Genocide under the Cover of War | Facing History & Ourselves
 Fleeing from death. An Armenian mother on the heights of the Taurus Mountains.

Genocide under the Cover of War

Students learn about the events and choices of the Armenian Genocide and explore the consequences of the genocide from the perspective of survivors.


Two 50-min class periods


  • Civics & Citizenship
  • History
  • Social Studies




English — US



About This Lesson

In the previous lesson, students learned about the rise of nationalism within the Ottoman Empire and how a combination of external and internal forces contributed to the violent persecution of Armenians by the Ottoman state in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In this lesson, students explore the horrific consequences of this ideology during World War I. Specifically, they will examine how this earlier period of violence and repression transformed into a systematic Turkish campaign of genocide against the Armenians under the cover of war. On Day 1 of the lesson, students will be introduced to the historical context for the Armenian Genocide and will bear witness to the impact of the atrocities by listening and responding to survivor testimonies. Day 2 will focus on responses to the genocide from Turkish soldiers, rescuers, and diplomats from the governments of Germany and the United States. As students analyze these accounts, they will consider deeper themes related to a nation’s universe of obligation during times of crisis and war and will reflect on the role and responsibility of nations, groups, and individuals to intervene in cases of mass violence.

How can learning about the choices people made during past episodes of injustice, mass violence, or genocide help guide our choices today?

  • What might be the consequences for individuals and groups who are excluded from a nation’s universe of obligation?
  • What responsibility do nations have to intervene to stop mass violence in other countries? What responsibility do individuals, without the support of their governments, have to intervene on behalf of people facing danger?
  • Students will learn about the events and choices that comprised the Armenian Genocide and explore the consequences of the genocide from the perspective of survivors.  
  • Students will explore how individuals, groups, and nations defined their universes of obligation during the Armenian Genocide and reflect on the role and responsibility of nations, groups, and individuals to intervene in cases of mass violence and genocide.

This lesson is designed to fit into two 50-minute class periods and includes:

  • 7 activities
  • 5 teaching strategies
  • 4 videos (Day 1)
  • 2 handouts (Day 2) 

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.” 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. 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. 2 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. 3 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. 4

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.” 5

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.

  • 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 Samantha Power, A Problem from Hell (New York: Basic Books, 2002), 2.
  • 3Vahakn Dadrian, German Responsibility in the Armenian Genocide: A Review of the Historical Evidence of German Complicity (Watertown, MA: Blue Crane Books, 1996), 19.
  • 4Samantha Power, A Problem from Hell (New York: Basic Books, 2002), 5–7.
  • 5Samantha Power, A Problem from Hell (New York: Basic Books, 2002), 13.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before you teach this lesson, please review the following guidance to tailor this lesson to your students’ contexts and needs.

This two-day lesson introduces students to survivor testimony and the historical factors that contributed to the Armenian Genocide, as well as the response to the genocide from individuals and nations. The material may be disturbing for some students, so you should also carefully consider each of these suggestions before teaching this lesson:

  • Teachers know their students best. Preview each resource in this lesson before you share it with your students. Let students know in advance when they are about to encounter dehumanizing content. If necessary, omit resources that you believe will be too difficult for your students to engage with.
  • Briefly review the class contract with students before beginning the lesson. This will help to reinforce the norms you have established and underscore the idea of the classroom as a safe space for students to voice concerns, questions, or emotions that may arise.
  • Many students report that their journals provide a safe space where they can begin to process their emotions and ideas. Therefore, we recommend that students be invited to write in their journals at many points throughout this lesson.

They Shall Not Perish: The Story of Near East Relief details the humanitarian efforts of Americans who intervened on behalf of Armenians during the genocide. The clip from 9:40 to 17:45 offers a clear and comprehensive account of the events that comprise the Armenian Genocide. Because the film contains graphic depictions of violence, including portrayals of starvation and public hangings and discussions of sexual assault and predation, we recommend that teachers use it to deepen their own knowledge of this history. We urge teachers to consider carefully its appropriateness for their students before showing it in class. The activities in this lesson use a different documentary, The Armenian Genocide, that includes fewer graphic and disturbing images.

On Day 2 of this lesson, students will read a variety of accounts of the Armenian Genocide from Turkish soldiers, rescuers, and diplomats. Some readings are shorter and easier to comprehend than others, so you might consider in advance how you will group students for this activity. One option is to create heterogeneous groupings of readers so that the stronger readers can assist struggling ones with pacing, vocabulary, and comprehension. Alternatively, you might group students by level and work more closely with struggling readers to target specific literacy skills while allowing the more confident readers to tackle the content independently.

The following are key vocabulary terms used in this lesson:

  • Diplomat
  • Atrocities
  • Intervention

Add these words to your Word Wall, if you are using one for this unit, and provide necessary support to help students learn these words as you teach the lesson.

If your students are writing the final essay assessment for this unit, after teaching this lesson, instruct them to start gathering evidence in an evidence log. For suggested activities and resources, see Introducing Evidence Logs.

