The Genocide

[Lauren Greene]

Eastern Anatolia used to be the “troubled borderland” between the Russian and Ottoman Empires and the “main theater” of the bloodiest years in the “history of the Caucasus” (de Waal, 53).  Between 1915 and 1921, the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire was systematically killed in what is now called the Armenian Genocide.  Eastern Anatolia had a mixed Christian-Muslim population and is an ancient Armenian homeland.  Although Armenians created a large community in this region, it was not a majority.  For the Ottoman Empire, Eastern Anatolia was an essential part of their ancient empire they could “not afford to lose,” especially after the wars of 1912-13 in which they lost all their Balkan possessions (de Waal, 53).  The Armenians, however, looked to Russia as their “Great Power protector” and, as a result, tensions between the Turkish government and its Armenian populations were high.  Sultan Abdul Hamid blamed the Armenians for the loss of Ottoman power:

By taking away Greece and Rumania, Europe has cut of [sic] the feet of the Turkish state.  The loss of Bulgaria, Serbia and Egypt has deprived us of our hands, and now by means of this Armenian agitation they want to get at our most vital places and tear out our very guts (de Waal, 54).

By the end of the nineteenth century, the Ottoman Empire began to “disintegrate under the strain of economic failure, stalled reform, and nationalist agitation” (de Waal, 54).  By the early twentieth century, the Ottoman Empire had a new government.  As the empire continued to decline, the Committee of Union and Progress was formed as a multinational reformist group.  Soon, however, it became a “vehicle for pan-Turkic nationalism and the so called Young Turks” (de Waal, 54-55).  On 24 July 1908, the Young Turks instituted a short-lived constitutional government with a multinational parliament after they deposed Sultan Abdul Hamid.  In 1913, after the Ottoman army was defeated in the Balkan Wars, three of the “most radical” Young Turks gained power: interior minister Talat Pasha, minister of War Enver Pasha, and minister of the Navy Jamal Pasha (de Waal, 55).

During the First World War, the Ottoman Empire allied with Germany.  Enver Pasha attempted to invade the Caucasus in order to unite the “Turkish brethren from Azerbaijan to Central Asia” (de Waal, 55).  In January 1915, however, Enver Pasha’s army suffered a humiliating defeat by the Russian army, which was supported by the Armenians.  It is estimated that five-sixths of the Turkish Third Army, or seventy-five thousand men, were killed.  Enver Pasha blamed their defeat on the Armenians and prompted a violent Turkish attack in Van, an Ottoman town, which held the “largest concentrations of Armenians of the Ottoman Empire” (Dadrian, 131).  At the same time, Talat Pasha and the Young Turk government began a massacre of the Armenians.

The 24 April 1915 is the date that is commonly attributed as the start of the Armenian Genocide and is today commemorated by Armenians as Genocide Day.  On this date, Talat Pasha arrested about 250 “leading Armenians” in Constantinople (de Waal, 55).  After a second round of arrests, about six hundred Armenian intellectuals were detained.  Many of these individuals were executed.  Additionally, Armenians serving in the Ottoman Empire were “demobilized and disarmed” (de Waal, 55). Talat Pasha, and others in the Young Turk government, viewed Armenians as a threat and decided that the Armenian populations must be exterminated.  Talat Pasha tells the Armenian parliamentary deputy Bedros Halajian “there will be no massacres,” but this was followed by the “wholesale massacres and ‘arrests’” of Armenians (The Armenian Genocide).  Twenty-five thousand Armenians were deported from Zeitun.  Eighty villages were obliterated and twenty-four thousand Armenians were killed in the span of three days in the Van Province.  Under the cover of the First World War, the Young Turk government was able to carry out its genocidal policies without the Western foreign powers noticing.  Eventually, however, the Western world noticed and on 24 May 1915, the Ottoman Empire’s allies in the First World War announced:

In view of these new crimes of Turkey against humanity and civilization, the Allied Governments announce publicly to the Sublime Porte that they will hold personally responsible for these crimes all members of the Ottoman Government, as well as those of their agents who are implicated in such massacres (Wikipedia).

This unfortunately did not stop, or even slow down, the Turkish government.  The Interior Ministry gave the orders that Armenian villages should be settled with Muslim immigrants and Armenian orphans needed to be sent to Turkish homes.  During Ramadan, the “greatest concentration and universalization of massacring and murdering occurs in every province of Turkey” (Kazarian).  Deportations, public executions, death marches, mass burnings, imprisonments and massacres continued.  During deportations many men were immediately killed while the women and children were converted to Islam.  In northwestern Syria, tens of thousands died in open-air concentration camps and “human bones and skulls are still reported to come to the surface there to this day” (de Waal, 56).

