The terror began on April 24, 104 years ago in Constantinople, the ancient city now known as Istanbul. By order of the military authorities, more than 250 prominent Armenian intellectuals and citizens' leaders were arrested and taken from the city – and from Ankara – to a prison in the interior of the country. There they were shot.
The genocide of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire had begun. This horror would have an incredibly lethal impact on 20th Century in Europe and is reverberated in 21st US policy.
* * *
The word "genocide" was not common in April 1915, but the first mass murder of the century, motivated by racial or religious hatred, was under way. The Armenians, Christians living in Muslim-dominated Turkey, fit into both categories. When the carnage ended, the Turks had killed 1.5 million Armenian men, women and children.
There was little opposition to armed resistance, since – and this was a cruel irony – most of the incompetent men accused of disloyalty wore uniforms and loyally engaged in Ottoman forces at the outbreak of the war I. No genocide ever makes Meaning, but here the perverse specter was shown that Armenian soldiers are pulled from the ranks and executed in forced labor camps or imprisoned. As this went on, their wives, sons, daughters, parents and siblings were attacked by organized vigilante groups who raped women, kidnapped children and indiscriminately put civilians in the sword.
In confronting the scale of the Nazi extermination camps after the end of World War II, Winston Churchill later said that the world had been confronted with "a crime without a name". However, the Polish Jew Raphael Lemkin, who survived the war, had a name, and "genocide" was codified over time as an international crime against humanity.
As early as 1895, the New York Times used another word now associated with genocide: "Another Armenian Holocaust," was a headline about a pogrom that took place 20 years before 1915. What happened in Turkey during the slaughter of the First World War, however, was that the power of an entire nation was used in such a cause. This was the first one. It would not be the last time.
It was a crime that was widely discussed in the American press and denounced by US officials and diplomats. Theodore Roosevelt called the assassination of the Armenians "the greatest crime of war".
These protests had no effect on Turkey, which at the time was not an ally of the United States. At the time, as now, the world view counted for only as much as the evil people had noticed. On the eve of the German invasion of Poland in 1939, Adolf Hitler invoked the fate of Armenia to dispel any concerns that his military had about the systematic war crimes that the Third Reich would inflict on the Poles – and the Jews, wherever they were found .
"Finally," Hitler said on August 22, 1939, "who today speaks of the annihilation of the Armenians?"
The answer to this question, which was repeated in recent decades in response to the shameful denials of the Turkish government, was that Americans are doing this. We remembered the Armenians. But Turkey is a NATO country and the last US president to use the "genocide" on the Holocaust in Armenia was Ronald Reagan. He did it only once, in his first year in office, before the State Department convinced him, since it had convinced every succeeding president, including Donald Trump, to bypass the term of office.