The Armenian Genocide: The 8 Steps That Led to the Annihilation of a People

The Armenian Genocide: The 8 Steps That Led to the Annihilation of a People

Natasha sheldon - May 2, 2017

Between 1915-1923, the first and largely unknown genocide of the 20th century occurred in the Middle East. By 1923, the Armenian people had been largely obliterated by their Ottoman overlords, when the population of Turkish-controlled Armenia was reduced from an estimated population of 2 million people to a mere 388,000.

The rest of the Armenian nation scattered around the globe – if they had managed to successfully escape. But the rest were dead, the victims of brutal oppression, death marches, massacres, concentration camps, disease, and starvation or else ‘Turkified’- robbed of their cultural identity, abused, and forced to convert to Islam.

The 2017 film The Promise deals with these events in a fictional setting. But what caused this mass destruction of a whole people and culture and how was the Armenian nation effectively annihilated in just under a decade?

The Armenian Genocide: The 8 Steps That Led to the Annihilation of a People
Map of the Genocide Massacre Sites. Google Images

The Distrusted Infidels

Armenia lies in Caucuses at the border between Europe and Asia. Its civilization is an ancient one, dating back 3000 years old. It was the first nation in the world to embrace Christianity as its national religion and was independent for most of its national history-until in 1555 it was split between the Ottoman and Safavid Empires. While the Safavid territory eventually passed into Russian hands, the rest remained firmly part of the Ottoman Empire.

While many of the urban elite achieved positions in government, the majority of the Armenian population was rural, impoverished – and distinctly disadvantaged. Although allowed to continue as Christians, they had fewer legal and political rights than their Muslim neighbors.

But on the whole, the Armenians accepted their lot. But this did not stop their Ottoman masters from viewing them with suspicion and distrust-especially as the Ottoman Empire began to disintegrate in the nineteenth century. They believed that given the opportunity, their Armenian subjects would betray them to their Christian Russian neighbors.

Finally, in the late nineteenth century, Armenian intellectuals began to clamor for equal rights. Infuriated by this recalcitrant, and European demands for greater rights for their Christian subjects, the empire began a series of pogroms. Between 100,000 and 300,000 people were killed during these early massacres.

Then, in 1908, revolution shook the Ottoman Empire. The Sultan was removed and a modern constitutional government was installed under the control of a group known as ‘The Young Turks” But any hopes for an improvement in the Armenian situation were soon dashed. For the Young Turks, the main preoccupation was ensuring an empire for Turks alone. The loss of 85% of Ottoman territory during the 1912 Balkan war made the situation worse. Turkish paranoia towards the Armenian’s grew as their allegiance to a weakened empire was questioned. But worse, Muslim refugees from the lost lands swarmed into Anatolia. They resented seeing Christian Armenians in comfort when they had lost everything.

The scene was set.

The Armenian Genocide: The 8 Steps That Led to the Annihilation of a People
Armenian Soldiers Being Marched to Prison. Google Images

Under the Cover of The First World War: The Genocide begins

By the time Turkey entered the First World War on the side of Germany and Austria, a faction of the Young Turks called the Committee of Union and Progress or CUP were firmly in control of the government. A succession of early defeats in the war, such as the Battle of Sarikamish in December 1914 was laid at the door of Armenian conscripts. They were accused of sabotage and treachery, seeking Turkish defeat so they could join the eastern Armenians on the Russian side.

In February 1915, “Directive 8682” called for the transferral of all Armenian military conscripts from active combat to passive unarmed roles in labor battalions. Mass executions of Armenian soldiers began to take place in public to terrorize the Armenian community.

Meanwhile, in the provinces, a campaign of agitation and provocation began. As early as September 1914, Muslim citizens of small towns in the provinces began to be armed by the government, on the pretext of protection against any Armenian insurrection.

Government partisans began to attempt to provoke these insurrections amongst the Armenian population. Armenian leaders were arrested and Armenian businesses singled out for ‘war Contributions’. False stories of Armenian attacks were spread throughout the Turkish population to garner support amongst Muslim citizens in the rural provinces.

On April 17, 1915, the government demanded that the Armenian city of Van hand over 4000 soldiers as part of the war effort. For days, refugees had been arriving at the city from 80 outlying villages, the result of government massacres in the area around Van that had wiped out 24,000 Armenians. The city attempted to buy time rather than hand the men over to certain death. In the meantime, government troops attempted to incite the Armenians. They succeeded: killing two men who attempted to come to the aid of a woman harassed by government soldiers.

