Front Page

Document Reveals Origin Of The 20th Century’s First Mass Atrocity

ARMENIA GENOCIDE

A HUNDRED years later, the genocide by the Ottoman Empire of  Armenian Christians during the First World War is still a volatile topic. The Turkish government, headed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is in vehement denial that any planned, intentional, systematic killing occurred, part of the definition of genocide. After all, the world was engaged in a brutal war where many Ottoman Turks perished.

Genocide cable ordering the massacre of Armenians

It was a war with Turkey on the wrong side. 

The European Parliament in 1987 called on Turkey to deal with its unresolved genocide legacy issue. Twelve of the European Union’s 28 members have recognized the Armenian killings of 1915 as genocide. Pope Francis in April 2015, on the centennial of this historic event, referred to it as “the first genocide of the 20th century.” That reference enraged the Turkish government, even though 22 countries have formally recognized it as such. In fact, on June 2, 2016, the German Bundestag (parliament) voted to declare the mass killings a genocide and acknowledge its indirect involvement in the killings.

While the White House in April 2015 urged Ankara to openly acknowledge that 1.5 million ethnic Armenians were wiped out at the hands of the disintegrating Ottoman Empire, President Barack Hussein Obama deftly avoided naming it genocide—reneging on a pledge he had made as a presidential candidate to do so. He called the killings of Armenian Christians “the first mass atrocity of the 20th century.”

The American president, in tandem with the Turkish president, refuses to utter the G-word.

Armenian genocide memorial in courtyard of the Vank Cathedral
Inside the Vank Cathedral
Vank Cathedral Courtyard

A year later, on his first visit to Armenia in June 2016, Pope Francis again labeled genocide the World War 1-era massacre of some 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman Turks.  Turkey continues to deny that that there was a systematic plan to execute its Christian Armenians.

I discovered proof of that genocide during my visit to Iran eight years ago.

That’s when I became aware of the Turkish expulsion and extermination of its 2,500-year-old Armenian Christian community in the crumbling Ottoman Empire during the First World War.

It was in the Armenian Quarter, in the majestic Iranian city of Isfahan, where I learned of this horrific event in Turkey’s history which has become a toxic topic.

The Armenian Quarter originated in 1604 when the Persian Shah Abbas I transplanted the entire Christian population of Jolfa in Azerbaijan to a section of Isfahan that was renamed New Jolfa. He hoped the skilled craftsmen, artists, industrialists and merchants would boost the economy and enhance the society of his capital city. He was right. At one time 42,000 Armenian Christians lived in New Jolfa under Muslim rule; today the community numbers just 5,000. 

The imposing Vank Cathedral predominates in the district. It was built between 1648 and 1655

It was in the Vank Museum, next door, where I discovered evidence of the systematic Armenian massacre during the waning years of the Ottoman Empire. At the entrance stands a bust of Bishop Khachatur Gesaratsi, founder of the first printing press in Iran. Among the objects in the two-story museum are 700 illuminated manuscripts, Gospels from the 9th century, and the first book printed in the country.

I peered into a glass showcase of a prominent display of a people’s tragedy. It was a shock. The official cable that generated the mass murder of the Armenians unnerved me. Under the cable was a helpful English translation.

I saw documents and maps pinpointing relevant sites of the extermination campaign in the eastern Anatolia region of Turkey. They showed where thousands of Armenian men, women and children were deported to Syria to drop dead in the desert, and others to perish in concentration camps set up for that purpose. A total of 1.5 million Armenians perished and their homes, businesses and property confiscated.

Raphael Lemkin, a lawyer of Polish Jewish descent who campaigned at the League of Nations to ban such “barbarity” and “vandalism” as perpetrated against the Armenian people, coined the term “genocide” in 1943. That is what the Armenian people faced in 1915 under Ottoman decree.

Here was official proof of the Armenian genocide. The Ottoman Minister of the Interior (Mehmet Talaat Pasha) sent this cable on September 29, 1915, to the governor of Aleppo:

As informed earlier than this, per order of Jamiat, the Government has decided to exterminate the entire population of Armenians in Turkey. Those opposing the orders will not be considered Government servants. Children, women and the sick are not to be spared. The modes of extermination are not to be differentiated. Without listening to the voice of conscious [sic] remove them all and put an end to their existence.

The U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, Henry Morgenthau Sr., was moved to inform the State Department of the Ottoman campaign of race extermination—but was rebuffed. He resigned in despair. (Reminds me of efforts of Holocaust eyewitnesses who risked their lives to alert Washington at the time, to no avail.)

The world did not care.

The Armenian National Institute in Washington identifies Talaat as “the principal architect of the Armenian genocide.” Its website notes that Talaat initiated a policy of the Young Turks to evict the Armenians from their homes in an attempt at “the Turkification of the Ottoman Empire.”  

Museum gift shop

The postwar Ottoman government in 1919 convicted Talaat (and others) for their role in steering the empire into war. He was sentenced to death in absentia. Armenian vigilantes hunted down this architect of genocide and assassinated him in Berlin in 1921. At the assassin’s trial that year General Liman van Sanders, who commanded the German forces in Turkey during the war, offered  an official apology for the “historic responsibility of Germany” for the massacres (according to  Thomas de Waal in Foreign Affairs, June 8, 2016). In 1943 Nazi Germany returned Talaat’s remains to Istanbul for burial with full honors.

The First World War had its genocide of Turkey’s Armenian Christians. That proved to be the precursor of the Second World War’s German genocide of Europe’s Jews. If the world took notice and prevented the first genocide of Armenian Christians, it could have thwarted Hitler’s launch of the Holocaust. Due to the world’s indifference, the 20th century is notable for its genocidal bloodbaths (including Darfur, Rwanda, etc.).

What does the 21st century portend? A third genocide? A nuclear armed Iran making good on its threat to wipe the Jews of Israel off the face of the map?

In the Vank courtyard I stood before a pillar that cautioned never to forget the Armenian catastrophe. It was erected in 1975 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the slaughter.

So far there has been neither a plea for forgiveness nor an offer for reparations. And the American president, in tandem with the Turkish president, refuses to utter the G-word.