At the beginning of World War I, the Ottoman Empire included territory that ranged from the Balkan Peninsula in Europe to parts of the Middle East. The ruler of the empire, known as the sultan, was facing serious challenges from inside and outside of the empire at the turn of the twentieth century. While minority groups within the empire were demanding equal rights, some Turkish reformers were seeking a more modern government. At the same time, there were tensions between the empire and other world powers.
Seizing the opportunity, a coalition of reformers called the Young Turks, with the support of some Armenians, overthrew the sultan in 1908 with promises of democratic reform and equal rights for all. However, the first few years of the new government did not go well. Supporters of the sultan led a massacre of Ottoman Armenians in Adana in 1909, and the empire lost territory in the Balkan wars of 1912–1913, when former minority subjects were able to free themselves from Ottoman rule.
Sensing weakness, an ultra-nationalist group from within the Young Turks took control of the government in a coup d’etat in 1913. Their plan for saving the shrinking empire was to create a modern state that favored people of Turkish descent like themselves; some scholars have described their program as “Turkey for the Turks.”1 The Armenians (a Christian minority that had lived for generations within the historically Muslim empire), Greeks, and other Christian minorities who had survived massacres under the sultan were now viewed as a threat. As the Ottoman Empire fought alongside Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I, the Young Turks leadership—Enver Pasha, Talaat Pasha, and Djemal Pasha—were prepared to solve the “Armenian problem” once and for all.
During the winter of 1914–1915, Armenian men who had been drafted into the Ottoman army were stripped of their weapons and killed. Attacks on Armenian villages and Greeks continued throughout the winter and early spring. On April 24, 250 Armenian intellectuals and leaders were arrested, marking the beginning of the systematic deportation and mass murder. In May, Allied leaders in Britain, France, and Russia asked the US ambassador, Henry Morgenthau, to pass along a telegram condemning the crimes to the Young Turks leadership. It read:
For about a month the Kurd and Turkish populations of Armenia has been massacring Armenians with the connivance and often assistance of Ottoman authorities. Such massacres took place in middle April . . . at Erzerum, Dertchun, Eguine, Akn, Bitlis, Mush, Sassun, Zeitun, and throughout Cilicia. Inhabitants of about one hundred villages near Van were all murdered. In that city Armenian quarter is besieged by Kurds. At the same time in Constantinople Ottoman Government ill-treats inoffensive Armenian population. In view of those new crimes of Turkey against humanity and civilization, the Allied governments announce publicly to the Sublime-Porte [Ottoman Government] that they will hold personally responsible [for] these crimes all members of the Ottoman government and those of their agents who are implicated in such massacres.2
Attacks intensified throughout the spring and summer. Reports poured into Morgenthau’s offices from American consuls across the Ottoman Empire describing the crimes. He was outraged. On July 16, he wrote a telegram to the American secretary of state, one of several he sent to his bosses in Washington:
Have you received my 841[telegram]? Deportation of and excesses against peaceful Armenians is increasing and from harrowing reports of eyewitnesses it appears that a campaign of race extermination is in progress under a pretext of reprisal against rebellion.
Protests as well as threats are unavailing and probably incite the Ottoman government to more drastic measures as they are determined to disclaim responsibility for their absolute disregard of capitulations and I believe nothing short of actual force which obviously the United States are not in a position to exert would adequately meet the situation. Suggest you inform belligerent nations and mission boards of this.3
Despite Morgenthau’s warning, massacres continued, using the cover of war. However, the war did not stop press coverage. In 1915, the New York Times ran 145 articles on what is now recognized as the Armenian Genocide. While the United States did not intervene militarily, humanitarian efforts launched with Morgenthau’s assistance by the Near East Relief Foundation, and supported by donations from people in the United States and around the world, are credited with saving over 100,000 lives. Despite these efforts, over 1.5 million Armenians were murdered.
- 1 : “‘Turkey for the Turks’: Demographic Engineering in Eastern Anatolia, 1914–1945,” in A Question of Genocide, 1915: Armenians and Turks at the End of the Ottoman Empire, ed. Ronald G. Suny and Fatma M. Göçek (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 287–305.
- 2 : Telegram sent to American embassy in Constantinople, May 29, 1915, available at the Armenian National Institute website, accessed May 6, 2016.
- 3 : Telegram sent to Secretary of State from American ambassador in Constantinople, July 16, 1915, available at the Armenian National Institute website, accessed May 6, 2016.
- 4 : Debórah Dwork and Robert Jan van Pelt, Holocaust: A History (New York: W. W. Norton, 2002), 35.