Van remained under siege until the Russian’s rescued the city in May. But the incident was the perfect propaganda piece, used as evidence of Armenian complicity with the Russians.

The Armenian Genocide: The 8 Steps That Led to the Annihilation of a People
Mehmed Talat Pasha. Google Images

The Tehcir Law

April 24, 1915 saw the beginning of the genocide as Ottoman officials began to remove anyone who could act as a focus for resistance to the atrocities to come. At around 8 pm, on the orders of the Minister of the interior Talaat Pasha, around 235-270 Armenian Intellectuals including religious leaders, doctors, journalists, teachers, and politicians were arrested and imprisoned in Constantinople before being deported to holding centers in Ankara. Here, most of them were eventually murdered.

This was the first wave of such arrests, which occurred at different times and in different areas around Anatolia as regional governors began to carry out government orders. But in late May 1915, the Tehcir Law was passed.

This law, otherwise known as the Relocation and resettlement Law was directed at the general Armenian population. The first deportations began soon after the government passed the law. In late May, 180 Armenian families from the City of Zeitoon were moved. By June, according to a report by the American Embassy in Constantinople, 26,500 people had been moved and their numbers were rising.

The laws nominal basis was to resettle Armenians away from war zones to prevent any pro-Russian insurrections from breaking out. But its real intention was to eradicate the empire of the Armenian presence.

The Armenian Genocide: The 8 Steps That Led to the Annihilation of a People
Armenian Women on Death March. Google Images

Death Marches into the Syrian Desert

The deportees were rudely evicted from their homes, often at a moments notice. Often, they did not have time to gather basic food and clothing for a journey, never mind gather all their possessions together – or indeed locate all their family members. In the mountain village of Geben, women at work at the communal washtub were ordered to leave there and then, barefoot and half-clothed for their work.

Any young, able-bodied men were split from the women, children and the elderly and bound or removed to cut down on the chance of resistance. The deportees were then forced to walk, on foot into the Syrian Desert and onto an uncertain destination.

The authorities made no provisions for food, water or shelter for the deportees. Witnesses also report on the cruelty of the guards. The American Embassy report states that guards drove pregnant women like cattle and many went into labor prematurely, often dying of hemorrhaging because of their ill-treatment. Franz Gunther, a representative for the Deutsche Bank which was funding the construction of the Baghdad railway, forwarded photographs to his superiors in Germany and complained bitterly about having to hold his silence in the face of the ‘bestial cruelty” he was witnessing.

By August 1915, The New York Times was reporting how “the roads and the Euphrates are strewn with corpses of exiles, and those who survive are doomed to certain death. It is a plan to exterminate the whole Armenian people”. In the meantime, the abandoned homes and Armenian villages were repopulated with Muslim refugees displaced in the Balkan wars and the government automatically claimed all abandoned Armenian goods and properties.

The Armenian Genocide: The 8 Steps That Led to the Annihilation of a People
Five Armenian Doctors Hanged in Aleppo. Google Images


Death did not just come to those in the convoys from disease, cruelty, and neglect. Late in 1914, the Ottoman government began assembling killing squads known as the Teshkilati Mahsusa or “Special Organization.” These “butchers of the human species” as Vehib Pasha dubbed them, the commander of the Ottoman third army, were recruited from criminals in Turkish prisons.

The killing squads would prey on the convoys, appearing suddenly out of the desert, cutting down deportees randomly by the sword. Then, they would ride off again, leaving the survivors terrified and traumatized. Their aims were two-fold: help along the death toll and ensure the living was subjugated by terror and uncertainty.

Those remaining in Armenian towns and villages were no safer. In June 1915, the massacres began. Young, able-bodied men were killed in the main, as they were seen as most likely to form a core of resistance, as were community leaders and intellectuals. Communal squares began to fill with hanging bodies.

But hanging was not the only method of death. German eyewitnesses saw whole villages shut into churches and stables before the doors were locked and the buildings set on fire. In June 1915, the Armenian leaders of Trebizond were placed in a boat where they were tightly bound together before being thrown into the Black Sea. Oscar Heizer, the American consul at Trabzon also saw children loaded into boats before being pushed overboard.

Others, in towns or on the long march across the desert were crucified or thrown off cliffs.

