, and sent on the road in the direction of Caesarea. When they had travelled five or six hours and had reached a secluded valley, a mob of Turkish peasants fell upon them with clubs, hammers, axes, scythes, spades, and saws. Such instruments not only caused more agonizing deaths than guns and pistols, but, as the Turks themselves boasted, they were more economical, since they did not involve the waste of powder and shell. In this way they exterminated the whole male population of Angora, including all its men of wealth and breeding, and their bodies, horribly mutilated, were left in the valley, where they were devoured by wild beasts. After completing this destruction, the peasants and gendarmes gathered in the local tavern, comparing notes and boasting of the number of “‘giaours” that each had slain. In Trebizond the men were placed in boats and sent out on the Black Sea; gendarmes would follow them in boats, shoot them down, and throw their bodies into the water. When the signal was given for the caravans to move, therefore, they almost invariably consisted of women, children, and old men. Any one who could possibly have protected them from the fate that awaited them had been destroyed.” (Source: Ambassador Morgethau´s Story.)
Morgenthau on the gendercide against Armenian women
As we have described above, the Turkish government dealt first with the able-bodied men (and older boys), before turning their eyes to the women, younger children, the elderly and the infirm. Some women and children were offered the option of converting to Islam and being sent as domestic slaves to Turkish households. An estimated one thousand individuals accepted this offer. The rest were driven from their homes by soldiers and locals.
In Morgenthau´s words:
“The whole course of the journey became a perpetual struggle with the Moslem inhabitants. Detachments of gendarmes would go ahead, notifying the Kurdish tribes that their victims were approaching, and Turkish peasants were also informed that their long-waited opportunity had arrived. The Government even opened the prisons and set free the convicts, on the understanding that they should behave like good Moslems to the approaching Armenians. Thus every caravan had a continuous battle for existence with several classes of enemies — their accompanying gendarmes, the Turkish peasants and villagers, the Kurdish tribes and bands of Chétés or brigands. And we must always keep in mind that the men who might have defended these wayfarers had nearly all been killed or forced into the army as workmen, and that the exiles themselves had been systematically deprived of all weapons before the journey began. (…) Such as escaped (…) attacks in the open would find new terrors awaiting them in the Moslem villages. Here the Turkish roughs would fall upon the women, leaving them sometimes dead from their experiences or sometimes ravingly insane. After spending a night in a hideous encampment of this kind, the exiles, or such as had survived, would start again the next morning. The ferocity of the gendarmes apparently increased as the journey lengthened, for they seemed almost to resent the fact that part of their charges continued to live. Frequently any one who dropped on the road was bayoneted on the spot. The Armenians began to die by hundreds from hunger and thirst. Even when they came to rivers, the gendarmes, merely to torment them, would sometimes not let them drink. The hot sun of the desert burned their scantily clothed bodies, and their bare feet, treading the hot sand of the desert, became so sore that thousands fell and died or were killed where they lay. Thus, in a few days, what had been a procession of normal human beings became a stumbling horde of dust-covered skeletons, ravenously looking for scraps of food, eating any offal that came their way, crazed by the hideous sights that filled every hour of their existence, sick with all the diseases that accompany such hardships and privations, but still prodded on and on by the whips and clubs and bayonets of their executioners.” (Source: Ambassador Morgethau´s Story.)
The death toll during the marches were enormous. Morgenthau describes how a typical convoy of 18,000 individuals had been reduced to 150 women and children by the time they reached the destination. The rest had perished, except for a few attractive ones who were still alive because they had been captured by Kurds or Turks.
At the end of the marches, squalid concentration camps were waiting for those who were still alive. The conditions were appalling, and many of those managed to get there either starved to death or died of disease in camp.
Although the Armenian genocide events of 1915-1917 are the most famous ones, they were not an isolated event. Genocides against Armenians in the Ottoman Empire occurred before 1915-1917, and they also continued to occur afterwards in the same territory. (Source: Graber, “Caravans to Oblivion”, p. 148.)
Notably, massacres and other forms of ethnic cleansing of Armenians were carried out by the Turkish Nationalist Movementduring the Turkish War of Independence, a war which took place in 1919-1923. This war was waged against Greece, Armenia, France, Great Britain, and Italy, but also against monarchists and separatist movements in various parts of the territory, and the Turkish Nationalist Movement carried out both massacres and deportations in their effort to eliminate the Christian populations within their territory – including Armenian Christians, Syriac Christians and Greek Orthodox Christians. Ultimately, this war resulted in the creation of the ethno-national Republic of Turkey.
The Republic of Armenia
The Republic of Armenia was declared in 1918. United States President Woodrow Wilson drew up the boundaries of the new republic, and they were formalized at the Treaty of Sèvres in 1920.
The Turkish government, headed by Kemal Ataturk, denounced the Treaty. Supported by the Soviet Union, Turkey invaded Armenia and occupied six of the former western Ottoman provinces that had been granted to Armenia under the Treaty, along with the provinces Kars and Ardahan. What remained of Armenia was filled with Soviet troops, and by 1922 the Soviet Union had taken formal control of Armenia and incorporated it into the USSR as the Transcaucasian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (SFSR). Soviet rule remained in place until 1991, when the Armenians overwhelmingly voted for secession from the collapsing USSR.