Armenian Christian deportees on their long journey. Syria. 1915

A short but bloody conflict flared up last year in Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-populated enclave in Azerbaijan. This article looks at how the events of 2020 echo the horrific but forgotten Armenian genocide of a century earlier.

“Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” were the words of Adolf Hitler in a speech to his generals on the eve of the German invasion of Poland at the beginning of the Second World War. His directive was to kill every man, woman and child of the mainly Roman Catholic Polish population, just as the Nazis were soon to slaughter millions of Jews, and other “undesirables”, in Germany. Hitler reasoned that if history had simply overlooked the first major genocide of the century, who would care about the extermination of the Polish people?

Why was the genocide not prevented?

An estimated 1.5 million Armenian Christians are thought to have died in a state-sanctioned genocide by the Ottoman authorities. By 1922, the Armenian population of the former Ottoman Empire was depleted by at least 90%.

Why did no nation, especially the European “Christian” powers, rise up to protect the Christian minority living under Ottoman dominion from the annihilation that came in a sequence of massacres, beginning in 1843 and peaking in the horrific slaughter of 1915?

It all began with Europe’s best intentions

Armenians, Assyrians, Greek and Syriac Christians had been treated as second-class citizens in the territories of the Ottoman Empire for centuries. This was in accordance with sharia (Islamic law).

In 1839, the Ottomans came under diplomatic pressure from the European powers to improve the situation of Christian minorities in their empire. The Ottoman government responded by introducing the first of the Tanzimat reforms, with similar reforms following until 1876.

Reforms backfire for non-Muslim minorities

The gradual improvement that the reforms brought to the situation of the Armenians encouraged them to request protection from the Ottoman government against the thefts, abductions, murders, fraud and punitive taxation they routinely suffered.

But the Ottomans viewed these pleas for help as a rebellion, fearing that the non-Muslim minorities would rise up and demand to secede from the empire.

Armenians, Assyrians, Greek and Syriac Christians had been treated as second-class citizens in the territories of the Ottoman Empire for centuries. This was in accordance with sharia (Islamic law).

Clumsy diplomacy that sparked a massacre

The massacre of 1843, in which at least 10,000 Christians were killed in south-east Anatolia, was triggered when the British consuls in Van and Mosul had encouraged some Christians not to pay jizya. This is the classic Islamic tax that subjugated non-Muslims pay in return for Muslim protection. When the Christians stopped paying, they were attacked and killed by the Muslims, who considered that the Christians had broken their contract of subjugation. The Christians may well have expected the British to come to their defence, but no support was forthcoming.

In 1860, another 10,000 Christians were killed in Lebanon and possibly as many as 25,000 died in a third massacre in Bulgaria in 1876.

In 1877-78, the Ottomans lost territory in the Balkans in a war with Russia, which started when Russia intervened to protect Slavic Christians from Ottoman brutality. This led to violent suppression by the Ottomans of the non-Muslim subjects who were campaigning for their rights. In 1877, Kurdish militias massacred 1,400 Christian men and enslaved many women in four Armenian areas of south-east Anatolia.

Britain’s fears of “fatal philanthropy”

British politicians were divided about whether they should step in to help the Armenian Christians. In 1896 George Curzon, under-secretary of state for foreign affairs, described Britain’s position to a cheering Parliament. In response to a motion by Samuel Smith calling for action to help the Armenians and criticising the “weakness and apathy” of the European powers, Curzon stated, “We were not prepared at any moment to go to war for the sake of Armenia. We were not prepared to plunge Europe into a Continental war for the sake of Armenia. We were not prepared to jeopardise the interests of this country and I will go further and say the interests of the Armenians themselves, in pursuit of … what might, in the last resort, have turned out to be a perilous, if not a fatal philanthropy.”

Christians caught in the crucible of the crumbling empire

Organised massacres of Christians in 13 towns took place from 1894 to 1896, in which as many as 300,000 Armenians were killed. Sultan Abdul Hamid’s agents incited Turkish Muslims to rise up against their Armenian Christian neighbours, alleging that the Armenians were plotting to attack them.

The Christians appealed for help to Russia and the European powers. But the response was minimal. Some aid was provided by Western missionaries and some diplomatic warnings were issued, which the Ottomans ignored.

Armenians an obstacle to a new Muslim state

By 1913, the Young Turks had come to power in the Ottoman Empire and the revolutionary government in Constantinople adopted a new “centralisation” policy whereby the empire no longer accepted multiple ethnicities and religions. The aim now was to create a purely Turkish and Muslim state.

The Armenian kingdom had been part of the Ottoman Empire since the sixteenth century and the Armenian people, with their strongly Christian identity, had spread throughout the empire. That made the Armenians one of the biggest obstacles to the new policy.

An order was issued to abolish the Armenian language, part of a purge of Armenian culture that raised vehement criticism in Europe. The measures brought terror to the Armenians, who rightly feared the Kurds and Turks who vastly outnumbered them.

The chilling answer to the “Armenian question”

In late 1914, extermination became the Ottoman authorities’ answer to the “Armenian question”.

All able-bodied Armenian men aged between 18 and 60 were conscripted into the Ottoman army as part of a general mobilisation in preparation for the First World War. The Armenian recruits served for a while as unarmed labour before being executed by their Turkish officers and fellow soldiers.

