Armenian Genocide Begins

The genocide of nearly one million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire was a carefully orchestrated plan by that government and its officials to provide a final solution to the Armenian question.

Summary of Event

Several factors contributed to the massacre of close to one million Armenians in Turkey during World War I. The Ottoman Empire was in rapid decline in the latter half of the nineteenth century. European powers, notably the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and (after 1871) the German Empire gradually severed various parts of the once-great empire. The Treaty of San Stefano San Stefano, Treaty of (1878) ended the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War (1877-1878)[Russoturkish War] at Turkey’s expense. The genesis of that war had been the massacres carried out by Turkish troops in Bulgaria in 1876. As a result of the treaty, the Ottomans lost territory to Russia. The Russian imperial government acted as the protector of Christians within the Islamic Ottoman Empire, and Russia pressured the Ottoman government to allow Christian Armenians to have administrative autonomy in eastern Turkey. Genocide;Armenia
World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];Armenian genocide
Armenian genocide
Ottoman Empire;Armenian genocide
[kw]Armenian Genocide Begins (Apr. 24, 1915)
[kw]Genocide Begins, Armenian (Apr. 24, 1915)
World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];Armenian genocide
Armenian genocide
Ottoman Empire;Armenian genocide
[g]Armenia;Apr. 24, 1915: Armenian Genocide Begins[03760]
[g]Ottoman Empire;Apr. 24, 1915: Armenian Genocide Begins[03760]
[g]Turkey;Apr. 24, 1915: Armenian Genocide Begins[03760]
[c]Atrocities and war crimes;Apr. 24, 1915: Armenian Genocide Begins[03760]
[c]World War I;Apr. 24, 1915: Armenian Genocide Begins[03760]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Apr. 24, 1915: Armenian Genocide Begins[03760]
Talât Paşa, Mehmed
Enver Paşa
Cemal Paşa, Ahmed
Abdülhamid II
Morgenthau, Henry, Sr.
Gökalp, Ziya
Lepsius, Johannes
Scheubner-Richter, Max Erwin von

A second treaty, the Treaty of Berlin (1878), Berlin, Treaty of (1878) signed by the Ottoman Empire and Russia, essentially modified the San Stefano stipulations by allowing the Ottoman government to agree only to treat the Armenians fairly rather than granting them autonomy. The modification eliminated the earlier treaty’s insistence on better treatment of the Armenians as a condition for the withdrawal of Russian troops from eastern Turkey. Nevertheless, Armenians were confident that Russian policy and national interest would effectively guarantee their safety from any attempts by the Turks to massacre their people.

Threats to Armenian survival in Turkey continued after 1918, and residents of the neighboring Armenian homeland faced new challenges when the Soviet Union was formed in the early 1920’s, as this 1921 appeal for American help shows.

(Library of Congress)

This confidence provided misplaced: Sultan Abdülhamid II carried out a large-scale massacre of Turkish Armenians between 1894 and 1896. The sultan justified his actions by accusing the Armenian mountaineers of the Sassoun district of rebelling against government authority. He claimed that the Armenians’ refusal to pay customary protection tribute to Kurdish chieftains was sufficient grounds for military action. In the end, a total of between 200,000 and 250,000 Armenians are estimated to have been killed by Turks and Kurds (a predominantly Islamic ethnic minority). International protests and Russian threats averted a greater loss of Armenian lives. This event, together with the discontent of national minorities within the Ottoman Empire, especially in the Black Sea area, eroded the power of the sultanate. Turkey was perceived by the Great Powers as the “sick man” of Europe.

In Thessaloníki (Salonika), Turkish army officers loyal to the Committee of Union and Progress (the “Young Turks”) Young Turks were embracing a new revolutionary ideology and a program of action that would capsize Abdülhamid II’s regime and, they hoped, restore the empire to its former grandeur. On July 23, 1908, Abdülhamid II was overthrown. The Young Turks, however, were not able to consolidate power until January 26, 1913, when Enver Paşa and Mehmed Talât Paşa took control of the Ottoman Empire. They were joined later by Ahmed Cemal Paşa. These three constituted the dictatorial triumvirate that was responsible both for Turkey’s entry into World War I on the side of the Central Powers and for the genocide of nearly one million Armenians. The triumvirs espoused a new ideology known as “Pan-Turkism.” This ideology was shaped by the intellectual Ziya Gökalp, who was a close friend of Mehmed Talât Paşa and a member of the Central Council of the Committee of Union and Progress. Mehmed Talât Paşa was a forceful advocate for extermination of the Armenian people as part of an effort to “Turkify” Turkey.

The triumvirate planned the extermination of the Armenians before the outbreak of World War I. The genocide was discussed by members of the Central Council in 1913 at a series of secret meetings. A chief aim of the Young Turks was the reunification of Ottoman Turkey with Turkish Caucasia (which was part of Russia) and Central Asia, but the Armenians were an obstacle to their proposed Pan-Turkish empire. The Armenians were accordingly scheduled for elimination. It is unclear if the triumvirs really believed that the Armenians might pose a threat to Turkey by fighting on the side of Russia in the event of war. They may merely have seen them as ethnically “impure” elements standing in the way of Turkish racial unity. Whatever the case, from 1913 onward the officials of the junta at Constantinople informed governors and police chiefs of their planned genocide of the Armenians. The exact time of the genocide would be determined by events.

