Everyone's Not Here: Families of the Armenian Genocide (Video and Study Guide)

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Everyone's Not Here: Families of the Armenian Genocide (Video and Study Guide)

Parsons, William.
Cambridge, Massachusetts: Intersection Associates, 1989, ISBN 0925428043.
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Everyone's Not Here: Families of the Armenian Genocide (Video and Study Guide)

Developing a Historical Background

Read the following brief historical account entitled "The Armenian Genocide: An Introduction for Students." The vocabulary and concepts in this reading may be difficult for students, but teachers have indicated that the reading is effective in helping students learn about this history. Following the reading are some questions and activities:

The Armenian Genocide: An Introduction for Students

Although many people today know very little about the genocide of the Armenian people, between 1894 and 1922 newspapers reported to the world what was happening to the Armenians in the Ottoman Turkish Empire. Beginning in 1915, the Turkish government, led by a group known as the Committee of Union and Progress (C.U.P.), carried out a policy to deport and kill Armenian people throughout the empire. Terrible massacres had occurred in the past but the policy of total elimination was new to the Ottoman Empire.

Many explanations have been offered by scholars as to why a policy of genocide was carried out against the Armenian people. Studying these explanations gives clues as to why the genocide occurred, but it does not mean that the Armenian Genocide had to occur.

1) Consider the history of how minorities such as the Armenians were ruled by the Ottoman Turks. From about 1300 to 1918, the Ottoman Empire was ruled by Sultans that came from the same family. "The Sultan was descended from Turks, and Turks were Muslims, since they followed the religion of Islam. Up until the latter part of the nineteenth century, only Muslims were allowed to hold high government jobs or serve in the military. These positions could be held by a person of any nationality as long as they converted to Islam. The Turks labeled non-Muslims living in the empire as 'rayas,' which translated as 'protected flock or herds.'"

Minorities such as Jews, Greeks and Armenians were labeled by the Ottomans as "tolerated nonbelievers." These minorities had to follow certain laws which did not apply to their Muslim neighbors: they could not own guns; they were not allowed to testify in court against Muslims; they were forced to pay additional taxes; they received the death penalty, if they murdered a Muslim, but the death penalty did not apply to Muslims who murdered them; they were often not allowed to ride horses.

The Ottoman Empire was governed on the basis of Islamic law which applied only to Muslims. Christians and Jews were organized into separate communities, called the "millet system." The three principal millets were those of the Greek Orthodox, the Jews, and the Armenians. The people in each millet were allowed to practice their own "traditional laws, customs, and way of life, so long as these people behaved properly and gave no trouble." Christians and Jews were also subjected to discriminatory laws which put them at a disadvantage with regards to the Muslims in the Ottoman Empire.

The discriminatory laws allowed the Armenians and other minorities to be victimized, especially by Turks and Kurds. Kurds were Muslims who lived in eastern Turkey and were mostly nomadic. Although Kurds often clashed with Turks, they both exploited the Armenians:

"The Kishlak Tax meant that Kurds were given the right to live in Armenian homes during the winter months. The Kurds received this right by paying the Ottoman officials a amount of money. The Ottoman government did not interfere when Kurds destroyed Armenian homes, robbed them, or murdered members of their families.

"The hospitality tax required Armenians to provide free food and lodging for government officials for three days a year."

Although the discriminatory laws applied to all Armenians, not all Armenians endured the same hardships. For example, Armenians living in the capital of Constantinople, today known as Istanbul, did not experience the constant robbery, violence, extortion, and humiliation inflicted on Armenian peasants living in eastern Turkey.

Constant appeals were made to the Sultan by leaders from various minority groups throughout the entire empire who wanted to change the discriminatory laws and end the corruption which involved many government officials. Most Armenian leaders wanted reforms which would protect their people and property, but few changes occurred. When Turkey was defeated by Russia in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, Armenian leaders hoped that the Sultan could be pressured to make changes.

