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:
- From reading this declaration, what do you learn about what was happening in the Ottoman Empire in 1915?
- The Allies writing this letter refer to "new crimes of Turkey against humanity and civilization." What do you think they mean?
- What do you think is the purpose of this letter?
- 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.