May 25

This Day in History

World War I

May 25, 1915:

Large-scale deportations of Armenians begin in Turkey

On this day in 1915, in the latest of a disturbing series of Turkish aggressions against Armenians during World War I, Mehmed Talat, the Ottoman minister of the interior, announces that all Armenians living near the battlefield zones in eastern Anatolia (under Ottoman rule) will be deported to Syria and Mosul. Large-scale deportations began five days later, after the decision was sanctioned by the Ottoman council of ministers.

As the oldest Christian state (Christianity was established as the state religion some 20 years before the founding of the Roman Empire), Armenia had a long and turbulent history with the Ottoman Empire, stretching back to the 11th century. For this reason, Armenia had welcomed a strong Russian presence in the Caucasus region; indeed, when Russia conquered the eastern part of Armenia, previously held by Iran, in 1828-29, many Armenians moved into that eastern region. In 1896, encouraged by Russia, Armenians living to the west, in eastern Anatolia, had rebelled against Turkish rule; they were met with a vicious response, including the massacre of an estimated 200,000 of their number. Despite expressing support for their Armenian neighbors in the face of Ottoman repression, Russia too exercised strict rule over the Armenians under their control, forbidding them to establish their own schools or speak their own language and deporting nationalist leaders to Siberia.

When World War I broke out in 1914, Armenia became a battlefield for Russian and Turkish armies. Meanwhile, with the rise to power of the so-called Young Turks in the years before the war, Armenia and its people became even more of an affront to the accompanying movements of militant Islam and pan-Turkism, which sought to liberate and unify all the diverse peoples of Turkish heritage and Islamic religion living across southern and eastern Europe, many under Christian rule. Some 150,000 Armenians who lived on the Russian side of the frontier enlisted in the czar's army during World War I, and all Armenians—inside and outside the Ottoman Empire—were seen as dangerous threats to the Turkish war effort. In the heat of battle, bitter at losses suffered at the hands of the Russians and desperate to squash the enemy within as well as without, the Turks determined to take action against Turkey's Armenian population.

In April 1915, with the Russian army steadily approaching, Armenian resistance in the Van province was quickly and brutally crushed. Talat's announcement of May 25, 1915—which he justified by saying the deportation was a military necessity required to preserve civil order—came the day after a note of international protest, prepared by Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Sazonov, claiming that the Armenian population of over 100 villages had been massacred. Clearly, Russia had a stake in exaggerating the numbers killed, and in implicating agents of the Ottoman government—which Sazonov did—but the events that followed lent weight to the note's claims. On May 27, the Ottoman council of ministers told the Turkish senior army command that if they encountered armed resistance or even opposition to the deportation from the local population they had the authorization and obligation to repress it immediately and to crush without mercy every attack and all resistance.

As the war continued, Turkish brutality towards Armenians only increased; that violence, in turn, provoked more of the insurrection it was designed to smash, and the bloody cycle continued. Meanwhile, famine and disease killed many more people, including some 75 percent of those deported to Asia Minor, as the Ottoman Empire was ill-equipped to supply and transport its own armies, let alone handle large-scale deportations. Many other Armenians fled the country, with some 200,000 to 300,000 escaping to Russia. International warnings to the Turkish government—including from the United States, where the New York Times carried headlines decrying Turkey's Policy of Extermination—went unheeded. As U.S. Secretary of State Robert Lansing wrote to President Woodrow Wilson, it is one of the blackest pages of the history of this war.

It is impossible to state exactly how many Armenians died in the Ottoman Empire during World War I, due in part to the uncertainty about how many were living there before the war. The number of dead—and the degree of intent and responsibility of the Turkish government—is disputed to this day: some calculations range from 1.3 million to about 2.1 million, and others are much lower. It seems, though, that estimates of one million are reasonable.

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