April Marks The Centennial Of Armenian Genocide

Apr 8, 2015
Originally published on April 8, 2015 12:20 pm
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Let's listen to some of the back story of the modern Middle East. We've arrived at a moment when the very borders of the region are being strained. The modern day nations of the Middle East grew out of a calamity, the First World War, during and after which the Ottoman Empire, which once ruled the region, collapsed. And we now have a story of the Ottomans' last days. One hundred years ago, in 1915, the Ottoman Empire, centered on present-day Turkey, faced a threat from within. Even as the empire fought a war against Russia, Britain and France, its rulers sensed a threat from an ethnic and religious minority in what is now eastern Turkey. They were the Armenians.

EUGENE ROGAN: They had their own language, their own liturgy as a religious community, a strong sense of history and a territory they aspired to return to as a kind of national historic homeland.

INSKEEP: That's historian Eugene Rogan, who wrote a book called "The Fall Of The Ottomans." He says the crumbling empire faced a modern nationalist movement, one that the government believed posed a threat to the empire's existence. The response to this perceived threat was swift and brutal and massive.

ROGAN: At the time the war broke out, the Armenians were fully integrated into the Ottoman political system. You had Armenian members of parliament, elected to the Ottoman Parliament. They were cooperating with the Young Turk government that ruled the Ottoman Empire. And so when the Ottomans went on full mobilization in the summer of 1914, Armenians turned out like any other Ottoman people, with a lot of trepidation but kind of fearful of not complying with what were really strict conscription regulations.

INSKEEP: They said, we're going to defend the empire that we're a part of.

ROGAN: They said, we're going to wear the uniform of the Ottoman Empire. Their commitment to defending that empire was in question.

INSKEEP: So the Ottoman army is fighting against the Russian Empire. The two empires come together in this region, near what is now eastern Turkey. The Ottomans suffer a terrible defeat, and it's in this Armenian area.

ROGAN: Yeah, the Ottomans crossed into the Russian territory thinking that they might be able to strike a blow, defeat a Russian army. Instead, they lost a battle. It went to the Russians. And they began to fear the loyalties of the Armenians, who they'd always believed turned to Russia for support to achieve their national ambitions.

INSKEEP: Did the Armenians turn to Russia for support?

ROGAN: What happened was a small number of militants who did cross over to the Russian side, who did actively try and recruit Armenians to support the Russian cause, made life extremely dangerous for the majority of Armenian civilians who basically had no fight with anyone, did not wish to be drawn into any war and found themselves under tremendous pressure, soldiers who, suspected by their Turkish comrades, begin to get shot down. We have memoirs by Turkish soldiers talking about how they were randomly killing Armenians in their midst, soldiers, you know, wearing Ottoman uniform but because they were Armenians, a sudden accident with a gun and another Armenian was dead. And it didn't sound like an accident at all. You can imagine, for an Armenian soldier in the Eastern Front, you know, the position they were in was untenable. If they stayed with the Ottomans, they were afraid that their own comrades would kill them. If they crossed over to the Russian side, they were contributing to the problem of the question of Armenian loyalties.

INSKEEP: What did the Turkish government, the Ottoman Turkish government, then do with this Armenian population?

ROGAN: Government officials and members of the Committee of Union and Progress, which was the ruling party in the Ottoman Empire at that time, devised a plan for the forced relocation of Armenians, in which Armenians would be moved from the area where they were deemed to be a threat to Ottoman security to an area where they would be no danger - which is to say, in areas of the Arab provinces where they'd be far from Russian influence. But it went further than that. Those were the public orders. Those were orders that were posted in town squares and on mosque doors and church doors across the Eastern Anatolia. It was through testimony presented in trials the Ottomans convened after the war that we now know that the Committee of Union and Progress agreed to give, orally, orders for the extermination of Armenians, that men and women would be separated at the moment of departing their villages, that the men would be massacred and that the women would be marched under conditions in which only a fraction of them would survive. And the theory that most Turkish scholars of the genocide are putting forward was that the Ottoman plan was to reduce the demographic profile of the Armenians so that they would not exceed 5 to 10 percent in any given province. It wasn't an abet to try and eliminate the Armenians in their entirety, but it was to make sure that the Armenians would never constitute a critical mass to seek separation for the Ottoman Empire as an independent Armenian state.

INSKEEP: Somehow, that seems even more awful because you're describing some plan that was quite precise and almost scientific and involved murdering thousands and thousands of people.

ROGAN: I think the evidence presented by scholars leaves very little doubt that there was a predetermined plan to reduce the demographic profile of the Armenian community through means of mass killing. And in that sense, we have I think incontrovertible evidence that the Armenian massacres of the First World War constitute the first modern genocide. It's ironic that you and I can say this, speaking in a studio here in the United States, on the basis of evidence presented by Turkish scholars, but it remains something of an official refusal still in Turkey.

INSKEEP: Why is it that modern-day Turkish governments have pushed back fiercely whenever this is called a genocide or this topic is brought up?

ROGAN: I really don't have an answer why the Turkish government continues to resist the idea that the wartime massacres of Armenian did constitute a genocide. Even at the time, in 1919, members of the Ottoman Parliament were talking about the deliberate mass murder of Armenians. The word genocide hadn't been coined yet. They used the word massacres. But they were giving figures that ranged between 800,000 and 1.5 million in debates in the Ottoman press at the time. Prime Minister, now President Erdogan, has gone further than any of his predecessors in recognizing and expressing regret for the extent of Armenian suffering in the First World War. But the official line in Turkey is still that the Armenians suffered as did other peoples during the war, a time of great dislocation, high mortality, and that far more Turks died than Armenians and they owe no one an apology for this. They just regret the suffering.

INSKEEP: That's Eugene Rogan, author of "The Fall Of The Ottomans," speaking about the Armenian massacres, or genocide, of a century ago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.