Between 1915-1923, the first and largely unknown genocide of the 20th century occurred in the Middle East. By 1923, the Armenian people had been largely obliterated by their Ottoman overlords, when the population of Turkish-controlled Armenia was reduced from an estimated population of 2 million people to a mere 388,000.
The rest of the Armenian nation scattered around the globe – if they had managed to successfully escape. But the rest were dead, the victims of brutal oppression, death marches, massacres, concentration camps, disease, and starvation or else ‘Turkified’- robbed of their cultural identity, abused and forced to convert to Islam.
The 2017 film The Promise deals with these events in a fictional setting. But what caused this mass destruction of a whole people and culture and how was the Armenian nation effectively annihilated in just under a decade?
The Distrusted Infidels
Armenia lies in Caucuses at the border between Europe and Asia. Its civilization is an ancient one, dating back 3000 years old. It was the first nation in the world to embrace Christianity as its national religion and was independent for most of its national history-until in 1555 it was split between the Ottoman and Safavid Empires. While the Safavid territory eventually passed into Russian hands, the rest remained firmly part of the Ottoman Empire.
While many of the urban elite achieved positions in government, the majority of the Armenian population was rural, impoverished – and distinctly disadvantaged. Although allowed to continue as Christians, they had fewer legal and political rights than their Muslim neighbors.
But on the whole, the Armenians accepted their lot. But this did not stop their Ottoman masters from viewing them with suspicion and distrust-especially as the Ottoman Empire began to disintegrate in the nineteenth century. They believed that given the opportunity, their Armenian subjects would betray them to their Christian Russian neighbors.
Finally, in the late nineteenth century, Armenian intellectuals began to clamor for equal rights. Infuriated by this recalcitrant, and European demands for greater rights for their Christian subjects, the empire began a series of pogroms. Between 100,000 and 300,000 people were killed during these early massacres.
Then, in 1908, revolution shook the Ottoman Empire. The Sultan was removed and a modern constitutional government installed under the control of a group known as ‘The Young Turks” But any hopes for an improvement in the Armenian situation were soon dashed. For the Young Turks, the main preoccupation was ensuring an empire for Turks alone. The loss of 85% of Ottoman territory during the 1912 Balkan war made the situation worse. Turkish paranoia towards the Armenian’s grew as their allegiance to a weakened empire was questioned. But worse, Muslim refugees from the lost lands swarmed into Anatolia. They resented seeing Christian Armenians in comfort when they had lost everything.