The estimated number of dead by this point in 1915 varies depending on the source.  Enver Pasha reported that two hundred thousand Armenians had been exterminated, Lord Bryce reported that five hundred thousand Armenians had been slain, and The New York Times reported the number of dead to be around three hundred and fifty thousand (The Armenian Genocide).  In another New York Times article from 1915, the situation for the Armenian population was described in a letter by Aneurin Williams dated 13 July.  He said Armenian populations were being deported from villages and towns and forced to walk for “one to two or even more months” and that the “roads and the Euphrates are strewn with corpses of exiles and those who survive are doomed to certain death” (“Armenians are Sent to Perish”).  Williams said that it is “a plan to exterminate the whole Armenian people” (“Armenians are Sent to Perish”).

On 31 August 1915, Talat Pasha told the German ambassador that the “Armenian Question no longer exists” (Kazarian).  By 7 October 1915 the estimated number of Armenians killed was around eight hundred thousand.  Even though there was growing disgust from the West, the Young Turk government continued its extermination programs.  The Turkish Embassy in the United States issued a statement that “accuses the Armenians of treason against the Ottoman State” (Kazarian).

In 1916, the Governor-General of Aleppo notified Talat Pasha that “only 10% of Armenian deportees survived and measures to dispose of them will be taken” (The Armenian Genocide).  Armenian orphans were sent to various Turkish communities, but instructions were sent to kill them under the guise of giving them aid. Wilhelm Radowitz reported that, of the two million Armenians in Turkey, one and one-half million had been deported; one hundred and seventy-five thousand were dead, and only three hundred and twenty-five thousand were still living in Turkey.  Talat Pasha became Grand Vizier of Turkey in 1917. The German missionary Ernst Cristoffel, who witnessed some of the massacres and deportations, estimated that one million had been murdered.

On 12 March 1917, Enver Pasha ordered the “killing of all civilian Armenians over five years of age and remaining Armenians in the Turkish military within 48 hours” (Kazarian).  To pacify the European powers, Talat Pasha said he would “grant amnesty to Armenians in Turkey” after he returned from the Brest-Litovsk Peace Conference (The Armenian Genocide).  This was a moot point, however, because a majority of the Armenian population had already been deported out of Turkey where they were still being systematically eradicated.  On 28 May 1917 an Armenian Republic was proclaimed in the Russian Caucasus.  Nuri Pasha, Enver Pasha’s younger brother, and Halil Pasha, Enver Pasha’s uncle, led Turkish forces on a three-day massacre of thirty thousand Armenian civilians in Baku between 15 September and 17 September 1918 (Kazarian).  Talat Pasha, Enver Pasha, and Jamal Pasha fled Turkey in early November 1918.  In 1919, a court martial convened to “address crimes of war” in Turkey (The Armenian Genocide).  Talat Pasha, Enver Pasha, and Jamal Pasha were condemned to “death in absentia.”  On the first anniversary of the independent Republic of Armenia, the republic declared the unification of Caucasian and Turkish Armenia.

In 1920, the Allied countries and United States recognized the independence of Armenia but massacres continued to kill tens of thousands of Armenians.  On 22 November, Woodrow Wilson presented his “delineation of the Armenian borders, but a week later Armenia was “partitioned by Turkish Nationalist forces and Sovietized by Russian Bolsheviks” (The Armenian Genocide).  On 15 March 1921, Soghomon Tehlirian, an Armenian student, assassinated Talat Pasha in Berlin (Kazarian).  Jamal Pasha was assassinated in Tiflis in 1922.

It is estimated that one and one-half million Armenians were killed during the Armenian Genocide.  Before the First World War, the Ottoman Empire had an estimated two million Armenians.  In 1915, more than one million were deported: many were killed outright, many others died of “starvation, exhaustion, and epidemics” (“Frequently Asked Questions”).  By 1923, the Ottoman Empire and the surrounding regions had been “expunged of its Armenian population” (“Frequently Asked Questions”).

Rafael Lemkin, a Polish Jew, created the word “genocide” in the 1940s as a legal definition to describe the “deliberate attempt to wipe out an ethnic group by mass killing” (de Waal, 58). In creating the word, he combined “the ancient Greek word genos (race, tribe) and the Latin cide (killing)”  (Prevent Genocide International).  Lemkin “explicitly referred” to what is now known as the Armenian Genocide when he created the term (de Waal, 58).  In 1948 the word was “enshrined” in the United Nations Convention of the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide.  In a study by Khatchig Mouradian, it was discovered that some Armenians started to use the word genocide “as soon as it entered world currency” (de Waal, 58).  Mouradian also noted that most Armenians continue to describe the genocide as the “great catastrophe” [mets yeghern] (de Waal, 58).

In 1965, fifty years after the start of the massacres, the term “Armenian Genocide” began to be used more frequently to define the systematic removal of Armenians from the Ottoman Empire.  As the phrase became more popular, the Turkish government began to deny that genocide was ever committed in their country.  Instead, the Turkish government insists that the “deportations were carried out within the context of a war in which hundreds of thousand of Muslims also died” and that the Armenians “posed a threat to the existence of the Ottoman state” (de Waal, 56).  Turkey also insists that the Young Turk government’s aim was to deport, but not kill, the Armenians.

