Report on Armenian Genocide Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This firsthand report, from what is now eastern Turkey, gave only a glimpse into the tragedy that was occurring in that region against members of the Armenian ethnic group. The failing Ottoman Empire had joined the German side in World War I, in part in reaction to successful revolts by various groups (predominately Christian) in the Balkan section of Europe. Then, in 1914, the Ottoman leaders blamed a failed attempt to invade Russia on Armenians (also Christians), saying they had alerted the Russians. This led to the Turkish leaders of the Ottoman Empire targeting the Armenian population for retribution, as the Turkish leaders believed the Armenians, as a whole, were not supportive of the government. Thus, what is now known as the Armenian Genocide began. Although never recognized as genocide by the Turkish government, more than eighty percent of the Armenian population of present-day Turkey was either deported or killed. This restrained letter, by Leslie Davis, regarding some of these activities is important because he directly experienced what was happening.

Summary Overview

This firsthand report, from what is now eastern Turkey, gave only a glimpse into the tragedy that was occurring in that region against members of the Armenian ethnic group. The failing Ottoman Empire had joined the German side in World War I, in part in reaction to successful revolts by various groups (predominately Christian) in the Balkan section of Europe. Then, in 1914, the Ottoman leaders blamed a failed attempt to invade Russia on Armenians (also Christians), saying they had alerted the Russians. This led to the Turkish leaders of the Ottoman Empire targeting the Armenian population for retribution, as the Turkish leaders believed the Armenians, as a whole, were not supportive of the government. Thus, what is now known as the Armenian Genocide began. Although never recognized as genocide by the Turkish government, more than eighty percent of the Armenian population of present-day Turkey was either deported or killed. This restrained letter, by Leslie Davis, regarding some of these activities is important because he directly experienced what was happening.

Defining Moment

In 1915, the United States was a neutral country in the First World War, with diplomats still serving in all the warring countries. The Ottoman Empire was one participant in the war, with its rulers joining the war in November, 1914. The Ottoman rulers were from a movement known as the Young Turks, who took power in 1908. Although the movement was initially secular, they discovered that to get support, the movement needed to promote Islam. In addition, rather than being multi-ethnic, as was the Ottoman Empire, this group focused on Turkish nationalism. When the Ottoman army failed in its attempt to capture the region around the Caspian Sea, a reason had to be given. Some Armenians were thought to have taken actions to alert the Russians, and it is not unlikely that some did. The new rulers of the Ottoman Empire decided to punish all the Armenians by both mass executions and deportation. The result was that tens of thousands of Armenians were executed, while even more were deported, often directly resulting in their deaths. The total punished in this way was probably over 1.5 million people. By the early 1920s, the Armenian population in Turkey was less than one fifth what it had been in a few decades earlier.

While these actions are documented in many places, the Turkish government has never accepted the idea that there was a systematic, organized effort to get rid of the Armenians, and, as such, the government writes or speaks in opposition to anyone claiming that there were efforts that resulted in an Armenian genocide; this includes material claiming that Davis lied and did not see what he said he did. Yet, there was no reason for him to fabricate any of this, since the United States and Turkey were nominally still on friendly terms. As a neutral observer, Davis was in contact with the ambassador to Turkey, Henry Morgenthau, partially because of his outrage at the treatment of all the people, but also out of concern for Americans and their families, as was appropriate for a person in his position. Much of what Davis sent to American officials was not widely distributed until the 1980s. There was some coverage of the events in the mainstream press in 1915, including Ambassador Morgenthau’s appeal to the Ottoman rulers to stop what was happening. However, events in the European theater of the war were the focus of most international reports in the United States, not what was happening within the Ottoman Empire.

Author Biography

Leslie Ammweron Davis (1876–1960) was the consul representing the United States in most of what is now eastern Turkey. He served in this capacity at Mamouret-ul-Aziz (near the historic city of Harput), which has since been renamed Elazig. A lawyer by training, Davis served in the diplomatic corps from 1911 to 1941. He served in the Ottoman Empire from 1914–1917, having previously been in the southern part of the Russian Empire. In 1918, he was moved back to Russia, and then to Finland. His final position was as Consul General in Scotland. As indicated in this report, he assisted some Armenians, most likely saving their lives. In addition to the earlier reports referenced in this letter, he continued to document the events in further reports to the United States’ State Department. He and his wife, Catherine Carman, were originally from Port Jefferson, New York. They had three children.

Document Analysis

Reading through the letter that Consul Leslie Davis sent to Ambassador Morgenthau, one is struck by the massive tragedy being described. However, even this description was restrained, as was proper for a diplomat. Davis was only reporting what he knew to be factual. It was clear that the regional government was behind the actions being taken against the Armenian ethnic group, and that these actions had the goal of getting rid of all Armenians within the province. The scope of the tragedy Davis was witnessing went far beyond anything from recent history, and so he had difficulty adequately conveying the information. His plea for authorization to take at least some action to assist the people was dramatic for his time and station.

