The Armenian massacre by the Turks: evil is real...

Error message

(Note from TB: This post is by longtime contributor, Rev. David Wegener.)

Evil is real. It is in our hearts and families, our churches and synagogues, our city councils and state houses the world over. We’d like to pretend it doesn’t exist, but it still appears in all its horror from time to time, in ways we cannot ignore. Our attention is drawn to it when we read about …

  • Auschwitz, Dachau, and Treblinka, concentration camps where Jews were exterminated.
  • Josef Stalin or Idi Amin or Pol Pot and their murderous reigns of terror.
  • Genocide in Rwanda and Burundi and Bosnia in the 1990s.
  • American dumpsters filled with unborn babies, killed just prior to their due date.
  • The Chinese government’s one-child per family policy.
  • ISIS and the atrocities they commit against Christians in Iraq and Syria.

This year, I read a book about evil. Peter Balakian, an Armenian-American historian, has written about the genocide committed by the Turks against the Armenians prior to, during and after World War I in The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America's Response. 24 April 2015 marked the 100th anniversary of the massacre. On that date in 1915, the Turks killed hundreds of Armenian leaders (poets and writers and priests and politicians and teachers).  

Sadly, talking about this massacre is difficult today since the Turkish government will still not admit that the massacres occurred...

  • Sometimes the Turks say that the Armenians died of starvation, not from murder.
  • Sometimes they say that the massacres did occur, but they were only in response to Armenian uprisings and rebellion.
  • Sometimes they admit that the massacres occurred but that the Turkish government played no role in them.

But, these are all lies. Historical scholarship, like that represented by Balakian’s book (and not from his work alone), shows clearly that …  

(1) the massacres did occur; (2) they were not in response to any rebellions by the Armenians; (3) the massacres were carried out as part of government policy; (4) the Armenians were targeted because of their status as an ethnic minority and their Christianity; (5) it is appropriate to use the word, “genocide,” when talking about the actions of the Turkish government.

If you affirm any of the facts above, and if your voice matters at all, the Turkish government will oppose you and do everything they can to silence you.

There are not two sides to this question. To say that there are dignifies the denials of the Turkish government and pretends that there is some kind of scholarly debate on this question. There is no such thing. Present day Turkish denials are not a reinterpretation of history, but “the final stage of the genocide … an attempt to demonize the victims and rehabilitate the perpetrators” (p.xix). The massacres were clustered around three different time periods: 1894-96, 1908-09 and 1914-16.

In the later 1800s, the problem of Christian minorities and their treatment in the Ottoman Empire was very significant. The Ottoman leader, Sultan Abdul Hamid II, agreed to reforms under pressure from the three great powers of the day: Britain, France, and Russia. The reforms stated that minorities within his Empire would be treated as equals with the Muslim majority. However, although the Sultan agreed to this on paper, the reforms were never implemented.

In 1890, he created a paramilitary order (made up of Kurds) and gave them the task of dealing with the Armenians “as they saw fit.” The Armenians were over-taxed having to pay the Ottoman Turks and the Kurds and this provoked them and then the Kurds carried out the massacres. Somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000 were killed from 1894-96. In response, the American Congress passed a resolution condemning the sultan for the massacres. There was never any question as to who was really behind the massacres. Interestingly, the Kurds have admitted their complicity in these massacres (known as the Hamidian massacres).

In 1908, several groups were formed to oppose the rule of Sultan Abdul Hamid II. They were called the Young Turks (that’s where we get the expression). After the Sultan stepped down, in the back and forth of internal Turkish politics, anger and resentment was turned against the Armenians in the city of Adana (and surrounding villages).

Around 25,000 Armenians were killed in 1909, while government officials did nothing, though they knew exactly what government soldiers were doing in slaughtering a people group. The British Vice-Consul tried to do everything in his power to stop the massacres, to no avail. So did a few American Protestant missionaries (two of whom were killed for their efforts) and several Jesuits.

An alliance was made between Germany and the Turks before WWI. The leading Sunni Muslim cleric declared a jihad against Christians, except for those of German background, and this fanned “the flames of Turkish nationalism” (p.170). Only Muslims would have a place in the new Turkey, and this meant the Armenian question had to be solved, once and for all. How did the massacres proceed?

  • When the Turks lost a battle to Russia (in the winter of 1914-15), they used the Armenians as a scapegoat. Thousands of Armenian men in the army were separated into labor groups, and then taken out into rural areas and killed.
  • The Turks ordered all Armenians to give up their guns. Houses were searched for weapons and this was used as an excuse to kill even more Armenians.
  • The government’s Central Committee set up the “Special organization” to massacre Armenians. They freed and deployed tens of thousands of criminals to do the killing.
  • This afforded the government with a ready excuse. They could tell the world that “brigands” had gotten out of control in the turmoil of war and committed these horrors.
  • Between 800,000 and 1,000,000 Armenians died in 1915.
  • In that year, “the New York Times published 145 articles on the Armenian massacres” (p.xix) and detailed the government complicity in the genocide.
  • Many Armenians were arrested and sent on deportation marches. Those who survived the marches were put in concentration camps in the Syrian desert. Around 200,000 deaths occurred in these camps in 1916.

