Genocide and the First World War

We are all familiar today with the term genocide, and we’ve all seen evidence of it from World War II and the Nazis.   Sadly, other genocides have since followed, in the Balkans and Africa (think Rwanda).  But the first incident of genocide in the 20th century goes back to the First World War, in Turkey.

The Ottoman Empire (from which Turkey was created) was a huge entity that nominally controlled an area from the Balkans in southeastern Europe to the Suez Canal and eastward along the Black Sea to Afghanistan and Persia (today’s Iran). I use the modifier “nominally” because the Ottomans allowed some areas more self-governance than others, and some groups — such as the tribes in the Arabian Peninsula – paid little attention to the Ottoman laws or policies that supposedly governed them.   When World War I began, the Ottoman government refused to take sides; it was only when the Germans offered them various inducements – such as territory and subsidies to upgrade their infrastructure – that the Ottomans actively entered the war on the side of the Central Powers.

But the Ottoman Empire was already crumbling, and for years had battled dissent from within.   At various times, Ottoman troops had been sent to quell uprisings by the Arabian tribes, the Kurds, and various other groups.   While the official religion of the Ottoman Empire was Islam,  other religions were widely practiced, including Judaism in Palestine and Christianity.

One group of Christians had been problematic for decades:  Christian Armenians.  Armenia was a loosely defined region in the eastern part of Asia Minor, along the southern coast of the Black Sea.   This group had practiced Christianity long before the Ottoman Empire had emerged in the 17th century.  While some Armenians were farmers, many others had entered the professions or the trades, and Christian Armenian enclaves could be found in every city in the Ottoman Empire. Armenians had their own hospitals, law firms, publishing houses, and newspapers.

By the late 19th century, Ottoman leaders were convinced that these Christian Armenians posed a threat to their power, and they launched a series of pogroms called the Hamidian Massacres in 1894.  Thousands of Armenians were brutally massacred in their homes or on the streets.  By 1896, when the massacres ended, thousands of other Armenians had fled the Ottoman Empire;  some settled in the Balkans or Russia, but many emigrated to Western Europe, Canada, and the United States.    One of those refugees was the grandfather of actor/screenwriter/historian Eric Bogosian;  another was a young man named Aaron Sachaklian, who settled with his parents in Connecticut.   Hundreds of Armenians found their way to Binghamton, New York to work in the shoe factories there;  one family, named Panosian, settled in Elmira, New York, where they opened a shoe store.   Several families migrated to Syracuse, New York and found work at Syracuse China or opened small businesses.

But when the Ottoman leaders decided to enter the Great War in 1915, various dissidents voiced their opposition to involvement in that conflagration. While opposition came from a range of groups, Ottoman politicians such as Talaat Pasha decided to use the war as an excuse to ride the empire of its most organized – and educated – opponents – the Christian Armenians.  Talaat Pasha and his cronies also gambled that in the chaos of war, the world wouldn’t notice that one particular group had been deliberately eliminated.   So he drew up detailed plans for the military, and in the summer of 1915,  the genocide began.  Entire villages and towns were emptied of their residents, who then were forced to walk hundreds of miles south into the desert of northern Syria.  Along the way, Ottoman troops raped, crucified, tortured, and butchered hundreds of  thousands of Armenians.

Armenian genocide Talaat Pasha
Talaat Pasha

But the Ottoman politicians’ gamble failed – the world did notice.  Although the Ottoman government had shut down Armenian newspapers, there was a strong underground network that distributed information and even eyewitness accounts from the few survivors of the genocide.    By 1918, a group of operatives called the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) had supporters throughout Europe and North America.

Armenian genocide Syracuse newspaper article

The Ottoman Empire collapsed in 1918;  many of the leaders fled into hiding, particularly after the League of Nations sponsored war crimes trials that convicted Talaat Pasha and others of crimes against humanity.   But the League had no authority to carry out its verdicts, and by 1921, Ottoman exiles were coming out of obscurity.

But in 1921 the ARF  set into motion its own plan to avenge the genocide:  Operation Nemesis.   While the men who would actually assassinate the Ottoman criminals were young men in Europe,  the planners of the assassinations were mostly living in the U.S.  One of those was Aaron Sachaklian, who had earned an accounting degree and moved to Syracuse, New York in 1919.  He was hired by a prominent accounting firm, got married, and had three children;  on the surface, he appeared to be a well-assimilated immigrant, a model citizen and pillar of the community.  but for Operation Nemesis, he was the money man.   Stalking and then killing Ottoman politicians would be expensive, then hiring lawyers and funding the defenses of the accused assassins would also require money.   But Sachaklian and others knew they could rely on the Armenian immigrant communities, many of whom had fled the 1890s massacres, to provide the funds.    And they did.

Armenian genocide Aaron Sachaklian
Aaron Sachaklian

Talaat Pasha was gunned down on a Berlin street in 1921;  his killer, whose mother and sisters had been slain in the genocide, was acquitted of the murder, largely because his defense team drew on the sympathy of the public.   The assassin of one of Talaat Pasha’s associates was also acquitted in Italy the following year.   But for Sachaklian and the other planners of Operation Nemesis, the jury verdicts were less important to them than the opportunity to tell the world, during the trials, of what the Ottoman government had done to its own citizens.

Armenian genocide assassin of Talaat Pasha
Talaat Pasha’s Assassin

Sadly, though, by the 1930s, much of the world had forgotten about the Armenian genocide.  Turkey had emerged as a new, modern, supposedly tolerant, nation in the 1920s under the leadership of the charismatic Ataturk (who had never been directly linked to the genocide).   Many people chalked up the massacre of approximately 1.5 million Armenian Christians to the horrors of war.

But Adolf Hitler  studied the Armenian genocide closely when he was serving his brief prison term for leading a revolt in Munich in 1923, and he came to the conclusion that, if properly organized, a government could erase the existence of a minority group.   By the late 1920s, he had recruited a number of ex-military officers, some of whom had actually witnessed the genocide, who shared his conclusion.  The Ottomans had made mistakes that they would strive to avoid.

Aaron Sachaklian, the Syracuse CPA, never talked about his role in Operation Nemesis.  He continued to be a leader in the Armenian community, but he concentrated on his job and his family;  he and his wife sent all three of their children, including both of their daughters, to Syracuse University.  He died in 1964;  25 years later, when his wife died, his daughters discovered boxes of correspondence hidden away in the family home.  Based on the documents found there,  Aaron’s granddaughter, Marian Mesrobian MacCarthy, wrote Sacred Justice: The Voices and Legacy of the Armenian Operation Nemesis.    In that book, she detailed the impact that the genocide had on the Armenian immigrant communities in the U.S. along with the role her grandfather had played in avenging the terrible wrongs inflicted by the Ottomans to the Armenians.

Eric Bogosian, who grew up near Boston, had only heard about the Armenian genocide from the whispers of his grandparents and their friends, but as he grew older, he began to do more research into the genocide and Operation Nemesis.  In 2015, he published Operation Nemesis, a gripping account of the massacres and responses.

Both books are well-worth reading, and remind us of the importance of studying history in order to avoid future tragedies such as the Armenian genocide.



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