In 1915, the worst single year of the genocide, approximately 800,000 Armenians were killed. Anyone who tried to protect Armenians often met the same end. Some 200,000 Armenians converted to Islam in order to be spared, which also demonstrated that the motivation for the genocide was religious not racial.

Calls for intervention went unheeded by European powers, who valued the Ottoman Empire’s role as a counter-balance to Russia. Ottoman-ruled Armenia was geographically located as a useful buffer to stop Russian expansion southwards, and Britain and Germany, in particular, did not want it to come under Russian control. Therefore the atrocities against the Armenian people continued unchecked. French commentator Charles Vellay lamented that “the outlook of the Powers does not extend beyond their own economic or political interests”.

In 1915, the worst single year of the genocide, approximately 800,000 Armenians were killed. Anyone who tried to protect Armenians often met the same end.

Systematic destruction of Armenians and their society

On 24 April 1915 there was a roundup of thousands of Armenian intellectuals and leaders, who were later executed, thus “cutting off the head” of the Armenian community, as Armenians saw it.

Other Armenians – mainly women and children – were freighted by train or forced to walk hundreds of miles without provisions to concentration camps in the Syrian desert. Only one quarter of the deportees survived the exposure, starvation, violent attacks and other abuses to reach their destinations, which usually lacked any food, water or shelter.

On arrival, many were systematically murdered. Killing units in Deir al-Zor smashed children against rocks, mutilated adults with swords, and burned people alive. In 1916, nearly 300,000 were massacred there. On 24 October that year the police chief in Deir al-Zor had 2,000 Armenian orphans tied together and thrown into the Euphrates river.

The Ottoman Turks also massacred an estimated 750,000 Assyrian Christians between 1915 and 1918 and slaughtered up to 1.5 million Greeks between 1914 and 1923.

Was Hitler’s analysis correct?

The chilling fact is that Hitler was correct in his analysis. History had “forgotten” the Armenian Genocide – not because no one had known what was happening to the Christians, as the debates and diplomatic discussions of the day show, but because countries’ own vested political interests took priority so governments preferred to look away.

A blanket of denial covered the shame of the West

A collective blanket of “denial” about the Ottomans’ staggering crime against humanity seemed to fall across the West. The powers, including Britain, France, Germany, Russia and the USA, which had failed to act – leaving millions of fellow-Christians to perish – turned their backs not only on the facts of history, but on their own shameful complicity.

Even today only 32 countries officially recognise the Armenian Genocide including Chile, France, Germany and Russia. The US Congress voted in 2019 to recognise the Genocide but the Trump administration responded with a statement that it did not consider the mass killings of Armenians in 1915 to be genocide. Syria recognised the Genocide in 2020. Neither Israel nor the UK has yet recognised it, although the parliaments of Wales and Scotland have voted to do so. The Australian states of New South Wales and South Australia have recognised it, but not Australia as a whole. The Iranian government has often unofficially recognised the Armenian Genocide (e.g. the Iranian ambassador to Armenia lays a wreath every 24 April on the Armenian Genocide Memorial) but the only part of Iran that has officially recognised it is the Tehran Regional government. Turkey continues to deny the Genocide.

Renewed threat of obliteration for Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh

In 2020 the Armenian people faced renewed danger of extermination in the ancient homeland they call Artsakh, which is currently known to the world as Nagorno-Karabakh. Under the Soviet Union, this mountainous territory, with its fourth century churches and monasteries and its history as an important centre of Armenian culture, was made a part of Muslim-majority Azerbaijan.

The predominantly Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh declared independence in 1992 and a war erupted with Azerbaijan, who saw this as a violation of its borders. The Armenian forces, supported by Armenia, drove out the Azeri army amid a bloody conflict that saw massive internal displacement of Armenians and Azeris. The conflict ended with a ceasefire in 1994. There have been skirmishes since, but the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh remained under Armenian control – as it had been for 16 centuries – along with swathes of land bordering it and a mountain pass linking it to Armenia.

In September 2020, Azeri forces attacked Nagorno-Karabakh, which was defended by Armenian troops. Far better armed than their opponents, the Azeris had soon taken much of the territory and after six weeks the Armenians had to accept a ceasefire and a Russia-brokered deal which allowed Azerbaijan to keep all the territory it had gained. Thousands of people were killed on each side and 90,000 Armenians were displaced. The significant involvement of Israel and Turkey (a NATO member), who provided advanced armaments and military support to Azerbaijan, stoked real concerns of a regional war erupting.

Azerbaijan is an oil-rich country and is a long-term supplier of energy to Israel. Israel, in turn, has lucrative arms supply trade deals with Azerbaijan. Erdogan’s Turkey is seeking to establish a “new Ottoman Empire” and is a close ally of Azerbaijan, which also has an ethnically Turkic population. The UK, which has been supplying small arms to Azerbaijan, has declared it has a “strong relationship with Turkey, both as a trade and investment partner, and as a strategic ally in NATO”.

International protection of ethnic-religious enclaves

There is clear precedent for international powers intervening to protect religious-ethnic regions from obliteration. In 1998, the USA and NATO went to war to save the Muslim enclave of Kosovo, then part of Christian-majority Serbia, on the principle of “responsibility to protect” (R2P) and established the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) in 1999. Kosovo declared full independence in 2008.

So why, yet again, was nothing done to help the Armenians?

Click to purchase this book, a gripping narrative of the appalling suffering endured by one survivor of the Armenian Genocide.

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