A number of Armenians had become wealthy. A form of the “Protestant work ethic” had taken root amongst them and this caused resentment on the part of their Turkish and Kurdish neighbors. Their homes and stores were looted when they were sent away on these forced marches. Churches were ransacked, priests beaten, and altars were desecrated. Some of the Turks descended on the departing Armenians to purchase their clothes and furniture and jewelry for a pittance, rejoicing in the tragedy of their neighbors. Other Turks were horrified and would not touch the loot, believing it was forbidden and would bring a curse.

“Nearly all the merchants, bankers, doctors, dentists, lawyers, teachers, carpenters, brick-layers, tile-makers, tinsmiths, bakers, tailors, shoe-makers, and other artisans so essential to the life of the people were Armenians … By one stroke … the country was to be set back a century” (p.236). The famine that came in 1916 was entirely predictable.

The methods of torture were chosen to cause the greatest possible suffering and despair, showing man’s inhumanity to man. The records of the Spanish Inquisition were consulted to find “new” methods of torture, and some of these were adopted.

  • Some Armenians were asphyxiated in a “poor man’s gas chambers.”
  • Wives and daughters were raped in front of husbands and fathers.
  • Young girls were forced into slavery or to join Islamic harems.
  • Some children were dashed against the rocks in front of their mothers.
  • Others had their flesh ripped off and knee tendons severed.
  • Dead female bodies were mutilated in degrading ways with bayonets.
  • Some had to pay first-class train fares to ride in cattle cars to be taken to their deaths.
  • Thousands were drown in the Black Sea or thrown into rivers or lakes.
  • Some were hung. Others were crucified. Some were pushed off cliffs.
  • Knives and pitchforks were used to kill in order to save bullets.
  • Throats were slit. Heads were split open.
  • Eyes were dug out of sockets.  
  • Arms, legs and genitals were ripped away.
  • Fingernails and toenails were pulled out.
  • Many died of dysentery or typhus.
  • Soles of feet were beaten with a thin rod, causing the feet to swell and burst.
  • Red-hot irons were applied to the skin and then boiled butter was poured into the wounds.
  • Bottoms of their feet were sliced and then salt was poured into the wounds.
  • Turks rode horseback and tried to toss young girls onto bayonets anchored in the ground.
  • Cats were used to claw and bite prisoners.
  • Horseshoes were nailed to bare feet.
  • Those hung upside down in an outhouse had their heads lowered into the filth.
  • Women, children and the elderly were herded into barns that were set on fire.

It is hard to read this material and not come away with a hatred for the Turkish people. My father grew up in a church where there were a number of families who suffered at the hands of the Turks. The Turks were the only people about whom I ever heard him speak nothing but evil. Now I understand why.

As it always is, these horrors caused some to fight for the oppressed and others to betray them. America had a mixed record in how they have dealt with the Genocide.

  • Americans donated tens of millions of dollars to help the Armenians.
  • Clara Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross, traveled to Constantinople to provide relief in the wake of the Hamidian massacres.
  • Missionaries alerted the world as to what was going on and helped in numerous ways.
  • They wrote memoirs recording the massacres for posterity.
  • They begged the Turks to be allowed to accompany the Armenians on forced marches to care for the children, only to be told that everyone would be “taken good care of.”
  • Yet, some missionaries changed their tune during and after WWI, in order to be allowed by the government to continue to minister in Turkey and to protect their colleges (in which they taught Christianity) which had an estimated worth of $123 million.
  • One emissary sent to the Sultan on behalf of American missionaries left Turkey having made a deal with the Sultan for oil.
  • Leslie Davis, the head of the American consulate in Harput, saved scores of Armenians, hiding many in the large American consulate in that city. In the evenings, they could hear the Turks outside the consulate praying to Allah to bless their efforts for that night of killing Armenians.
  • Davis went on secret trips to see the dead in the interior of the country (especially around Lake Goeljük) and wrote dispatch after dispatch to the American Ambassador.
  • Jesse Jackson, the American Consul in Aleppo, informed his ambassador of the atrocities committed against those who survived the forced marches to Syria.
  • Armin T. Wegner, a German nurse and second lieutenant, disobeyed orders and took pictures of Armenian refugee camps and smuggled them out of Turkey (at great personal risk).
  • Henry Morganthau, the American ambassador, did all that he could to stop the madness.
  • On one occasion, the Turkish minister of the Interior informed him that many Armenians had life insurance policies with New York insurance companies. Since the Armenians had no heirs, could the Turkish state collect the money from these policies?

