The 20th century was marred by slaughterous wars, deadly plagues, horrendous genocides, natural and man-made disasters, and other kinds of unadulterated violence. All these calamities decimated millions of people. In fact, an estimated 17 million people lost their lives in the crucible of World War I. Two decades later, World War II turned Europe into an abattoir of hackled bodies, leading to a death toll of over 60 million combatants and civilians. The unusually deadly 1918 flu pandemic wiped out an estimated 50 to 100 million people across the globe. The 1931 Yellow River floods in China claimed the lives of up to four million people. However, among all shocking disasters of the 20th century – natural and man-made – genocides stand out in terms of their cynicism and senselessness. According to the generally accepted definition, genocide is the intentional annihilation of some ethnic or religious groups simply because of their ethnic origin or religious beliefs. The artificial famine created by Stalin of 1932-1933, for example, cut an irrevocable swath through southeastern Ukraine, killing as many as seven million civilians. Hitler, for his part, exterminated Jews with reckless abandon. The 20th century witnessed about 15 genocides of different scales. This paper will briefly discuss the most tragic genocides of the 20th century, before segueing into a full-dress discussion of the Armenian Genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Turks. The preliminary findings suggest that the Ottomans committed several genocides in the 20th century, but their intentional extermination of nearly 1.5 million Armenians was the most gruesome. The systematic annihilation of Armenians by the Ottomans defines the word “genocide.”
An American scholar of Jewish and Polish origin, Raphael Lemkin, invented the term “genocide.” Writing in 1944, Lemkin stated that “genocide” was “a new term for an old crime” (cited in Whitehorn 163). Indeed, Lemkin focused on mass murders that occurred before 1944, namely the Holocaust and the Armenian massacre. Significantly, Lemkin draws parallels between the two genocides, going as far as to suggest that Germany aided and abetted the Armenian Genocide, even though the Nazis had not come to power yet (cited in Whitehorn 166). The body of literature has snowballed from there. Today, there is a wealth of research into both the theory and praxis of genocide. They consulted authors seem to agree that genocide refers to the intentional and systematic obliteration of some national or religious group, employing such tactics as mass rapes and purges, forced sterilization, razing of communities to the ground, and destruction of food supplies (Brett 136; Kissi 110-122). Delving into archives, memoirs, and other carefully concealed and hitherto unavailable sources, historians outline genocides in the 20th century with both scientific accuracy and vivid emotion. Lacking is only one thing: precise death tolls of each genocide.
The Armenian Genocide, in particular, has attracted significant scientific attention. Indeed, a quick scan of online libraries like Amazon or GoogleBooks reveals a plethora of credible results. Donald Miller and Lorna Miller’s Survivors: The Oral History of the Armenian Genocide, for example, is based on interviews with more than 100 survivors of this heinous crime. Grigoris Balakian’s harrowing memoir Armenian Golgotha offers shrewd and detailed insights into the atrocities of the Ottoman Turks. Meline Toumani’s There Was and There Were Not: A Journey Through Hate and Possibility in Turkey, Armenia, and Beyond, rakes through a welter of clashing versions of history to elucidate the truth. Attesting to the impartiality of the book is the fact that the author of Armenian origin sets out to understand the motives of the Ottomans instead of demonizing them. Raymond Kevorkian’s The Armenian Genocide: A Complete History chronicles the roots of the genocide as well as documents the depredations, carnage, and resistance that occurred region by region. Vakahn Dadrian’s The History of the Armenian Genocide: Ethnic Conflict from the Balkans to Anatolia to the Caucasus marshals ample evidence to demonstrate how the Arminian-Turkish relations degenerated into a sanguinary genocide. Peter Balakian’s The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response outlines, among other things, the international repercussions of the genocide. To balance out and to avoid accusations of bias, at least one work of a Turkish author needs to be used in this essay. Yet, because most Turkish authors have an official directive to deny the genocide and risk antagonizing the government if they disobey, compelling Turkish accounts are hard to find. Thus, Taner Akcam’s The Young Turks’ Crimes against Humanity: The Armenian Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing in the Ottoman Empire is a comprehensive account of the Armenian Genocide written by an ethnic Turk.
20th century’s most murderous genocides
From the earliest recorded dates to the late 19th century, world history provides a poignant reading replete with wars, subjugation, suffering, bloodshed, and only temporary respites from violence. Belligerents indulged in wanton violence for different reasons but mostly for reasons of territorial conquest. Once they seized new territories, rulers and military overlords subjected local populations to inferior treatment, including forced labor and economic exploitation for the benefit of the titular ethnicity. Rare was a ruler who decided to eliminate the entire population of the conquered territories just for the sake of achieving racial purity. It was only in the early 20th century that this idea gained traction. Obsessed with ideas of national or religious purity, fanatic leaders began to cleanse territories they previously conquered of autochthonous people.
