The Genocide of the Armenians by the Turkish government during World War I represents a major tragedy of the modern age. In this the first Genocide of the 20th century, almost an entire nation was destroyed. The Armenian people were effectively eliminated from the homeland they had occupied for nearly three thousand years. This annihilation was premeditated and planned to be carried out under the cover of war.
During the night of April 23-24, 1915, Armenian political, religious, educational, and intellectual leaders in Istanbul were arrested, deported to the interior, and mercilessly put to death. Next, the Turkish government ordered the deportation of the Armenian people to “relocation centers” – actually to the barren deserts of Syria and Mesopotamia. The Armenians were driven out brutally from the length and breadth of the empire. Secrecy, surprise, deception, torture, dehumanization, rape and pillage were all a part of the process. The whole of Asia Minor was put in motion.
The greatest torment was reserved for the women and children, who were driven for months over mountains and deserts [see map], often dehumanized by being stripped naked and repeatedly preyed upon and abused. Intentionally deprived of food and water, they fell by the hundreds of thousands along the routes to the desert.
There were some survivors scattered throughout the Middle East and Transcaucasia. Thousands of them, refugees here and there, were to die of starvation, epidemics, and exposure. Even the memory of the nation was intended for obliteration. The former existence of Armenians in Turkey was denied. Maps and history were rewritten. Churches, schools, and cultural monuments were desecrated and misnamed. Small children, snatched from their parents, were renamed and farmed out to be raised as Turks. The Turks “annexed” ancestors of the area in ancient times to claim falsely, by such deception, that they inhabited this region from ancient days. A small remnant of the Armenian homeland remained devastated by war and populated largely by starving refugees, only to be subsequently overrun by the Bolshevik Red Army and incorporated into the Soviet Union for seven decades, until its breakup in 1990. The word ” genocide” had not yet been coined. Nonetheless, at the time, many governmental spokesmen and statesmen decried the mass murder of the Armenians as crimes against humanity, and murder of a nation.
Reports of the atrocities gradually came out and were eventually disseminated the world over by newspapers, journals, and eyewitness accounts. In the United States a number of prominent leaders and organizations established fundraising drives for the remnants of the “Starving Armenians”. In Europe the Allied Powers gave public notice that they would hold personally responsible all members of the Turkish government and others who had planned or participated in the massacres. Yet, within a few years, these same governments and statesmen turned away from the Armenians in total disregard of their pledges. Soon the Armenian genocide had become the “Forgotten Genocide”.
In effect, the Turkish government had succeeded in its diabolical plan to exterminate the Armenian population from what is now Turkey. The failure of the international community to remember, or to honor their promises to punish the perpetrators, or to cause Turkey to indemnify the survivors helped convince Adolph Hitler some 20 years later to carry out a similar policy of extermination against the Jews and certain other non-Aryan populations of Europe.