“Who today still speaks of the massacre of the Armenians?”
—Adolf Hitler, August 22, 1939
The visit of Pope Francis to the Republic of Armenia, the first nation formally to adopt the Christian faith, has once again raised what is euphemistically called in Turkey “the Armenian matter.” This is all the more the case because last year, marking the one hundredth anniversary of the start of the Armenian genocide—the slaughter of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Turks in 1915—the pope dared to use the G-word. In response, Turkey recalled its ambassador from the Vatican (only to reinstate him this past February) and warned the Holy Father “not to make similar mistakes again.”
Undeterred by this snafu, on his current mission to Armenia the pope once again showed moral courage by referring to the Armenian genocide. But in fact, Pope Francis did not break new ground in this statement. He was simply following in the steps of his predecessor, Pope St. John Paul II, who described the slaughter of the Armenians, in words that Francis quoted, as “the first genocide of the twentieth century.” That comment was made in 2001, when John Paul made his own pilgrimage to Armenia to commemorate the 1700th anniversary of the embrace of Christianity in that country.
By 1915, the Ottoman Empire was in terminal decline from the apogee of its power under Suleiman the Magnificent in the sixteenth century. During the Reformation, the Ottoman armies invaded Europe, advancing to the gates of Vienna in 1529, but for some four hundred years one loss after another had left the vast empire bereft of its former glory. Now, having chosen to fight on the losing side of the conflict that was coming to be called the Great War, “the sick man of Europe” (a term for the Ottomans given currency by Nicholas I of Russia) felt besieged on every side. In this context, the Armenian Christians were accused of subterfuge and collusion with the enemy. A Turkish version of the “stab in the back” theory was used as a pretext for open violence against them.
The Armenians, along with other indigenous Christian peoples, had long served as scapegoats for Turkish disasters. For example, during the 1890s, the Hitler-like Abdul Hamid II, the “bloody Sultan,” presided over the murder of some 200,000 Armenians. There were other pogroms, including the massacre at Adana in 1909. However, what is called the Armenian genocide proper began on April 24, 1915 with the assault on several hundred Armenian intellectuals in Constantinople. In subsequent months, this attack was accelerated by the deportation, abduction, execution, starvation, and mass murder of the Armenian people throughout the empire. The Turkish train network, recently developed with the help of skilled German engineers, was used to transport displaced persons. There were also forced marches, killing units, and ethnic cleansing—prefigurements of even greater horrors to come later in the century. Yale historian Jay Winter has said that “the Armenian massacres were a critical event in the history of twentieth-century warfare. The massacre of the Armenians was not the same as, but constituted a step on the way to, the industrialized murder of European Jewry by the Nazis.”
Henry Morgenthau, Sr. was a German-born Jew who had been appointed America’s ambassador to Turkey in 1913. He received numerous reports on the atrocities from diplomats, missionaries, and other eyewitnesses. They described numerous death marches, as streams of Armenians were forced into the deserts of Syria and Mesopotamia and left to perish there:
…winding in and out of every valley and climbing up the sides of nearly every mountain—moving on and on [the marching deportees] scarcely knew whither, except that every road led to death. . . . In a few days, what had been a procession of normal human beings became a stumbling horde of dust-covered skeletons, ravenously looking for scraps of food, eating any offal that came their way, crazed by the hideous sights that filled every hour of their existence, sick with all the diseases that accompany such hardships and privations, but still prodded on and on by the whips and clubs and bayonets of their executioners. And thus, as the exiles moved, they left behind them another caravan—that of dead and unburied bodies, of old men and women dying in the last stages of typhus, dysentery, and cholera, of little children lying on their backs and setting up their last piteous wails for food and water. There were women who held up their babies to strangers, begging them to take them and save them from their tormentors.
Morgenthau wrote: “I am confident that the whole history of the human race contains no such horrible episode as this. The great massacres and persecutions of the past seem almost insignificant when compared to the sufferings of the Armenian race in 1915.”
Morgenthau pleaded with President Woodrow Wilson to invoke the moral power of his office to oppose what he termed the “race murder”—the word genocide was not coined until the 1940s—going on in Turkey, but to no avail. Wilson was determined to preserve American neutrality, and even when the United States joined the Allied cause in April 1917 the President still did not declare war against Turkey. Ambassador Morgenthau also appealed to Mehmed Talaat, the Turkish interior minister and one of the primary perpetrators. Talaat asked: “Why are you so interested in the Armenians anyway? You are a Jew, these people are Christian. . . . What have you to complain of? Why can’t you let us do with these Christians as we please?” To which Morgenthau replied, “You don’t seem to realize that I am not here as a Jew but as the American Ambassador. . . . I do not appeal to you in the name of any race or religion but merely as a human being.” Morgenthau resigned his post in frustration in 1916.
In speaking last year about the Armenian genocide, Pope Francis ranked it with two others, better known, that will forever blight the memory of the twentieth century: those perpetuated by Nazism and Stalinism. These, in turn, have been followed by other mass killings, including those in Cambodia, Rwanda, Burundi, and Bosnia. It is a necessary duty, the Pope said, to remember the annihilation of the Armenian people, “for whenever memory fades, it means that evil allows wounds to fester. Concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it!”
Similar statements have come from other global religious bodies, including the World Council of Churches and the World Evangelical Alliance. The WEA Secretary General, Bishop Efraim Tendero, has linked the atrocities carried out against the Armenians during World War I with the vicious efforts of ISIS to eliminate Christians and other religious minorities throughout the Middle East today. “Ideologically, the horrors of the Middle East which are taking place before our eyes are a repetition of the genocides one hundred years ago. We try to make their sufferings known to everyone and to cause decision-makers in their different spheres to respond in justice and mercy.” The connection is not contrived: In September 2014, forces loyal to ISIS rigged and dynamited the Holy Martyrs Armenian Church in Der Zor, a church in the Syrian desert sacred to the memory of the victims of the Armenian genocide because many of the killings had taken place there.
With the June 2, 2016 vote of the German Bundestag declaring the massacre of Armenians by Ottoman forces genocide, the United States is increasingly isolated within the community of nations for its refusal to do so. This, despite President Obama’s explicit campaign promise in 2008 that as the nation’s leader he would do so, and despite bipartisan resolutions introduced into both houses of the U.S. Congress calling for the same. When Samantha Power was appointed as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, there was hope that the government’s reluctance to speak forthrightly about the Armenian genocide might be overcome. Power’s 2002 book, “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide, is a masterpiece of historical narrative and has been rightly called “an angry, brilliant, fearlessly useful, absolutely essential book.” But the eloquence of Power’s moral outrage in this classic study has apparently been tamed by the diplomatic exigencies of Turtle Bay. One wonders what the Ambassador must think when she reads through the pages of her own book and comes across a passage like this:
People have explained U.S. failures to respond to specific genocides by claiming that the United States didn’t know what was happening, that it knew but didn’t care, or that regardless of what it knew, there was nothing useful to be done. I have found that in fact U.S. policymakers knew a great deal about the crimes being perpetrated. Some Americans cared and fought for action, making considerable personal and professional sacrifices. And the United States did have countless opportunities to mitigate and prevent slaughter. But time and again, decent men and women chose to look away. We have all been bystanders to genocide. The crucial question is why.
Timothy George is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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