On this day (April 24) in 1915, the Ottoman Empire (modern day Turkey) arrested about 250 Armenian leaders in the capital city of Constantinople. They were transported 300 miles east to a prison where hundreds more joined them. Then they were executed without trial.
This event is remembered as the start of the Armenian Genocide, which murdered an estimated 1.5 million Armenians from 1915 to 1923. That’s a full quarter of the entire Nazi Holocaust! Have you ever been told the story?
Armenia became a kingdom in the fourth century BC. Armenians live in the Armenian Highlands near Mt. Ararat, the final resting place of the biblical ark. Through the Christian apostle, St. Bartholomew, the Armenians became the first kingdom in the world to adopt Christianity as its religion.
Through more than 18 centuries, they held together as an ethno-religious group living under various occupying governments. Beginning in 1555, a series of treaties allowed the Armenians to be a semi-autonomous state within the Muslim Ottoman Empire.
A new era came about in 1908 when the Committee of Union and Progress (the “Young Turks”) staged a coup d’etat. Many Armenians thought that this would bring them full independence as a nation. The Young Turks had other plans.
As various territories of the former Ottoman Empire were gaining their independence from what we now call Turkey, the Young Turks decided that the only way to keep the inner provinces from breaking away would be to neutralize the significant Armenian Christian populations found there.
Three of the highest officials in the Turkish government placed other Young Turks in various positions of power while also creating a special organization comprised of criminals and irregular troops to carry out the mass deportation and murder of Armenians in the interior provinces.
When World War I broke out in August 1914, they began to execute this plan. Within three weeks, all Armenian males between the ages of 20 and 45 were conscripted into the army and taken away from their homes and families. A week later 56,000 Turkish troops were garrisoned in Christian schools and churches in the Sivas province.
By late September Armenian populations were given orders to turn in all weapons from firearms to kitchen knives. Three days later, the same government began distributing weapons to Muslim residents, claiming that the Armenians were unreliable.
Meanwhile communications were systematically shut down. The telegraph system was censored, and foreign postal service was ended. Disarmed, decapitated of political and family leadership, surrounded, and cut off from the outside world, the Armenians were as vulnerable as any people could be.
Then began the slaughter.
Bands of chetes began looting, violating women and children and murdering Armenians in the interior provinces of Turkey. Days after news reached the Armenian leaders in the capitol, Constantinople, a proclamation of jihad was issued which legalized the chete organizations and was sent out to all the provinces of the Empire.
Mass public executions of Armenian soldiers, who had been conscripted into the army only three months earlier, further terrorized the Armenian population. Over the next several months Armenians who had been deferred in the first draft were conscripted nonetheless. By March of 1915 those Armenians serving in the army were stripped of their weapons and uniforms.
Orders were sent from Constantinople to expel Armenians from any government posts — elected or appointed. The remaining Christian schools and churches were requisitioned as barracks for the Turkish army. The homes of many Armenians, together with horses, carts and other travel equipment were also seized by the army.
All of this happened prior to the official beginning of the genocide. The arrest and execution of Armenian politicians and intellectuals in Constantinople unleashed the slaughter on a massive scale. As a rule, community leaders were arrested and executed. Then, the remaining population was rounded up and forced to march into the Syrian desert.
They were told that camps with food and water awaited them at the end of the march. Most died of starvation and dehydration on the way and those who survived were slaughtered on arrival. All these atrocities continued throughout the years of WWI. While most of the world was focused on the fighting in Europe, the most ancient Christian people in the world was being systematically exterminated.
When the war ended, there was a brief respite. But, in 1920, the atrocities recommenced and continued at least until 1923. Some say they are still ongoing to this day.
Historians and academic institutions that study genocide have come to a consensus that the systematic massacres and deportations of Armenians from the Ottoman Empire formally constitute the 20th century’s first genocide. The United States has joined 28 other countries in recognizing and denouncing the genocide, although the current and past three administrations have refrained from using the term “genocide” to avoid offending Turkey.
Despite this consensus, and the multitude of eyewitness survivors, photographs and other documentation, Turkey and Azerbaijan flatly deny the historical factuality of the Armenian Genocide. Germany’s total surrender at the close of WWII gave Allied forces access to the extermination camps and records documenting the Jewish Holocaust. But the Turkish government, for more than a century, has been allowed to thwart any independent, international investigation of the Armenian Genocide.
Ongoing refusal by Turkey and Azerbaijan to acknowledge and denounce this evil, together with the dogged resistance of numerous other nations, remain a blight on the human rights record of the United Nations. Although the 1985 Whitaker Report formally detailed how these events fit the UN definition of genocide, no action has been taken.
As the first genocide of the 20th century, the Armenian Genocide set a precedent that would soon be followed on an even larger scale by the Nazi regime.
A week before invading Poland, Adolph Hitler reportedly told his commanders, “I have given the order — and will have everyone shot who utters but one word of criticism — that the aim of this war does not consist in reaching certain geographical lines, but in the enemies’ physical elimination. Thus, for the time being only in the east, I put ready my Death’s Head units, with the order to kill without pity or mercy all men, women, and children of the Polish race or language. Only thus will we gain the living space that we need. Who still talks nowadays of the extermination of the Armenians?”
Who, indeed, speaks of it?
I discovered, in researching this column, that Wyoming is still talking about the Armenian Genocide. On April 21, 2017, Governor Matt Mead made Wyoming the 45th state to recognize it. In a letter to the Armenian National Committee of America, he wrote, “The atrocities of both the Armenian and Jewish Holocausts were unimaginable, but it is important for all to remember — history must not repeat itself.”
State Senator Anthony Bouchard, a leading voice behind recognizing the genocide, reminded Wyomingites that Azerbaijan and Turkey continue their genocidal policies against the Armenian homeland, as seen during the April 2016 beheading and mutilation of Armenians in Artsakh by Azerbaijan’s forces.
This history was never taught to me in any of my formal schooling. For this reason, on this 103rd anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, I simply wanted to tell the story and keep its memory alive. My hope is that our school teachers — from elementary to junior college — will take this occasion to teach their own students this important history, as they do already concerning the Jewish holocaust.
Jonathan Lange is an LCMS pastor in Evanston and Kemmerer and serves the Wyoming Pastors Network. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow his blog at OnlyHuman-JL.blogspot.com.