How World War I Enabled the Armenian Genocide

Genocide under the Cover of War

Consider how the Armenian Genocide was made possible by the staggering brutality of World War I.  
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At a Glance

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English — US


  • History
  • Human & Civil Rights
  • The Holocaust

Introducing the Armenian Genocide

Scholar Richard G. Hovannisian gives an overview of the Armenian Genocide.

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.  

Armenian mother and child in the desert

Armenian mother and child in the desert

An Armenian mother and child flee persecution by the Turks at the height of the Armenian Genocide.

© Armenian National Institute, Inc., courtesy of Sybil Stevens (daughter of Armin T. Wegner).

The American Response to the Armenian Genocide

Professor Peter Balakian describes the American response to the Armenian Genocide during World War I.

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.

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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.

Connection Questions

  1. Historians Debórah Dwork and Robert Jan van Pelt note that “the genocide of the Armenians was made possible by two events: the final collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the first decade of the twentieth century and the advent of total war in the second.” Why would the staggering brutality of World War I have made the Armenian Genocide possible? How might war provide an opportunity to enact policies that might not be possible or acceptable in a time of peace?
  2. The telegram from the Allied powers to the Ottoman government coined a new term in the language of human rights, describing the actions taken against Ottoman Armenians as “crimes against humanity.” This idea is now a key principle of international human rights law. The original draft of the telegram used the phrase “crimes against Christianity.” Consider the two phrases. What is implied by the choice of words? How is calling something a crime against humanity different from calling something a crime against Christianity?
  3. Read the Morgenthau telegram to the state department. What words would you use to describe the tone? What does Morgenthau want the secretary of state to know about what is going on? What choices were available to Morgenthau? In light of Morgenthau’s report, what choices were available to the secretary of state?
  4. Look at the photograph of the Mother and Child during Armenian Genocide  above. What can you learn about their situation by studying the image? What questions are you left with? Armin Wegner, a German medic who was in the Ottoman Empire during the genocide, took the picture and smuggled it out of the country along with many others. He wrote this caption for the photograph, which he called “Mother and Child”:

    Fleeing from death. An Armenian mother on the heights of the Taurus Mountains. Her husband has been killed or slaughtered, thrown into prison or driven to forced labor. On her back she carries all that she owns, i.e. what she could take with her, a blanket for sleeping or to use as a tent to protect against the sun, some wooden sticks, and then, on top of everything else, her baby. How much longer can she carry this weight? 

    How do Wegner’s comments influence the way you respond to the photograph?
  • 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.
  • 2Telegram sent to American embassy in Constantinople, May 29, 1915, available at the Armenian National Institute website, accessed May 6, 2016.
  • 3Telegram sent to Secretary of State from American ambassador in Constantinople, July 16, 1915, available at the Armenian National Institute website, accessed May 6, 2016.

How to Cite This Reading

Facing History & Ourselves, "Genocide under the Cover of War," last updated August 2, 2016.

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