Lessons of the Armenian Genocide

This year, 2015, is the one hundredth anniversary of the Armenian genocide. Although the Turkish government still denies it, and millions of Americans remain unaware of it, in its dying gasp the Ottoman Empire, forerunner of modern Turkey, slaughtered more than one million innocent, legally disarmed Armenians—a subculture of Christians who lived within the empire. This atrocity, an attempt to systematically murder an entire people or ethnic group, preceded the genocide of the National Socialists and set the template for it. Indeed, the very word “genocide” was coined in 1944 by Raphael Lemkin in reference to the Armenian horror.

The history of this abomination is worth recounting for two reasons: first, to remember the innocent Armenian victims; and second, to draw from it what lessons we can. The Armenian massacre, the product mainly of racist nationalism and religious zealotry, set a grim precedent for such horrors to follow and offers a horrific reminder of what happens when a culture falls into such irrationality.

The scale of the Armenian genocide is massive. Estimates of the murder count vary widely, but even by the most conservative accounting, a minimum of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians—men, women, children, infants—were butchered by the most savagely primitive methods imaginable. Renowned English historian Arnold Toynbee suggests roughly 600,000 murders.1 Political scientist Robert Melson (among others) argues that the actual figure was around one million.2 Rudolph Rummel, an American political scientist who coined the term democide—the murder of any person or people by their government, including genocide, politicide, and mass murder—devoted his career to studying such horrors. He writes: “The size and speed of the [ruling] Young Turks’ ethnic cleansing are unparalleled. . . . They alone most likely murdered no fewer than 300,000 and most probably around 1,400,000—nearly 70 percent—of their Armenians . . . in one year.”3 Emphasizing the enormity of the crime, Rummel points out that Hitler’s National Socialist regime slaughtered roughly 38 percent of the Jewish population over a span of five years.

To comprehend this horror, we need to see the place of the Armenian population in the centuries-old Ottoman Empire.

Armenia is located in the Caucasus region, a mountainous strip of land between the Black and Caspian Seas, connecting Europe and Asia. . . .

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1. Arnold Toynbee, “A Summary of Armenian History up to and including 1915,” in The Treatment of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire: Documents Presented to Viscount Grey of Fallodon, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (London: H.M.S.O., 1916), p. 651, quoted in Richard Hovannisian, ed., The Armenian Genocide in Perspective (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1986), pp. 64–65.

2. Robert Melson, “Provocation or Nationalism: A Critical Inquiry into the Armenian Genocide of 1915,” in Hovannisian, The Armenian Genocide in Perspective, pp. 65–66.

3. Rudolph Rummel, Death By Government (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1994), p. 223.

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