What Were the Main Causes of the Armenian Genocide?
Matthew Marasco was one of 11 students at the Wakefield, R.I.’s prestigious Prout School to graduate with an International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma. As a requirement of the IB diploma, students are required to write an “Extended Essay,” a research paper of up to 4,000 words. Matthew’s Extended Essay was a version of the following essay entitled “What Were the Main Causes of the Armenian Genocide?”
History, be it familial, national, or ethnic, defines who one is as a person. Throughout human history, eras have been defined by periods of peace and times of conflict. As time has passed, the manner in which conflicts are carried out has evolved; therefore, history has innumerable variations of combat and harm. One of the most devastating types of conflict and assault upon a culture is genocide. According to Merriam-Webster, a genocide is “the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group.” According to the United Nations, a genocide is “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and]forcibly transferring children of the group to another group” (framework). While each attempted human extermination has had its own unique and tragic backstory, there are some commonalities among them. Common factors seen in most genocides include racial and religious tensions, as well as desperation on the part of the “attacking” party. One of the most tragic and under-researched mass killings was the Armenian Genocide. The objective of this investigation is to explore the causes of this assault upon humanity and to examine its ramifications.
Before proceeding further, it is important to note that for the purpose of this investigation the assaults upon the Armenians will be referred to as a genocide, according to the Merriam-Webster definition. However, much of the international community, including the United States, does not recognize the “incident” as a genocide. Despite this, the term will be used throughout the remainder of this report.
To begin to fully understand the events that unfolded between 1915 and 1917, it is first important to understand the history of conflict, especially religious conflict, in the region. Violence between Christian and Islamic groups was nothing new to the Middle East by 1915; the region had already experienced the religious wars of the Crusades, a series of seven wars beginning in 1095 and continuing periodically until 1291, as well as the conquering of Constantinople, the center of the Christian world in the east, which was overrun by Muslims in May of 1453. Even during the times of Muhammad, religious wars were taking place, as he began conquering and absorbing areas into his domain. Indeed, religious conflicts did not end with the Crusades. Our modern world continues to suffer the consequences of the religious tension and intolerance from generations ago. One could argue that the current religious conflict between Muslims and Christians has been ongoing since 1095 and the First Crusade and continues still today during the age of terror. However, the time immediately before the events of 1915 was actually relatively peaceful, as the many groups under Ottoman rule coexisted without conflict.
This peaceful coexistence, though, met a swift end in 1915 with the beginning of a systematic slaughter and deportation of Armenians, who at the time were living throughout Turkey and parts of Russia. Armenia had been one of the most affluent and largest kingdoms in the Middle East, at one time controlling most of Turkey, the southern Russian provinces, and most of Iran (Hartunian XIV). Like many incidents of violence, the Armenian Genocide was not a spontaneous event (although it appeared to be to the international community), nor was it the result of a single action. Rather, there were many long-term and short-term factors, none of which in isolation could have sparked the mass bloodshed, but which combined to create the perfect storm. These incredibly interconnected factors included the racial, political, economic, and religious situations, as well as the history of the region, in particular the Ottoman Empire, at the turn of the 20th century. The Ottoman Empire was the most recent of a long line of invaders to control the Armenian kingdom in 1915; the once powerful kingdom had previously succumbed to Greeks, Romans, Persians, Arabs, Seljuks, Mongols, Tartars, all before falling into Ottoman hands (Hartunian XIV).
The proverbial writing had been on the wall, as one Armenian recounts his conversation with a Turkish friend, “. . . One day, as I was with a Turkish official, he said to me ’My friend, there is no hope. No longer can the Armenian and the Turk live together. Whenever you find the opportunity, you will annihilate us; and whenever we find the opportunity, we will annihilate you. Now the opportunity is ours and we will do everything to harm you. The wise course for you, when the time comes, is to leave this country and never return.’ This Turk had spoken the truth. No longer could the Turk be a friend to the Armenian, or the Armenian a friend to the Turk” (Hartunian 1).
