He was particularly known for his efforts to draft the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which cast genocide as an international crime in 1948.
Dealing with the case of Talat Paşa being murdered by an Armenian youth in Berlin in 1921, Lemkin started to compile a file about what happened in the Ottoman Empire in connection with the case. As he discussed the case with his professor, he learned that there was no international law provision that would entail the prosecution of Talat Paşa for his actions, and he was profoundly shocked when his professor likened the case of Talat Paşa to a farmer who would not be held responsible for killing the chickens in his poultry house.
In 1933, Lemkin used the term “crime against international law” as a precursor of the concept of genocide during the League of Nations conference on international criminal law in Madrid. After Nazi-led German forces devastated Europe and invaded Poland in 1939, Lemkin was enlisted in the army, but upon the defeat of Polish forces, he fled to the US, leaving his parents behind. Later, while working as an adviser during the Nuremberg trials, he would learn that his parents had died in the Nazi concentration camps.
In his book “Axis Rule in Occupied Europe,” published in 1944, he defined genocide as atrocities and massacre intended to destroy a nation or an ethnic group. Coining the term from the Greek genos, meaning race or ancestry, and the Latin cide, meaning killing, Lemkin argued that genocide does not have to mean direct destruction of a nation. In 1946, the UN General Assembly issued a declaration on genocide and unanimously accepted that genocide is a crime under international law, noting that it eliminates the right of existence of a specific group and shocks the collective conscience of humanity. However, Lemkin wished that in addition, a convention should be drafted on preventing and punishing the crime of genocide. This wish was fulfilled with the signature of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948. Lemkin died in a hotel room in New York in a state of poverty at the age of 59 in 1959. Although they left this idealist defender of humanity alone, people were gentle enough to write, “The Father of the Genocide Convention,” as an epitaph on his grave.
In 1843, Bedirhan Bey, who commanded the Kurds who were assigned with the duty of massacring the people of Aşita (Hoşud), connected to the sanjak of Hakkari, where the population was predominantly Armenian and Nestorian, persuaded the Armenians and Nestorians who had fled to the mountains to return and hand in their weapons, and then, the people who were massacred were largely thrown in the Zap River. The majority of their women and children were sold as slaves. It is reported that at least 10,000 Armenians and Nestorians were killed in this massacre. In 1877, the Ottoman Army and the Russian Army started to fight again, and availing of this opportunity, Armenia once again became a battlefield, and the soldiers shouted, “Kill the disbelievers.” Circassians and Kurds slaughtered 165 Christian families, including women and children, in Beyazıt. In 1892, Sultan Abdülhamit II summoned the Kurdish tribal chiefs to İstanbul and gave them military uniforms and weapons, thereby establishing the Hamidiye cavalry regiment with some 22,500 members. In this way, Abdülhamit II played with the foreign policy equilibrium between the UK and Russia and organized a specific ethnic/religious group against another ethnic/religious group based on a Muslim vs. non-Muslim dichotomy. The Ottoman administration appointed the worst enemies of Armenians as their watchdogs, thereby creating a force that could crush them even in peacetime. The persecution of Armenians peaked in the Sason massacre in September 1894. Abdülhamit II declared resisting Armenians rebels and ordered that they should be eradicated.
Europe and America extensively supported the Young Turks, who were seeking legitimacy. When the Movement Army threatened to launch a campaign against İstanbul, Abdülhamit II declared a constitutional monarchy on July 24, 1908. Without using any discretion, ordinary people were both amazed and pleased. Moved by slogans calling for equality, freedom and brotherhood, Armenians, too, welcomed with joy the government backed and controlled by the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP).
Britain and France made loans available to the new regime and sent consultants for the treasury and the navy in support. To alleviate the consequences of the massacres of 1895 and 1896, European countries increased their humanitarian assistance. Orphaned children of Christian families were placed in care centers, and schools were opened in eastern Anatolia. The introduction of the second constitutional monarchy was seen as an assurance of the creation of equality among all races and religions. However, on April 14, 1909, a new wave of slaughter started against Christians in Adana. The CUP’s close alliance with the Armenian Dashnak Party was a major reason for the rekindling of these massacres. For the first time, these attacks did not discriminate between Armenians and eastern Christians. Thus, Orthodox Syriacs, Catholic Syriacs and Chaldeans were also killed. Apparently, Armenians had stood apart with their penchant for trade, banking, brokerage as well as for pharmacy, medicine and consulting and other professions; they constituted a wealthy portion of the population. As a result, this and their identity as non-Muslims made Armenians a clear target. As a commercial and agricultural factor, Armenians also served as an obstacle to the Germanification of Anatolia.
