This lesson examines the ways in which historical evidence has been used to construct a narrative of the Armenian Genocide. In 1915, there was no word to accurately describe what the Turks were doing to the Armenians. Raphael Lemkin did not coin the term "genocide" until Nazi brutality in Europe brought mass murder closer to the heart of the Western world. In the Ottoman Empire, journalists, diplomats, and other witnesses struggled to find language to convey the depth and the enormity of the anti-Armenian measures. Accounts refer to "horrors," "barbarity," "massacres," "murder," "deportations," or "ravages," but no word captures the scale of the violence.
This lesson addresses the following essential questions:
In this lesson students will...
- Analyze primary source evidence of the Genocide of the Armenians.
- Understand the systematic nature of the Armenian Genocide.
- Evaluate how the study of history can be "used" as a tool to prevent future atrocities
- and "abused" as a tool to reinforce divisions among people.
Selected Readings from Crimes Against Humanity and Civilization:
Planning Mass Murder, pp. 72-75
Under the Cover of War, pp. 87-91
The German Connection, pp. 94-97
Following Orders, pp. 98-100
Women and the Deportations, pp. 101-103 Websites:
A selection of Armin T. Wegner's photographs of the Armenian Genocide
Maps of World War I
The Armenian Genocide (Two Cats Productions/Oregon Public Broadcasting)
Flip chart paper and markers
Show a brief segment from the film The Armenian Genocide (minutes 12:50-14:45) to develop the historical context for this lesson. Before viewing this short clip, ask students to listen for information about the relationship between WW1 and the Ottoman Empire. This is an appropriate time to review any previous study of WW1, such as which nations were members of the Axis and Allied powers. When the segment is over, have students discuss the relationship between WW1 and the Ottoman Empire. [Prompts: Which countries were allies of the Ottoman Empire? Who was the Ottoman Empire fighting against? To what extent was the Ottoman Empire successful in their war effort?]
1. Watch segment 14:45-25;00. Before viewing this clip, ask students to divide a page into two columns. In one column, students should record any historical facts that they think are important. In the other column, students should record any words or images that are especially interesting or disturbing. To encourage students to take notes, you might suggest that students record five entries on each column.
2. Have students share their responses in pairs, groups, or as a whole group. To review some of the historical information in the film, divide the class into groups and challenge them to identify at least five different steps that the Young Turks took in their efforts to exterminate the Armenians to achieve their goal of "Turkey for the Turks."
3. Explain that the filmmaker, Andrew Goldberg and his assistants worked with historians and other scholars as well as decedents of victims, perpetrators, and bystanders of the Armenian Genocide to create the film. The film combines scholarly insights along with primary source material in an attempt to testify to the horrors of the Armenian Genocide. In this activity, students will explore some of that evidence for themselves.
4. Divide students into six small groups to look at some of the evidence. Assign each group one of the documents from the readings list above. Help students locate the primary source document contained within each reading. One group can be given a selection of photographs as their document. Students should consider the following questions about their document:
- Describe the source. What kind of source is it (an interview, a government document, a journal entry, a newspaper article, etc)?
- Who created this document (wrote it, said it, took the picture)?
- What does this source tell you about what happened to the Armenians in 1915?
- Because the class does not have time to read every document, each group is responsible for sharing a small part of the document with the rest of the class. What is the most important sentence or two that you want to share? Or, for the group that has the photographs, ask them to select the most important image to share. Why?
- At this point you might ask students to write in their journals on the question,
- "What do I know about what happened to the Armenians in 1915? How do I know it?"
5. Rearrange the students in groups that contain a representative for each document. Have students take turns sharing information about their source with this new group. Option: Create a template for students to take some notes about each document.
6. Debrief the activity. Note that students were just exposed to six different sources about the Armenian Genocide ranging from government documents to survivor testimony. This is the kind of evidence that Andrew Goldberg used when making his film. After hearing from their classmates, have students return to their previous journal entry. Ask them to respond in writing to the following prompts: What do you know now about what happened to Armenians in 1915? How do you know it? What have you learned about this history from your classmates?
Because this material is emotionally disturbing, it is important that students have a safe space in which to process it. One way to do this is through a silent "Big Paper" activity.
Step One: Importance of Silence
Before this activity occurs, it must be made clear that for the first two parts of this process, there is to be absolute silence. All communication is done in writing. Students should be told that they will have time to speak in pairs and in the large groups later. Also, before the activity starts, the teacher should ask students if they have questions, to minimize the chance that students will interrupt the silence once it has begun.
Step Two: Silent conversation begins
Each pair receives a Big Paper and each student a marker or pen. In the middle of the Big Paper ask half of the pairs to write the following question: How can knowing this history be used to help us prevent future atrocities? Ask the other half to write the questions: How do we avoid using the history of genocide to promote ethnic and religious stereotyping and violence? Ask students to comment on their respective question. They can ask questions of each other in writing on the Big Paper. The written conversation must start on the text but can stray to wherever the students take it. The teacher can determine the length of this step, but it should be at least 15 minutes.
Step Three: Read and comment on the conversations
Still working in silence, the students leave their partner and walk around reading the other Big Papers. Students bring their marker or pen with them and can write comments or further questions for thought on other Big Papers.
Step Four: Silence is broken
The pairs rejoin back at their own Big paper. They should look at any comments written by others. Now they can have a free, verbal conversation about the text, their own comments, what they read on other papers, and comments their fellow students wrote back to them.
Step Five: General discussion
Have a general discussion about themes and ideas noted on the Big Papers. You might also discuss what it means to be a responsible student of history.
If you started with lesson one, now is a good time to review Gorky's painting, "An Artist and his Mother." In 1915, like most Ottoman Armenians, Gorky was deported from Armenia with his mother and sisters. His mother eventually died of malnutrition as a result of their deportation. Share the following words of Gorky with the class:
"I shall resurrect Armenia with my brush for all the world to see."
"As Armenians of Van.... We lived and experienced it. The blood of our people at the hands of the Turks, the massacres.... Our death march, our relatives and dearest friends dying.... before our eyes. The loss of our homes, the destruction of our country by the Turks, Mother's starvation in my arms. Vartoosh dear, my heart sinks now in even discussing it."
Ask students to reinterpret the painting based on this new information they have about Gorky and his history.
Ask students to synthesize what they learned in lessons two and three by having them respond to the following prompt: How did the genocide of the Armenians happen? Write a list of all of the factors that contributed to this event. Challenge students to list at least ten factors. After reviewing this history on their own, students are in the position to address the questions, "If you were teaching this history to others, what points do you think are most important? What do you think others should take away from a study of this moment in history? Why?"