Whatever may be said about the U.S. House of Representatives committee vote concerning the use of the term “genocide” in reference to Turkey’s atrocities against the Armenians during World War I, two facts are indisputable: It was gun confiscation that made the atrocities possible. And it was the possession of firearms that saved many Armenians.
Under the Ottoman Empire, Armenians, who are mostly Christian, had not been allowed to own firearms. This was standard practice for Christians and Jews throughout the Empire, under sharia law for the “Dhimmi” — Christians and Jews (and sometimes other faiths) who were allowed to retain their religion, provided that they lived in subordination.
One feature of dhimmitude is a ban on the possession of any weapons, and a prohibition from striking a Muslim, even in an act of self-defense. Unsurprisingly, the Dhimmi were easy prey for thugs and extortionists. For example, Armenian Christians in the 19th century had to pay the Kurds not to attack their villages and pillage their monasteries.
Military necessity led to a change in the Ottoman policy in 1908. Armenian Christian soldiers would be permitted to train with weapons, and by 1915, a significant number of Armenian men had done so. After the Balkan War of 1912, many Armenian civilians bought firearms from returning Turkish soldiers. Weapons and ammunition were secreted in the walls of homes.
During World War I, in 1915, the Ottoman government decided to launch a massive persecution of the Armenians. The current Turkish government, along some scholars, denies that genocide was the intention, although there is no doubt that many hundreds of thousands died.
U.S. Ambassador Henry Morgenthau reported that the Ottoman Turks faced an obstacle: “Before Armenia could be slaughtered, Armenia must be made defenseless.” Armenians were reluctant to disarm, given their distrust of the Turks.
As a first step, Armenian soldiers in the Ottoman army were stripped of their weapons. Beaten and clubbed, placed on short rations, and sometimes murdered, they were used to dig fortifications and latrines for the Turks. Soldiers fled and returned home, bringing stories of the destruction of Armenian villages and towns, murders of priests, and rapes of women.
Disarmament orders were sent to Armenian towns; however, Armenian leaders would collect broken and useless weapons, and, with a bribe, deliver them to Turkish leaders — while keeping the functioning weapons for themselves.
As the persecution intensified, contemporaneous Armenian writings lamented that if civilians taken a more pro-active approach sooner, more Armenians would have survived. But initially, the Armenians had felt their best chance for survival lay in keeping a low profile and remaining passive. It was only after a long pattern of murders by the Turks that they began to actively defend themselves.
The 5,000 townspeople of Shabin Karahissar, including 600 poorly armed Armenian men, retreated to a nearby fort when 10,000 regular and irregular Turkish army troops approached. The Armenians’ guns allowed them to keep the enemy at bay for 26 days. Although they had sufficient water, they lacked adequate planning and eventually starved. One survivor, Aram Haigaz, wrote: “Of the more than 5,000 who ascended the Fort, only 47 survived….”
Armed resistance movements also sprang up in Ourfa, in Shadakh, and in the Pesan Valley. At Van, a group of 1,500 men with only 300 rifles fought off an army of 5,000 Turkish soldiers, and diverted the attention of Turkish troops away from the Russian enemy. The defenders at Van successfully held out for five weeks until they were rescued by the Russian army. But shortly after, the Russian army made an unexpected retreat, allowing the Turks to swoop in by surprise and kill the 55,000 people of Van.
The best-known and most successful of resistance movement was memorialized in the 1934 historical novel The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. People from several villages retreated to the mountain whose English name is “Moses Mountain.” Provisioned with weapons and supplies, the villagers held out on Musa Dagh for 53 days.
Pastor Tigran Andreasian listed the Armenian population of his native region as 6,311. Of them, 4,231 persons chose to fight on the mountain, while 2,080 people obeyed the deportation order of the Turks. When the fighters were eventually rescued by the Allies, an amazing 4,200 survivors were taken to Port Said, Egypt.
As for those who accepted deportation, according to Vahram Shemmassian, a scholar and descendant of one of the fighters, “the exact count of casualties may never be determined, many families lost several members and others perished completely.”
Hitler reminded his generals that “nobody remembers the Armenians,” and he worked assiduously to disarm his own genocide victims more thoroughly than the Turks had done. When we do remember the Armenians, let us remember that the difference between life and death was often the possession of arms to resist mass murder by government.
David Kopel is research director for the Independence Institute. Paul Gallant and Joanne D. Eisen are senior fellows at the Independence Institute.