Shot, starved and died of thirst: Up to 1.5 million people, mostly of Armenian descent, were killed by the Ottoman Young Turks between 1915 and 1918. This campaign of extermination against non-Muslim populations of the Ottoman Empire remains to this day a brand of the long-suffering collective memory of Christian Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians & Arameans and non-Christian Yazidis. In recent years, political pressure has intensified for a neutral and accurate historical reappraisal of the events of the First World War. But one question in particular concerns the Yazidi community from the Caucasus states of Armenia and Georgia: the complicity of Sunni Kurdish groups that took part in the persecutions and dispossessions. This uncomfortable question is asked by eager researchers and the descendants of Yazidi survivors of the genocide. This questioning or even questioning of a Kurdish innocence triggers controversy among many Kurdish nationalists on various occasions. The following remarks focus on the problem in this conflict relationship: the Kurdish attitude towards the general division of historical territories and ownership claims based on a twisted nationalism. However, in order to prevent possible misinterpretations and misunderstandings that may arise from an isolated consideration of the listing of the deeds, it should be noted in advance that even today in the 21st century, the denial of the Armenian genocide is primarily fueled from the Turkish side.

by Sarkis Agojan and B. Alptekin

Before we thematically approach the events before and during the genocide, we will take an abbreviated look back at the eventful history of this region and the territories of former Armenia. The name for the country “Armenia” can already be found in the trilingual Behistun inscription of King Darius in 521 BC: a confirmation of the millennia-long settlement of these territories by Armenians. In ancient times, the controversially defined territories of “Greater Armenia” reached their widest extent. Settlement by Armenians encompassed a triangular empire from the fringes of Cilicia, located on the Mediterranean Sea, to north of the Black Sea and extended east to the Caspian Sea.

In 301 A.D., the previously pagan Armenians became the first collective in world history to establish Christianity as the state religion; faith in Jesus remains the identity-forming and most defining element of the Armenian people to this day. They continued to dominate their ancestral lands for many more centuries before larger powers disputed their political and social domination. From the 16th century onward, Armenia was divided into a Western Armenia dominated by the Ottomans and an Eastern Armenia dominated by the Persians. The division of Armenian settlement areas as well as direct and indirect assimilation and Islamization – resulting from the Muslim foreign rule – considerably reduced the number of Armenians. The growing nationalism of Turkish, Kurdish and Armenian groups exacerbated the already very tense environment along ethnic and religious lines.

The torn relationship between the Ottoman Empire’s population groups reached its final climax in 1894. Non-Muslim minorities refused to pay the very high tax levies; these taxes were collected in the Armenian areas by local Kurds, sometimes by force. The Ottoman central government relied on local Kurdish landlords loyal to the government to collect the taxes. As a result of protests against the very high demands, there were numerous pogroms by Turkish Kurdish groups against the Armenian population. Armenian activists of the Hunchak party tried to repel an incursion by Kurdish militants into Sason in 1894. Although there were deeper armed clashes, there was no uprising on the part of the Armenians. Nevertheless, this event was reason enough for the Young Turk military and the Hamidiye regiment, which was commonly provided by Kurds. With a total of about 3000 men, Young Turk troops, together with a cavalry unit of the Hamidiye, attacked with full force in Sason. The troop strength of the cavalry unit totaled several tens of thousands of men. Between 900 and 4000 Armenians were killed in this attack (cf. Yerasimos, Azgelişmişlik Sürecinde, pp.554f.) and 32 of the 40 Armenian villages were destroyed (cf. Hofmann, Approaching Armenia, pp. 85f.). Therefore, in 1895, the states of Great Britain, France and Russia demanded reforms (see figure), which were proposed to the Sultan. In this document, the reforms concerned the Armenian provinces, also known as the six vilâyets: Erzeroum, Van, Bitlis, Diarbekir, Mamouret- ul Aziz and Sivas.

Even though Armenians no longer constituted a majority of the population in the above-mentioned provinces as of the 20th century (with the exception of Bitlis, Van and Erzurum), which was, however, disputed by the Armenian Patriachate of Constantinople in 1912, (cf. Bryce, The Treatment of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire), the designation of the Vilâyets as “Armenian” nevertheless remained.

In the above-mentioned reform of 1895, the resolutions are divided into chapters and articles, which are explained in more detail in a so-called “Note Verbale” (“oral note”). However, the chapter “Committee for Prisons and Preliminary Investigations” is particularly relevant to highlight, in which instructions for the general administration of these provinces are listed. Thus, it begins with Chapter XI, which is summarized as “Kurdish Control.”

Further, Article 27 of this chapter states that the “places of migration of the Kurds are determined in advance”, who during their migration to these provinces enjoyed special protection by “an officer with sufficient armament and gendarmerie” in each case, in order to protect them from attacks on the part of native “Ashirets” (tribes), in addition they were also guaranteed the carrying of weapons per reform.

