by Will Pearson
|Armenian victims of genocide, 1915|
In January 1915, Turkish General Enver Paşa attempted to push back the Russians at the battle of Sarıkamış, only to suffer the worst Ottoman defeat of the war. Although poor generalship and harsh conditions were the main reasons for the loss, the Young Turk government tried to shift the blame to Armenian treachery. Armenian soldiers and other non-Muslims in the army were demobilized and transferred into labour battalions. The disarmed Armenian soldiers were then systematically murdered by Ottoman troops, the first victims of what would become genocide. About the same time, irregular forces began to carry out mass killings in Armenian villages near the Russian border.
Armenian resistance, when it occurred, provided the authorities with a pretext for employing harsher measures. In April 1915 Armenians in Van barricaded themselves in the city’s Armenian neighborhood and fought back against Ottoman troops, On April 24, 1915, citing Van and several other episodes of Armenian resistance, Talat Paşa ordered the arrest of approximately 250 Armenian intellectuals and politicians in Istanbul, including several deputies to the Ottoman Parliament. Most of the men who were arrested were killed in the months that followed.
Soon after the defeat at Sarıkamış, the Ottoman government began to deport Armenians from Eastern Anatolia on the grounds that their presence near the front lines posed a threat to national security. In May the Ottoman Parliament passed legislation formally authorizing the deportation. Throughout summer and autumn of 1915, Armenian civilians were removed from their homes and marched through the valleys and mountains of Eastern Anatolia toward desert concentration camps. The deportation, which was overseen by civil and military officials, was accompanied by a campaign of mass murder carried out by irregular forces. Survivors who reached the deserts of Syria languished in concentration camps, many starved to death, and massacres continued into 1916. Conservative estimates have calculated that some 600,000 to more than 1,000,000 Armenians were slaughtered or died on the marches. The events of 1915–16 were witnessed by a number of foreign journalists, missionaries, diplomats, and military officers who sent reports home about death marches and killing fields.
The Armenian Genocide laid the ground for the more-homogeneous nation-state that eventually became the Republic of Turkey. By the end of the war, more than 90 percent of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire were gone, and many traces of their former presence had been erased. The deserted homes and property of the Armenians in Eastern Anatolia were given to Muslim refugees, and surviving women and children were often forced to give up their Armenian identities and convert to Islam. Tens of thousands of orphans, however, came under the protection of foreign missionaries.
The Armenian Genocide had both short- and long-term causes. Although the expulsion and murder of hundreds of thousands of Armenians in 1915–16 was an immediate response to the crisis of World War I and not the result of a long-held plan to eliminate the Armenian people, its deeper causes go back to Muslims’ resentment of Armenians’ economic and political successes—a reversal
of traditional Ottoman social hierarchies that had Muslims superior to non-Muslims—and to a growing sense on the part of Young Turk leaders and ordinary Muslims that Armenians were an alien and dangerous element within their society.
Turkey has refused to recognize that the events of 1915–16 constitute a genocide, even though most historians have concluded that the deportations and massacres do fit the definition - the intentional killing of an ethnic or religious group. While the Turkish government and allied scholars have admitted that deportations took place, they maintain that the Armenians were a rebellious element that had to be pacified during a national security crisis. They acknowledge that some killing took place, but they contend that it was not initiated or directed by the government. Major countries—including the United States, Israel, and Great Britain—have also declined to call the events genocide, in order to avoid harming their relations with Turkey. In 2015 government officials in Turkey offered condolences to the Armenian victims, but Armenians remained committed to having the killings during World War I recognized as genocide.