Dreams of an Empire Lost in Snow: Armenians the Scape Goat

Most North Americans view the rise of nationalism as a good thing. After all, without the spirit of nationalism growing in the thirteen English colonies along the eastern coast of North America, there would have been no United States of America.

The spirit of nationalism that grew in Ottoman Turkey, however, took a twisted turn for the worse at the beginning of World War I. As was mentioned in the previous post, the Turkish government gathered, trained, and armed militias formed from released convicts, Rumelian refugees from Thrace, and the Kurds of the Anatolian Plains in the autumn of 1914. In December of 1914, the Ottoman government joined the war in Europe on the side of Germany.

That same autumn, the Ottoman government conscripted Greeks and Armenians. Men from the ages of 20 to 45 went into the Turkish army. Boys from the ages of 15 to 20 and men from the ages of 45 to 60 were assigned to be porters for the army or labor battalions for road construction. Armenian colleges were stripped of their male students.

The Armenian men and boys, who served as porters to carry the supplies of the army, were driven with whips like pack animals. A group of three hundred were driven from Moush to the Russian frontier in the Caucasus Mountain. During the three-week journey thirty or forty porters died before they even got to their destination (2006, A Shameful Act:  The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility).

Enver Pasha, the Young Turks’ Minister of War, left Constantinople on December 6, 1914, to take command of the Third Army. The Ottoman government’s propagandist Zia Gokalp promoted  a Turkic empire that stretched from Anatolia through the Transcaucasia to central Asia (Black Dog of Fate:  A Memoir). Minister Enver and his army corps were bent on accomplishing just that.

Enver’s decision to attack Russia as soon as the Ottoman government entered the world war proved to be a horrible miscalculation. The battle front was six hundred miles from the nearest railhead; bridges were in disrepair; the journey took six weeks; and early snowstorms blocked mountain passes. To make matters worse troops and porters in summer uniforms were bivouacked without tents in -30 degree F weather. Food ran out. An epidemic of typhus hit troops and porters hard. The artillery had to be abandoned because of the deep snow; sections of the Turkish army lost contact with each other; and units got lost in the mountain passes.

Even then, Enver ordered a surprise attack on Sarikamish (a Russian base). The Russians destroyed the Turkish army. Out of approximately one hundred thousand men, eighty-six percent were lost (1989, A Peace to End All Peace). The few who survived straggled back home in January of 1915.

Ripples from this disaster extended for months to come. With few Armenian men to harvest the 1914 crops and many horses or donkeys drafted from across Anatolia for the attack on the Russians, cereal acreage was cut 50%, prices rose eventually to one thousand six hundred seventy-five percent, and famine stalked the land (A Peace to End All Peace).

In early January of 1915, a rumor spread from Constantinople that accused the Armenians of causing the Turkish army to lose the battle at Sarikamish. The Ottoman government encouraged the Kurdish militias, the Hamidiye, to attack Armenian villages. The Kurds destroyed fifty-two of them the winter of 1914 – 1915 (p. 139, A Peace to End All Peace). On February 25, 1915, a firman (edit) signed by Minister of War Enver ordered that all Armenians be disarmed. This order included those serving in the army and those serving as gendarmes, the local police units of towns.

The Armenians’ service to their country counted for nothing. Their loss as soldiers in battle or as porters from overwork, starvation, inclement weather, or disease made the next move that much easier for the Young Turks who had control of the Ottoman government.  

In 1915, Minister of the Interior Talaat stepped forward with his own twist on nationalism. Although the Ottoman Empire had included many people groups, languages, and religions for centuries and the Young Turks had promised equal rights for all, they actually had a totally different agenda. What they really wanted and planned for was a Turkey only for Turks. No one else (A Peace to End All Peace). Armenians and Greeks were to be eliminated. Kurds were to be forcibly assimilated (p. 105, 1996, A Modern History of the Kurds).

Confiscations and Protests

Recent tragic events in North America have fired discussions about a government’s responsibility to protect certain citizens from other citizens. The point in question has been whose ‘right to bear arms’ does the second amendment of the U.S. Constitution preserve. The military force of the central government? The police units of towns and cities, or states or provinces? The desire of individual citizens to protect their homes and families, hunt game, or participate in shooting for sport?

No such rights were even considered in the Ottoman Empire. The concept of rights did not exist in that place at that time. No one had rights. Policy in the Empire snaked its way out of the whims of whomever was in power.

Although the May 12 of 1913 protest of the patriarch of the Armenian Church probably wasn’t his first to the Sultan’s grand vizier of the government in Constantinople, its specific complaints were noted by modern historians. The patricarch registered an official objection to the wounding, killing, and forcible conversions of Armenian adults and children to Islam. He also complained that all weapons were being confiscated from Armenians. The patriarch went on to complain that Rumelians, Muslim refugees from the European  Balkans and Thrace, were being settled in Eastern Anatolia, a largely Armenian area of the Ottoman Empire. 

The patriarch’s voice of protest went unheeded. After the Young Turks took over the government of the Ottoman Empire on January 4th, 1914, they ramped up tensions by arming and training militias of Kurds, Rumelians, and released convicts called Chetes, between August and October of 1914. In October of 1914, local gendarmes across the Empire were ordered to raid Armenian homes to confiscate any weapons they could find. If any Armenian dared to complain about the confiscation, or what else the gendarmes did when they were in the homes, that Armenian would be arrested.

In the end, the Ottoman Turkish army and the Muslim militias had most of the weapons in the Empire. The Young Turks of Constantinople had set the stage for the next scene.

In June and July of the next year, 1915, more protests landed on deaf ears in the Ottoman Turkish government offices, this time from foreigners. The German ambassador von Wangeheim registered with the Young Turks his objection to the mass deportations, pillaging, and massacres of Turkey’s Armenian population. Von Wangeheim reported to the German Chancellor that the Turkish government was trying to “exterminate the Armenian race in the Turkish empire” (p. 213 of A Peace to End All Peace). 

Another German, Pastor Johannus Lepsius, a Protestant missionary, travelled to Constantinople and met with a Young Turk, the Minister of War Enver. When asked by Enver where he had gotten his information about the atrocities, Pastor Lepsius said he had gotten numerous reports from German consuls, missionaries, and other eyewitnesses in the interior of Ottoman Turkey. Lepsius intervened with limited success on behalf of the defenceless Armenian women, children, and elderly who made up the mass deportation lines.

When those men in power (such as the Young Turks) arm everyone (all Turks) who: 1) have been encouraged to be jealous of a certain people’s economic and professional success (such as the Armenians) and who: 2) have been taught by their religion (Islam) to seek the death of those aren’t of their religion (such as Christians), and when the men in power (such as the Young Turks) confiscate all items an oppressed people (such as the Armenians) could use in defense of their homes and families, the scene has definitely been set for the mass murder of the oppressed people group. And that is exactly what the government of Ottoman Turkey orchestrated against the Armenians in 1915. 

There seem to be no end to these kinds of pebbles on the beach of world history. Forcibly oppress and disarm an ethnic group + arm a preferred religious or ethnic group = blood bath