In 1913, an ultra-nationalist group from within the Young Turks took control of the Ottoman government in a coup d’etat. 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.”
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. This radical faction saw the global crisis caused by World War I as a window of opportunity. 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—developed a plan to systematically exterminate the Armenians.
While the ministry of war led by Enver Pasha coordinated propaganda, Talaat Pasha, the minister of the interior, coordinated the mass murder of the Armenians. In January 1915, Talaat warned the Greek Patriarch that there was no room for Christians in Turkey and their supporters should advise them to clear out. Orders announcing the government’s plans for deportation began to circulate in late February 1915. By March, Armenian men in the Turkish army were being disarmed, placed in labor battalions, and killed.
Quietly, deportation had already begun in several communities. Armenian resistance was labeled sedition and used as propaganda to justify the murder and deportation of ordinary Armenian men, women, and children. By April, Armenian schools were closed. Later that month, on the night of April 23 and all through April 24, Armenian leaders and intellectuals in Constantinople were arrested and led outside of the city, where many were tortured and executed.
The deportation of Armenians from villages across the Ottoman Empire followed the same pattern. Families were given a few days to collect their belongings. Their property was sold off or given to the local population. Men were rounded up and killed. Convoys of the elderly, women, and children were sent on the road and subject to robbery, looting, and murder at the hands of the special operations units and local tribesmen. Children were often separated from their parents; some were forcibly converted to Islam and made to join Muslim families, and others were killed. Women were often raped, compelled to convert and join Muslim families in order to stay alive, or killed outright. The violence lasted for a period of three years during World War I and resulted in the deaths of some 1.5 million Armenians.
With Germany as an ally to the Ottoman Empire during World War I, German soldiers watched as the atrocities were carried out. The highest-ranking member of Germany’s military mission to Turkey, General Bronsart von Schellendorf, directly issued orders for the roundup and deportation of Armenians. Another high-ranking German officer, Lieutenant Colonel Boettrich, the military chief overseeing the construction of the Baghdad Railway, produced orders to deport the Armenian laborers, workmen, technicians, engineers, and administrators who were working on the railroad.
Nevertheless, German missionaries and many ordinary German citizens who witnessed the treatment of Christian minorities in the Ottoman Empire pleaded with their governments to respond. Despite these pleas, the German government chose not to intervene.
Germans were not the only witnesses to the violence. Indeed, while it is often referred to as a “hidden” or “forgotten” history, journalists, missionaries, and diplomats from many countries witnessed the atrocities or listened to firsthand accounts. In fact, the American reaction to the treatment of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire became one of the largest humanitarian responses in the history of the United States. Fundraising efforts were coupled with a public relations campaign designed to elicit sympathy for the Armenian orphans and refugees. Bureaucracies evolved to handle the distribution of money and materials for the Armenians. In many ways, the relief campaign for the Armenian Genocide provided a prototype for relief work in the twentieth century.
At the same time, American relief efforts were hampered by the official US policy of neutrality. President Woodrow Wilson was determined not to draw attention to the atrocities against the Armenians, lest Americans begin demanding US involvement. Because the Turks had not violated the rights of Americans, Wilson did not formally protest. But in Turkey, America’s role as bystander was contested. Henry Morgenthau Sr., a German-born Jew who had come to the United States as a ten-year-old boy and had been appointed ambassador to the Ottoman Empire by President Wilson in 1913, agitated for US diplomatic intervention.
Morgenthau was constrained by two background conditions that seemed immutable. First, the Wilson administration was resolved to stay out of World War I. Picking fights with Turkey did not seem to be a good way to advance that objective. And second, diplomatic protocol demanded that ambassadors act respectfully toward their host governments. American diplomats were expected to stay out of business that did not concern US national interests. “Turkish authorities have definitely informed me that I have no right to interfere with their internal affairs,” Morgenthau wrote. Still, the ambassador did what he could, continuing to send blistering cables back to Washington and raising the matter at virtually every meeting he held with Talaat. He found his exchanges with the interior minister infuriating.
Without support from the American government, Morgenthau had to look for help from private sources. He lobbied his friends at the New York Times to give the story prominent coverage and helped to raise funds for Armenian relief. Morgenthau continued to work tirelessly to aid the Armenians, including offering to raise money to relocate survivors to the United States. Yet he remained frustrated that he had not achieved more: “My failure to stop the destruction of the Armenians had made Turkey for me a place of horror—I had reached the end of my resources.”
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 the language to convey the depth and 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. Even without contemporary language, however, people knew what they saw.
On May 24, 1915, the Allied nations of Great Britain, France, and Russia warned the Young Turk leaders that their “crimes against humanity and civilization” would not go unpunished. But justice proved to be elusive. Holding Ottoman leaders accountable for war crimes was a task made more difficult by a lack of language and international law.