After the Adana massacre of 1909, there was a period of good faith that lasted until 1913. Meanwhile, the CUP improved its ties with the militant Dashnak Party. After transforming into a democratic party, this party was represented with three deputies in the Assembly of Deputies (Meclis-i Mebusan) that was renewed in 1912. This assembly also had six independent Armenians members. In 1876, the Assembly of Deputies had 67 Muslim and 48 non-Muslim deputies. However, in January 1913, following the defeat in the first Balkan War, the CUP overthrew the government (known as the Raid of Bab-ı Ali) and started to implement a policy to homogenize the population through a planned ethnic cleansing and destruction and forced relocation.
Talat Paşa prepared plans for homogenizing the population by relocating ethnic groups to places other than their homeland. According to the plan, Kurds, Armenians and Arabs would be forced to migrate from their homeland, and Bosnians, Circassians and other Muslim immigrants would be settled in their places. The displaced ethnic groups would not be allowed to comprise more than 10 percent of the population in their destinations. Moreover, these groups would be quickly assimilated. The Greeks had already been relocated from the western coasts of the country in 1914.
In addition to the regular army, Enver Paşa believed that there must be special forces that would conduct undercover operations. Thus, he transformed the Special Organization (Teşkilat-ı Mahsusa), which he had established as a secret organization before the Balkan War, into an official organization. This organization had intelligence officers, spies, saboteurs and contract killers among its members. It also had a militia comprised of Kurdish tribes. Former criminals worked as volunteers for this organization. Talat Paşa created the main body of the Teşkilat-ı Mahsusa from gangs of former criminals whom he arranged to be released from prisons. In Anatolia, the Teşkilat-ı Mahsusa worked at the disposal of the 3rd Army.
Forced relocations of 1915-1916
The German-backed pan-Islamist policy implied a fatal solution for non-Muslims living within the borders of the empire. The conditions for the forced relocation campaign launched in 1915 were different from previous ones. The two-month campaign covered not only Armenians but also all Christians in eastern Anatolia. These relocations could not be considered a resettlement because the specified destinations were not inhabitable and only very few could make it there. Many people were immediately killed either inside or outside the settlements where they were born or living, and others were murdered on the roads on which they were forced to walk on foot.
Most of those who were immediately killed were men. Women and children formed the largest portion of the groups banished toward the southern deserts. There were continual attacks on these processions, accompanied by rapes of women and kidnappings of children. Provincial officials did not take any measures to provide the convoys with food, water and shelter. Rather, high-level officials and local politicians mobilized death squads against them. These squads would confiscate the goods of the relocated people, sending some of them to the Interior Ministry and embezzling the rest.
Eventually, the forced relocation campaign turned into a series of atrocities which even bothered the Germans. The ongoing campaign was never a population exchange. As noted by British social historian David Gaunt, the purpose of these forced relocation campaigns was to remove a specific population from a specific location. Because it was intended to be performed quickly, this added to the intimidation, violence and cruelty involved. As resettlement was not intended, neither the administration nor the army cared about where the deported population was going or whether they would survive physically. The high degree of the culture and civilization exhibited by Armenians made the atrocities against them all the worse in the eyes of the world. Talat Paşa mistakenly made his last conclusion: “There is no longer an Armenian problem.”
Conclusion and suggestions
The foregoing account cannot duly express what really happened in its scope, dimension and weight. These atrocities and massacres were not only regularly reported on in European and US newspapers, but were also evidenced in the official documents of Britain and the US and even Germany and Austria, which were allies of the Ottoman Empire, and in the minutes of the Ottoman Court Martial (Divan-ı Harbi), the descriptions of diplomats and missionaries, in commission reports and in the memoirs of those who survived them.
No justification, even the fact that some Armenian groups revolted with certain claims and collaborated with foreign countries, can be offered for this human tragedy. It is misleading to discuss what happened with reference to genocide, which is merely a legal and technical term. No technical term is vast enough to contain these incidents, which are therefore indescribable. Atrocities and massacres are incompatible with human values. It is more degrading to be regarded as a criminal in the collective conscience of humanity than to be tried on charges of genocide.
A regime that hinges upon concealing and denying the truth will make the state and the society sick and decadent. The politicians, academics, journalists, historians and clerical officials in Turkey should try to ensure that the society can face the truth. To face the truth is to become free. We can derive no honor or dignity from defending our ancestors who were responsible for these tragedies. It is not a humane or ethical stance to support and defend the actions of Abdülhamit II and senior CUP members and their affiliated groups, gangs and marauders. Turkey should declare to the world that it accepts said atrocities and massacres and that in connection with this, it advocates the highest human values of truth, justice and humanism while condemning the mentality and actions of those who committed them in the past.
After this is done, it should invite all Armenians living in the diaspora to become citizens of the Turkish Republic. As the Armenians of the diaspora return to the geography where their ancestors lived for thousands of years before being forced to abandon it, leaving behind their property, memories and past, this may serve to abate their sorrow, which has now translated into anger. The common border with Armenia should be opened without putting forward any condition. This is what conscience, humanity and reason direct us to do. Turkey will become free by getting rid of its fears, complexes and worries by soothing the sorrows of Armenians.
*Dr. Ümit Kardaş is a retired military judge.