Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Armenian Genocide

I recently asked my students to ask me a question for my blog as part of their final.  I received well over 100 new questions!  I do not have over 100 students; many students asked several questions.  I had originally intended to cull the most interesting questions to answer and dispense of the rest, but now I have decided to answer the questions at the rate of about one per day until I lose energy.

Today's question: What do you know about the Armenian Genocide?

Among scholars of modern history, the Armenian Genocide is widely studied and discussed.  It is not well-known among non-scholars, and most of my students say they have never heard the phrase "Armenian Genocide."

The modern country of Armenia is located in Western Asia, bordering Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, and Nakhchivan. Although occupying a small territory, Armenia has had an immense influence on the history of the world. Although the Persian Empire was centered in Persia (Iran), it had its roots in Armenia, as did the Persian Zoroastrian religion – which is regarded as the first world religion because it was spread through Western Asia and Eastern Europe by the Persians.

Armenia is predominately Christian, and it was the first kingdom to adopt Christianity as its official religion in 301 CE. In fact, the Armenians' tenacious adherence to Christianity is connected to much of the persecution they have suffered throughout the ages. As Islam spread through Eastern Europe and Western Asia, traditionally Christian ethnic groups like the Armenians and Assyrians have been persecuted, dislocated, and virtually exterminated.

For the most part, the Armenian Genocide did not occur where the modern day country of Armenia is, but where Turkey is now located. By the 1800s, there were large communities of Armenians living in Constantinople (now known as Istanbul) and in the Eastern region of the Ottoman Empire. These Armenians had been there for centuries at this time, and the Ottoman Empire largely tolerated them. There were limits on their right to travel, to do business, and there were special taxes, but the Armenians mostly kept to the regions that they had traditionally held and everybody was happy.

This changed in the 1890s. The Ottoman Empire started to crumble, and Sultan Abdul Hamid II blamed this on Christians within the empire, saying that Christians were likely to prefer being ruled by Russia and they couldn't be trusted. At first he merely cracked down on their travel and trade, but eventually authorized the military to kill as many Armenians as they could. Nobody knows how many were killed at this time, but it amounts to hundreds of thousands.

This was definitely a hard time for Armenians, but it got worse. In the early 20th century, the Young Turk revolution replaced the totalitarian monarchy with a constitutional democracy. At first, the Armenians welcomed this change because they saw in it the possibility that they would be able to have a voice in the government. In fact, the Young Turks were the worst thing that happened to the Armenians.

The Young Turks believed that Turkey should be for the Turks, and not for non-Turkish, non-Muslim people like the Armenians. Even though the Armenians had been living in their territories for centuries upon centuries, the Young Turks viewed them as foreigners who did not belong.
During World War I, the Ottomans made an alliance with the Germans and joined the Central Powers. Many Ottomans suspected that the Armenians would be disloyal, so they called for removing Armenians from the military. Also, the Ottomans began removing various Christian groups from their ancestral lands, arguing that their loyalty could not be trusted.

Until this point, most Armenians had loyally served the Ottomans militarily, but now that their loyalty was being questioned and many non-Armenians were being killed, many of them teamed up with Russia to oppose the Ottomans. The Russian Empire, which was Christian, was seen by many Armenians as their best hope for liberation.

On April 24, 1915, the Ottomans officially began their attempt to “cleanse” their lands of the Armenians. They forcibly removed them from their homes and forced them to march through the desert to concentration camps. Many of them died in the intense heat. People who stopped were shot on the spot. Bands of thugs went through the neighborhoods of Armenians and other Christians, killing the adults and taking the children to be raised by Turks. The genocide lasted until the end of World War I.

By the end of the war, an estimated 1.5 million Armenians had been killed in massacres, worked to death in concentration camps, or marched to death in the desert. To put that number in perspective, it is almost exactly the population of Phoenix. Next time you are driving through Phoenix, look around and imagine what it would mean if every person you see – every old man, every baby, every teenager – were brutally murdered. Really, do it. This is as close as you can come to imagining the horror of this event.

The Turkish government still resists referring to this mass killing of Armenians as “genocide.”

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