April 24, 1915. Leaders of the Armenian community in Constantinople are arrested by Ottoman authorities, marking the start of the Armenian Genocide.
CONTENT WARNING: A listener note: this episode contains references to extreme violence. It may not be suitable for all audiences.
It’s the night of April 24th, 1915, in the harbor near Istanbul, capital of the Ottoman Empire.
A small steamship labors through the dark and choppy waters.
Sitting on deck, 39-year-old Priest Grigoris Balakian grimaces as the deck pitches and another wave crashes into the boat. A bookish young man beside him has a queasy look and suddenly doubles up, leaning forward to vomit.
Grigoris lays a gentle hand on the man’s back. He knows it’s not seasickness that’s made the other man ill. It’s fear.
Grigoris is one of nine men under guard on the deck of the steamship. All of them were taken from their beds by police in the middle of the night and dragged through the streets to this boat. Why they’ve been taken and where they’re going is a mystery. But they’re all terrified of what lies ahead.
A wave breaks over the ship’s bows… and drenches the prisoners in the filthy water of the harbor. The priest’s robes are soaked and his thick beard is plastered against his face. Grigoris wipes his eyes, blinking away the salt water. Over the sound of the waves and the steamship’s sputtering engine, he can hear sniggering. At the back of the boat, under a small, covered area of deck, a group of armed police officers mock the drenched and shivering prisoners.
Grigoris looks away and out over the rough waters ahead to the land on the other side of the city. There, he can see the domes and minarets of Istanbul’s great mosques silhouetted against the sky. The boat is heading right for them.
With a twist of fear in his stomach, Grigoris realizes where they are being taken. Everyone in Istanbul knows that in the shadow of those soaring mosques stand the dreaded stone walls of the city’s central prison.
So as the little boat fights against the waves, lurching closer and closer to shore, Grigoris closes his eyes and utters a silent prayer.
Grigoris and the other men on the boat are all Armenians. They’re a Christian minority among the predominantly Muslim population of the Ottoman Empire. But they’re increasingly being blamed for the problems the Empire is experiencing.
Once, Ottoman territories stretched over three continents, reaching almost as far West as Vienna and as far East as Basra. But the Ottoman Empire has been in decline for centuries. The Ottomans have been driven out of North Africa and most of mainland Europe. And since the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the weaknesses of the Empire have been exposed even further.
Amid military setbacks and social unrest, the Empire’s rulers have made scapegoats of their Christian Armenian citizens. This anti-Christian sentiment will grow into a genocidal campaign of violence, which begins with the arrest of the priest Grigoris Balakian and hundreds of other Armenian leaders and intellectuals on April 24th, 1915.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is April 24th, 1915: The Armenian Genocide.
It’s early January 1915, three months before the mass arrests in Istanbul.
In the highlands of eastern Turkey, an Ottoman army column is on the march. An infantryman shivers in his uniform as he struggles through deep snow. The winding path through the hills leads toward the front line and the exhausted young man can hear the rumble of guns up ahead. But right now, he’s more concerned about the weather. He glances up at the sky. Dark, heavy clouds loom overhead: more snow is on the way.
As he trudges on, the young man passes a rigid form half-buried in the frost. It’s the frozen body of another Ottoman soldier. And it’s not the first he’s seen on this path. As more snow begins to fall, the young soldier knows that if he doesn’t want to share these dead man’s fate, he must keep moving.
The campaign in Eastern Turkey is under the personal command of the head of the Ottoman Army, Ismail Enver. He’s one of the most powerful men in the Empire. Once, a Sultan ruled in Istanbul with absolute power. But two years ago, there was a coup. Led by Enver and two other men, a revolutionary nationalist party seized control.
And when World War I broke out the following year, these “Three Pashas” – as the ruling men were known – allied the Ottomans with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Together, they have gone to war with an opposing block of powers: Britain, France, and Russia. In late December 1914, Ismail Enver ordered Ottoman forces to attack Russia through Eastern Turkey. But the campaign has not been going well.
When the frozen young infantryman finally reaches the front lines, he finds the Ottoman forces in chaos. The nearest railway station is hundreds of miles away so all supplies must come here on foot. It’s an inefficient way of maintaining an army. And it means there’s simply not enough gear or ammunition for the soldiers doing the fighting.
Still, prepared or not, the young man is soon thrown forward. As he scrambles through the network of trenches toward the front line, shells fall all around him, the ground shakes, and men scream out in terror and pain. The Russians have launched an aggressive attack and the Ottomans are struggling to hold them back. The carnage is nearly inconceivable. Just a few hours after arriving at the front, the young man is dead as are forty-five thousand other Ottoman soldiers.