Instead, the Ottoman government became more oppressive and suspicious of minorities who wanted reforms. In 1860, 10,000 Christians living in the city of Damascus were massacred by Muslims. At times, Kurds and other Muslim groups were also attacked by Ottoman forces. Some Armenians organized groups which encourages other Armenians to defend themselves against abuses and raids by Kurds and Turks. Although the vast majority of Armenians did not revolt against the Ottomans, the acts of a few who advocated the use of force were used by the government as an excuse for organizing massacres from 1894-1896 which resulted in more than 100,000 Armenian deaths. Thousands of Armenians escaped into Russia, and hundreds of Armenian towns were looted and burned.

When a ruling group, such as the Ottoman Turks, labels a minority group, such as the Armenians, as "inferior," and then supports this attitude with a system of discrimination which leaves the minority unprotected, the possibility of genocide taking place increases.

2) The Armenians often became a scapegoat for many of the empire's problems. Between the 1400s and the 1600s, the Ottoman Empire conquered a vast amount of territory which stretched from Balkan countries and Greece, across Syria and Iraq to the Persian Gulf, down the coastline of the Red Sea, and across northern Africa from Egypt to Morocco. By the beginning of the 1700s, the empire had reached its greatest size, but ruling over such a large area with diverse groups of people proved too difficult. From 1800 to the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the Ottomans were often at war. Whole populations such as Serbs, Greeks, and Bulgarians, revolted to form their own independent countries. England, France, Italy, Russia and Austria defeated the Ottomans and occupied almost half their territory.

As the Ottoman Empire became weaker both militarily and economically, its leaders became increasingly frustrated, angry, and suspicious of anyone who was not a Turk and not a Muslim. Although the largest group of Armenians were poor peasants in the east, in historic Armenia, a high percentage of Armenians living in cities such as Constantinople and Smyrna were bankers, doctors, skilled craftsmen, and merchants. Some of the richest Armenians in the capital had close connections with the Sultan. When conditions in the empire worsened, minorities, such as Armenians, became easy targets of Turkish frustration, anger and resentment.

For centuries, the Ottoman Turks had labeled the Armenians as the "faithful community," but when Armenian leaders began to press for more protection and equality, they were considered "dangerous" by the government. Armenians had lived in the region between the Mediterranean and Caspian Seas for almost 3,000 years, but now their population was divided between Ottoman Turkey, Russia, and Persia. Since all three of these countries had a history of fighting with each other, this created problems for Armenians. For example, if Russian Armenians remained loyal to Russia and fought against Turkish armies, then Turkey often became suspicious of the allegiance of its own Armenians. When Turkey would lose to its enemy, Russia, Armenians were often blamed because the fighting would take place in the heavily Armenian populated provinces of eastern Turkey.

When an unprotected minority is perceived as "causing" a country's problems and hostile attitudes towards the minority are supported by the ruling government, the potential for genocide increases.

3) It is ironic that the Turkish leaders who ended up carrying out the policy of genocide against the Armenians gained power in 1908 by claiming that they would unite and treat all groups in the empire more fairly. Most Armenians, Greeks, Jews, and Muslims welcomed the overthrow of the Sultan and the taking of Power by the Committee of Union and Progress (C.U.P.) also called the Young Turks. A small group of leaders within the C.U.P. took almost complete control and tried to create a "new order" in the empire. The Young Turks rejected the idea that the empire could include different religious and ethnic groups such as the Armenians who were eventually labeled by the Young Turks as "aliens" and "enemies" of the state.

The intent of the Young Turks was to create a new empire based on an idea called "pan-Turkism." Their goal was to gain complete power over all the different groups within the empire and to eliminate diversity. Turkey would become a country of Turks, and eventually their conquests would unite all descendents of Turkic peoples throughout Asia and the Middle East.

