The Ottoman Empire

Page 6 – The Armenians' suffering

The Armenian people living in the Ottoman provinces of eastern Anatolia, like other non-Turkish and non-Muslim subjects of the Empire, had long suffered from systematic discrimination and, at times, harsh persecution. For them the Ottoman Empire’s entry into the First World War was to have particularly devastating consequences. Indeed, it is widely claimed that the Armenians were victims of a deliberate genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman authorities – an accusation that continues to be strongly denied by Turkey.

When war broke out the sympathies of many Armenians, particularly Orthodox Christians, lay with the neighboring Orthodox Christian-majority Russian Empire, not the Muslim-majority Ottoman Empire by which they were ruled. While many Armenian men served in the Ottoman Army, some crossed the border to join the Russian Army, and others formed guerrilla bands to fight Ottoman forces behind the front lines. The Ottoman authorities responded by imposing ever more repressive measures to try to stamp out this activity, setting in motion a pattern of attacks and reprisals that led to full-blown conflict in the Armenian city of Van in early 1915. Vicious fighting followed and each side accused the other of atrocities against civilians and combatants alike. 

After crushing this resistance, the Ottoman leadership accelerated plans to deport the entire Armenian population of eastern Anatolia to what they considered less strategically vulnerable areas of the empire. The deportations took more than a year to complete. The numbers involved are still a matter of bitter controversy, but some estimate that up to one million Armenian civilians were forcibly deported, of whom between 200,000 and 800,000 died. Armenian survivors’ accounts are full of reports of large-scale massacres, deliberate starvation, beatings, rape, torture and, in the case of children and young women, abduction and forced conversion to Islam. Some atrocities were independently confirmed by American, Swiss and other neutral Western observers. A small number of German military personnel attached to the Ottoman Army, outraged at what they had seen or heard, also spoke out.

To the Armenians, and to many foreign observers, the deportation order amounted to much more than a series of atrocities, no matter how individually shocking each was. To them the order was seen as instigating a deliberate policy of genocide. The leaders who ordered the deportations and the local Ottoman police, Jendarma paramilitaries and Kurdish auxiliaries who carried the orders out therefore stand accused of crimes against humanity. This assessment of the deportations remains the official position of the modern-day Republic of Armenia, the Armenian diaspora all over the world, and at least a dozen other countries, including Canada, Russia and France. The 24th of April, which marks the day in 1915 when Armenian intellectuals and leaders were rounded up and imprisoned in Constantinople (Istanbul), is commemorated by Armenians around the world as Genocide Remembrance Day.

The government of the Republic of Turkey, which today controls all of Anatolia, categorically rejects the claim that their Ottoman predecessors deliberately committed genocide against their Armenian subjects. While conceding that thousands of Armenian civilians died, Turkish authorities have insisted that these deaths were mainly due to unintentional neglect under wartime conditions. They blame typhus and cholera outbreaks, or exposure to the elements due to the inadequate provision of transport, food and shelter by Ottoman provincial authorities unable to cope with the demands made upon them by the large numbers of deportees passing through. (The Turkish government argues that institutional failure also decimated Ottoman forces during the war, with some Ottoman Army units reportedly losing up to 25% of their men to sickness and disease as they crossed from one part of the empire to another.)

 A century after the terrible events of 1915, the issue remains a highly sensitive one in Turkey, Armenia and elsewhere.

How to cite this page

'The Armenians' suffering', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/war/ottoman-empire/armenians-suffering, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 13-Jun-2018