-Talat Pasha, in a conversation with Dr. Mordtmann of the German Embassy in June 1915
The Armenian Genocide unofficially began with the arrest of 250 Armenian intellectuals by Turkish officials on April 24, 1915. Over the next several years a series of systematic deportations and mass executions along with intentional starvation would cause the deaths of more than 1 million Armenians. The aftermath left the remaining Armenian population scattered, resulting in one of the greatest diasporas in the twentieth century.
Below is a condensed history of the Armenian Genocide, beginning with the life of the Armenians before the genocide and extending to the genocide's legacy today.
The Armenians before the Genocide
The Armenians and other Christian communities, including the Greeks and Assyrians, were significant minorities in the Ottoman Empire. Despite being a cosmopolitan state with members from all three of the great monotheistic religions (Islam, Christianity, and Judaism), the empire was dominated by ethnic Turks. Throughout the 19th century, a wave of Turkish nationalism spread throughout the region, reinforcing cultural bonds between the majority of the empire. At the same time, the empire suffered a series of military defeats, paving the way for newly independent states in the Balkans and Greece. As a result, the Ottoman Empire turned inwards and the nationalist movement strengthened.
The military losses and the rise of nationalism would have disastrous impacts on the Armenian community. It left them as one of the largest Christian groups in the Ottoman Empire, but geographically isolated in the western Ottoman territory and removed from other Christian populations. While this was happening, the Armenians were increasing their position and wealth within the empire. This created an atmosphere of distrust between the ethnic Turks and Armenians.
The Armenian question was fiercely debated in Turkish politics. Tensions would ultimately come to a head when a series of pogroms were unleashed against the Armenians and other Christian groups in the empire. The massacres, beginning in the 1890's, would claim the lives of hundreds of thousands Armenians and tens of thousands of other Christians, mainly the Assyrians and Ottoman Greeks. In the years leading up to the genocide, the nationalist Turks placed heavy restrictions for learning, property ownership and religious practices for minorities, including the Armenians, in the empire. This would foreshadow future events.
For more information on the Armenian community prior to the genocide, check out:
- Twenty Voices: Testimonies of Armenian survivors from across the empire, including Armenian life pre-genocide
- Fatma Müge Göçek’s Views on Turkish Nationalism
The Armenian Genocide
It can be difficult to pinpoint an exact date when the Armenian Genocide begins because it was the culmination of a series of policies targeting the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian population. In February 1915, Armenians serving in the Ottoman army were removed from active duty and forced into unarmed labor battalions. However, April 24, 1915 is widely considered the date the genocide began because it was then that Turkish authorities arrested 250 Armenian intellectuals. The reason given was fear that the Armenians were in league with Russia, the Ottoman Empire’s historic rival. However, this was a rumor started by the Young Turks (a Turkish nationalist group that had taken power in 1908). The hysteria created by World War I created a perfect cover for the Turks to move against the Armenian community.
In May 1915, the deportation of the Armenians began. A law passed also gave the Turkish authorities the right to confiscate Armenian property and restrict their opportunities to work. This had the effect of leaving the Armenians destitute. Along these forced marches, massacres were commonplace. The Turkish military instituted a number of methods to exterminate the Armenian population, some of which would be adopted at the Nazi concentration camps 25 years later. Those who were not killed outright by the military often faced starvation along the way. Rapes of women and girls were also commonplace, in an effort to breed the Armenians out.
The Armenians who managed to survive the marches were sent to concentration camps created by the Turkish military. These camps were located near Turkey’s modern southern border. The Turkish government routinely withheld food and water from the Armenians in the camp. The lack of nourishment, coupled with widespread disease, meant life expectancy at the camps was extraordinarily short. Armenian women and girls, routinely sold while in the camps, were also taken as forced brides by Turkish men.
Much of the genocide would come to an end in 1918 with the conclusion of World War I, but it would not be until the early 1920's when the marches stopped.
For more information about the events of the Armenian Genocide, check out:
- Beatrice Ohanessian Discusses Her Mother’s Experience: Ms. Ohanessian discusses the experiences of her mother, who survived the genocide
- Genocide1915.org: An in-depth history and photos of the Armenian Genocide
- Armenian Golgotha: A Memoir of the Armenian Genocide, 1915-18 by Grigoris Balakian: a first-hand account of the atrocities of the Armenian Genocide by Balakian, an Armenian priest
USC Shoah Foundation institute for Visual History and Education is now the repository for visual history testimony about the Armenian genocide.
