The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 177th installment in the series.
April 8, 1915: Armenian Persecution Mounts
Although many historians date the beginning of the Armenian Genocide to April 24, 1915, when 250 prominent Armenians were arrested and later murdered in Constantinople, in fact violent measures were already underway across Anatolia and the Caucasus region in February and March 1915, gathering speed in early April.
The origin and order of events during this period remain hotly contested to this day, as partisans from both sides still try to shift blame for the horror that followed. Many Turkish historians assert the repressive measures only came in response to an incipient Armenian uprising, and there’s no question some Armenian militants, emboldened by the Russian victory at Sarikamish, were planning a rebellion to help the advancing Christian conquerors. On the other hand, many Armenian and Western historians argue scattered Armenian revolts during this period were themselves a response to the incipient genocide, rather than vice versa.
Whatever the exact order of events, it’s clear what happened next, as Turkish army units and Kurdish irregulars unleashed a campaign of systematic violence against the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian population. Generally speaking they focused first on Armenian soldiers serving in the Ottoman Army, removing a potential source of armed resistance, before moving on to civilians. The killers were aided by the empire’s huge size and primitive communications, which slowed the spread of news.
In February War Minister Enver Pasha laid the groundwork for the first step—getting rid of Armenian soldiers in the Ottoman armies—by ordering them to turn in their weapons and report for duty in labor battalions which would supposedly be employed building military roads. This provided an excuse to remove the disarmed soldiers from public view to remote areas, where they were then murdered en masse, usually by shooting.
However some Armenian soldiers guessed what was coming and fled before they could be killed, sometimes engaging in armed resistance (contributing to the ambiguity about the immediate origins of the genocide). For example, according to the British diplomat Arnold Toynbee, on March 8, 1915, a group of about two dozen Armenian deserters ambushed a battalion of Turkish soldiers, stole their weapons, and then holed up in the ancient Armenian monastery near Zeitun (today Süleymanlı) an Armenian town of about 10,000 inhabitants located in the Taurus Mountains of southern Anatolia (top).
On April 8, 1915, the Turks destroyed the monastery and began deporting the town’s inhabitants—the first large scale-deportation to take place. The Turks claimed they were merely responding to the ambush and armed resistance, but Toynbee believed they had been planning crush Zeitun for some time beforehand, citing the movement of irregular units to the vicinity in preparation.
Meanwhile reports spread of mass arrests targeting Armenian political leaders, while gangs of Turks and Kurds looted the possessions of Armenian civilians, especially in the provinces of Bitlis, Erzurum, and Sivas. To the east, in Van province stories of mass killings with victims in the thousands circulated along with fleeing refugees, while in the south deportations from Zeitun continued into the second half of the month. However all these incidents remained in the realm of rumor until April 24, 1915, when the Armenian genocide began in earnest.