After Germany invaded France on August 2, 1914, the Turkish government moved swiftly to join the war on the side of Germany. Ottoman troops crossed the Egyptian border and had a minor clash with British forces, and the United Kingdom declared war in response. The war served as a pretext for the planned genocide, and the triumvirs were poised to strike at the Armenians. The Dashnak Party, an Armenian political party, called on its members and all Turkish Armenians to be loyal to Turkey in the event that war broke out between Russia and Turkey. Nearly one-quarter million Armenians were inducted into the Ottoman armed forces. During January, 1915, Turkish forces led by Enver Paşa suffered a major defeat by Russia at Sarikamiş, on the Russian border. The junta was convinced that military defeat by the Russians was imminent and feared that revolution might break out among their subjugated nationalities. The Turkish triumvirate made the crucial decision to exterminate the Armenians in order to deflect attention from their failure on the battlefield and to implement their ideology of “Turkey for the Turks.”

Melvanzrade Rifat, Rifat, Melvanzrade a member of the Central Council, recorded a telling discussion at a council meeting to the effect that, because Turkey was at war, the time was opportune to exterminate the Armenians while the European powers were preoccupied with their own struggles. Rifat noted the council’s decision that even though the projected massacre might create some difficulty and public objections, it would be an accomplished fact before the Europeans could react. Another member of the Central Council did not mince words, stating that an easy technique to exterminate the Armenians would be to send Armenian troops to the front to fight the Russians. The Armenians who were engaged with the Russians would then face fire from special forces in their rear sent there by the government for that purpose; they would be trapped and annihilated.

The massacres began on April 24, 1915, when the leaders of the Armenian community in Constantinople were seized by the authorities and executed. This date is still commemorated as the beginning of the Armenian genocide, which would continue, in spurts, until the early 1920’s. Armenian military units were disarmed by the Ottoman government. They were systematically starved, beaten, and finally shot. Squads of fifty or one hundred Armenian troops were sent into the countryside, allegedly to work on roads and other projects, and were shot by Turkish troops. Two thousand Armenian soldiers were sent out from Harput in July, 1915, and murdered in the countryside; their bodies were piled in caves. Many thousands of Armenians were murdered in this fashion.

The Ottoman government, to save ammunition, decided to carry out a mass deportation of Armenians, claiming that they posed a national security threat near the Russian border, where Russian forces were penetrating eastern Turkey. Many of the deportations, however, occurred far from the front. The deportation of many thousands was carried out during the summer months of 1915. Few of the deportees reached their destination in the Syrian wilderness. In Angora (modern Ankara), the vali (governor) refused to deport Armenians. The Young Turks replaced him with a governor more eager to do the bidding of the Central Council. This reliable party man carried out the wishes of the junta. Most of the Armenian inhabitants of Angora were moved at night to an area called Asi Yozgad, where Turkish tanners and butchers murdered the defenseless Armenians and threw their bodies into a river from a bridge. The sight and stench of the many bodies in the river compelled the authorities to close the bridge during the hours of daylight. The triumvirs did not keep count of the dead. According to an American relief worker, Stanley Kerr, of eighty-six thousand Armenians once living in the city of Sivas, only fifteen hundred remained in 1918. Fifteen thousand Armenians were killed in Bitlis, in the adjacent district, in a single day in 1915.

Kurds were employed by Turkish officials to murder Armenians. The Ottoman government recruited Kurds and ordered them to kill Armenians, especially males, children, and old women; young women were often spared. Kurds tossed bodies of Armenians into ravines, cisterns, and caves. Mehmed Talât Paşa, after making himself grand vizier, boasted to the American ambassador, Henry Morgenthau, Sr., that he had done in three months what Abdülhamid II had failed to do in thirty years. When Morgenthau protested the massacres, Talât reportedly replied, “The massacres! What of them? They merely amused me.”

The massacres were repeatedly denied by Turkish and German officials as inventions of the newspapers. Later, when the fact of the massacres was established, both the junta and its German allies dismissed them as a national security necessity. The United States protested and, along with the United Kingdom, made it clear that Turkish officials would be held personally responsible for the atrocities in the Armenian provinces of Turkey. Otherwise, nothing further could be done until the end of the war. A Turkish military tribunal then tried the triumvirs in absentia for complicity in mass murder of the Armenians. Their sentences were carried out in various ways: Mehmed Talât Paşa was killed by Armenian exiles in 1921; Ahmed Cemal Paşa was assassinated on July 21, 1922, in Soviet Georgia, also by Armenian exiles; and Enver Paşa was killed in action in the Bukhara region on August 4, 1922, leading an attack against Soviet troops.


