The Armenian Genocide

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The Armenian Genocide


The Armenian genocide, which took place in 1915, is one of the largest atrocities that the world experienced in the 20th Century. Although about 1.5 million people died, there has been a widespread denial of the killings by the Turkish authorities. When the Ottoman Empire rose, it conquered lands in Europe and the Middle East. Part of the lands the Empire took belonged to the Armenians. Initially, the Turkish rulers did not expel the Armenians from their territories but offered them second class citizenship, while their Arabs counterparts received first class citizenship. The Ottomans set the stage for the genocide by creating discriminatory policies that alienated the Armenians in their land. In the course of the Empire’s rule, there were several changes in leadership and dynamics in the surrounding would, which created power politics that fueled the genocide. The German-Turkish alliance and general political situation in Europe made the Armenians’ genocide by the Turks possible.

German-Turkish Alliance

The Ottomans and Germans started their relationship when the Empire requested Germany to assist with military development. Germany sent general Liman von Sanders to help with the endeavor. Initially, Germany viewed the relationship with the Empire as a trade alliance that would promote Germany’s commerce by providing an arms market. The Ottomans’ motivation to deal with Germany resulted from its initial failed attempt to form an alliance with Britain in 1908, 1911, and 1913 (Akcam, 2007). In the new military structure, the Ottoman Empire required all its male citizens, regardless of ethnicity and religion, to serve as soldiers. Some of those who enlisted were Armenians. Germany continued to train and sell ammunition to the Turks even during the genocide. Since the genocide took place when German officers were in charge of the Ottoman military’s restructuring, some of them contributed by giving orders that led to the mass killings. Others took part by ignoring the atrocities, since they had the power to influence the Empire on decisions relating to the killings. The support of the Germans in the alliance thus gave the Turkish rulers the courage to take several actions that culminated in the Armenians’ genocide, as will become evident in the following sections.

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Power Politics Surrounding the Conflict

The European Countries’ Quest for Dominance

The move by European countries to seek dominance over each other contributed the genocide by creating an environment that enabled the perpetrators to kill the Armenians. During this time, the Ottoman Empire lost most of its territory to Great Britain, Russia, and other states, such as Greece, Romania, Serbia, and Bulgaria, which had been parts of the Empire. The oppression of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire provided Russia with leverage. In the Russian military, there were many Armenians, who were sympathetic to their relatives under the oppression of the Empire (Balakian, 2004).The Armenians in the Russian military and Russia supported the formation of the Ottoman Armenian political organizations that advanced the course of the Armenians’ fair treatment. Russia’s power play to increase its territory in Europe created apprehension with its European neighbors, who feared its aggression. Consequently, the Treaty of Berlin of 1878 replaced the Treaty of San Stefano, which had assigned Russia the responsibility of ensuring the Armenians’ freedoms in the Ottoman Empire. In the new Berlin Treaty, the Armenians could gain more rights by having the ability to testify in Ottoman courts and pay fair taxes. However, since the treaty was aimed at reducing Russia’s influence, it gave the Ottoman Empire the custodian responsibility of ensuring Armenians’ rights under its rule. The scenario created by the treaty gave the Empire all the authority to institute oppressive policies against the Armenians, because there was no external authority to oversee and enforce the deal.

Sultan Abdul-Hamid II and the 1894 and 1896 Massacre. The precursor of the genocide of 1915 was the massacre between 1894 and 1896 that occurred after the Armenians protested because of taxation. Sultan Abdul-Hamid II responded by killing between 100,000 and 300,000 Armenians. The massacre caught the attention of the world because of its unique nature in that the Armenians were unarmed, yet the Sultan used brutal force to quell their protest (Hovannisian, 2007). If the world had had the political will to intervene, it would have done so after this massacre, which would have prevented the one that followed in 1915. However, the power politics in Europe and the rest of the world could not allow such interference. Although countries such as Germany and Great Britain could have intervened, they held back, because they viewed the Ottomans as possible allies against Russia. The Germans had political and economic reasons to maintain distance, because intervention would have cost it trade deals and possible routes to future territories and military assistance from the Ottomans. America, on the other hand, did not want to interfere in the world politics, as it concentrated on building its industries and economy. Therefore, the massacre and failure by other countries to act against it encouraged the Ottomans to plan and execute the genocide.