To begin, the first factor to be examined is the history of the Ottoman Empire, and how Armenians had been treated until the beginning of the genocide in 1915. In regards to this, there are two incredibly varying viewpoints. Some historians argue that the Armenians were not only treated as second class citizens, but they were treated as though they were not human. This takes into account the lack of civil rights available to Armenians, as well as the economic and societal restraints placed upon them. These included, but were not limited to, being forbidden to bear arms, leaving them at the mercy of the Muslim majority, as well as the inability to seek retribution in a court of law (Hartunian XIV). According to this viewpoint, as well as the fact that the the region, both formerly and later the nation of Armenia, had spent nearly 400 years under Turkish rule (this includes both the Seljuk Turks and the Ottoman Turks), it does not seem out of the realm of possibilities that this beaten down, ethnic and religious minority would eventually be faced with heinous violence and destruction. In fact, the abuses of 1915 were not an isolated incident, but rather a culmination of massacres, which had been taking place throughout the Ottoman reign in the region. During the year 1895-1896 nearly 30,000 Armenians were killed according to the orders of sultan Abdul Hamid II. The violence did not stop in 1917; the city of Smyrna, a primarily Armenian-occupied city, was burned in 1922 (Harutian XVII).
However, it is important to understand that there are some historians who paint a different picture. In fact, many argue that the treatment of Armenians under the rule of the Ottoman Turks was far from harsh. Those who support this theory site the treatment of conquered and colonized people in the territories of the western powers, which some would argue was actually harsher than the treatment of the Armenians. For example, in some ways, the Armenians had more freedom than their counterparts in India under British rule, and certainly more freedom than the former South American colonists of Spain. In fact, the Armenian minority in Turkey was actually quite economically and culturally prosperous, in spite of the aforementioned disadvantages they faced (Armenian National Institute). In addition, there had even been a period of reform prior to the Young Turks coming into power (a topic, which will be discussed in greater detail later) during which the Armenian people made great strides towards equality. There was, at this time, talk of establishing a constitutional government, which would guarantee the Armenians equal rights under the law. However, even those who adhere to this historical interpretation cannot argue that the Armenians were at any point, or on any level, considered the equal of the Turks, and that is a very dangerous thing. Dehumanization is the first step a ruling groups takes when an impending persecution is nearing, followed in quick succession by the removal of civil rights, the spread of propaganda, relocation, and eventually extermination.
Next, as already mentioned, a group known as the Young Turks, a reactionist group formed in response to the former Sultan Abdul Hamid II’s totalitarianism, had come to power in the Ottoman Empire shortly before the persecution of the Armenians, and this is certainly not a coincidence (Armenian National Institute.). The sultan, a dynastic title given to the traditional ruler of the Ottoman Empire, had given up absolute power in 1908, causing a power vacuum. The group known as the Young Turks took advantage of the situation, and seized power. Initially, the group was intending to make wide-sweeping reforms to create equality within the Empire by creating a constitutional government, which many Armenians supported. However, the party quickly split over whether liberal or conservative reform was needed to revitalize the Empire, and the radical conservative wing of the party found itself with uninhibited control thanks to a coup d’etat (Armenian National Institute). This radical wing promoted a “Turkey for the Turks” sentiment and created a “xenophobic (fear of those unlike oneself) Turkish nationalism” (Armenian National Institute). The Young Turks promoted this fear and dislike of outsiders, in particular of Armenians, through the use of their propagandist newspaper Harb Mecuasi, or “War Magazine” (Dadrian, 220). This is not uncommon; rather, seemingly all parties who attempted to create single party states used propagandist newspapers and magazines to spread their message.
One of the main goals of this group was to regain some of the honor and prestige lost during the Balkan War, and to reassert the dominance of the Ottoman Empire in the region (Armenian National Institute). One of the most effective ways to carry out this goal was by suppressing the ethnic minorities living within their borders to ensure no further uprisings, and to send a message to the newly autocratic peoples that their recently gained freedom would not last for long. These radical Muslim leaders found the perfect group to send the message in the Armenian population within Turkey, a population accustomed to maltreatment, and an economically successful ethnic and religious minority. During the Balkan War, many Armenians in the eastern reaches of the Empire had, in fact, joined forces with the Balkan uprisers and the Russians, much to the dismay of the Turkish government (Case). After the humiliating defeat at the hands of their former subjects, the Turks decided to round up the Armenians from these provinces, and relocate them into concentration camps. One survivor recounts his first impressions at a camp, saying, “I soon reached the concentration camp, where twelve thousand Armenians had already been herded—hungry, thirsty, naked, dirty, exhausted, already near death” (Hartunian, 85). Naturally, they were subject to innumerable and unimaginable abuses such as murder, rape, beatings, and food deprivation throughout the course of the journey, in what was the beginning of the massacre.