The calculated murder of the Armenians generated world outrage. Unfortunately, that outrage took the form of parades, speeches, fund-raising for the hapless survivors, and protests from several foreign offices in a futile attempt to stop the genocide. These efforts provided no meaningful punitive or ameliorative effects. The inadequacy of the international response was perhaps influenced by the fact that the governments of the United States, England, and France reacted incredulously to the mounting evidence of the mass extermination of a people. Such gargantuan evil seemed beyond imagining, although history was already replete with pogroms and genocide.

The establishment of the League of Nations after World War I was an important development and perhaps did prevent many atrocities. The League of Nations was clearly concerned about human rights and had some limited success combating the international slave trade. Its several conventions on the rights of people to be free from compulsory labor and state torture were giant steps that laid at least a foundation for respect of human rights. The Armenian genocide did not inspire all these efforts, but it did galvanize much contemporary interest in preventing mass atrocities.

The world forgot the Armenian genocide too quickly. In part, such forgetfulness was connected with the enormous slaughter on the battlefields of Europe and Africa; another several hundred thousand deaths did not seem to matter. Indeed, in August, 1939, Adolf Hitler, in discussing his planned murder of the Polish people, asked his advisers, “Who still talks nowadays of the extermination of the Armenians?” Hitler understood how quickly that slaughter was forgotten by the world. Who would be concerned about the Poles or the Jews in the midst of a world war? Hitler’s question places in stark relief the significance of the Armenian genocide: It was an emblematic opening to a century characterized by such atrocities. Genocide;Armenia
World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];Armenian genocide
Armenian genocide
Ottoman Empire;Armenian genocide

Further Reading

  • Bloxham, Donald. The Great Game of Genocide: Imperialism, Nationalism, and the Destruction of the Ottoman Armenians. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. In addition to the details of the genocide itself, this book spends a great deal of time on the international situation that made the genocide possible and on the international reaction both during and afterward. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Boyajian, Dickran, ed. Armenia: The Case for a Forgotten Genocide. Westwood, N.J.: Educational Book Crafters, 1972. A collection of primary sources that document the origins and implementation of the Armenian genocide.
  • Dadrian, Vahakn N. The History of the Armenian Genocide: Ethnic Conflict from the Balkans to Anatolia to the Caucasus. Providence, R.I.: Berghahn Books, 1995. Scholarly account of the history of and factors leading to the Armenian genocide. Annotated bibliography.
  • _______. “The Role of the Special Organization in the Armenian Genocide During the First World War.” In Minorities in Wartime, edited by Panikos Panayi. Providence, R.I.: Berg, 1993. This informative study examines the origins and activities of special units that were recruited from Ottoman prisons and used in actions against the Armenians.
  • Hartunian, Abraham. Neither to Laugh Nor to Weep: A Memoir of the Armenian Genocide. Boston: Beacon Press, 1968. Detailed and sympathetic treatment of how a people were murdered. Contains graphic descriptions of torture, drowning, and other nightmarish ways people were exterminated.
  • Hovannisian, Richard G. The Armenian Holocaust: A Bibliography Relating to the Deportations, Massacre, and Dispersion of the Armenian People, 1915-1923. Cambridge, Mass.: Armenian Heritage Press, 1980. This book provides a convenient list of archival resources, collections of documents, and memoirs on the Armenian genocide.
  • _______, ed. The Armenian Genocide: History, Politics, Ethics. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. This collection of fourteen essays by specialists examines various aspects of the Armenian genocide.
  • _______. The Armenian Genocide in Perspective. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Press-Rutgers University, 1986. These eleven multidisciplinary studies of the genocide incorporate findings from sociology, psychiatry, political science, literature, ethics, and history.
  • Kloian, Richard, ed. The Armenian Genocide: News Accounts from the American Press, 1915-1922. 3d ed. Richmond, Calif.: ACC Books, 1985. Voluminous collection of contemporary news accounts of the genocide tells a poignant but credible story of the first holocaust of the twentieth century. The author comments on numerous specific atrocities that prove that there was a holocaust. Turkish revisionism is forever debunked by this interestingly designed account of the Armenian genocide.
  • Lang, David M. The Armenians: A People in Exile. Winchester, Mass.: Allen & Unwin, 1981. Describes successive genocides against the Armenians by Ottoman rulers. The focus is on the years from 1894 to 1918. A balanced account by any criterion.
  • Melson, Robert. Revolution and Genocide: On the Origins of the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992. Examines the roots of both the Armenian genocide and the Jewish Holocaust. Seeks to analyze the forces that led to genocide and to revolution. Bibliography and index.
  • Miller, Lorna Touryan, and Donald Eugene Miller. Survivors: An Oral History of the Armenian Genocide. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. This collection of interviews from more than one hundred survivors of the Armenian genocide provides highly personal historical insights. Includes a bibliography and an index.
  • Morgenthau, Henry. Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story. Reprint. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2003. Memoir of the U.S. ambassador to Turkey; provides a firsthand account of the triumvirate and the Armenian genocide. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Somakian, Manoug. Empires in Conflict: Armenia and the Great Powers, 1912-1920. London: Tauris Academic Studies, 1995. This work examines the Armenian question in the context of international relations before and after the genocide.

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