A Story of Catastrophe and Hope

A Brief History of Armenia

The twentieth century began with a genocide which continues to traumatise the Christians of the eastern Mediterranean region. During the First World War, the predominantly Muslim Turks ruled over several non-Islamic peoples, including the Armenian Christians. It is estimated that in 1915 up to one and a half million Armenian Christians were slaughtered in a calculated and systematic attempt by the Turkish authorities to exterminate an entire people from the face of the earth.

The reason that I have chosen the Armenian Genocide (known in Armenian as Medz Yeghern, or ‘The Great Crime’) as the subject of this essay is that today, almost one hundred years after the worst atrocities of the Genocide, the systematic slaughter of an entire people seems to have been forgotten by the vast majority of people, particularly in the West. There are many reasonably intelligent and otherwise well-informed people who are completely unaware of the Armenian Genocide and who wouldn’t even be able to locate Armenia on a world map.

Armenia is located between the Caspian, Black and Mediterranean Seas. According to the legend, the Armenian people descend back to the time of the Biblical character, Noah, whose ark was said to have come to rest on Mount Ararat, the highest peak in the region. Most historians agree, however, that the Armenian people settled this area from about 800 BC. Located at a key intersection, Armenia was threatened on all sides by large empires and nations, including the Medes, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Turks, Russians and Mongolians. Despite these external threats, the Armenians were able to develop a rich and distinctive cultural identity and a unique language and alphabet. Being a predominantly Christian nation, every Armenian you meet will proudly point out to you the fact that Armenia was the first nation to adopt Christianity as the official state religion in 301 AD – almost 80 years before the Roman Empire officially adopted Christianity in 380 AD, under the Emperor Theodosis.

The Armenians were able to retain their autonomy for several centuries, but when the Ottoman Turks invaded their territory in the 17th century, the Armenian people were subject to the indignity of second-class citizenship and active discrimination and persecution. Around this time, many Armenians left the region in successive waves of emigration. The population of Armenia in the late nineteenth century is estimated to have stood at about 2 and a half million. At this time, the Ottoman Empire began to decline under the pressure of internal corruption and challenges from the European Great Powers. The disintegration of the Ottoman Empire led to an increase in persecution. Turkish raids, plunders, rapes and murders against the Armenian people became more and more common.

The Armenians hoped that the European Powers could intercede with the Ottoman Sultan on their behalf, but in the face of European pressure, the Sultan intensified the repression of the Armenian people. Already in 1895, acting at the direct behest of the Ottoman authorities, mobs of Turkish vigilantes massacred about 300,000 Armenians. The aim of these mass killings was to discourage the Armenians from asking for European assistance and to create a demographic shift in favour of the Muslim population.

The revolution of the Young Turks in 1908 was an event that raised the hopes of many Armenian nationalists. The revolutionaries proclaimed a new regime of liberty and fraternity. The Armenians themselves had collaborated with the Young Turks in helping them to stage the revolution. The aspiration of the Armenian nationalists at that time was focused on the attainment of internal Armenian autonomy within a federation of other nations in the region. Despite these promising beginnings, it soon became apparent that the Young Turks were not motivated by liberal, egalitarian principles, but were, rather, driven by a toxic brew of murderous intentions and xenophobic ideology, which saw the solution of the ‘Armenian problem’ as consisting in the eradication of the Armenian people.

The Young Turks developed an ideology of ‘Pan-Turkism’, which required the forceful suppression of all minorities within the territory of the Ottoman Empire in order to unite a ‘greater Turkish state’ and bring together all Turanian peoples. The Armenians, who for centuries had tenaciously clung to their church, language and culture, were among the least willing of the various minorities to abandon their unique cultural identity and their Christianity.

By 1914, Turkey was ruled by a triumvirate of Young Turk fascist xenophobic extremists. These three leaders, Enver, Talaat and Jemal, developed a systematic and meticulous plan to exterminate the Armenian people. When World War I broke out, the Turkish government ordered the deportation of Armenians to ‘relocation centres’, which were actually the deserts of Syria and Mesopotamia.

As part of the first stage of the Genocide, Armenians who served in the Ottoman armies had been segregated into unarmed battalions. They were taken out in batches and murdered by the Turkish authorities. On 24 April 1915, 254 Armenian intellectuals in Istanbul were arrested; nearly all of them were subsequently murdered.

The result was that by the middle of 1915, the Armenian nation had already lost its able-bodied male population (from the army) and its intellectual elite. Now the Turkish authorities turned their genocidal efforts against the vulnerable remnant of Armenians, consisting mainly of women and children. In every town and villiage in the empire, the Armenian population was ordered out. The first to be ordered out were the adult and teenage males, who were led away and shot in cold blood just outside the towns and villages.

An even worst fate awaited the women and children. They were forced on long death marches through the burning deserts of Northern Syria. There were almost no survivors and many Armenians took their own and their children’s lives by flinging themselves off cliffs or drowning themselves in rivers rather than prolonging their humiliation and torment.

The Turks used different methods to slaughter the Armenian people, depending on their location. In regions near the desert, the forced marches were the preferred method of killing. In Trebizond, the Turks drove out the Armenians and, loading them en masse onto boats, sailed well out in the Black Sea and then capsized their vessels, leaving tens of thousand Armenians to die a cruel death of drowning.

Thus in just a few months an entire nation was practically obliterated from its homeland of nearly three thousand years. Not content with having physically wiped out practically all the Armenian people, the Turkish authorities set about eradicating even the memory of the Armenian nation by desecrating ancient Christian churches and holy shrines.

Like the Nazi Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide was orchestrated, planned and implemented at the highest level of government. It is important to note, however, that since the Young Turks were largely secular or even explicitly atheist, the Armenian Genocide should not be viewed in simple terms of Muslims murdering Christians. Although islamic fanatics certainly took part in the killings, there were many Muslim leaders who were shocked at the brutality and extent of the genocide and protested against it.