Chapter XII prohibits the Hamidiye regiments from using weapons outside of training hours. However, despite the Sultan’s approval of this reform, this was not adhered to until the conflict escalated due to, among other things, the migration of Kurdish tribes. As a result, the Hunchak party organized a demonstration in Constantinople on September 30, 1895. During the protests, 20 demonstrators were shot dead by police, while counter-demonstrators slew the fleeing Armenians.

In the pogroms of 1894 to 1896, 80,000-300,000 Armenians were killed. Tens of thousands were left homeless and died of hunger and cold in the winter months that followed. By 1908, the freedom of movement of Armenians was then significantly restricted. Today’s Turkish Republic views the Armenian attacks as a threat to the Ottoman authority administration, thereby legitimizing the 1915 genocide to this day. The events of World War I are the culmination of this centuries-long oppression, which was advanced with the participation of Kurdish Muslim vassals and concurrent neighbors.

Photo by Maria Jacobsen: Armenians are led by Ottoman soldiers from Kharpert (Turkish Harput) to a prison camp in nearby Mezireh (Turkish Elazig) for execution in April 1915.

105 years ago, the Young Turk leadership ordered the arrest and execution of Armenian intellectuals. It was the prelude to an existence-destroying operation that was unparalleled in its scale and scope up to that point. Following the arrest and execution of the Armenian elite throughout the Ottoman Empire, Armenian soldiers of the Ottoman forces were disarmed and executed as well. During the warring years, Armenians were rounded up, disenfranchised and dispossessed throughout the Ottoman dominions. They lost their homes, their possessions, and were deported in groups, primarily across the Syrian desert. Through hunger and thirst, through debilitation and marginalization, hundreds of thousands of Armenians were driven to their deaths. In the eastern provinces of Anatolia, Sunni Kurdish tribes and tribal leaders in particular participated in the genocide. They enriched themselves in terms of power politics and appropriated the properties of the Armenians.

The Armenians are portrayed as the main victim of this campaign of extermination and population exchange, but other minorities such as the Pontos Greeks, Rum Greeks, Assyrians and Arameans suffered to the same extent. An often forgotten minority here are the Yazidis, especially those of the Serhed region, east and northeast of Lake Van, who were totally pulverized between the fronts. It is true that the Yazidi population succeeded in building up an armed force through internal tribal organization and thus countered the Ottoman-Kurdish alliance. However, in the face of this superior force, the resistance only served to evacuate entire Yazidi villages in order to bring women and children to safety in the direction of the Russian Empire. The extermination campaign took on such devastating proportions that in the Serhed region, which was home to those same Western Armenians and Yazidis, neither Armenians nor Yazidis remain today. For those who could not join the flight and were not murdered perished in assimilation into Islam or Kurdization and Turkization.

Although, according to European, Armenian and Yazidi eyewitnesses and reports, the Kurds bear the brunt in the execution of the Ottoman order of genocide in the eastern provinces of Anatolia, nationalist circles of the Kurds vehemently reject participation, which brings up associations with the reaction of the Turkish state to this issue . So we know also from the bad memory of a great-grandfather of an author of this article about the religious-fanatical aggressiveness of the Muslim Kurds, who hunted the Yazidis at that time with the statement “who kills seven Yazidis, comes without detours into the paradise”. But a peaceful future, a future of togetherness, especially for the Middle East, is only possible with ongoing historical reappraisal and dialogue. Therefore, every voice of prudence, reason and goodwill is needed to bring these events to light and to come to terms with them.

The cover image by Yazidi artist Sedat Özgens was a contribution to the graphic novel Operation Nemesis, published in the U.S. in 2015, on the killing of war criminal and one of the main perpetrators of the genocide Talât Pasha. The survivor of the genocide, Soghomon Tehlirian, killed the latter in Berlin. In court, the Armenian defended his act as follows, “… I killed a man and yet I am not a murderer.” He was acquitted.


Drawing: Sedat Oezgen

Source list:

Robert Rollinger: The Median Empire, the End of Urartu and Cyrus the Great Campaigne 547 v. Chr. in Nabonaid Chronicle II 16. In: Proceedings of the 1st International Conference on Ancient Cultural Relations between Iran and West-Asia, Teheran 2004, S. 9–12.

Taner Akçam: A Shameful Act. The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility, New York: Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Company 2006

Alan Palmer: Verfall und Untergang des Osmanischen Reiches. Heyne, München 1994

Kamuran Gürün: türkisch Ermeni Dosyası. 3. Auflage, Ankara 1985, S. 227.

Tessa Hofmann: Annäherung an Armenien. Geschichte und Gegenwart. München: Beck, 1997, S. 85f.

Réformes pour les provinces arméniennes – Copie de l’ordre grand-viziriel adressé aux provinces d’Erzeroum, Van, Bitlis, Diarbékir, Mamouret-ul-Aziz et Sivas, ainsi qu’au commissaire, S. Exc. Chakir Pacha (