The link between the killings and the European power politics. The killings had a direct link to the European countries’ power politics. If Russia had not become aggressive towards its neighbors, it would have remained a legitimate oversight figure of the Treaty of San Stefano, which would have checked the behavior of the Ottoman rulers against Armenians (Robertson, 2015). However, its approach to gaining power by snatching territories from its neighbors made the Ottomans the custodians and enforcers of the Treaty of Berlin. The formation of the Treaty of Berlin was a power play response by the European countries to the Russian aggression, which made them blind to the repercussions of making the Ottomans the enforcers of the Berlin Treaty. There existed a conflict of interest in the Treaty of Berlin, because the Ottomans were the source of the Armenians’ suffering, yet they were to implement an agreement that would deny them power to oppress the Armenians. Germany, for its part, agreed to the Treaty of Berlin because of its special interests in the Empire. Germany had no significant colonies in the Arab world, which would have clashed with the Ottoman Arab rulers. Therefore, Germany saw an opportunity to gain access to other parts of Europe and Asia through the Empire (Suny, 2015). Cooperation with Ottoman rulers would have given Germany the prerequisite military backing it required in its territorial acquisition ventures. As such, Germany made a power move to allow the Treaty of Berlin with little regard for the welfare of the Armenian people. The reason the Germans were culpable in the atrocities was that they maintained a cordial relationship with the Ottomans and commanded part of the Ottomans military. Their silence and collaboration that led to the deaths of innocent Armenians amount to war crimes against humanity and should not go without condemnation. As a result of the power politics, none of the countries put the interests of the Armenians first, which eventually led to the genocide.

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Internal Power Wrangles

In 1908, the Armenians gained hope of an inclusive society, when they joined forces with other minorities, such as the Jews, the Kurds, the Greeks, and some young Turkish citizens. The collaboration aimed at challenging the Sultan authority, and thus the members named the group Ottoman Liberals. The Turkish Coalition that was part of the group named itself the Young Turks. The Young Turks’ vision was to establish a modern democracy that could accommodate the diverse communities that made up the Empire. The group that formed the government became the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP). In the same year, the Young Turks marched to Constantinople and overthrew the Sultan. Once they took power, they created a constitution and government that granted all the Empire’s citizens equal rights. Such a new era promised the Armenians protection from attacks they had ensured under the leadership of the Sultan. The change of leadership was significant to the genocide that would follow, because the perpetrators gained power through it, as the following paragraph will discuss.

Once the government was operational, a group of nationalists started promoting a move for a radical policy change. They wanted to unify their leadership through a process called Turkification. Turkification was an authoritarian approach to leadership that gave power to the majority Turkish population. Since the majority of nationalists in the population supported the move, it ignited fears among the Armenians about a possible repeat of past attacks. In the meantime, supporters of the fallen Sultan wanted to recapture power from the perceived liberal government. They attacked the city of Adana and massacred almost 30,000 Armenians, who were the majority in the area. The failure by the government to take swift action against the perpetrators emboldened others and left the Armenians helpless. The government’s reluctance to protect the Armenians led to the emergence of a nationalist political movement, whose effect spread throughout the Ottoman Empire. They promoted a pan-Turkism policy that was discriminatory. The policy advocated for the country to belong to the Turkish people only, which set the stage for the genocide of 1915 (Hovannisian, 2007). Those who promoted the nationalist ideology appealed to the people’s feelings because of the losses the Empire had experienced in the South during the Balkan War of 1912-13. The lost glory and the radical policy thus, fueled the ethnic cleansing that the rulers orchestrated towards the Armenians.

