History: Armenian Genocide — What Prompted It?

This year that is soon ending, marked 100 years since Armenian Genocide. According to Wikipedia, around 800000 to 1.5 million Armenians died in 1915, during World War One. Although the term was familiar, I kind of leaned common thinking that tragedy was result of war surfacing wrong people to power, who created horrible conditions with terror, famine and freezing winters. How wrong was I…

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Genocide Memorial in Yerevan center

In 1915, genocide developed in three phases. First was drafting Armenian and other Christian men to take part in Ottoman armies, at the wake of war. After disastrous campaign against Russians, these men were made as scapegoats for the losses. Had the war gone any better for Ottomans, who knows if later events had happened in their severity? Men were disarmed and put on hard labor companies, and gradually exhausted and murdered. Second phase was spring 1915, when 200-300 Armenian intellectuals (priests, artists, business and other noteworthy people) were executed throughout the empire, and especially in the capital Constantinople (today’s Istanbul). In last third phase, targets were the leaderless and helpless women, children and older men. They were forced to death marches in Syrian deserts, tortured, starved, murdered. These stages were planned and organised by Young Turk government at the head of Ottoman Empire, and were not impulsive and improvised violence by armed thugs.

Besides events of 1915, similar though smaller atrocities happen over the decades. Several Ottoman/Turkish governments, often hostile to each other, followed the same policy consistently: last Sultan still wielding state power, Abdul Hamid II (Hamidian Massacres 1894–1896, Adana Holocaust 1909). Sultan was deposed by Young Turk movement that drove Ottoman’s to war. And lastly the Kemalists, after the war (Smyrna Fire 1923).

Atrocities resulted population transfers and immigration through the years. For example, California today has significant Armenian population living as Americans. Similarly France and other European countries received multitudes of Armenian refugees. After Greco-Turkish War (1919–22), both sides agreed of population transfer. Muhacirs from Balkans transferred to now depopulated West Armenia and elsewhere in modern day Turkey. Anatolian Greeks and Macedonians in turn moved to Balkans.

So back to question, what was the reason behind tragedy?

In late 1800’s, new ideals such as Nationalism and Communism not only undermine traditional order, but inspired a rifts between ethnicities and religions. People had earlier just one ruler, the Sultan, to worry about. Now they were forming new ideas how their future should be shaped, where their loyalties should be, and who their allies were.

Developments in Ottoman Empire, during its last century was continued struggle from one setback to another. In hands of several incompetent Sultans the empire seemed to fell apart. It was leaving behind militarily to European powers. Due to mismanagement, it also became financially dependant on them. Anatolia was still home of large Christian population. Greeks, Armenians and other Christians influenced local business and spiritual communities. They were often better educated and wealthier than Muslims. If old trend continued, could Turkish Muslims become second class citizens in their homeland? My guess the reason for genocide was simply out of fear that one day, if Anatolia was lost, there would be no place to withdraw anymore. So ethnic cleansing was planned and executed by successive regimes.

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Eternal flame, in Genocide Memorial of Yerevan

Today, this topic today is still full of controversy. It is spurring demonstrations in Turkey and Armenia. Journalists have lost lives, monuments destroyed and defaced. Turkish-Armenian border stays closed from trade and tourism.
Modern day Turkey is more wealthy, mature and educated than ever before. Still its denying the word genocide, to describe what happened to Armenians. Perhaps it would be finally time to acknowledge the wrongs of the past? Armenians will never forget the Great Crime that was done to them, and history wont be going anywhere.

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