On April 24, 1915, heavily armed troops rounded up hundreds of Armenian professors, lawyers, doctors, clergymen, and other elites in Constantinople (now Istanbul). These highly respected members of the community were jailed, tortured, and massacred. That April date marks the beginning of the annihilation campaign carried out by the Ottoman Empire known today as the Armenian Genocide.
The massacres were carried out in the most brutal ways.
After those first arrests and the subsequent murder of many husbands and fathers, family members who survived—mostly women, children, the ill, and the elderly—were forced to embark upon what has been described as a “concentration camp on foot.” They were told they would be “relocated.” In reality, they embarked on a death march—herded like animals, with whips and cudgels and at gunpoint.
These captives were provided with little or no food and water. Infants and the elderly were the first to die. Surviving mothers were gripped with insanity, helplessly watching their babies suffer and succumb. Eyewitness accounts and heart-wrenching photographs remain today. Corpses littered the roads; nude women were crucified; dozens of bodies floated in rivers. Soldiers proudly posed for pictures with decapitated heads or piles of skulls.
These photographs provide evidence of the gruesome reality forced upon Armenians due to their ethno-religious identity. An estimated 600,000 to 1.5 million Armenians fell victim to the Ottoman government’s determination to eliminate Christian Armenians and to secure Muslim Turkish dominance in the region.
Henry Morgenthau, U.S. Ambassador to Turkey from 1913-16, recounted in his memoir:
The Central Government now announced its intention of gathering the two million or more Armenians living in the several sections of the empire and transporting them to this desolate and inhospitable region… As a matter of fact, the Turks never had the slightest idea of reestablishing the Armenians in this new country. They knew that the great majority would never reach their destination and that those who did would either die of thirst and starvation, or be murdered by the wild Mohammedan desert tribes…. When the Turkish authorities gave the orders for these deportations, they were merely giving the death warrant to a whole race…
Shrouded under the cover of World War I, the genocide changed the region forever. There were once over 2 million Armenians in Turkey. By 1922, only 387,800 remained.
April 24, 2020, marks the first annual Remembrance Day since the United States’ House of Representatives and Senate both passed resolutions officially recognizing that the Armenian massacres were, in fact, a genocide.
Nonetheless, remembering the Armenian Genocide remains a sensitive issue because, unlike other 20th century atrocities, that annihilation continues to be disputed by an influential contemporary government, Turkey. And today’s Turkish strongman, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an open Islamist, adamantly claims that the Armenian deaths were simply the result of World War I casualties. When the U.S. House of Representatives voted to officially affirm the massacres as genocide, Erdogan declared the declaration “worthless” and the “biggest insult” to the Turkish people.
Some historians insist that Armenia’s murdered Christians were “enemies of the Turkish State.” However, most agree that they were not killed because they were Armenian. They were killed for explicitly religious reasons: because they were Christians.
Sadly, even now, massacres due to religious identity are taking place in our world. In Nigeria, a slow-motion genocide is unfolding as Boko Haram and Muslim Fulani herdsmen ramp up attacks against Christians. In Myanmar, the Burmese military’s brutal efforts to drive out the Rohingya Muslim minority in recent years has killed at least 10,000 people and left almost 800,000 displaced. And in 2016, the United States officially declared the 2014 Islamic State attacks on Iraq’s Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities a genocide.
Why remember genocides of the past? Because they remind us how fragile civilizations have always been. Earlier tragedies should spur us to make consistently thoughtful arguments defending the inherent dignity of all human beings. And when attacks around the world fall along religious lines, the fundamental human right of religious freedom must be articulated and protected.
Today, many people are probably unfamiliar with the tragic massacres of Armenians that took place in Turkey over a century ago. However, students of World War II may be aware of it due to an infamous quote attributed to Adolf Hitler: “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” His question implies that the failure to remember atrocities of the past gives ill-intentioned leaders confidence that history will not remember their own misdeeds. Perhaps this is the most compelling reason societies should never forget the atrocities that occurred before their time—including the Armenian Genocide.
Arielle Del Turco is the Assistant Director of the Center for Religious Liberty at Family Research Council.
Lela Gilbert is Senior Fellow for International Religious Freedom at Family Research Council.