In 1915, the decaying Ottoman Empire launched a pogrom against eastern Turkey’s Armenian population, falsely accusing them of supporting a Russian invasion. Orthodox Christians who played a big entrepreneurial role, the Armenians had always been distrusted inside the Ottoman Empire. On the night of April 24th, over 250 Armenian academics and intellectuals were rounded up and executed — a beginning of a grotesque prosecution that left up to 1.5 million dead.
It was also one of the century’s first atrocities to be photographically covered; in addition to anonymous photographs, there are signed and documented photographs that supported eyewitness accounts. A German military officer Armin T. Wegner, stationed with the 6th Ottoman Army, took a series of photographs of dying and dead Armenians. When it was discovered that he was taking photos, the Turkish authorities sent him to work on cholera wards, hoping he would inevitably perish. He survived and left for Constantinople with photographic plates hidden in his clothes. Back in Germany, he sent an open letter to President Wilson appealing for an independent Armenian state.
His pictures were to hauntingly anticipate photographs that were to follow during the Second World War, in the Killing Fields of Cambodia, and the Rwandan Genocide. In fact, outside Turkey, it was considered to be a ‘genocide’ avant la lettre — the organized, state-sponsored killing of a people with an intended purpose of putting an end to their existence. Attempted annihilation of the Armenians was only the beginning of a long series of violence and mass murders that marred the ensuing century as ethnically, linguistically, and religious diverse empires withered away into smaller, more nationalistic states.
Soon, other ethnic groups inside the Ottoman Empire would also be threatened out of their homes too. On exodus of Greeks from Anatolia, the historian Niall Ferguson reflects, “What better symbol of the decline of the West than the brutal expulsion of the Hellenic civilization from Asia Minor, except possibly the abject failure of the heirs of the Athenian democracy to do anything to prevent it?” Indeed, international nonchalance over the Armenian genocide emboldened Hitler. In his August 1939, he asked rhetorically, “Who after all is today speaking of the destruction of the Armenians?” in a chilling harbinger to Holocaust of his own making. “The world believes only in success,” he added, justifying his potential invasion of Poland and all the horrors that calamitous event would unleash.