Mass Killings in History: Turkish Genocide Against the Armenians (1915-22)

Figure 1.--These two Armenian boys died in the desert driven from their homes without food or water, part of the Turkish deportations. The photograph was taken in 1915-16.

More than a million mostly Christian Armenians were murdered by Ottoman authorities or died as a result of efforts to deport them to Syria during World War I. Clara Barton led the first Red Cross relief effort conducted outside the United States. While most of the killings occurred during the War, Ottoman actions against the Armenians began in the 1890s. Western newspapers carried articles about 'barbaric Mohammedans' murdering Christian martyrs during 1894-96. The killings provoked wide-spread international contamination, but no country intervened to stop the killings. Another series of pogroms occurred in 1909. The Ottomans entered World war I on the side of the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary) (October 1914). The wide-spread, organized genocide against the Armenians began the next year (1915). Ottoman officials believed that the Armenian minority was sumpathetic with the Christian Russians and had a preexisting desire to clear a Christian era between Aatolia and the Caucauses. The result was the Tehcir Law (May 29 1915). Authorities began a massive ethnic cleansing operation--the forcible deportation of the Christian Armenians from Anatolia to mainly Ottoman Syria and Mosul Province, both non-Turkish part of the Ottoman Empire. There were also killing operations. The deportations turned into a large-scale killing operation. Accounts on the numbers of Armenians vary. The estimate of 1.0 million is often used, but some accounts are as high as 1.5 million. [Balakian] The Ottomans used World war I as the NAZIs used World War II as a cover for the killings. The Turkish Government denied at the time and Turkish Governments even today continue to deny that the killings took place and were coordinated by Turkish authorities. Turkish law prohhibits mention of the Genocide.

The Armenians

Armenia is one of the oldest countries in the world with a recorded history streaching back an estimated 3,500 years. The Armenian homeland is the Armenian plateau, central and eastern Anatolia and southwestern Caucasia--the highlands which once dominate the southern lowlands of Syria and Mesopotamia. The Soviet successor state of Armenia is today a fraction of historic Armenia. The armenian people have experienced a diapora that has created Armenian communities in countries around the world. Armenia was located in a crossroads of the ancient world astide the Silk Road which connected Asia and the Middle Easr and Europe in the age before the European voyages of discovery and maritime trading routes. Trade routes crossed armenia from Russia, Eyrope, China, Persia, India, and Arabia. Trade, fertile valleys, and strtegic position over the rich Mosopotamian civilizations mean that ancient Armenia was not only crossed by merchants and traders, but by a series ofconquering armies. At times Armenia was independemt and other times it was a province of great Early Armenian history is associated primarily with the Hittites and the Urartians and the great civilizaions of Mesopotamia. Later Armenia history is associated with the Persian Empire. Armenia was never conquwered by Alexander, although of course Persia was. With Alexander's defeat of the Persian, Armenia, at least the upper classes were Hellenized. Armenia was briefly independent under king Tigran (Tigranes) the Great (about 90 BC). Armenia became a area of contention between the expanding Roman Empire and Persia, which divided between them (387 AD). Armenia became the first state to establish Christianity as an official religion. The Eastern Empire known as the Byzantine Empire sought to control Armenia by underminining the authority of the native nobility and serious weakening Aemenia's social structure. Armenia was less able to resist waves of foreign invaders (Arabs, the Seljuk Turks, the Mongols, various Turkmen tribes) which followed. These waves of foreign invaders grdually changed the ethnic makeup of the Armenian plain and the dillution of the Armenian presence. Armenian nobel families (the Hetumids and the Rubenids), established an Armenian kingdom in Cilicia, in the southern part of Asia Minor bordering on the Mediterranean. As a result of the Crusades, small Crusader states were established in what is now Syria, Lebanon, and Israel. The Armenians established close relations with the fellow Christian Crusader kingdoms. The Armenians also managed to negotiate arrangements with the Mongols. The defeat of the Crusader kingdoms by Saladin and the converion of the Mongols to Islam, the Armenian kingdom was conquered in the 14th century. The last Armenian king, Lusignan, fled to Rome seeking help but failed. Armenia was overun by despoiling by Turkmen tribes, Tamerlane, and the Persian Safavids during the 15th and 16th centuries. Finally the Ottomans after finally taking Constantinople (1453) turned eastward and added Armenia to their growing Empire. The Ottomans created the Armenians as a millet, meaning a civil-religious minority governed by the Armenian Church within the overall authority of Empire. Although the Ottoman were an advanced civilization in the 15th century. The Ottomans expanded into the Balkans and for a time threatened Western Europe. In part because of Islam, the Ottomans never experienced the Renaissance, Enligtenment, Reformation, or Industrial Revolution which transformed European civilization. As a result, by the 18th century, the Ottoman Empire whad become a backwater of Europe. As the Ottoman Empire declined, Imperial rule became increasingly oppresive. After the French Revolution, Western ideals of liberal constitutional government, individual rights, national self determination, began to influence the Armenians and other national groups within the Ottoman Empire. These groups became increasingly disturbed by autocratic, backward Ottoman rule.

The Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire was one of thge great European powers. In conqquered the Byzantines and took Constantinolple. They carved aiut a huge empire in the niddle east and eatern Mediterranean. For a time they even threatened Vienna. By the 19th century the Ottoman were called the "Sick Man of Europe". The only reason that the Empire was not elminated and partitioned in the 19th century was that the Great Powers could not agree on how to partition it. The Crimean War was one of many efforts to prevent the Russians from giing too much from its assaults on the Ottomans. Nevertheless the Russians persisted in their efforts to attack the Ottomans. The Russo-Turkish War (1877-78) was one of continuing Russian actions which succeeding in destabiling the European power balance, contributing to the eventual outbreak of World War I.

Early Ottoman Actions

For several centuraries the Christian Armenians lived insafety sidevby side withtheir Turkish neighborts. This changed in the late 19th Century when the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II began a program of Pan Islamism to counter the reverses expeienced by the Empire. There was also growing Pan-Turkic sentiment. As part of this process, he suktan ordered the masacre of thousbds of armenian Chritians in Eastern Anatolia. While most of the killings occurred during the War, Ottoman actions against the Armenians began in the 1890s--the Hamidian Massacres. Western newspapers carried articles about "barbaric Mohammedans" murdering Christian martyrs during 1894-96. The killings provoked wide-spread international condematiom when they became known in the West, but no country intervened to stop the killings. It is unclear why the Armenians did not flee the Ottoman Empire at this time.

The Young Turks

A coalition of mostly youthful and highly nationalistic dissidents organized in an effort to modernize Turkey. Many were college students and junior army officers. They succeeded in forcing Sultan Abdülhamid II to bring back the 1876 constitution and which mandated a legislature (1908). They deposed the Sultan (1909) and reorganized the government to begin an overall of Turkish society. Many Armenians seeing this as a progressive step initially supported the Young Turks. The progressive political reforms were never adopted. The movement was taken over by a triumvirate (Enver, Jemal and Talat) of extremeists with highly nationalists views assumed dictatorial powers. Another series of pogroms occurred in 1909. The triumvirate was the group which some historians charge conceived the plan to completely eliminate the Armenian people as part of a step towards achieving a pan-Turkic state. There can be no doubt that the Young Turks after seeing the Empire lose its Balkan territories to Christian nationalist movements, was very concerned about the Christian Armenian comminity in Antolia.

World War I

The Ottoman Turks for centuries had been assulted by Tsarist Russia. Seeing the early stages of the War, the Germans achieved spectacular successes against the Russians. The Young Turks saw that with German assistance they could win back substantial territory from the Russians. The War turned into disaster. The Turkish Army in the Caucauses was destroyed. The Young Turks blamed it on the Arminians. It was a major factor in the ensuing campaign against the Armenians. Ataturk managed to rally the Turkish Army to defeat the Galipoli invasion (1915). The attempt to take Suez failed. The ensuing British offensive destroyed te Turkish armies in Palestine and drive them out of Lebanon and Syria as well.

Armenians in World War I

At the time of World War I Armenians lived in both the Russian and Ottoman Empires. They were involved in the Caucauses campaign launched by the Turks. The dream of recovering territory lost to the Russians was the major reason Turkey entered the War. The Ottomans entered the War after the Western Front had settled down to static trench warfare, but the Germans had achieved major victories against the Russians on the Eastern Front. The Ottomons declared war on Russia (October 29, 1914). The first operation was a combined German-Turkish bombardment of Russian Black Sea ports. Russia and Britain and France quickly declared war on Turkey (November 2-5). The first Ottoman offensive was aimed at the Russian Caucauses (December). There were some initial success. A Turkish army suffered terrible losses in a campaign aginst the Russians in the Caucauses. The Russians retook much lost ground (August 1915). There were Armenian guerrila groups operating behind Turkish llines. The Turks saw the Armenins ad disloyal and blamed for the defeat. Surviving Turkish soldiers retreating out of the Caucuses conducted masacres of Amenians who had survived the initial phase of the genocide.