For many who read Leslie Davis’ report to Morgenthau, the formal way in which the letter opens may seem out of line, given the subject being discussed. However, this was a different era and reports were composed in a different way than they are today. Davis acknowledged that he was being a pest about the situation by referring to the fact that he had sent brief communications on the subject for the past three days. It must be assumed that he did not receive adequate replies to them, which is the reason for this fuller communication regarding the actions being taken against the Armenians.

Although, historically, the Armenians had been solid citizens of the Ottoman Empire, Davis did admit that some probably had acted against the government during the past months. It was clear, however, that the government’s response went well beyond punishing the individuals involved. Massive retaliation had been taken against the general population in the region. In terms of specifics, Davis began with the arrest and torture of civic leaders, followed by the round-up of hundreds of other “leading Armenians” and their summary execution during the night.

The longest section of the report dealt with the deportation of the Armenians to what is now Syria. In hindsight, many of those deported were probably sent into the desert to be executed or to die, having been left there without supplies. The number of residents stated in the report–“about a million in the six Vilayets”–was not especially high. Nevertheless, the number of Armenians in what is now Turkey decreased from over two million to less than four hundred thousand in a very short time. The fact that the deportation was occurring within a few days of the people being notified meant that the Turks who remained in the area enjoyed a buyers’ market as far as the land is concerned, as reported by Davis. The image of “hungry vultures hovering over the remains” was very apt in this situation. The deportation was to start July 1, thus Davis’ rush to get authorization to assist the Armenians.

Only in the next to last paragraph of the letter does Davis mention his actual responsibility, helping American citizens. The fact that the regional governor, the vali, would not assist Davis to help Americans of Armenian descent living in the area, showed the depth of the hatred that the Ottoman government had for the Armenians. It was unclear what response Davis received from Morgenthau; however, records indicate that Davis did protect some Armenians by allowing them to stay at the Consulate before smuggling them out of the country.

Essential Themes

Davis’ report raises the issue of what the role of those who witness tragedies is, while at the same time it marks the emergence of the twentieth-century phenomenon known as ethnic cleansing. While such violent actions were not totally new, the efficiency with which it was now capable of being carried out was new. Given that change, Davis was confronted with the question of how to respond as he documented these events for his superiors.

The actions undertaken by the Turkish officials, and their German allies, were a combination of identifying scapegoats for a failed invasion into Russia and an attempt to destroy a part of the population that was seen by the government as undesirable. Unknown to Davis when he wrote this letter, some of the German military officers assigned to the region were encouraging the Turks to blame the Armenians and Jews for any problems. Most observers today see the actions of the Ottoman government against the Armenians as the first twentieth-century attempt at genocide. Genocide has continued to be a policy adopted by authoritarian governments in certain situations. Although the modern state of Turkey is a different entity from the Ottoman Empire of 1915, Turkey’s government has still not admitted that anything exceptional happened to the Armenians. The official Turkish view is that there was no genocide–what happened was exaggerated by Turkey’s enemies; only collateral damage during war took place in the case of the Armenians. (This position has, at times, hurt Turkey’s attempts at achieving better relations in the international community.)

A major question raised by this letter was, What should be the role of the United States when events such as this unfold? Davis did not have a military force at his disposal, nor the physical means to stop the events going on all around him. Since there was an ongoing war in the region, it would have been difficult to safely send personnel into the remains of the Ottoman Empire. Did the non-combatant nations, such as the United States, have an obligation to seek to protect the Armenian civilians who were unjustly being killed or deported? This and similar questions are raised by the events that Davis documented, and they are questions that have arisen from time to time down through the decades. We know that Ambassador Morgenthau requested that the Ottoman government change its policy toward the Armenians, but this did not happen. A central philosophical quandary from this is: What should the United States and other nations do when confronted with such situations?

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Balakian, Peter. The Burning Tigris: the Armenian Genocide and America’s Response. New York: HarperCollins, 2003. Print.
  • Davis, L. A. The Slaughterhouse Province. An American Diplomat’s Report on the Armenian Genocide, 1915–1917. ed. by Susan X. Blair, New York: Aristide D. Caratzas, 1989. Print.
  • Kifner, John. “Armenian Genocide of 1915: An Overview.” The New York Times, 2007. Web. 31 May 2014.
  • “Q&A: Armenian Genocide Dispute.” BBC News. BBC, 5 May 2010. Web. 31 May 2014.
  • Winter, Jay M., ed. America and the Armenian Genocide of 1915. New York: Cambridge UP, 2003. Print.
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