On the night of April 24, 1915, as Constantinople’s Armenian community was deep in slumber following Easter celebrations, Turkish gendarmes, following the orders of the Committee for Union and Progress (CUP), made their way through the ancient Byzantine capital to the homes of 250 Armenian cultural leaders. As Peter Balakian wrote in The Burning Tigris, Constantinople’s Armenian community had been “the center of Armenian cultural and intellectual life” since the nineteenth century. The Armenians were a minority community that excelled in the arts, academia, and the professional classes; successful, intelligent, and very much “the other” in a Turkey whose young rulers were influenced by the racialist ideologies then prominent in Europe.
That night, the Armenian leaders of the city were arrested and imprisoned, sensing what one of the few survivors called “the terror of death” in the air. Within days, the events in Constantinople were replicated across Turkey. By early summer, most were executed. The event marked the beginning of a systematic campaign of genocide, which soon took on greater scope.
Never before had the tools of the modern nation-state been used to such an end. In a series of centrally planned and coordinated steps, the Turkish government conscripted Armenian men, disarmed the local population, arrested local leadership, and then carried out a plan of eradication so sweeping and successful in its scope that it would be studied two decades later by the Nazis. In the villages of Anatolia and Mesopotamia, the women, children, elderly, and any men who remained were marched south into the deserts of Syria to their deaths. Along the way, many were spared starvation, killed instead by bayonet, noose, or bullet. Many women and girls were raped and left for dead. Once the Armenians homes were vacated, their Turkish and Kurdish neighbors plundered them in search of gold and jewels.
American diplomat Leslie Davis wrote from his post in Harput to Ambassador Henry Morgenthau in Constantinople:
A massacre, however horrible the word may sound, would be humane in comparison with it. In a massacre, many escape, but a wholesale deportation of this kind in this country means a longer and perhaps even more dreadful death for nearly everyone. I do not believe it possible for one in a hundred to survive, perhaps not one in a thousand.
Religious custom, Davis noted, forbade the Turks from stripping clothes from a corpse. Therefore, Armenians and Assyrians were forced to strip before being murdered. Davis wrote of the “gaping bayonet wounds on most of the bodies” he witnessed. In desperation, Morgenthau cabled Washington that “the destruction of the Armenian race is progressing rapidly,” calling for immediate relief measures to be organized in America to save the “hundreds of thousands of starving and rag-clad survivors.” It was a display of diplomatic courage quite apart from the careerism and realpolitik that would characterize successive generations of American diplomats.
Some went further. A German officer serving as aide to a German attaché left his post to verify the rumors of deportation and slaughter. Armin Wegner’s photographs, which he smuggled out of Turkey, were some of the most compelling evidence of the Armenian Genocide. The photos did nothing to stop the genocide, just as his written words did nothing to dissuade Hitler and the Nazis in 1933, when Wegner earned the distinction as the only German author to publicly confront Hitler and the Nazis in an open letter in defense of the Jewish people. (For this, Wegner landed in a concentration camp—and later on Yad Vashem.)
While many Turks and Kurds watched with approval or indifference as their Christian neighbors were eradicated, there were some who hid Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks in their homes. Their names are lost to all but the oral histories of the survivors’ descendants, many of whom are scattered from California to the shores of the Mediterranean. A few made the trek north into Anatolia to historic Armenia in the South Caucasus, where they would re-forge a nation that had not existed for centuries.
More than 1.5 million Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks died during the genocide. (Much has been written to establish that these crimes met the legal threshold for genocide.) Many millions have been spent by Turkey to lobby against American legislation recognizing the genocide as such. One member of Congress, a descendant of genocide survivors, recently indicated in private that America has not recognized the Armenian Genocide because of the money Turkey has spent to kill legislation on Capitol Hill. Among the hired servants to lobby against recognition of the genocide, one finds elected officials previously committed to the service of the American people—most prominently, former House Speakers Dick Gephardt and Bob Livington. Thus the campaign of the Turks to whitewash any trace of Armenian presence in Anatolia continues to this day. In Washington, where the cables of Morgenthau and Davis were once read with horror, lobbyists dishonor their work and the memory of the those who suffered and died.
Pope Francis was among the few world leaders to publicly recognize the genocide. The Turkish government immediately responded, with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan lashing out at Pope Francis for his remarks. “I condemn the pope and would like to warn him not to make similar mistakes again,” said Erdogan. A century later, even as Turkey continues to deny the events of 1915, the descendants of the Armenian and Assyrian survivors are once more in danger. Many took refuge in cities like Aleppo and, there since 2011, they have been the target of attacks by Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists—which Turkey has supported in Syria without meaningful reprimand from the international community.
In Washington last week, a Kurdish immigrant, who was wearing the purple flower pin commemorating the Armenian Genocide, told me candidly, “It was genocide. The Turks just need to accept responsibility for what they did.” It is the Kurds today who have absorbed Christian, Yezidi, and other refugees fleeing ISIS.
It is difficult to see how a strategic partner with values so antithetical to those of the United States can advance American interests in the long-term; it certainly undermines America’s moral authority in the near-term. America and Great Britain have both confronted the atrocities that their governments inflicted; it is time for Turkey to do the same—indeed, it should be a demand of the international community. The descendants of genocide’s survivors seek justice for their ancestors. For many Armenian and Assyrians in the Middle East, instead, the threat of genocide looms once again today.
Andrew Doran writes variously about U.S. foreign policy and human rights in the Middle East. He served on the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO at the U.S. Department of State.