But one man who survives the disaster in Eastern Turkey is Ismail Enver. As he scurries back to Istanbul on horseback, the head of the Ottoman army is determined that he won’t take the fall for the fiasco. What he needs is someone to blame.
Two months later, in late March 1915, Ismail Enver takes a seat in a grand office in the center of Istanbul. He’s a slender man; even puffed up in his gold-trimmed uniform, he seems slight, sitting in the richly decorated room, with its thick carpets and intricately painted walls.
Though he may not look it, Ismail Enver is still a powerful man. He runs a finger along his mustache, which he keeps immaculately groomed, then looks up as another of the Three Pashas strides across the carpets into the room.
Mehmed Talat is a far more formidable presence. He’s a tall, barrel-chested man with a broad face and a dark sweep of hair. He has a mustache every bit as flamboyant as his colleague’s — but a mind which is far sharper.
The two men greet each other warmly. Tea is served and then they get down to business.
Ismail Enver has tried to keep his defeat in Eastern Turkey a secret. Strict censorship has kept the disaster out of the Ottoman newspapers. But as wounded soldiers return home with stories of what really happened, rumors are beginning to spread.
Over tea, the two men discuss what to do. Both Pashas agree that it couldn’t possibly be their fault the Ottoman army was defeated. They must have lost because they were betrayed by an enemy within. And there’s an obvious scapegoat: the Empire’s Christian Armenian minority.
Armenians in the Ottoman Empire already face discrimination and abuse. They are mistrusted and mistreated by much of the Muslim population. Now, as the Ottoman military struggles on the battlefield, a toxic and volatile mixture of fear and anger spreads across the Empire. Talat and Enver are eager to direct it toward the Armenians rather than themselves. It’s not known whether it is at this meeting or another that the final decision is made. But both men see the war as an opportunity to finally rid the Ottoman Empire of its Christian minorities, seize the Armenians’ property and remake the nation with a purely Turkish population.
Soon, forced deportations will clear Armenian villages from anywhere near the frontline. Attempts to resist will be used by the government as proof that the Armenians are not to be trusted. Mass arrests will follow – and then mass murder.
It’s late May 1915, a month after the mass arrests of Armenian intellectuals and community leaders in Istanbul.
In the small town of Kemah in Eastern Turkey, a line of Armenian prisoners waits on a stone bridge which spans the great Euphrates River. One by one, the men are dragged forward by armed guards to the edge of the bridge. There, an executioner waits with a knife. With practiced brutality, he slits the men’s throats and shoves their bodies off the bridge into the water below.
The executioner is an ex-convict. And until just a few days ago, he was facing a death sentence himself for murder. Now, his skills with a knife are needed by the government. He, and many other violent offenders like him, have been recruited straight from their prison cells by the so-called “Special Organization” - a paramilitary group controlled directly by the ruling regime of the Three Pashas. It’s been tasked with wiping out the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire.
In the weeks since the first arrests in Istanbul, there’s been a rapid escalation of violence against Armenians throughout Turkey. Thousands have already been arrested, tortured, and massacred by roaming bands from this “Special Organization.” And it’s not just the men who are being killed.
The executioner on the bridge in Kemah is finished with the male prisoners and wipes the blood off his knife. Now, it’s time for the women and children. But the Special Organization doesn’t bother to cut their throats, they just throw them off the bridge, their screams echoing in the rocky gorge as they plummet toward the water. Even babies are not spared – they are pulled from their mothers, thrown in sacks, and tossed into the river as well.
Atrocities like this are happening all over Turkey. The countless bodies thrown into the river flow downstream. They bloat and rot until they wash up onshore, or clump together in gruesome dams that block the river entirely until they are cleared with high explosives.
But these mass executions are not the only method of killing devised by the Special Organization. They have another and perhaps even crueler plan to deal with the Armenians: forced marches into the unforgiving deserts of central Syria.
It’s spring 1916 in the arid hills of central Turkey.
The priest Grigoris Balakian shields his eyes as the gusting wind blows dust up off the rocky path. It’s been almost a year since his arrest in Istanbul. His once full black beard is patchy now and turning white, and his lice-infested clothes hang from his body. But he’s still alive.
Grigoris is part of a weary convoy of almost fifty Armenians. They’re heading south under armed guard, through the heartlands of Turkey, toward the deserts of Syria.
Having been arrested in Istanbul, Grigoris, and other prominent Armenians from the capital were transported east first by bus and then by train. They were separated into smaller groups and taken deeper and deeper into the Turkish countryside. Some of the prisoners were executed along the way. Others died of exhaustion after weeks on the move with little food or water. But Grigoris managed to survive.
