24 April 1915 marks a black day in the history of Armenia. In the early hours of 25 April 1915, the Ottoman Empire began to carry out genocide against the Armenians in Anatolia. Around 600 people, intellectuals, authors, journalists, members of the clergy, lawyers, doctors, members of parliament and others were arrested and sent into exile in Syria. Only eight to ten of them escaped, all the others were executed. Thereafter the Ottomans, led by the interior minister Talia Pasha, the defence minister Never Pasha and the governor-general of Adana, Camel Pasha, deported all Armenians from Anatolia to Syria. During these deportations in the years 1915 to 1917, 1.5 million Armenians – approximately half the population – fell victim to violence, murder, rape, hunger and various diseases.
In an interview with AID TO THE CHURCH IN NEED, the German historian and book author Prof. Rudolf Gulch talks about the beginning of the Armenian genocide and about the present situation of Armenian Christianity in Turkey.
AID TO THE CHURCH IN NEED: Professor Gulch, what happened to the Armenians in 1915?
We tend to focus only on the year 1915 when, on 24 April, all the prominent Armenians in Constantinople, then the whole of Asia Minor and later all Armenians were virtually designated for extermination. However, the whole thing had been foreshadowed by earlier events: as early as 1895 and 1896, pogroms in eastern Anatolia at Lake Van had already killed tens of thousands of people while, in the pogroms that took place in 1908 and 1909 near Adana and throughout Cilicia, one must consider that hundreds of thousands lost their lives. Then, in 1915, the interior minister Talia Pasha announced a “final solution”. The First World War was under way, the hands of the western powers were tied. When, in August 1915, the imperial government in Berlin asked the Ottoman government how true the rumours were of the Armenian massacre, the interior minister’s reply by telegraph was short and to the point: “The Armenian question no longer exists”. By then, the majority of Armenians had already been killed.
Later, this became of interest to Adolf Hitler in particular…
Yes, when rebuked by members of his entourage, concerned about what world opinion would say about his war-making plans before the invasion of Poland, Hitler is said to have replied, “Who still speaks of the extermination of the Armenians today?”
How many Armenians have lost their lives since 1915?
In 1914 there were more than two million Armenians living on what is now Turkish territory. Today one hundred thousand at most live in Turkey. Even assuming that a large number were able to flee, the number of Armenians killed must still be put at over a million.
Were the reasons for the massacre more religious or political?
The reasons were not just political, but even racist. The three Young Turk leaders of Turkey at the time, the triumvirate of Never Pasha, Camel Pasha and Talia Pasha, wished to strengthen “Turkishness”– and the Armenians in Anatolia and throughout the empire were an irritant to their racist agenda.
That this racism was a primary factor is also demonstrated by the fact that the deportation and extermination orders often referred to the “accursed race” which had to be eradicated; likewise, other non-Turkish groups, in particular the Christian Atamans or Assyrians, were subjected to a holocaust: they lost more than half a million victims between 1915 and 1918, whose fate goes largely unmentioned today.
The Turkish leadership at the time played the Muslim card and succeeded in winning the support of non-Turkish, Muslim nationalities, in particular the Kurds and the Circassia’s. These Muslim, non-Turkish minorities in particular played a prominent role in the massacres. Many Turkish government officials protected Armenians if they crossed over to Islam, although this was expressly prohibited by Talia Pasha.
What was the behaviour of the subsequent Turkish government under Ataturk – which is ultimately regarded as paving the way for Turkey as part of Europe?
It is not widely known that, in 1919, a war crimes trial was held in Istanbul against those responsible for the Armenian massacre, which sentenced the three ringleaders to death in their absence. At the time, Kendal Pasha, the later president Ataturk, is reported to have said that “This “mob” should have been strung up earlier” – in other words, he was also in favour of the trial at that time. Naturally, the trial in Istanbul was held under major pressure from the victors. The British, who had troops in Constantinople, ensured the trial was held. However, it was a Turkish court, still under the sultan, which conducted it. The main war criminals, the Young Turk triumvirate comprising the forenamed Never, Camel and Talia Pashas, were condemned to death in their absence: the German government had sent a submarine to take these three criminals to Russia at the end of the war, from where they were brought to Berlin. Turkey, including Ataturk, later changed sides when the victors’ plans to split up the rest of Turkey completely became known. Ataturk then handed over the remaining defendants in the war crimes trial to the British, who later released the prisoners after six months’ custody in Malta. Later – and most regrettably – Ataturk accepted war criminals who had played a leading role in massacres in his government.
What remains of Armenian Christianity in Turkey today?
The Treaty of Lausanne of 1923 sealed a population exchange of Muslims from Greece and Orthodox Christians from Turkey. However, exceptions were made for the Orthodox Christians in Istanbul, on the Prince Islands and on two islands at the entrance to the Dardanelles. In the Treaty, Greek, Bulgarian and Armenian Christians as well as the Jews were recognised as minorities. Today one hundred thousand Armenians still live in Turkey, the majority in Istanbul, with a Patriarch and more than 50 churches, of which around 40 are Orthodox, twelve Catholic and three Protestant. In Anatolia, Armenian churches still exist in Kayseri, Iskenderun and several other places.
Can one link the tragedy currently being experienced by Christians in Iraq and Syria with the fate of Armenians back then?
Yes, indeed. The exodus and annihilation of Christians in the Middle East are continuing. The number of Christians in Iraq and in Syria is decreasing all the time. In both countries, Armenians who survived the First World War found a new home, from which they are now being driven or having to flee.
During a special mass to mark the centenary of the “martyrdom” of the Armenian Christians held in St. Peter’s Basilica, Pope Francis said, “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!”. Can anything be done to close this wound and stop it from continuing to bleed?
Jesus said, “The truth will set you free”. It follows that the truth, the fact of the genocide, must be recognised. In 1856, the Ottoman sultan was still the caliph, that is to say the supreme ruler over those of Muslim faith. The caliph and sultan guaranteed all his subjects religious freedom in the Treaty of Paris at the end of the Crimean War. In the 19th century churches could be built which are still standing today in cities such as Istanbul and Aleppo. New dioceses were founded for the Armenians, which were destroyed after 1915. It was the poison of nationalism, and not Islam, which led to the genocide of 1915.
Maria Lozano, firstname.lastname@example.org