Reaction to the Genocide
The international community was aware of the events of the genocide as they unfolded. Several European countries and the United States had active missions in the Ottoman Empire providing a detailed account of events during the Armenian Genocide. In addition, several Christian missionaries were also active in the area at the time. It is through these missions that newspapers of the period were able to get regular updates on the events in Turkey. In the years after the genocide, several western witnesses to the atrocities would publish their own accounts, most notably Henry Morgenthau, the former US Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.
Aid groups, especially from the United States, sent groups to provide relief to the Armenian people. In the aftermath of the genocide, thousands of Armenian people were adopted by westerners. In all, relief groups raised more than $100 million to provide aid to more than two million Armenian refugees.
Between 1919 and 1920, a series of Turkish court cases issued guilty verdicts to the Three Pashas, three senior officials and orchestrators of the genocide. These convictions were for naught, as all three had left the country. One hundred and fifty Turkish men implicated in the genocide were arrested by Allied authorities and sent to Malta for trial. All the detainees would eventually be returned to Turkey without trial. In the end, there was no punishment for those involved with the Armenian Genocide.
The lack of justice inspired Polish law student Raphael Lemkin to begin his work defining the term genocide. The massacres against Armenians influenced Lemkin’s drafting of a law to punish and prevent genocide. Although it would take more than 20 years, Lemkin would eventually see the crime of genocide made illegal by the international community when the United Nations passed the Genocide Convention in 1948.
For more information on the reaction to the Armenian Genocide, check out:
- Editorial Cartoons: A series of editorial cartoons geared to raise American awareness of the plight of the Armenian people
- Starving Armenians: Americans and the Armenian Genocide, 1915–1930 and After by Merill D. Peterson: An in-depth look at the American response to the Armenian Genocide, as well as Armenian aspirations for an independant republic
- Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story: A Personal Account of the Armenian Genocide by Henry Morgenthau Sr.: The American Ambassador to Turkey recounts how Turkey fell under the influence of Germany, leading to the Armenian Genocide
The Armenian Genocide, Denial, and Memory
As the first of the modern genocides, the Armenian Genocide holds a complicated place in world history. For decades, the Armenian community, dispersed throughout the globe, struggled with recognition. Today, more than twenty countries officially acknowledge the atrocities as genocide. Uruguay was the first to officially recognize the genocide back in 1965. Several countries, including Austria, Switzerland, Slovakia and, most recently, Cyprus in early April 2015, have gone as far to make genocide denial a crime.
The topic of recognition is a largely political issue in the United States. Turkey is seen as a strategic ally, especially post 9/11, making leaders in Washington, DC cautious about officially recognizing the genocide. However, 43 states have taken steps to officially call the massacre of the Armenians genocide. In Minnesota, the genocide was first marked by a proclamation by Governor Jesse Ventura.
Two countries officially deny the Ottoman government’s role in the elimination of the Armenian community—Azerbaijan and Turkey. Turkey has taken a far more aggressive approach to genocide denial, threatening lawsuits and calling into question the authenticity of academic research into the Armenian Genocide. One famous example is Dr. Taner Akçam, a German-Turkish scholar. Dr. Akçam has written extensively on the Armenian Genocide, and came under harsh criticism by pro-Turkish scholars. In 2007, while a guest lecturer at the University of Minnesota, Dr. Akçam was sued under Turkey’s laws that forbid ‘insulting Turkish-ness.’ The lawsuit was eventually thrown out. The University of Minnesota itself was sued by a pro-Turkish American organization which questioned the authenticity of materials found on the Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies website. In 2011, this suit was also dismissed.
Beyond the reach of international politics, the legacy of the Armenian Genocide continues to be explored by a new generation of Armenians and Armenian-Americans through film, music, and literature.
For more information on the Armenian Genocide denial and memory, check out:
- TPT: The Armenian Genocide 90 Years Later: An award-winning documentary produced by the Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies with interviews from survivors and descendants of the genocide
- Black Dog of Fate: A Memoir by Peter Balakian: The great-nephew of Grigoris Balakian, details his struggle to understand what happened to his family during the Armenian Genocide after growing up in American suburbia during the 1950s and 1960s
- "The Politics of Denial: Politics, Academics and the Remaking of History" by Taner Akçam
- Armenian National Institute
- The Genocide Education Project
- Facing History: The Armenian Genocide Education Project
Documentaries (Available on YouTube)
- Grandma’s Tattoos (Al-Jazeera)
- CBS 60 Minutes: A Battle Over History: Includes an interview with Peter Balakian
- 100 Testimonies from Around the World: A project of celebrities reading brief accounts of the genocide
- The Centennial Project Foundation: Why It Still Matters: Presentations on topics from the Armenian Genocide