Decades before the Jewish Holocaust there was another slaughter of an innocent minority group, this one lesser known to history. It was the Armenian Genocide of World War I.
Historians estimate anywhere from 600,000 to 1.3 million Armenians were killed during the genocide. It was the continuation of the mass murder of Armenians that have been occurring on a smaller scale since the 1890s.
A Primer on the Causes
In 1914, the Ottoman government attempted to get the Armenians to agree to rebel against the Russians in the Caucasus region. The Armenians, promised autonomy by Russia, refused.
When war began, the Caucasus became an active front. Despite the fact Armenians served in both armies, many Armenians crossed the border to serve with Russia, hopeful to liberate their people from Ottoman rule. Some of them committed atrocities against Muslim villages conquered by the Russians.
The Ottomans suffered a humiliating defeat during the winter of 1914-1915, and the war minister blamed the defeat on the Armenians.
In another region of the Ottoman Empire, Anatolia, Muslims living there were expelled from Russia in the 19th century. They believed the Armenians were supporting Russia. The Kurds, also living in the area, despised the Armenians.
Ottoman solders began looting homes and murdering Armenians.
In April 1915, Armenians rose up in the city of Van and held the city for the Russian army. The Ottoman government viewed this act as treason.
That month, members of the Armenian elite, as well as intellectuals living in Constantinople, were arrested. More arrests followed.
The government ordered the deportation of anyone considered a threat to national security. Many leaders were happy to have an excuse to cleanse Anatolia.
The Armenians were ordered deported to what is now Iraq and Syria. Ottoman soldiers were ordered to show no mercy.
“The Armenian bishop has received information that 60,000 Armenian refugees have arrived at Igdir, the principle outlet of the villayet of Van,” the Associated Press reported August, 11, 1915. “It is thought fully 100,000 will be driven from Van alone, and another exodus of Christians from Persia is feared.
“Kurds are reported to have massacred 10,000 Armenians in the villayet of Bitlis, throwing the bodies of the victims into the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.”
Because men were considered the core of the resistance, they were usually murdered in their villages instead of deported.
The deported were given little warning and were ill prepared for the journey. They suffered from thirst, hunger and disease. Often they were forced to march naked, and those who stopped to rest were executed. Women were raped, and children kidnapped. In addition, they were often attacked by Kurds.
The United States and neutral nations were able to report on the genocide. The Allies sent written protests, but did not provide troops to assist. A few Armenians were saved by Allied ships.
Some of the refugees did flee to Russia where half of them died of typhus and cholera.
At the start of the war, there were 2.1 million Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire. Four years after the war ended, there were only 387,800 Armenians alive.
In modern day Turkey, it is illegal to speak about the events surrounding the Armenian deportation. The Turkish government claims the events were not a genocide because the high number of deaths were not intentional.
Updated: 23 October 2020