World War I and Russian-Turkish Tensions

The decision by the Ottoman government to enter World War I in 1914 against Russia was another power play that further worsened the relationship between the Ottoman government and the Armenians. In the winter of 1914 and 1915, the Ottomans were defeated by the Russians. As a result, they diverted their frustration towards the Armenians. The world’s preoccupation with the war provided the Ottomans with an ideal opportunity to implement their long-held belief that the Empire belonged to the Turkish population only (Akcam, 2007). The government used the Armenians as a scapegoat for the defeat by the Russians and instituted measures to deal with the minority. Although the Ottoman rulers created the illusion that their defeat was a result of the Armenians betraying the country, the truth was that the Empire had become weak. It was incapable of fighting a strong Russian army but wanted to retain its past power. As such, the Turks’ attention to the Armenians after their defeat was a face-saving tactic and a consolation mechanism. The entry of Turkey into the world war, therefore, escalated the tensions and gave the Ottomans a reason to blame the Armenians and thus attempt to exterminate them.

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The Genocide

The first step that the CUP took was to round up all the Armenian intellectuals, artists, business people, and doctors and kill them. These were influential figures in the Armenian communities, and they had the power to organize people and resist the atrocities that were imminent (Balakian, 2004). Their absence was a big blow to the Armenian communities, because people were left without leaders who could ask for assistance from outside the country. The loss of artists denied the Armenians an opportunity to provocatively elicit action from the world through the work of art. Art is a powerful tool that can call people to action, because it depicts situations in the society and force people to confront their beliefs and convictions. The loss of doctors meant that when people became sick from the horrible conditions of war, no one was there to care for them. As such, exposing the Armenian people to deplorable living conditions would have facilitated their extermination. The business people owned the means through which people could resist the genocide. They could have provided the Armenians with resources to train and purchase weapons for defense. Confrontations created massive casualties that needed medication. The resources that the business people could have provided would have improved the Armenians’ recovery and resilience to fight for their survival and rights. Losing intellectuals also crippled the Armenians, because they are the people who would have provided the strategy to defend the people. Given that the Ottomans had vast resources, armies, and experience in war, strategy was vital for the Armenians to resist the attacks. Therefore, the Ottomans identified the strength of these people that would have afforded the resistance and decided to eliminate it before it became a real threat to their evil strategy.

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The second step was to deal with the Armenians in the Ottoman military and other strong men. The military personnel would have been crucial to the Armenian resistance, because they had fighting experience. They would have provided a lifeline for the Armenians to survive the brutality directed at them. Once those who had served in the military were executed, CUP used modern technology to communicate its genocidal strategy to all the province heads in the Empire (Robertson, 2015). CUP used the railway road networks and the telegraph to coordinate the atrocities. The CUP leaders ordered their respective provinces to load the Armenian women, children, and the elderly into the trains and transport them towards the Syrian Desert. The aim was to use the most inhumane methods and prolong their suffering as much as possible. People were forced to march in the desert with little supplies, which reduced the possibility of their survival. Some of the women became sex slaves, while others were sold into slavery. The rounding up of the entire Armenian population, which included women and children, was inconsistent with CUP’s claim that they were punishing those who had made them lose against the Russians. If their aim was to deter the future purported traitorous acts, they would have killed those caught in the act and leave the rest to survive. Their deaths would have served as deterrence against future treason. Unfortunately, the claims were just fabricated lies, because CUP punished even those who had served their country well in the military and other spheres of life. The elimination of men thus made the killing of women, children and the elderly in the final stage of the genocide easy because there was minimal resistance.

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The German-Turkish Alliance endowed the Ottoman Empire with military power and support, which gave them the courage to wage war on the Russians. Their defeat by the Russians humiliated them and influenced them to find consolation by claiming the Armenians were responsible for their defeat. Eventually, they crafted a strategy to kill the entire Armenian population using the pretext that they were traitors. The world’s preoccupation in the First World War was a perfect opportunity for the Turkish government to exterminate the Armenians. All the European and world powers had personal interests to guard and, thus, failed to intervene to stop the Armenian genocide. The rise of nationalism in the Ottoman Empire also contributed to the genocide by providing an environment for oppressive policies. The genocide was planned and executed in stages. First, the Turkish rulers killed the influential members of the Armenian community, then, the men and those with military capabilities. Those left were women, children, and the elderly, who were transported, tortured, and killed in the desert. Therefore, the power politics in Europe and the alliance between the Ottoman Empire and Germany contributed to the Armenian genocide.

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