As previously mentioned, the Armenian population in the Ottoman Empire at the time was quite wealthy, which is not a problem in and of itself, but became an issue because the Turkish population, and the government itself, were far from financially secure. Working as craftsmen and farmers, Armenians paid a lot of taxes to the Empire. This reasonably secure lifestyle contrasted greatly with that of “increasingly unruly Muslim tribes, who now constituted a vast, unemployed army” (Harutian XIV). In fact, the Ottoman Empire was referred to at the time as the “Sick Man” in Europe, due in no small part to the fact that many of the minority groups within the Empire, such as the Greeks, had begun uprisings; some had even gained independence during the first Balkan War. Watching these “inferior minority” groups succeed in a largely failing economy greatly angered and hurt the pride of many Turkish people, who became determined to put the Armenians “back in their place.”
To make matters worse, the first several years of World War I had been a complete disaster for the Ottoman Empire, and the new Young Turk government was running out of the funds needed to wage war. In light of this, it is reasonable to assume that part of the reason for the genocide was to acquire the wealth, which had been amassed by the Armenians (Armenian).
The Armenian populations in Tiflis and Baku controlled the majority of the local wealth—wealth which was desperately needed both by the Islamic civilians of the area, as well as the Young Turk government. Aside from the financial struggles in the war, the fighting itself was going poorly, and the Armenians caught the blame for this as well. As the government continued to turn its people against the Armenians, they portrayed the minority as the reason for the militaristic defeats, claiming that they were being undermined from within. To back up this claim, and to prevent any resistance to the impending assault, the Turkish government disarmed all of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. The Young Turks then took advantage of the war, claiming that all Armenians, beginning with those in Anatolia, a region with a very high concentration of Armenians, and later extending to all who lived within the Empire, needed to be relocated due to “wartime emergencies.” This, however, was a simple guise to cover up the killing which would later take place (Dadrian 219).
Another cause for the persecution of Armenians between 1915 and 1917 was the religious tension created by the fact that they were a large group of Christians living under the rule of an Islamic nation. The Ottoman and Seljuk Empires had a unique geopolitical location in that they were located on the border between the Islamic Middle East and the Christian eastern Europe. The two empires had always viewed themselves as guardians of the Islamic faith, and believed it was their role to spread the Islamic faith throughout their territories. Furthermore, Armenia was not simply a Christian nation, but in the 4th century A.D., became the first nation ever to accept Christianity as the official religion of the state. While the level of religious freedom and tolerance within the Ottoman and Seljuk Empires had fluctuated over the years, the Young Turks wanted to establish Islamic dominance throughout the region more so than any of the leading groups before them. This militant Islamic group blamed the Christian “Infidels” for the struggles faced by the Muslims living within their borders. However, it is important to note that many Islamic religious leaders protested the deportation and execution of the Armenians, and later testified on behalf of the persecuted minority during war crime trials. Despite this, it would be difficult to deny that religious animosity, of which the region has had an extensive history, played a major role in the events which were to unfold between 1915 and 1917.
With the main causes for the genocide having been examined, it is time to investigate the persecution itself. In the year 1915, there were approximately 1.5 million Armenians living within the borders of the Ottoman Empires (The Armenian). By the end of the persecution in 1917, as many as 1.2 million of them were dead (The Armenian). It is widely accepted that the first several assaults upon the Armenians were carried out by civilians; the government authorities and troops also contributed to the destruction as the persecution blossomed. Armenians were killed in all sorts of horrific ways, but the vast majority died during the forced marches, during which the Ottoman military and civilians alike herded Armenians, sometimes entire towns at a time, and simply marched them into the desert without resources and left them there to perish. A survivor later remembered “We hear the children’s screams, the mothers’ sobs. They are hungry, they are thirsty, they are cold in the night air. They have no place to rest. They cannot freely move their bowels. They are suffering. They are visualizing the unbearable journey of the next day and its horrors, and they are going mad. The young girls and prettier women are being snatched away, and zaptiye (Turkish soldiers) satisfy their lusts on them. There are secret murders. And some, unable to bear these things, drop dead” (Harutian 87). Those who were lucky enough to survive had to simply continue walking until, and if, they reached the border and safety. Very few were this lucky. The situation only worsened with the Treaty of Brest Litovsk, in which the Russians gave many of their southern provinces to the Ottoman Empire in exchange for peace. This spelled doom for the thousands of Armenians who had fled the Ottoman Empire to the safety of Russia. The Ottoman Turks, with thousands of new Armenians within their borders, were reinvigorated in their efforts to eradicate the Armenians, especially because a large number of them had been attempting to set up an independent state in the formerly Russian land. Enraged, the Turks promptly smashed this fledgling group with more vigor and tenacity than had been seen at any other time during the genocide.