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Lesson Plans

Day 1 Activities

  • While the primary goal of this two-day lesson is to provide students with the opportunity to bear witness to personal stories from survivors and consider deeper themes associated with the Armenian Genocide, it is first necessary to briefly give students a framework to understand what happened.
  • Because the film The Armenian Genocide contains a lot of historical information for students to digest, share the information below about the Armenian Genocide in a brief mini-lecture before they watch the film:
    • Once an ultra-nationalist group from within the Young Turks took power in 1915, the country’s new leadership—Enver Pasha, Talaat Pasha, and Djemal Pasha—turned to a policy of mass deportation and murder of Armenians.
    • 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 known today as the Armenian Genocide. (The word genocide had not yet been invented.) The violence lasted for a period of three years during World War I and resulted in the deaths of some 1.5 million Armenians.
    • While the mass murder of Armenians was ordered by the Turkish government, the genocide was carried out by ordinary people, many of them former prisoners organized into mobile killing units known as the Special Organization.
  • Next, show students a clip from the film The Armenian Genocide (14:19–24:32). Apply the Two-Column Note-Taking strategy. On the left side of a piece of paper, students should record information about the steps leading to the genocide of the Armenians. On the right side, students should record their reactions to this information: a question, a comment, a feeling, or a connection to something they know about or have experienced. You may want to watch the video clip twice so that students have enough time to process the material.
  • Tell students that they will now watch three clips of video testimony from survivors of the Armenian Genocide. Show the clip of Mihran Andonian’s Oral Testimony (2:05) from the USC Shoah Foundation. In the clip, Andonian recalls a forced march through Cilicia that claimed the lives of most members of his extended family.
  • After students have watched the clip, give them a few minutes to write a response to his testimony in their journals using the S-I-T: Surprising, Interesting, Troubling teaching strategy. Then show the clip of Haigas Bonapart’s Oral Testimony (1:02) from the USC Shoah Foundation, in which Bonapart describes how he learned that the Ottoman forced-march "deportations" were actually intended to kill Armenians.
  • After they watch the testimony, ask students to write a response in their journals using the S-I-T teaching strategy. Finally, show the clip of Rose Apelian’s Oral Testimony (1:31) from the USC Shoah Foundation. Apelian, an Armenian American whose family moved to the Ottoman Empire shortly before the Armenian Genocide, remembers witnessing the death of her father, who was killed because he refused to convert from Christianity.
  • After they watch the testimony, ask students to write a response in their journals using the S-I-T strategy. Once students have finished journaling responses to all three testimonies, hold a class discussion on the following questions:
    • What aspect of the testimonies is most striking to you? What did it make you think about or feel?
    • What is the value of hearing this kind of firsthand account? How does it change the way you understand the Armenian Genocide?
  • To provide some quiet reflection time for students, ask them to privately respond to the material in today’s lesson using the Color, Symbol, Image strategy.
  • Tell students to reflect on the major themes, ideas, or emotions in what they’ve just learned and select one big idea they’d like to focus on. Then ask them to record the following information privately in their notebooks:
    1. Choose a color that you think best represents that idea.
    2. Choose a symbol that you think best represents that idea.
    3. Choose an image that you think best represents that idea.

Day 2 Activities

Ask students to privately journal a response to the following prompt. Explain to them that they will not share their answers with the class:

  • Think of a time when you had to choose between following authority and following your own morals. What choice did you make, and how did you come to that decision?  
  • Is it possible to find a balance between responsibility to authority and to your own moral principles?
  • Tell students that while World War I provided cover for the Ottoman state to perpetrate atrocities against the Armenians, there were also many witnesses—including ordinary Turks, journalists, diplomats, and humanitarians—who responded in various ways. Their stories can teach us important lessons about how individuals and groups construct their universes of obligation during times of war and crisis. Break the class into groups of three to four students, and give each group one of the four readings found in the handout Responses to the Armenian Genocide. The readings are titled:
    • An Ambassador’s Dilemma
    • The Limits of Diplomacy
    • A Soldier’s Orders
    • Daring to Rescue
  • Before beginning the activity, make sure that students read and understand the directions on their handout (some handouts have slightly different instructions). Once students have had enough time to investigate their sources and answer their discussion question(s), regroup as a class.
  • Tell students that in the next activity, they will be sharing their findings with their classmates and hearing about the choices and decision-making of other individuals and groups in response to the Armenian Genocide. Pass out the handout Responding to Genocide Jigsaw and read the directions aloud. Apply the Jigsaw strategy by asking students to leave their “expert” groups and find three group members, each of whom had different readings, to form “teaching” groups. Instruct the “teaching” groups to take turns summarizing their readings and recording information from other group members to answer the following discussion questions (also on their handouts):
    • What do these sources tell us about other nations’ knowledge of, and responses to, the Armenian Genocide?
    • What do these sources tell us about how individuals responded?
    • What do their responses reveal about the possibilities and limits of individuals acting without the support of their government?
  • Reconvene the class and discuss students’ answers to the discussion questions above.
  • To close the lesson, ask students to respond in their journals to one or more of the following questions. In their responses, students can choose to make connections to their own lives or the material discussed in class, or both:
    • What factors do you think prevent people from seeing each other as human beings? How can we help people expand their universes of obligation?
    • What responsibility do you think individuals and groups have to act when they see or hear others being attacked because of their race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or other aspects of their identity?
      • What are some ways we might take action?
      • What factors might prevent us from taking action?
      • What reasons for not taking action do you think are excusable? What reasons for not taking action are inexcusable?
  • Students can share their responses in a brief Think, Pair, Share discussion.

Materials and Downloads

Quick Downloads

These are the handouts that students use throughout the  Genocide under the Cover of War lesson plan.

Download the Files

Responses to the Armenian Genocide - PDF
Students read different accounts about how individuals and nations responded to the Armenian Genocide.
Responding to Genocide Jigsaw - PDF
Students use this handout to complete a jigsaw activity about responses to the Armenian Genocide.

Resources from Other Organizations

These are the videos that students will also use throughout the  Genocide under the Cover of War lesson plan.  

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