Then, earlier this year, he was ordered to join the convoy and march south. It’s a route taken by thousands of other Armenians before him. The rocky path is littered with broken, worn-out shoes, scraps of tattered clothing, and pages torn from the Bible. The fields alongside are lined with bodies: men, women, and children of all ages, Armenians who either collapsed from exhaustion or were put to death by their guards. Their bodies were then dumped by the road in graves too shallow to stay hidden for long in the winds that whistle over these hills.
As Grigoris heads south, he befriends the old Captain in charge of the soldiers escorting him. The officer is candid with the priest. He tells Grigoris about the massacres he’s taken part in, about the loot he’s stolen from the dead, and about the tricks that were used to make Armenians come quietly. The Captain admits the orders for the deportations and massacres came from the highest levels in Istanbul. The captain tells him all of this, he says; because this forced march will end in death. He knows Grigoris won’t survive to tell anyone what he’s said.
But the old Captain is wrong. Grigoris is determined to live and bear witness to what he has seen and been told. He plans an escape. At a train station in southern Turkey a few weeks later, Grigoris manages to slip away from his guards and flee into the night. The priest disguises himself as a construction worker on a railway. Then, when the chance finally comes, he escapes the Ottoman Empire and flees to safety in Paris.
Hundreds of thousands of his fellow Armenians will not be so fortunate. Like Grigoris, some of those who survive the carnage will dedicate their lives to telling the world the truth about what happened. But other survivors will try to deal with their trauma in a different way, by hunting down the perpetrators of the genocide and making them pay for what they have done.
It’s the morning of March 15th, 1921, almost six years after the start of the Armenian Genocide.
On a street corner in Berlin, Germany, 24-year-old student Soghomon Tehlirian peeks out from underneath his umbrella. Rain is falling and pedestrians hurry by, but Soghomon keeps his eyes fixed on the doorway of a large apartment building across the street. He’s waiting for someone, someone he’s wanted to meet for a long time.
Soghomon lost many of his family during the Armenian genocide, including his mother and older brother. Now, he wants revenge. He’s part of Operation Nemesis, a clandestine program run by Armenian activists which is hunting down those responsible for the murders of a million of their compatriots.
Their primary target is the man living in this apartment block across the street. Mehmed Talat was once one of the men who ruled the Ottoman Empire. But when Germany, Austro-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire lost World War I, the regime of the Three Pashas collapsed and the men responsible for the Armenian genocide fled Istanbul. Talat now lives in exile in Berlin. But Operation Nemesis has tracked him down.
Soghomon checks his pocket and feels the cold, dull metal of the Luger pistol hidden there. Then, the door to the apartment block opens, and out steps Mehmed Talat. He looks around briefly before striding away up the street.
Soghomon lowers his umbrella and hurries to follow. Before he does anything rash, he wants to be sure he has the right man, so he darts along the sidewalk before crossing the street and turning back on himself.
He walks right by Talat and gets a good look – it’s definitely him. So, Soghomon turns, pulls his gun from his pocket, and, taking a step or two closer, shoots Talat in the head. He is killed instantly. Later, when police come to arrest Soghomon, he tells them: "I am not the murderer - he was.”
In June 1921, Soghomon is put on trial. The young man keeps his involvement with Operation Nemesis a secret. Instead, the assassination is characterized as the work of a lone wolf, disturbed and traumatized by the loss of his family.
During the trial, witnesses describe the atrocities that Talat unleashed. The most powerful testimony comes from the priest Grigoris Balakian. He tells the court how the so-called deportations were in fact “a systematic policy of annihilation.” Through this testimony, the courtroom becomes as much a trial of Mehmed Talat for genocide as it is for Soghomon's actions. In the end, Soghomon is found not guilty.
But the culpability of the Ottoman state is never confirmed in court. Although Talat is dead, other architects of the genocide survive their exile to return to Istanbul. And as the Ottoman Empire collapses, these nationalists help establish the Republic of Turkey. To this day, the Turkish government denies that what happened to the Armenians amounted to genocide.
But the murder of almost a million people cannot be easily erased. Their deaths are a silent testimony to the waves of brutal deportations and massacres inflicted upon the Armenian people which began with the arrest of brave men like Grigoris Balakian in Istanbul on April 24th, 1915.
Next on History Daily. April 25th, 1983. After writing a letter to the Soviets during the Cold War, US schoolgirl Samantha Smith is invited to visit the Soviet Union — a diplomatic feat that leads some to name her “America’s Youngest Ambassador.”
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Muhammad Shahzaib.
Sound design by Mollie Baack.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by William Simpson.
Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.