By Timothy George
June 27, 2016
“Who today still speaks of the massacre of the Armenians?”
—Adolf Hitler, August 22, 1939
The visit of Pope Francis to the Republic of Armenia, the first nation formally to adopt the Christian faith, has once again raised what is euphemistically called in Turkey “the Armenian matter.” This is all the more the case because last year, marking the one hundredth anniversary of the start of the Armenian genocide—the slaughter of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Turks in 1915—the pope dared to use the G-word. In response, Turkey recalled its ambassador from the Vatican (only to reinstate him this past February) and warned the Holy Father “not to make similar mistakes again.”
Undeterred by this snafu, on his current mission to Armenia the pope once again showed moral courage by referring to the Armenian genocide. But in fact, Pope Francis did not break new ground in this statement. He was simply following in the steps of his predecessor, Pope St. John Paul II, who described the slaughter of the Armenians, in words that Francis quoted, as “the first genocide of the twentieth century.” That comment was made in 2001, when John Paul made his own pilgrimage to Armenia to commemorate the 1700th anniversary of the embrace of Christianity in that country.
By 1915, the Ottoman Empire was in terminal decline from the apogee of its power under Suleiman the Magnificent in the sixteenth century. During the Reformation, the Ottoman armies invaded Europe, advancing to the gates of Vienna in 1529, but for some four hundred years one loss after another had left the vast empire bereft of its former glory. Now, having chosen to fight on the losing side of the conflict that was coming to be called the Great War, “the sick man of Europe” (a term for the Ottomans given currency by Nicholas I of Russia) felt besieged on every side. In this context, the Armenian Christians were accused of subterfuge and collusion with the enemy. A Turkish version of the “stab in the back” theory was used as a pretext for open violence against them.
The Armenians, along with other indigenous Christian peoples, had long served as scapegoats for Turkish disasters. For example, during the 1890s, the Hitler-like Abdul Hamid II, the “bloody Sultan,” presided over the murder of some 200,000 Armenians. There were other pogroms, including the massacre at Adana in 1909. However, what is called the Armenian genocide proper began on April 24, 1915 with the assault on several hundred Armenian intellectuals in Constantinople. In subsequent months, this attack was accelerated by the deportation, abduction, execution, starvation, and mass murder of the Armenian people throughout the empire. The Turkish train network, recently developed with the help of skilled German engineers, was used to transport displaced persons. There were also forced marches, killing units, and ethnic cleansing—prefigurements of even greater horrors to come later in the century. Yale historian Jay Winter has said that “the Armenian massacres were a critical event in the history of twentieth-century warfare. The massacre of the Armenians was not the same as, but constituted a step on the way to, the industrialized murder of European Jewry by the Nazis.” Read the rest at First Things.