In the 1990s, Armenian and Turkish historians began to meet and the “taboos of silence were broken” (de Waal, 58).  Many of these original individuals, however, received death threats and some, like editor Hrant Dink, were assassinated.  To this day, the Turkish government actively denies that the Armenian genocide occurred.  In 2004, the Turkish government passed Article 305, which “makes it a criminal offense, punishable by up to 10 years in prison, to discuss the Armenian genocide” (Cohan).  Article 305 is all part of the effort by the Turkish government to counteract recognition of and education about the Armenian Genocide.

In December 2008, a campaign was begun in Turkey in which Turks petitioned for the government to recognize the Great Catastrophe as a genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire against its Armenian peoples.  By October 2009, more than thirty thousand Turks had signed it. Still, however, the Turkish government has refused to recognize the Armenian Genocide.

As of 26 December 2011, twenty-one countries recognize the 1915-1921 Armenian massacres as genocide (Wikipedia).  Of these twenty-one countries, twenty are United Nations member states, eleven are members of the European Union, and four are Union of South American Nations member states.  Various regional governments and legislative bodies recognize the Armenian genocide: parliaments in three Spanish regions, Wales, two Australian states, Ukraine, Canada, Brazil, and forty-three US states.   Kurdish populations are also trying to recognize the Armenian genocide.  Kurds played a large role in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Armenians and, “because of the sorrow of the heartrending events,” Kurds feel that it is necessary to apologize for the actions of their ancestors (Hareyan).  Similar to Turkey’s Article 305, France, which is one of the countries that recognizes the Armenian genocide, submitted a bill in 2006 that would punish anyone who denies the Armenian genocide with a five-year prison sentence (  This bill, however, was widely criticized as a tactic to gain votes from Armenians in France and was dropped in 2011.

The Armenian National Institute has identified one hundred and thirty-five memorials to the Armenian genocide in twenty-five different countries (Wikipedia).  One notable monument in Yerevan, Armenia, the Tsitsernakaberd Armenian Genocide memorial, was constructed after protests on 24 April 1965.  On that day, thousands of Armenians marched to Yerevan in an “unofficial demonstration” (Monument).  Moscow eventually consented and the monument was constructed over the next three years.  This monument consists of an underground museum, a library with archives, and an eternal flame surrounded by twelve giant, leaning slabs and a pointed tower.  The flame memorializes the victims of the genocide, the pointed tower symbolizing the “survival and spiritual rebirth of the Armenian people” (“Monument).  This tower is partially split which “symbolizes the tragic and violent dispersion of the Armenian people, and at the same time, expresses the unity of the Armenian people” (“Monument).

The Wales Genocide Memorial, located in Cardiff, Wales, is another monument commemorating the Armenian genocide (“Protest as memorial is unveiled”).  The monument, which was erected by the Wales-Armenian Society, was consecrated by the Primate of the Armenian Apostolic Church of Great Britain at its unveiling.  Over three hundred people attended the ceremony.   Turkish protestors believed that erecting the monument “amounted to racism” and tried to disturb the service (“Protest as memorial is unveiled”).  On 27 January 2008, the United Kingdom’s Holocaust Memorial Day, Welsh and Armenians were going to gather at the Wales Genocide Memorial to honor those killed in the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust (WorkerFreedom).  An unknown protestor, however, had broken the cross on this monument using a hammer.  The hammer was left near the monument.  Caerphilly Councillor Ray Davies, one of the individuals who campaigned for the monument, said many people were “close to tears” when they saw the desecrated monument (WorkerFreedom).  He said “the desecration of the monument reminds us that we must always be vigilant against racism and hatred which is never far from the surface” (WorkerFreedom).


Works Cited

  • “Armenians are Sent to Perish in the Desert: Turks Accused of Plan to Exterminate Whole Population – People of Karahissar Massacred,” New York Times, 18 August 1915.
  • The Armenian Genocide, “Timeline,” accessed 6 May 2012,
  • Sara Cohan, “A Brief History of the Armenian Genocide,” National Council for Social Studies,
  • “Frequently Asked Questions About the Armenian Genocide,” Armenian National Institute, accessed 6 May 2012,
  • Armen Hareyan, “An Important Kurdish Leader in Turkey Apologizes to Arameans,” HULIQ, accessed 6 May 2012,
  • Haigazn K. Kazarian, “A Chronology of the Armenian Genocide,” Armenian National Institute, accessed 6 May 2012,“Monument, Museum, and Research Complex at Dsidsernakaberd, in Yerevan, Armenia,” Armenian National Institute, accessed 6 May 2012,
  • Prevent Genocide International, “Chapter IX: ‘Genocide,’” last updated 7 February 2003,
  • “Protest as memorial is unveiled,” BBC News, 3 November 2007,
  •, “Sarkozy in bid to make up for Armenia remarks through aide,” Today’s Zaman, 14 October 2011,
  • Thomas de Waal, The Caucasus: An Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
  • Wikipedia, “Armenian Genocide,” Wikimedia Foundation,
  • WorkerFreedom, “Armenian Genocide Monument in Wales Smashed on UK’s Holocaust Memorial Day,” Infoshop News, 6 February 2008,