Since minorities such as Jews, Greeks, and Armenians had maintained their traditions, customs, and beliefs for thousands of years, the Young Turks knew that removal and annihilation would have to be used. The Jews were a very small minority and posed no immediate threat to the goals of the Young Turks. The Greeks presented a greater problem because they had a nation, Greece, which could encourage its allies to protect the Greeks living in Turkey. The Young Turks removed between 200,000 and 400,000 Greeks from the Turkish coastline to the interior of Turkey. At least one-quarter of this minority starved to death during this deportation. There was no native country to come to the aid of the Armenians because their homeland was divided up by Turkey, Russia, and Persia.

One year after the Young Turks gained power; an explosion of violence took place in the province of Adana when local Turks killed about 20,000 Armenians. Foreign countries protested and tried to intervene, and many Turkish politicians criticized the Young Turks for not protecting the Armenians and not punishing those responsible. When World War I broke out in 1914, the Young Turks found their opportunity to eliminate the Armenians.

Governments sometimes commit genocide during wartime because it is "easier" to label a group of people as the "enemy." There also tends to be less interference from other nations because they are preoccupied with winning the war.

The pattern of Genocide was clear. On the night of April 23-24, 1915, Armenian political, religious, educational, and intellectual leaders in the capital city of Constantinople (known today as Istanbul) were arrested and deported to the interior of the country and killed. The Armenian populations in areas labeled "war zones" were deported en masse to the deserts of Syria and Iraq where thirst, hunger, and exhaustion lead to certain death. This policy of so-called relocation was soon extended to all Armenians across the empire. Armenians serving in the Ottoman army were separated into unarmed labor battalions and murdered. This policy which was coordinated by Young Turk agents and soldiers serving as armed policemen, called gendarmes, encouraged bandits and nomadic groups to raid and kill Armenians as they were marched over mountains and deserts. Armenian men and teenagers were systematically separated from the marching caravans and killed. Women, children, and the elderly were driven for months without adequate food and water until they died or were sent to slaughter camps. While large numbers of Turkish officials and people in the general population participated in the genocide, many Turkish leaders were shocked by what was happening, and thousands of Armenian women and children were rescued and protected by individual Turks, Kurds, and Arabs.

No government denied what was happening; even some European diplomats recorded in their memoirs that Young Turk leaders admitted to the extermination plan. Governments allied with the Ottoman Empire such as Germany and Austro-Hungary received hundreds of detailed eyewitness account from their own officials. Headlines such as, "ONLY 200,000 ARMENIANS NOW LEFT IN TURKEY: MORE THAN 1,000,000 KILLED ENSLAVED OR IN EXILE," appeared in American newspapers and magazines. Throughout World War I, world leaders promised to punish those responsible for the genocide and to protect and help the Armenian survivors.

By the end of 1918, the Ottoman Empire and its allies were defeated. The Young Turk leaders fled the country and Damad Ferid Pasha, the grand vizier and chief Turkish representative at the Paris peace Conference in 1919, admitted that there had occurred "misdeeds which are such as to make the conscience of mankind shudder forever."

During the severe winters of 1918 and 1919, many European and American relief agencies sent large quantities of food and clothing to help Armenians who had survived. United States General Harbord was sent to Turkey in 1919 to inspect places where Armenians lived before the genocide. His conclusion:

"Mutilation, violation, torture, and death have left their haunting memories in a hundred beautiful Armenian valleys, and the traveler in that region is seldom free from the evidence of this most colossal crime of all the ages."

Beginning in 1919, peace treaties were signed between the countries that fought in World War I. This was known as the Paris Peace Conference and one of the agreements declared that the lands of Armenia would never be returned to Turkish rule. The Conference also recognized the Republic of Armenia as a legitimate nation. It was established in May of 1918 in Eastern, formerly Russian, Armenia. After continued Turkish attacks, severe winter conditions, and involvement in war, the Republic was taken over by Soviet Russia in 1920.

After the war, the Ottoman government convened special court martial in Constantinople to put the Young Turk leaders on trial for war crimes. Though they had escaped abroad, Enver, Talaat, Jemal, and Dr. Nazim were tried in absentia, found guilty of organizing the mass killing of the Armenians, and condemned to death. A number of other Young Turk officials were also tried and condemned to death. A number of other Young Turk officials were also tried and condemned, but only one was ever officially punished.

