Armenians and others around the world this month are marking the centennial of the genocide that left hundreds of thousands of Armenians dead early in the last century. The date April 24 is typically picked as the centennial day since it was on that day in 1915 that Turkish authorities rounded up Armenian intellectuals and leaders in Constantinople and murdered them.
It was the first step in a much broader slaughter. The Armenian centennial is getting the attention it deserves from sources as diverse as Pope Francis and Kim Kardashian. The Pope courageously used the word “genocide” in a mass this past weekend, and the Lord’s Prayer was sung in Armenian at the Vatican. Kim Kardashian, whose grandfather was an Armenian immigrant, traveled to the Republic of Armenia with her husband Kayne West, who put on an impromptu concert.
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What few people know is that the Armenian Genocide was a horrible event that occurred within the context of a wider religious cleansing across Asia Minor that lasted ten years and included Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians. They were all Christians, and they were subjects of the Ottoman Empire.
The religious cleansing was actually the first in modern times, and it fit the pattern of genocides that would follow in the terrible century ahead. It’s worth noting that the Nazis in following decades were transfixed by the events that had occurred in Turkey in those nightmarish years of mass killings and deadly deportations.
The Armenians in many way bore the worst of the slaughter, but ethnic Greeks and Assyrians also were slaughtered in similar ways — and for the same reason: They were scapegoats in a crumbling empire that saw Christians as a dangerous and potentially treasonous population inside the country. There was a strong nationalistic impulse to create a “Turkey for the Turks,” and that meant a homogeneous population based on Turkishness and the Moslem faith.
Christians had long been second-class citizens in the Ottoman Empire, long before the genocide, and they had been subject to pogrom-like actions. But the systematic uprooting of Christians began about 1912 following the First Balkan War, in which Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria defeated the Ottomans and the city of Salonika passed to the Greeks.
It was the nation of Greece that had been part of the alliance that defeated the Ottomans, but it was ethnic Greek subjects of the Ottoman Empire who paid a price in harassment, killing and forced departures. Tens of thousands of ethnic Greeks were forced from their homes along the west (Aegean) coast of Turkey and many were killed.
This had the silent encouragement of Turkey’s military ally, Germany. Virulent propaganda spread images of Christians threatening Islam; hatred was fomented between the faiths.One of the witnesses to the killing was the American consul general in Smyrna, George Horton. Smyrna was a prosperous city on the Aegean, and Horton had been posted there to look after American interests. He documented the killing and reported it back to the State Department. Smyrna itself, after WWI, would itself be destroyed in the religious hatred directed toward Christians.
The Armenian genocide is typically bracketed by 1915-1916, during World War I. And for sure, this is when most of the killing took place. Armenian civilians were marched out of their towns and cities and segregated by sex and age. Men were killed immediately; women and children were marched long distances until they dropped form disease, thirst or starvation. The first-hand accounts of these treks are numerous and collected in letters, cables and reports in libraries though the world.
After WWI, the British made an attempt to bring the Ottoman mass killers to justice, but the effort faltered as Britain’s grasp on the situation inside Turkey faltered. A nationalist movement arose, and the forces of religious hatred were again unleashed. The killing of Christians was renewed with Ottoman Greeks as well as Armenians being shot and marched to their deaths. American and British consuls diplomats in the region provided a first-hand account of the killing.
The situation was worsened when the Allied Powers and the United States invited the nation of Greece to occupy Smyrna, a mostly Greek city inside Turkey, to forestall a landing by the Italians who wanted to seize the city as the spoils of war. The powers sent Greece to Smyrna, but when war broke out between the army of Greece and the Nationalist army of Turkey, they did next to nothing to support it.
As a consequence, more Christians — people who were Ottoman subjects — were murdered in towns and cities from the Black Sea to the south coast of Turkey. By the end of 1922, about three millions Christians had been killed in the decade-long religious cleansing that operated essentially under two Turkish governments.
The final catastrophe was the Turkish army’s occupation of Smyrna, a prosperous and cosmopolitan city of a half million people. The city was burned, and countless numbers of civilians slaughtered on the city’s streets and in their homes. The occupation of Smyrna was, in an important sense, the last episode of the genocide. It was also a marker of the end of the Ottoman Empire. After Smyrna, a new order arose, led by Turkey’s brilliant, ruthless and secular leader Mustafa Kemal, later called Ataturk.
So, as we commemorate the Armenian genocide, and give it the historical standing and label it deserves, let us not forget that many hundreds of thousands of others perished in the 20th Century’s first genocide.
By Lou Ureneck
Editor’s note: Lou Ureneck is a professor at Boston University and author of the forthcoming book, “The Great Fire: One American’s Mission to Rescue Victims of the 20th Century’s First Genocide.” It can now be pre-ordered here.