The majority of the killers were not Islamic fanatics, but squads of government-recruited ‘Special Organisations’ (Teshkilat-i Makhususiye), composed of common criminals released from prisons on condition that they agreed to engage in the slaughter of Armenians. A whole nation, with all its cultural, religious, artistic, scientific and philosophical achievements, had been practically wiped out from the face of the earth by these rampaging death squads. The population figures speak for themselves of the extent of the Genocide. Before 1914 over two million Armenians lived in Turkey. By 1918, this figure hardly reached 100,000.

The tragedy of the Armenian Genocide is made all the more unbearable by the fact that, unlike Germany after World War Two, the Turkish authorities have resolutely denied any responsibility for the massacres. They have even refused (and today still refuse) to acknowledge that a genocide took place. The official position of the Turkish government has been a willful refusal to acknowledge the truth by admitting merely that there were unfortunately a few thousand victims of the ‘resettlement’ of the Armenians, some of whom were killed by a few overly zealous officials.

The unwillingness of the Turkish government to acknowledge the fact that it conducted a genocidal campaign becomes even more preposterous given that the Turks themselves signed the Treaty of Sevres, which agreed to the creation of a moderately-sized United Armenian Republic, based on the implicit acknowledgement of the role that Turkey had played in the genocide of the Armenian people.

After World War I, the Allied Powers issued a joint statement that, ‘In view of this new crime of Turkey against humanity and civilisation, the Allied Governments make known publicly that they will hold all members of the Turkish Government, as well as those officials who have participated in these massacres, personally responsible’. Neither this resolution, nor the provisions of Sevres ever came into force. Sevres was replaced, inexplicably, by the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, which did not contain any reference to the Armenian Genocide or even to the Armenian people.

The conclusion that tyrants throughout the world drew from this capitulation to the cause of justice was that the international community was prepared to tolerate such acts of genocide. Such was the lesson that Hitler drew. As he thought up his own genocidal plans, he once remarked, ‘Who today remembers the Armenians?’ After experiencing the trauma of genocide, the few Armenians who had managed to survive the mass slaughter were then subject to another foreign yoke – this time not of the Turks but of the Soviet Union. Such was the tenacity and resourcefulness of the Armenian people, that they were able to rebuild their nation even against the historical backdrop of genocide and the oppressive system of the Soviet regime.

After the Second World War, schools, universities and hospitals sprang up throughout the Soviet Republic of Armenia, which witnessed a major resurgence of cultural life in this period. Armenians won international distinction as astronomers and physicists (Hambarsumian and Alekhanian), and musical composers (Khatchaturian). Having been scattered across the globe as a result of persecution and discrimination, the Armenians have developed their innate resourcefulness and have demonstrated their adaptability, dynamism and professional acumen wherever they have settled. Moreover, wherever they are to be found in the world, Armenians retain a fervent love of their country and an ardent devotion to its language, traditions, customs and ideals. The Armenian people are an overwhelmingly Christian nation and ever since the adoption of Christianity in 301 AD, the church has been the primary guardian of the Armenian language and cultural identity.

The international community has displayed a remarkable lack of resolution in confronting Turkey with the fact of its responsibility for the Armenian Genocide. Paragraph 30 of the 1973 text prepared for the UN Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities contained the following statement: ‘Coming to contemporary history, one realises that there is abundant documentation dealing with the massacre of the Armenians, which is regarded as the ‘First genocide of the XX Century’. Under Turkish pressure, however, the statement was deleted from the final version of the report.

Like the contemporary Holocaust deniers, Turkey, for ideological reasons, has not seen any necessity to rescind its denial that a genocide took place, despite overwhelming historical and demographical evidence to prove that it did. Despite strong statements confirming the injustice and brutality of the Armenian Genocide from numerous world leaders, Turkey has been able to ride the occasional waves of protest.

In fact the Turkish authorities have even been able to portray the Armenians as terrorists and have enlisted the aid of its several Western allies to deal with ‘Armenian terrorism’. The perfect storm of injustice has led to the tragic situation in which the Armenian people, the victims of genocide and terrorism, are now called the ‘terrorists’. The Armenian people do not demand territory and material reparation as much as they demand justice. They were the victims of monstrous crimes matched in scale and genocidal intent only by the gas chambers of World War II.

The history of Armenia is therefore one of continuing tragedy. The nation has been deprived of its dignity and has been denied basic justice. The nation today, although a free and independent democratic republic, continues to bear the scars of the Genocide. Every Armenian will tell you about a relative who was murdered in the Genocide. My own wife’s great-grandmother, who belonged to the Armenian aristocracy before the First World War, was murdered during the Genocide.

The Armenians, being a Christian people, have a particular concern for justice. Their Christian faith has given them the courage to continue to fight for justice, even in the face of pathological lies and denials by the Turkish authorities and the lack of political resolution on the part of the international community.

At the end of such a gloomy story, we may finish on a note of hope. As anyone who has been to Armenia or who knows any Armenians will readily concur, the Armenian people are among the most generous, hospitable, warm-hearted and benevolent people in the world. They are also natural survivors whose instinct is always to ‘make the most out of a bad situation.’ It may be that their experience of immense suffering has actually accentuated all of these positive qualities. Despite the attempt of some people to extirpate their culture and identity, even to the point of genocide, the Armenian people have survived and will, by the grace of God, continue to grow in strength and numbers in the years and decades to come.

A Passion for Study

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As a loyal and long-suffering supporter of Middlesbrough FC, he has had to learn the theological virtue of keeping hope alive, even in the most hopeless circumstances!

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