Ottoman Operation

The Young Turks not only viewed the Christian Armenians as a disloyal group that were willing to support the Russians, but also as impediment to their dream of an etensive pan-Turkish state streaching into centrl Asia. There is no doubt that Armenian sentiment at the time of the War was generally hostile to the Toooman Government and increasinly looked on the Russians as potntial liberators. There is considerable dount that many Armenians took overt actions to attck or sabatoge the Government. There was an Armenian guerilla movement,but the numbers involved were limited. There are two views as to what transpired. Some authors including most Armenians believe that the Young Turks planned and carried out a genocide against the Armenian people. Some historians contend that after entering the War, the Young Turks used World War I as the NAZIs used World War II as a cover for genocide. The Young Turk Government decided to settle their Armenian problem. [Balakian] Other authors contend that there was no carefully orcestrated plan of genocide. Here the question is not whether 1.0 million Armenians were killed or perished because of Ottoman explsions. Authors who try to significantly diminish the numbers killed or simply not being truthful. But some competent historians argue that there was no actual plan for genoide. Rather that the Armenians died in a poorly executed plan to deport Armenians to Syria. There were actual killings. These despicalable actions were carried out by both Turks and Kurds. There were also brutal actions against the Armenians being forced to trek to Syria. Very large numbers died because food, water, and shelter was not provided. Inept management cost the libes of many Armeniand as it did many Turkish civilins and soldiers during the War. [Lewy] There is also no doubt that they reacted with great barbarity to reports of disloyalty after World War I began. The Young Turks undoubtedly vigorously persued a plan to deport the Armenians. Whether they conceived a genocidal plan to murder 1 million Armenians is an open question. There is no doubt that 1 million Armenians died . The question is if their death was the objective of the deportment plan.

Figure 1.--These two Armenian orphans were some of the "lucky" deportees. They were photographed in what is now Syria sometime during 1915-16. We do not know the fate of their parents.

Killing of the Armeminians (1915-22)

More than a million mostly Christian Armenians were murdered or died as a result of efforts by Ottoman authorities to deport them to Syria. Most of the killing and deaths occurred during World War I. The Ottomans entered the War on the side of the Central Power (Germany and Austria-Hungary) in late 1914. The wide-spread, organized killing and deportment against the Armenians began in 1915. The Young Turk Government on April 24th, 1915 murdered hundreds of Armenian leaders in Istanbul after being summoned and gathered. This left the Armenian people leaderless. Across the Ottoman Empire killings and deportations began village by village. The only exceptions were Constantinople and Adana, probably because of the large foreign presence. The Ottomans succeded in virtually eliminating the Armenian people from the Armenian plateau. There were no gas chambers involved. The killings were carried out in a very organized manner with virtually no resistance from the Armenians--in fact they actually cooperated. The Armenins had no inkling of the fate that had been planned for them. They cooperated in "their" governments plan to "relocate them for their own good". The Turkish plan was carried out in village after village. First the Armenians were told to turn in hunting weapons for the War effort. Communities were often given quotas based on the number of weapons the Govdernment thought they had. In some instances Armenians bought weapons from Turk neigbors to meet the quota. The Government later claimed that all the weapons were proof that Armenians were planning an armed rebellion. Next the Ottoman authorities "drafted" abled bodied men for War work. Many of the men who reported for the draft were immediately killed. Others were worked to death. The killing process was carried out in various ways. Armenians were shot, hung, stabbed, crucified, beaten, tossed into shafts, as well as killed in many other ways. Some were killed in especially grusome ways--crucified or burned to death. Chilling photographs exist of rows of severed heads, some with Turkish officrs standing proudly by. After the abled bodied men were killed, the Armenian villages and towns were left with only women, children and elderly. Village after village were systematically emptied of all Armenians. They were told that they were being temprarily relocated and to asemble with only what they could carry. There was no way that women and hildren could resist. They complied and Turkish police and soldiers took them on what proved to be death marches. These death marches snaked accross Anatolia. No effort was taken to provide these desperate eportees ood and water. Along the way the Armenians were brutalized, raped, starved, and murdered. The Turkish police in some case coorordinated these atrocities or simplly allowed civilians to carry them out. The destination the Turkish Goverment planned for the deportees was no resettlement camp, but the Syrian Desert--Der Zor. The deportees whomanaged to survive death marches were either killed when they reached the desert or were simply forced deep into he dert. Most were already in desperte condition. Few mnaged to survive. Most who did survived received assistance fromTurks who took pitty on them (The"good 'Turk'), foreign missionaries, and Arabs in Syria. Photographs show skeletal mothers and children that managed to survive the deah marches. The Turkish actions were not without witnesses. Many foreign missionaries reported the attrocuities. One epecilly imortnt witness was U.S. Ambassador Henry Morgenthau. [Balakian] Accounts on the numbers of Armenians vary. The estimate of 1.0 million is often used, but some accounts are as high as 1.5 million. [Balakian] Clara Barton led the first Red Cross relief effort conducted outside the United States.