Yet politics intervened and President Wilson, who was very sympathetic to the Armenian cause, failed to take any action on their behalf and no one would hold the Turks to account. Since then, the historical record comes down decidedly on the side of American cowardice. Here are a few snippets of that record.

  • In 1935, the U.S. Department of State got MGM to drop a film project (The Forty Days of Musa Dagh) about Armenian resistance to the Turks. Turkey threatened the U.S. that they would regard the release of this film as a hostile act.
  • Bernard Lewis of Princeton University, one of the foremost experts on the Middle East, wrote about the terrible holocaust of the Armenian slaughter in his 1962 book, The Emergence of Modern Turkey. But, for some reason, afterwards, he changed his tune.
  • His colleague at Princeton, Norman Itzkowitz, wrote of the “alleged genocide of the Armenians.”
  • A historian from UCLA (and his Turkish wife) wrote on modern Turkey in 1970 and reduced the genocide to a “nonevent” (p.382).
  • Princeton allowed Heath Lowry to be appointed to the Ataturk Chair in Turkish Studies (although his scholarly qualifications to hold such a chair were dubious). He had made his career denying the genocide and urging others to follow suit. The Turkish government and Ahmet Ertegun, rock music mogul, funded the chair.

Recent American presidents and senators and representatives have played a largely cowardly role in kowtowing to the Turkish government.

  • In 1978, Jimmy Carter studiously avoided using the words, “genocide” or “Turkey” when speaking to Armenian-Americans at a White House reception.
  • While Ronald Reagan did mention the Armenian genocide, he refused to support any official recognition.
  • Senator Bob Dole introduced a bill commemorating the 75th anniversary of the genocide, but the Turkish government enlisted Robert Byrd to fight against it and the bill was not passed.
  • George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton were like Carter. They couldn’t quite pull the trigger.
  • In the year 2000, Congress proposed the Armenian Genocide resolution, and this caused the Turkish government to go into overdrive to oppose the measure. They warned the U.S. that if H.R. 398 was passed, Turkey would close their air bases to America. They also said they could not guarantee the safety of American citizens living in Turkey. Sadly, President Clinton put in a call to the Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert, and asked him to withdraw the bill (which Hastert did, with reluctance).
  • President Obama broke his promise made to the Armenian-American community to call the massacres a genocide while he was president.

Lots more details could be given but let me bring this post to a close. How should we respond to this kind of evil? When we think about the suffering of our fellow human beings, many of whom were our brothers and sisters in Christ, we can begin to question the goodness and even the reality of God. However, certain passages of Scripture speak into our despair. The second Psalm is one of them.

Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his anointed, saying, ‘let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us’ (verses 1-3).

This is indeed what happened in the Armenian genocide. Is it by mere chance that the Turks who committed the genocide were Muslims and that most of their victims were Christians? There seemed to have been an irrational hatred of the Armenians by the Sultan and the young Turks and so they took counsel together to wipe out the nation’s Christian minority. They can’t justify their actions by saying they did what was best for the nation. Indeed, it set Turkey back decades because of the key roles the Armenians played in Turkish society. As you study history (and your own heart), you will find that evil often has this irrational character to it.

But what about the Lord’s response? Did He not hear the cries of His people as they were tortured and killed? Of course he did.

He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision (verse 4).

The Lord heard the cries of His people and knew them. And He holds the perpetrators of the evil in derision. He scorns and hates the Turks, just as He does the jihadis of ISIS today. And it is no contradiction to say that He also loved the Turks and loves the jihadis of today, and yearns for them to repent and forsake their evil. For Him to exhibit hatred and compassion (and patience!) toward the same persons is hard to understand but God is infinitely complex.

Yes, you might say, this is fine, but … what about the present situation of God’s people? Is God unconcerned about His people, His church, the body of His Son? It can seem so, but that is not the case.

He has sent His Son to punish evil and redeem His church. At His first coming, He came to save. At His second, He will come for judgment. The nations will be His “heritage,” His “possession” (verse 8). He will pour out His wrath on those who have persecuted His people. We see some evidence of His wrath even now, but one day He will “break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel” (verse 9). That will be a terrible day for the unrepentant, but it is a day to which believers look forward. As C.S. Lewis once wrote in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight,
At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more,
When he bares his teeth, winter meets its death
And when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again.

The conclusion of this Psalm (verses 10-12) shows that it is meant to terrify and warn the rulers of the earth who might do harm to the people of God. They will not escape, whatever it might seem like at the present. And it is written to all of us, that we might take refuge in His Son lest God direct His anger toward us and we perish.

Tim Bayly

Tim serves Clearnote Church, Bloomington, Indiana. He and Mary Lee have five children and big lots of grandchildren.

Want to get in touch? Send Tim an email!