The effects of this horrific event can be seen throughout history, and are still felt today. One of the most glaring reminders of the violence shown towards the Armenians was the Holocaust in Germany during World War II. Hitler followed the Young Turks blueprint almost exactly, dehumanizing and scapegoating an economically successful racial and religious minority during a time of crisis. Germany, just like the Ottoman Turks, was reeling after having suffered a military defeat in World War I, and was attempting to regain lost prestige. Germany, too, was struggling economically, and had a new and unstable government after Kaiser Wilhelm had abdicated, similar to the situation with the Sultan in the Ottoman Empire. A wealthy ethnic and religious minority was humiliating to the ruling race in Germany, just as the Armenians were to the Turks before the genocide. To fully illustrate just how similar these two crimes against humanity were, in a 1939 statement, Adolf Hitler himself illustrates his use of the Turkish blueprint to justify his actions in Poland, saying “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” Perhaps, if people had in fact remembered the Armenian Genocide, this second tragedy may have been avoided. Had the tragedy in the Ottoman Empire been fully understood throughout the global community, then perhaps the leaders of the world in the 1940s would have seen the warning signs, and prevented such a tragedy from happening again.
In fact, even today there are a very determined group of individuals who not only “do not speak of the Armenians”, but deny the fact that a genocide occurred. Many Turks still claim that there was no crime committed against the Armenians, suggesting that the Armenians “decided their own fate” by openly fighting alongside the Triple Entente during the First World War and against the Ottoman Empire during the Balkan War (Case). This view believes that the Turks were justified in their actions against the Armenians, and argue that very few were actually killed, rather, that they were simply deported from their homeland. Others concede that the Armenians did suffer great losses, but refuse to accept the fact that the atrocities were carried out by the Ottoman Empire and its military. Instead, they suggest that the Armenians were victims of pillaging Kurds who were in the area at the time (Case). That being said, the belief that the events of 1915 through 1917 were in fact genocidal in nature is held widely throughout the international community among scholars. It is incredibly difficult to deny that the events did take place; and, the Young Turks had the motive, intent, and ability to carry out such a heinous crime against humanity.
Still, this debate raises questions about the area of knowledge of history itself, and how people gain historical knowledge. The recounting of the Armenian Genocide suggests that there is no “absolute truth” within history, and that bias, both conscious and unconscious, clouds judgement and alters the recitations of events. This forces the learner to be incredibly wary of his or her sources, and to always consider whether or not the informer may be knowingly or unknowingly harboring ulterior motives and is allowing these to influence the presentation of material.
Additionally, the forcible removal of Armenians from Armenia has had an incredible impact upon the culture. For many years, the language was in danger of dying out, and the massacres of the genocide have left Armenia as one of the most sparsely populated nations to this day. Indeed, 102 years later, the scars left by the assaults can still be seen and felt. That being said, one could also argue that the horrors of 1915 have unified and united the Armenian diaspora, and led to a cultural, religious, and ethnic pride as strong as any in the world. The Armenian people were forged in the fire of genocide, but have passed that test and prevailed with flying colors. There are now more than twice as many ethnic Armenians worldwide as there were when the Young Turks attempted to annihilate them, which is a testament to the Armenian spirit and resilience (Hartunian XIX).
In conclusion, the main causes of the Armenian Genocide were the economic, political, religious, and social situations of the Ottoman Empire at the time, as well as the history of conflict in the region. The events which unfolded between 1915 and 1917 constitute one of the greatest assaults upon humanity in the history of the world, yet the Armenian Genocide remains under-researched and under-taught in many schools. It is important that this trend is broken. Humanity must study the past in order to avoid repeating the atrocities committed so many years ago. People must learn to be aware of the sins of the past in order to create a better tomorrow. That, after all, is the noblest reason to pursue the study of history.
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Case, Holly. “Two Rights and a Wrong.” Nation, vol. 296, no. 13, 4/1/2013, pp. 33-37.
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