The Armenian genocide is generally seen in the context of Turkish nationalism. One question which should be considered is Islam. The Koran makes non-Muslims second class citizens. The Koranic term was "dhimmi" and their status involved paying a special tax and a variety of other requirements to show their seconclass status. The Armenian genocide can be seen in the Ottoman perception that the Armenians were questioning Dhimmitude. We do not say that this was a major factor, but we do believe that is a factor that needs to be considered in understanding the Armenian genocide.


The Turks were very effective in their killing operations. There were, however, some survivors. Some 0.8 million Armenian refugees escaped the Turkish genocide according to a 1922 report. [U.S. State Department] This number does not include Armenians known to be still in the hands of the Turks and some 0.1 million women and children forced to convert to Islam. Many of the refugees survived by treking south through desert areas to Syria or east across the mountains to the Russiam Caucuses. About half of the refugees escaped to Russia in the midst of World War I with few resources to spare. After the Revoli=utin they becane the responsibility of the First Republic of Armenia. Which also has scrce resources. The Armenian refugees who made it to Syria were more fortunate. The Arabs unlike the Turks had no animus toward the Armenians. In the final year of the War, the British seized the Levant. Syria and Lebnon became a French League of Nations Mandate. Plaestine (including modern Jordan) became a British Mandate. America was able to organize Near East Relief to assist the Armenians. Armenians also made it to Greece. We also note some who made it by boat to the Russian Black Sea coast.


The Turkish Government denied at the time and Turkish Governments even today continue to deny that the killings took place and were coordinated by Turkish authorities. Despite the mass of available data, Turkish autorities claim that were only limited deaths because of deportations and collateral deaths because of civil war. This is essentially what the NAZIs would have claimed had World War II turned out differently and what the Holocaust deniers attempt to claim today. The most common attitude is denial. And in fact it is illegal in Turkey to raise the issue of genocide, except to deny it. We see websites like "The Other Side of the Falsified Genocide". Here the author not only denied the Armenian Genocide, but claoms that it was the Armenians who mistreated Turks, epecially Turkish orphans, forcing them to convert. Conversion is an especially henious step in Islam because the Koran prohibits it and it is punishable by death. The charge is rediculous and all the more absurd because Turkey and other Muslim countries have a terrible record of caring for orphans. You get incredible comments if you talk to most Turks on this subject. Typical is this internet posting. "The Ottomans were descendants of Seljuk Turks who had immigrated to Anatolia. They had a powerful empire from 1300 ac until 1923. They fell because British agents brought Armenians and Arabs weapons and made them betray ottoman empire." Here the Turkish poster does not deny the genocide, but suggests the Armenians deserved what they got.

Western Reaction

The Ottoman actions against the Armenians was widely published in the Western media. The resulting publicity generated considerable support for the Armenians. When news of the firsrt massacres reached America (1894), private groups, especially churches but also civic groups and various other ad hoc groups were organized to assist the Armenians. The National Armenian Relief Committee was formed. A wide range of groups (suffregetts, Protestant and Cathloic missionary groups, Jewish organizations, and others) raissed substantial funds. Many noted individuals (William James, Henry James, Stephen Crane, Julia Ward Howe, and many others) adopted the Armenian cause. Condemnation of the massacres was included in the 1896 Republican platform which was almost devoid of other foreign policy issues. When the Turkish genocide began in 1915 important Americans called for intervention. Again it attracted the support of important leaders. Relief funds were collected to aid those Armenians who managed to escape from Turkey. One of the most important groups was Near East Relief. Actual intervention to stop the Turks from killing Armenians never came. There was no international action tp punish the Turks after the killings. [Balakian] One might ask why. One of the primary reasons was the location of the killings. They took place in Anatolia, an area that could not be easily reached. Much of the killing took place during the War. After the War, the geo-political importance of Turkey made it a potentially costly country to confront. Also the issue of national soverignity discouraged intervention. Many felt and still do that what a country does within its own borders does not merit international intervention. This argument is still widely used today (Cambodia, Iraq, Rawanda, Sudan, and Yugoslavia).


Balakian, Peter. The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and the American Response (Harper Collins: 2003), 475p.

Lewy, Guenter. The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey.

U.S. State Department. Classified assessment (November 1922). The report drew on information from the British Embassy in Constaninople and the Near East Relief Society in Syria.


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Created: August 21, 2003
Last updated: 3:07 AM 1/11/2017