Identifying Raphael Lemkin's Outrage | Facing History & Ourselves
 1950 --- International lawyer Raphael Lemkin helped draft the Genocide Convention, which maps out prevention and punishment for the crime of genocide

Identifying Raphael Lemkin's Outrage

Students examine how Lemkin’s outrage over the crimes committed by the Ottoman Empire during World War I inspired him to take action.


At a Glance

lesson copy


English — US


  • History
  • Social Studies




One 50-min class period
  • Genocide


About This Lesson

In his early adulthood, Raphael Lemkin did not set out to change the world. He was inspired to act by his own outrage when he learned about the crimes the Ottoman Empire committed against Armenians during World War I- and outraged that the perpetrators of these crimes went unpunished. He could not believe that there was no legal precedent for punishing perpetrators of such terrible crimes against humanity. 

The purpose of this lesson is to help students understand Lemkin's outrage so that they can identify what motivated Lemkin to take action.

  • What is a crime against humanity? 
  • What does it mean to be morally outraged? How might someone turn moral outrage into action?

Students will:

  • Understand the phrase "crimes against humanity"; 
  • Be able to describe basic information about the Armenian Genocide and the trial of Soghomon Tehlirian; 
  • Recognize that in 1921 there was no legal precedent for prosecuting perpetrators of crimes against humanity; 
  • Gather information from primary and secondary sources.

This lesson is designed to fit into one 50-minute class period and includes:

  • 2 activities
  • 2 readings
  • 2 assessments
  • 1 extension activity

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Lesson Plan


In groups or individually, have students read the first part of the reading, "Sovereignty Cannot be Conceived as the Right to Kill Millions." Students should stop reading at the asterisks. To guide their reading, you might ask students to focus on the following comprehension questions:

  1. Who was killed in Germany in 1921?
  2. Who killed him? Why?
  3. What evidence does this narrative provide to support the Allies' statement that Turkey was committing "crimes...against humanity and civilization"?
  4. Based on this reading, what do you learn about the ability of nations (Turkey, France, Great Britain, Germany, etc.) to punish perpetrators of crimes against humanity?

You might review these questions with students after they have finished reading. Or, students can pair up and answer the questions together. This narrative contains historical material documenting graphic violence inflicted on the Armenian community. Thus, this would be an appropriate time to give students the opportunity to react to the narrative in their journals: What are they thinking about after reading this piece? What questions, ideas, or concerns does this reading provoke?

Open a discussion by allowing volunteers to share what they wrote in their journals. Students' own thoughts may help identify two problems addressed in this narrative: 1) the fact that crimes against humanity happen in the first place; and 2) the lack of an effective legal response to these crimes.

You can preview the next lesson by telling students that they will be learning about a man named Raphael Lemkin, and his response upon learning about Tehlirian's murder of Talaat. You might end class by having students discuss the following questions, or they could answer these questions for homework:

  1. Lemkin was outraged when he heard that the mass murder of the Armenians went unpunished. Imagine that you had the opportunity to talk to Lemkin. What advice would you give him? How could he turn his moral outrage into action? What options for action are available today that might not have been available in 1921? To what extent do you think he could make a difference or would you advise him not to pursue this work?
  2. What does it mean to be morally outraged? Have you ever been morally outraged by something? What was it? What did you do about it? Reflect on your actions. How do you feel about them? Would you do the same thing next time?
  3. In the absence of law, what can be done to prevent crimes against humanity and civilization, like those that took place in the Ottoman Empire during WWI?


Any of the questions in this plan can be used on an in-class or take-home quiz to assess students' understanding of the readings. Or, you can collect students' responses to these questions if they answer them in writing during class.

Ask students to write a letter to the editor of a newspaper responding to the murder of Talaat by Tehlirian. Or, you could have students write about this event as if they were journalists reporting for a local paper at the time.

Extension Activities

Students can read a primary source document: France, Great Britain, and Russia Joint Declaration given to the government of the Ottoman Empire in May, 1915. Before reading this document, review some background about WWI. A familiarity with the following terms will help students understand this document: Kurd, Turkish/Turkey, Ottoman Empire, Armenian, Constantinople, Allies. (Note: The glossary included with the primary source document contains explanations of these terms.) When setting the context for this document, you might want to show students a map of the Ottoman Empire.

Students can read the joint declaration in groups or individually. This short reading contains challenging vocabulary. It provides an opportunity for you to help your students practice paraphrasing difficult texts and using context clues to guess the meaning of unfamiliar words. You may wish to give them the version of the declaration with a glossary. As they read, ask students to highlight any language that helps them answer the following questions:

  1. From reading this declaration, what do you learn about what was happening in the Ottoman Empire in 1915?
  2. The Allies writing this letter refer to "new crimes of Turkey against humanity and civilization." What do you think they mean?
  3. What do you think is the purpose of this letter?
  4. According to the letter, what do the Allies intend to do to stop Turkey from committing crimes against humanity and civilization?

The Allied declaration accuses the Ottoman government of massacring its Armenian citizens. Thus, after reading this document, students might begin condemning the actions of the Ottoman Empire. This would be an appropriate time to help students reflect on what they know about the geography and politics of the region in 1915, as well as what they do not know. 

Given that we could always know more about a region or an event, when do we think we know enough to make a moral claim? Is there sufficient evidence within this one declaration to condemn the actions of the Ottoman government? What other evidence might students look for to strengthen any criticism they have of the Ottoman government?

This declaration holds particular historical importance because it was the first time the phrase "crimes against humanity and civilization" was used. To debrief the reading, you might ask students to discuss why the Allies used the phrase "crimes against humanity and civilization" rather than crimes against Armenians, crimes against Christians, or crimes against Turkish citizens. This discussion introduces students to the Armenian Genocide, explored in more detail in the next reading.

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