Barring the Armenian Genocide, the 20th century saw several other remarkably bloody ethnic purges that merit the name of genocide. Some of the worst and deadliest genocides occurred in the 1930s and were orchestrated by the two most ruthless dictators of the 20th century: Joseph Stalin of the USSR and Adolf Hitler of Germany. In 1932, following the practices of his predecessor Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin ordered the dispossession of the so-called kulaks – that is, more or less affluent peasants in the southeast of today’s Ukraine. In essence, Stalin’s henchmen dispossessed all peasants, rich and poor, in this part of the USSR. As a result, a premeditated famine occurred, decimating up to seven million ethnic Ukrainians. Stalin herded ethnic Russians to this part of the Soviet Union to occupy liberated territories. Meanwhile, Stalin’s archrival Adolf Hitler was hatching out a plan to rid Europe of the races he deemed inferior: Jews and Roma. Hitler embarked on this genocidal plan in 1933, limiting his heinous activities to the territory of Germany first. Yet, as Hitler set on the path of territorial aggrandizement in the late 1930s, the geography of his genocide against the Jews and the Roma broadened commensurately. In total, the Nazis are believed to have slain no fewer than 250,000 gypsies and no fewer than six million Jews by 1945. Importantly, both Hitler and Stalin systematically destroyed subversive political elements within their societies. However, because this destruction pertained to representatives of all ethnicities, it should be differentiated from genocide.
In the wake of World War II, tensions in Europe, once a cockpit of the most gruesome genocides, subsided. A small-scale genocide in Bosnia in 1995 was the last act of genocide perpetrated in Europe. By contrast, the epicenter of genocidal activity shifted to the less developed Africa and the Middle East. Some of the most recent acts of genocide occurred in these two regions. The Rwandan genocide of 1994, for example, was a wanton massacre of up to one million Tutsi minority members at the hands of the Hutu majority members. The Hutu simply hacked the Tutsis to death with their machetes. The 2003-2010 wholesale slaughter in the Darfur region of Sudan commonly merits comparisons to the Rwandan genocide. These are not invidious comparisons. Indeed, just as in Rwanda, the majority of members persecuted and cruelly butchered minority members.
It is necessary to mention at the outset of this discussion that the Ottoman Empire is guilty of several different genocides. Indeed, using the eruption of World War I as a smokescreen, the Ottomans embarked on the quest to scour their flagging empire from the three largest Christian minorities: Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians. Many historians have treated the massacres of these three ethnicities by the Ottoman Turks as three separate genocides. The Turks even employed the same methods against each ethnicity: forced deportations, death marches, arbitrary executions, and mass slaughters. Likewise, to expunge all reminders of Christian presence and to prepare the territories for the settlement of Muslims coming en masse from the Balkans, the Ottomans demolished cultural and religious monuments of Greeks, Assyrians, and Armenians.
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Before proceeding with the discussion of the Armenian Genocide, it would be logical to touch briefly on the conditions of the Armenians in the pre-1915 Ottoman Empire. Thus, it appears from the reviewed literature that life was certainly not easy for Christian Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. However, the exact scope of this uneasiness is difficult to pinpoint. The problem is that different authors offer different accounts. For example, William Ramsay wrote in 1897:
They [the Armenians] were dogs and pigs; and their nature was to be Christians, to be spat upon, if their shadow darkened a Turk, to be outraged, to be the mats on which he wiped the mud from his feet. Conceive the inevitable result of centuries of slavery, of subjugation to insult and scorn, centuries in which nothing that belonged to the Armenian, neither his property, his house, his life, his person, nor his family, was sacred or safe from violence – capricious, unprovoked violence – to resist which by violence meant death (206-207).
By contrast, from the perspective of Donald and Lorna Miller, life in the pre-1915 Turkey was nearly idyllic for Armenian families:
Families were stable, and children were surrounded by an extended family network of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Fathers went daily to their shops or fields to work, and mothers spend long hours tending the home and making sarma, dolma, keufte, and bread… Survivors remembered going to church and attending festive weddings where they danced and ate… They also remembered vines heavy with grapes, apricot trees in their yards… (9).
According to Miller and Miller, the bucolic life of Armenians was rather tolerable. What is more, they speak of some sort of religious tolerance. Yet, the problem with Miller and Miller’s account can be that they use the recollections of survivors, who were children at the time. Concerned more with frolicking and puerile gasconades, children could skip the negative undertones of life under the Ottoman rule. Overall, it appears that the Ottomans rode roughshod over their Christian minorities. The reforms that were initiated in the late 19th century foundered because of the Muslim opposition. Whereas some other minorities within the Ottoman Empire rose in rebellions, Armenians remained largely quiescent.
