The Unknown Genocide of World War 1

The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, adopted by the UN in 1948, states genocide  as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

When we think of genocide our minds are dragged to the Nazi extermination camps of the Second World War, Auschwitz, Treblinka, Birkenau…

But unknown to many of us today was another genocide, one equally as brutal and cruel as carried out by the Nazis in the 1940’s. This genocide, widely argued by scholars to be the first genocide of the twentieth century, was carried out by the Ottoman Empire between 1915 and 1917 against an ethnic minority which existed within its own borders, the Armenians.

Beheaded Armenians

In 1914 when the Ottoman Empire joined the Axis powers in World War 1 it was a vast empire engulfing nearly all of the Middle East, including the majority of Armenia situated on the Eastern frontier with Russia. The nationalist Young Turk movement led to an increase in the policy of what was called ‘Turkification’ where Turkish culture was pushed to the fore front while the empire’s minorities faced the threat of extinction. When war was declared some Armenians sympathized with the Russians and deserted to them, but the majority were loyal to the Sultan. Tensions arose following the massacre of the entire Muslim population in the plain of Passinlar by Armenian volunteers. Fearing the declaration of an independent Armenian state backed by Russia, the Turks reacted brutally.

The claims that Armenian insurgents were attempting to form an independent state in a predominantly Turkish area is still the explanation given by Turkish officials to this day for the retribution, but in truth the Ottoman Empire had little to fear from the majority of Armenians. Nonetheless the genocide had begun.

Armenians being deported

Adult males were disarmed and shot en masse by the army while civilian communities were forced onto the Syrian deserts where many died of exposure and starvation. Their properties and possessions were seized by the Turks and violence, including rape, became common. Those who weren’t massacred by the army were used as forced labour and deported in the hundreds of thousands where they gradually perished from death marches. Concentration camps were established throughout the Syrian and Iraqi provinces of the empire, 25 in all, which set about exterminating those who survived the marches across the desert. Women that survived were taken by Muslim men to be their wives whilst the men slowly died of starvation. Some Armenians, being a christian majority, were also treated with appalling religious cruelty by being Crucified alive by the Turks.

Victims of the genocide

Some Armenians did fight back though. In the city of Van in Eastern Turkey, having witnessed the deportation and massacres carried out in the provinces surrounding the city by the district Governor, the inhabitants refused his demand for 4,000 soldiers under the pretext of conscription. In reality the Governor was attempting to crush the cities defence by destroying all able bodied men, and when they refused his demand he lay siege to the city. 1,500 defenders protected the city and its inhabitants of 30,000 (as well as another 15,000 refugees) against the Ottoman armies until the Russians came in May 1915, but it was not to be a happy ending for the city. The Russians fell back two months later and in August 1915 the Ottomans retook the city. The Russians were to capture it once again, but following the revolution in 1917 the Ottomans returned and massacred all the Armenians in the city, roughly 55,000.

An Armenian child showing the holes in his hands where he was crucified

So what was the cost to the Armenians? Well there is no exact figure of how many people were massacred as the Ottomans very rarely made any recordings of the atrocities. However it can safely be assumed that somewhere in the region of 800,000 to 1.5 million Armenians were killed in the years during the First World War. Some could say that perhaps these were casualties of war? or casualties of an Armenian rebellion as in the city of Van? Yet this cannot be upheld considering the Ottoman policy of attempting to exterminate an entire nationality as a form of ethnic cleansing in order to promote the Turkish national identity. The Armenians were not the only ones targeted by the Ottomans. Christian and Greek communities similarly suffered, though not on as great a scale as suffered by the Armenians, but it is thought that nearly 300,000 Greeks were killed.

The man who would go on to coin the term ‘genocide’ (a Polish-Jewish lawyer named Raphael Lemkin) in 1944 to describe the Nazi atrocities explained that he came up with the word with the fate of the Armenians in mind. Whilst Turkey still maintains that it is incorrect to call the massacres against the Armenians as ‘genocide’, 28 countries including most scholars and intellectuals agree that it should be officially recognized as such.

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