For the next four years, the victorious Allied countries argued over how to deal with the emerging new Republic of Turkey. When a final agreement was signed in 1923 between the Allied Powers and the new government of Turkey, all previous promises to protect and help Armenian survivors were abandoned. In fact the treaty did not even mention the word "Armenians" or "Armenia." For almost 3,000 years, Armenians had lived in their homeland. For 2,000 of those years before the Turkic invasions, Armenia had existed as a nation, sometimes weak and divided, sometimes strong and united, and sometimes ruled by others. Although many surviving Armenians had been leaving Turkey since the end of the war, most of those who remained were once again uprooted from their homes and forced to leave.

Between 1894 and 1923, an estimated 1,800,000 Armenians were killed and another 1,000,000 were forcibly driven from their ancestral homeland. More than half of the Armenian population perished.

Ever since the Republic of Turkey was established in 1923, it has claimed that there was never a policy of genocide carried out against the Armenians. In an effort to eliminate the memory of Armenia and its history, Turkey has spent millions of dollars trying to deny the Genocide. It has changed geographical names such as the "Armenian Plateau" to "Anatolia" and many cultural buildings have been destroyed or allowed to fall into disrepair.

Despite these denial efforts, the Armenian Genocide has been recognized by most historians and governments. Presidents George Bush, Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, have deplored the Genocide, and each year hundreds of thousands of American students and teachers learn about the Genocide. On the other hand, when the U.S. Congress debated whether or not to reaffirm its prior recognition of this history by designating a day to remember the victims of the Armenian Genocide, the Reagan administration opposed this resolution because it would disrupt the "smooth and effective relationship with Turkey."

3) Questions and activities related to the above reading, "The Armenian Genocide: An Introduction for Students:"

A. Respond to the general explanations offered as to why the genocide occurred.

This activity could help students recognize the difference between appropriate and inappropriate statements of cause and effect. The study guide, Critical thinking in American History, by Kevin O'Reilly is an excellent source for introducing students to the concept of cause and effect. The following three examples of cause and effect fallacies are discussed by O'Reilly:

1) Help students distinguish between a "single" cause and a "main" cause. For example, "Explosion of the battleship Maine caused the Spanish American War."

2) Preceding events as a cause: Just because B came after A does not necessarily mean that A caused B. For example, "General Grant was made commander of the Northern armies. After this, the North started to win."

3) Correlation as a cause. For example, "Democrats were President during WWI, WWII, and Korea. The Democrats cause wars."

Ask students how they would use information from the reading on the Armenian Genocide to respond to someone who claims that, "The Armenians were a threat to the Ottoman government, and this caused Turkish officials to respond the way they did."

In her book, Accounting for Genocide, Helen Fein explores various preconditions which can increase the possibility of a government committing genocide. Have students make a list of specific details in the reading which support the three general explanations presented. Then have students make a list of specific details in the reading which support the three general explanations presented. Then have students make a list which does not support the three generalizations. For example, Greeks were second class citizens similar to the Armenians, yet a policy of genocide was not carried out against them. Apply this fact to the first generalization.

B. A study of genocide often reveals a history of missed opportunities. Decisions are made by individuals, groups, and nations which either contribute to the occurrence of a genocide or help to prevent it. Have students identify information which suggests that the Armenian Genocide could have been prevented. For example, what if the Young Turks had decided to build a new government around the promises of constitutional reform and protection for all its citizens? What if Turkey had remained neutral in World War I and concentrated on economic decisions to improve poor living conditions in the empire? What if the nations of the world had taken a stronger stand against the massacres under the Sultan? Some students wonder if the nations of the world had responded more firmly to the Armenian Genocide, would this have discouraged future genocides. What if the agreements declared at the Paris Peace Conference had been upheld?