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The event which coined the word ‘genocide’: The Ottoman massacre of the Armenians

Stefan Andrews

One may be familiar with many stories of the Holocaust, the biggest genocide conducted in modern history, but chances are to have heard less about the massive killings of Armenians during WWI.

In 1915, the Ottomans started out actions to oust and massacre Armenians living on the territory of their empire. It is estimated that during that period, there were about 2 million Armenians living in the country. In a matter of few years only, accounts suggest that their number dropped to some 500,000. Nowadays, the majority of historians agree that this was a genocide, a mean of orchestrated and systematic campaign to exterminate an entire ethnic group of people. On the other hand, the Turkish government does not acknowledge the wrongdoings as a genocide.

Armenian civilians are marched to a nearby prison in Mezireh by armed Ottoman soldiers. Kharpert, Ottoman Empire, April 1915

Armenian civilians are marched to a nearby prison in Mezireh by armed Ottoman soldiers. Kharpert, Ottoman Empire, April 1915

 

In 1922-23, approximately 22,000 children were evacuated from orphanages in interior Turkey to Syria and Greece. This picture shows part of the 5,000 children from Kharput en route on donkey back and foot

In 1922-23, approximately 22,000 children were evacuated from orphanages in interior Turkey to Syria and Greece. This picture shows part of the 5,000 children from Kharput en route on donkey back and foot

The Armenians have inhabited the Caucasus region of Eurasia for around three millennia, and when the kingdom of Armenia had gained independence in the 4th century AD, it also became the first nation which acknowledged the Christianity as an official religion. Power and control shifted in the region from one empire to another, but as the Ottoman Empire rose to power during the 15th century, things changed dramatically.

Armenians were swallowed by the Ottomans, and some of the first tensions were due to religious differences. The Ottomans were Muslims; however, they permitted religious minorities, such as the Armenians, to preserve some autonomy. Nevertheless, they were granted less legal and political rights, and on top of it, the Christians were obliged to pay higher taxes than Muslims. History further says that Armenians, “tended to be better educated and wealthier than their Turkish neighbors, who in turn tended to resent their success. This resentment was compounded by suspicions that the Christian Armenians would be more loyal to Christian governments (that of the Russians, for example, who shared an unstable border with Turkey) than they were to the Ottoman caliphate.

The Armenians of Constantinople celebrate the Ottoman constitution of 1908 and the establishment of a new government. Signs read both in Armenian and Ottoman Turkish languages. Banners in black in both languages read “Liberty, Equality, Justice”

The Armenians of Constantinople celebrate the Ottoman constitution of 1908 and the establishment of a new government. Signs read both in Armenian and Ottoman Turkish languages. Banners in black in both languages read “Liberty, Equality, Justice”

Reportedly, those suspicions became more serious by the end of the 19-th century, resulting in the first observed massacre over Armenians. It is deemed that in the period between 1894 and 1896, thousands of Armenians were killed. At the beginning of the 20th-century, a new government came to power in Turkey, led by a group of reformers who had named themselves the “Young Turks.”

As WWI commenced, Turkey took the side of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and at the same time, the religious authorities allegedly declared a holy war against all Christians except for the allies. On the other side of the story, as the war developed, Armenians took the side of the Russian army and fought against the Turks in the Caucasus. Such escalation of the situation added more suspicions among the Turkish regarding the Armenians. All this led the Turkish establishment to push forward the “removal” of Armenians from the war zones across the Eastern Front.

Conventionally, the starting date was on 24th April 1915, the day when the Ottoman authorities rounded up, detained, and deported up to 270 Armenian community leaders and intelligentsia from Constantinople to the realm of Ankara.

Reportedly, the majority of them were murdered. The genocide was conducted in two phases: an entire killing of the healthy Armenian males, and deportation of women, children, and older adults, done through deadly marches towards the Syrian desert. These events have further resulted in the creation of many Armenian diaspora communities around the world.

Photo showing some of the Armenian intellectuals arrested on 24th April 1915

Photo showing some of the Armenian intellectuals arrested on 24th April 1915

 

Deportation of Armenians

Deportation of Armenians

Back in those days, there wasn’t any word to describe what was going on. “Genocide” as a word was still not coined. Some other words were used instead, some of them including “massacres,” “atrocities,” “annihilation,” “the murder of a nation” so on and so forth. The survivors of the events had also used some Armenian terms to name the wrongdoings.

Khatchig Mouradian, Program Coordinator of the Armenian Genocide Program at the Rutgers University, says that “Yeghern (Crime/Catastrophe), or variants like Medz Yeghern (Great Crime) and Abrilian Yeghern (the April Crime)” were few of the most commonly used terms by the survivors.

In 1943, it was Raphael Lemkin, a lawyer of Polonized-Jewish descent who was particularly moved by the atrocities against the Armenians in Turkey, and he was the first person to define such systematic and planned exterminations within legal frames. He had coined the word “genocide,” using the Greek word “genos” which stands for “family,” “tribe” or “race,” and the Latin “-cide” standing for “killing.” As the term “genocide” was coined, the portmanteau word “Armenocide” also emerged to depict the Armenian genocide.

On the other hand, there is a great corpus of works which seek to deny the Armenian Genocide and notably use qualifying words against the term, for instance, referring to the events as the “so-called” or “disputed” genocide.  According to History as well, “American news outlets have also been reluctant to use the word ‘genocide,’ ” and the problematic wording has been utterly avoided at least until 2004.

An Armenian refugee camp in Aleppo, Syria

An Armenian refugee camp in Aleppo, Syria

 

The Armenian Genocide Memorial on the hill of Tsitsernakaberd (Yerevan)  photo credit

The Armenian Genocide Memorial on the hill of Tsitsernakaberd (Yerevan)  photo credit

According to many scholars, the Armenian Genocide is considered to be the first modern genocide, as the emphasize often falls on the organized manner in which atrocities were conducted. The Armenian genocide is also the second-most studied case of a genocide following the Holocaust of WWII.

Read another story from us: Archaeological dig hints at massacres that took place during the Neolithic era

The discrepancy in opinions persists to date. Turkey continues to deny the word “genocide” as a proper term for the mass killings of  Armenians during WWI. At the same time, 29 countries from around the world, as well as forty-three US states, have officially recognized the atrocities as such.