The body count was such that corpses began to attract undue attention and provide ample evidence for the outraged international community to begin their protests so much so that the order was given to bury the corpses so they were hopefully out of sight and so out of mind.

But the sheer numbers must have made this impossible. A quicker method of disposal was to dump corpses in rivers and the sea. But this in itself had problems. Corpses in the Euphrates at Erzincan were so numerous they actually altered the course of the river for a few meters.

The Armenian Genocide: The 8 Steps That Led to the Annihilation of a People
Armenian Orphans. Google Images


Killing, however, was not the solution. For some, the aim was to eradicate the Armenian identity: its culture, its religion and ensure uniformity. To this end, Armenian men, women, and children were subjected to “Turkification”: the absorption and transformation of alien entities within the Turkish state.

A letter to the American Secretary of State from the ambassador in turkey, dated July 20, 1915, detailed the Turkification of children. Orphans in state orphanages were to be remade in a Turkish image. This was especially easy if the children were so young they could not remember their parents – or young enough to forget. Armenian names were removed and replaced with Turkish ones and children were placed with Turkish families.

Most able-bodied men were contained or executed. But early in 1916, perhaps as part of the war effort, officials decided to offer remaining Armenian soldiers the option of conversion to Islam. Many refused.

But women were given no choice and their Turkification was more of an appropriation as some were forced into marriages with Turks to deprive them of inheritance rights or worse still, sold as sex slaves.

Their captors on the marches routinely abused women and girls, with commanders telling their men to use them as they wanted. British diplomat Gertrude Bell filed a report based on the account of a captured Ottoman soldier that told how 12,000 Armenians left in the hands of Kurdish guards were told to wipe out all but the young women. The fate of these young women was probably the slave markets of Damascus and Mosel where their guards sold them as sex slaves as a way of lining their own pockets.

Turkification did not end with people. As part of the movement, it became policy to destroy all Armenian items and property of cultural and religious significance. Armenian churches were either destroyed or re-styled as mosques. After 1923, UNESCO reported that out of 913 Armenian historical monuments in turkey, 464 were obliterated, 252 in ruins and 197 damaged.

The Armenian Genocide: The 8 Steps That Led to the Annihilation of a People
Turkish Official Teasing Armenian Children with Bread. Google Images

The Concentration Camps

In January 2016, it was estimated that only 10% of those deported had made it to their destinations alive. These final destinations were 25 concentration camps set up between Aleppo and Mosel.

The New York Times of August 21, 1916, reported that English minister Rev Buxton confirmed statements made by Lord Bryce months before in the House of Lords that people were being ‘swept away with a methodical thoroughness.” Rev Buxton had been working with a relief effort and had described how hundreds and thousands were being kept in camps specifically designed to kill.

Their captors deprived the inmates of food and water. One account described how 450 children were housed in 5-6 meters square tent and fed just 150 g of bread a day – if they were lucky. Others described people so hungry, they would search horse manure for grain.

The conditions were a breeding ground for disease and famine Dysentery was rife. Mass graves grew up around the camps of 60,000 Armenians who died there of starvation and disease.

The Armenian Genocide: The 8 Steps That Led to the Annihilation of a People
Australian Soldiers with the Armenian dead. Google Images

After 1918

The end of the First World War should have marked the end of the genocide. The allies occupied Constantinople, and trials began to bring the perpetrators of the genocide to justice. But many of the perpetrators such as Talaat Pasha had escaped to Germany where they went into hiding where they were tried in absentia.

The Ottoman Empire was finally broken up after its partitioning by the allies. Many Armenians who had succeeded in fleeing were brave enough to return and take up their lives again. But they found the new regime was no more sympathetic to them than the last. The Turkish War of Independence between Turkish nationalists and Sultan Mehmet VI who nationalists believed was complicit in the allied subjugation of the region was in full swing.

Nationalist forces continued to expel and eradicate Armenians in Cilicia in southern Turkey and Smyrna the home of the last intact Armenian community. The persecution only ended in 1923 when, after annexing most of Anatolia and ousting the sultan, Turkey was formally declared a republic and recognized as a nation. Then, and only then were they content to leave the Armenians alone.

But by this time, the Turkish Armenians were largely no more, reduced to a few hundred thousand people. Armenia itself did not exist as an independent state until 1991 when Russia Armenia regained independence.

Even today, the Turkish government refuses to acknowledge the genocide ever took place and it is illegal in Turkey to talk about it. But the evidence of this forgotten genocide speaks for itself.