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After all, who remembers the Armenians?

Jack Wilkin

Genocide is the most horrific crime one nation can inflict upon another. It is an almost unimaginable form of evil in which thousands of people and the entire state apparatus organises itself around pre-planned and systematic murder. The result is the destruction of an untold number of lives, the eradication of culture and the moral decay of the perpetrating group.

The rise of nationalist and irredentist movements made the twentieth century the century of genocide. The first of these genocides - and the one that laid down the blueprints that would later be imitated by the Nazis - was the Late Ottoman Genocides.


What are the Late Ottoman Genocides?

Genocidal regimes usually target multiple groups, and the collapsing Ottoman Empire and its nationalistic successor states were no different. During the 1910s and 1920s, successive Turkic governments committed several genocides including the concurrent Armenian, Greek, and Assyrian genocides as well as innumerable massacres and pogroms that left an estimated 1,150,000 to 2,900,000 dead and many millions more displaced.


Background

The Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire faced many obstacles. As a Christian minority, they were subject to legal discrimination and higher taxes. The Armenians were also a “middleman minority” meaning that they were an ethnic group that was over-represented in unpopular occupations, by the design of the Turkic ruling classes, such as merchants and low-to-medium-level bureaucrats. Despite some working reasonably well-paid jobs, all Armenians were subjected to discrimination that described them as parasites, thieves and leeches, stealing the wealth from the rest of the population and draining the state.

Such language and treatment led to numerous acts of violence against Armenians and other minorities across the Empire (for example the Hamidian Massacres of 1894-6). These acts of violence increased and became more coordinated as the Ottoman Empire began to collapse following the loss of its Balkan and Greek territories in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

A revolution in 1908 saw the Young Turks take over the failing Ottoman State. A branch of the Young Turks, the ultranationalist Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), eventually took power. After the newly independent Balkans expelled their Muslim populations, the CUP took its anger out on Christian minorities within its own borders. As with any collapsing system of government, the ruling party did not want to admit any responsibility so it increased the blame on minority groups which resulted in even more violence.

In 1910, Mehmed Talaat, who was prominent among the Young Turks remarked ‘if I ever come to power in this country, I shall exterminate the Armenians’. Then in 1915 as the First World War raged, the Ottoman government saw its opportunity to do just this.


The Genocide

During WWI, the Ottomans pushed for Armenian men to be conscripted in the military which left Armenian villages undefended and Armenians within the civil service were dismissed. By 1914/5, the conscripted Armenian soldiers were removed from the regular army and placed into labour battalions where many would be executed. With the able-bodied men dead, the state then turned its attention to the rest of the Armenian people.

An excuse to further discriminate against Armenians occurred after the Battle of Sarikamish when 60,000 Ottoman soldiers were killed after failing to encircle the Russians. This prompted Enver Pasha (Ottoman Minister of War) to place the blame entirely on the Armenians, who he thought were helping the Russians, and his lies were used to justify mass deportation and systematic murder on an unprecedented scale.

World War 1 saw the almost total annihilation of the Ottoman Armenians. Between 1915 and 1917, the Ottoman Turks undertook an official state policy of mass murder of anywhere between 600,000 and 1.5 million Armenian men, women and children. This was achieved through forced death marches with no provisions through the burning desert, man-made famines, mass rapes, mass shootings and drowning boatloads of people in the Black Sea.


Denial and Recognition

Officially, Turkey denies that the fate of the Armenians and other ethnic and religious minorities was genocidal. In fact, Turkey is one of just three countries (the others being Azerbaijan and Pakistan) that formerly denies that the genocide occurred. This denial continues to negatively impact diplomatic relations between Armenia and its Turkic neighbours.

Today, 34 countries have formerly recognised the Armenian genocide, the most recent being the United States in 2021. In some countries like Greece and Slovakia, denying the Armenian Genocide is a criminal act.

In the UK, the Welsh and Scottish dissolved assemblies and Derby City Council have recognised this horrendous event, but the Westminster government has not…yet. As I write this, the Armenian Genocide (Recognition) Bill is very slowly making its way around Parliament. The bill was presented to the Commons in November 2021 by Labour MP for Warley John Spellar and is currently in its second reading. I see no genuine reason why it would not be accepted by Parliament. The only potential political issue that formally accepting this historical fact may present is damaging the UK’s relationship with Turkey, but I don’t think this concern is legitimate. After all, Germany recognises the Armenian Genocide, and it is still Turkey’s biggest trade partner but even if that wasn’t the case, history should not be forgotten.


Image: Reuters

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