“Oh, Khatcher agha, the killers have come.” Those words were spoken to my grandfather, Khatcher Matosian, with a tap on the back so that he would redirect his gaze. He and relatives had been peering from the rooftops of their Armenian village in central Turkey after hearing about the Ottoman government’s orders to deport Armenians from neighboring villages.
The scene from that summer of 1915 continues in my grandfather’s memoirs:
“I looked and saw that a group of horsemen had turned from the Yenije road and were coming south toward us . . . The horses were black, and the police were dressed in black, moving in a column of twos, moving slowly. It seemed as though they were pulling a hearse . . .The call to agony had been sounded.”
Before sunrise, all Armenians in my grandfather’s village were assembled in a chaotic, mournful caravan and driven out of their ancestral homes forever.
It was but one event in the first genocide of the 20th century, which took place exactly one hundred years ago. By the time it was all over, up to 1.5 million unarmed Armenian children, women, and men perished from wholesale massacres and death marches of unspeakable barbarity. And 25 years later, Adolf Hitler was on record commenting on the ease with which people forget about mass murder: “Who, after all, speaks today about the annihilation of the Armenians?”
Why? And How?
Mass exterminations generally involve two prerequisites: 1) a mandated program by a centralized state power, and 2) a well-coordinated, aggressive propaganda campaign that enlists public support in vilifying the targeted group. It’s also worth noting that war often serves as cover for genocide; the Armenian Genocide took place during the total war conditions of World War I.
Propaganda campaigns to dehumanize the victims are central to virtually every mass killing in history. Generally, the targeted group -- in this case, Armenian Christians -- is vilified and ostracized by the rest of society. Such messages saturate the media and mobilize the culture until the groupthink emerges and takes on a life of its own. Opposing opinions are easily suppressed under the weight of groupthink.
Once they’ve cultivated an us-versus-them mentality, perpetrators feel justified and enabled to commit acts of violence. This seems to be a human default position to which most people succumb – whether as culprits, victims, or silent bystanders.
Perhaps most fascinating about this phenomenon is how often the perpetrators actually project onto the victims their own intentions. Consider that the Jews in Nazi Germany were exterminated for being a “threat” to the German nation. Likewise, the genocide of up to a million Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994 was accompanied by a massive propaganda campaign in which the Hutus totally demonized the Tutsis, for having wild designs against the Hutus.
Pre-homicidal propaganda campaigns don’t always center on ethnicity or religion. They can be about anything else in identity politics, including class status. In the 1930s, for example, communist dictator Joseph Stalin forced the collectivization of agriculture in the Soviet Union by systematically killing and starving millions of industrious peasants -- the “kulak” class – who were labeled “enemies of the people.”
Ottoman Propaganda Against the Armenians
This basic propaganda model -- demonizing a targeted group in order to undermine any support for it -- was used to sow great distrust of Armenians among their Turkish neighbors and all others of Ottoman society. The Ottoman government considered Armenians a suspect people “in league with the enemy,” in part because there were some Armenians nationalists in the eastern provinces bordering the Russian Empire, as well as Armenians communities established across that border. Thus, as the Ottoman Empire was collapsing, Armenians became easy scapegoats. Ottoman Minister of War Enver Pasha, Minister of the Interior Talaat Pasha, and Minister of the Navy Jemal Pasha – the infamous “three pashas” – are considered most responsible for laying out and executing the plan to have every Armenian in the Empire disarmed and exterminated. But a propaganda campaign was first necessary to demonize the Armenians and neutralize any support for them.