In the late 19th century, the oppression of Armenians’ political rights was supplemented by the wholesale slaughter. According to Balakian, the Ottoman leaders created Kurdish paramilitary squads, authorizing them to “deal with the Armenians as they wished” (25). Balakian explains that the Ottomans were perfidious enough to levy higher taxes with the long-term goal of breeding Armenian rebellions so that the Kurds would forcefully suppress them. As a result, the so-called Hamidian massacres of the late 19th century claimed the lives of nearly 300,000 Armenians in the Ottoman Empire (Dadrian 380). The ascendancy of the more liberal Young Turks to power in the late 1900s was characterized by dashed expectations for Armenians. They still encountered oppression and discrimination, which ultimately climaxed with the 1909 Adana massacre (Kevorkian 71-77). Hence, it would not be an exaggeration to assert that Armenians had a horrid time in the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century.
When World War I erupted, the Ottomans scurried to use the omnipresent violence as a smokescreen for the annihilation of the Armenians. Balakian opines that Armenians made a rash mistake when they declared their sympathy for Triple Entente powers (31-32), thereby provoking the ire of the Ottomans. Persuaded that Russians would help them realize their centuries-old dreams of national liberation, Armenians radiated with schadenfreude every time they received news of Russian victories on the battlefield. This active sympathy for the Russian Empire was worrisome for the three pashas – that is, the three supreme leaders of the Ottoman Empire. Because the Ottomans had experienced centuries of bad blood with Moscow, they treated pro-Russian inclinations of the Armenian minority as an alarming sign and soon as a pretext for their annihilation. Not that the Ottomans treated its Armenian minority cordially and benevolently before, but they could not afford to unleash unmitigated carnage on them without some excuse. As explained earlier in the text, even the earlier massacres of the late 19th century were artificially staged. Now, Balakian argues that the Ottomans had a perfect excuse to rectify the mistakes of their predecessors in not expunging the entire Armenian population in Turkey in one blow (32).
It all began as an innocuous relocation. The Ottomans explained that Armenians lived too close to potential World War I battlefields and had to be relocated to the safety of Northern Syrian deserts (see Figure 1). Yet, as Miller and Miller put it, Armenians did not have a clue that deportation would soon become a new term for annihilation (Miller & Miller 10). Balakian also agrees that deportation was merely a charade from the very beginning (17). In essence, Armenian people were sent out on death marches to the arid areas of northern Syria. They often had to march in the sweltering sun on foot and with meager rations. Survivors recollect that the military convoy severely and indiscriminately mutilated marchers (Miller & Miller 9-15). Those who lagged behind were arbitrarily killed. Shortly after the deportation began, Armenians had a dawning realization that deportation was a euphemism for mass murder.
Concentration camps were scattered across Turkey, but they were only transit points on the route to northern Syria. The Ottomans built about 25 camps in this part of their empire, with Der Zor camp being the largest and most infamous (see Figure 1). Just as other concentration camps, this one was an open-air cage, where the survivors of death marches and other Armenian exiles were left to die forlornly in the searing heat of the sun. As Akcam pointedly puts it, Der Zor was “the last point of destruction” (137). According to the most conservative estimates, 300,000 Armenians were tortured to death, summarily executed or left to die in the Der Zor camp. Many more perished during the excruciating death marches to this remote place.
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However, Der Zor was not the only place where the extermination of Armenians took place. Oftentimes, the Ottomans did not even worry to hide the Armenian Genocide under the sheen of deportation. They simply closed in Armenian villages and razed them to the ground (Kevorkian 324, 347). Similarly, the Ottomans burnt down Armenian concentration camps across the empire. Drowning was yet another common method of extermination. Dadrian adds that the Ottomans frequently herded Armenian children onto boats, which were capsized in the sea far enough from the shore to ensure their death (407). Yet, death was not always as easy for Armenians. The Ottomans commonly engaged in tortures. According to Balakian, rape was also commonplace (17). Interestingly, the spate of Muslim refugees inundating Anatolia in the wake of the Ottoman defeat in the 1912 Balkan War generally resented affluent Armenians and played a crucial role in their extermination (Akcam 86-87).
The Armenian Genocide raged intermittently until the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, but its peak was in 1915. Using World War I as a smokescreen, the Ottomans set to fulfill the task they began in the previous century: to decimate the entire Armenian minority. To this end, they attacked Armenian and predominantly Armenian settlements, arbitrarily executing entire villages. Under the banner of relocation, they sent other Armenians on death marches to northern Syria – the ordeal that few were able to survive. Overall, the Ottomans slaughtered other ethnic minorities too, but the Armenian Genocide was the most gruesome.