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A look at the Armenian genocide

Mirjam Gehrke | Thomas Latschan
April 24, 2021

As many as 1.5 million Armenians were killed in what was the Ottoman Empire during World War I. Yet the Turkish government has refused to acknowledge the crime as genocide, even to this day.

Historic back and white photograph shows a woman in the foreground carrying a swaddled baby, other women follow closely behind as soldiers watch on
Historians say Armenians were victims of genocide, subsequent Turkish governments have vehemently denied responsibilityImage: picture alliance/CPA Media/A. Wegner

In an effort to "solve the Armenian problem," Ottoman troops led hundreds of thousands of Armenians on forced marches into the Syrian desert during the years 1915-1916, thousands more were rounded up across the empire and summarily executed. Whereas many historians refer to these death marches and massacres as genocide, the Turkish government has never uttered the word, admitting only that there were mass expulsions and violent conflicts.

The result of a crumbling empire

By the end of the nineteenth century, the traditional lands of the Armenian people were split between the Ottoman, Persian and Russian Empires. Consisting of nearly 2 million people, the Armenians were the second largest minority group in the Ottoman Empire, just behind the Greeks.

The Ottoman Empire was beginning to crumble and nationalism was growing among individual ethnic groups as the world drifted toward The Great War and when Armenian farmers and merchants rebelled against increasingly high taxation to pay for Ottoman military efforts, their protests were brutally crushed by Ottoman troops.

Between 1890 and the outbreak of the World War I, Turks and Kurds committed numerous massacres against the Armenians. At the same time, Armenian terrorists also carried out a number of attacks on the Ottomans — even on the reigning sultan.

Armenian genocide memorial in Yerevan, Armenia
This memorial in Yerevan, Armenia, is a reminder of the crimes committed against Armenians during WWIImage: picture-alliance/Arco Images/Therin-Weise

Mass execution of Armenians

The Ottoman Empire fought against Russia during the war and many Armenians joined partisan groups intent on helping invading Czarist Russian troops. Armenian volunteer battalions who fought alongside Russians hoped that the Czar would later support their independence effort. Ottoman leadership claimed Armenians were responsible for the Empire's military defeat at the hands of Russia and in early 1915, Armenian soldiers in the Ottoman army were disarmed and entire units were forced to labor as road builders and then later shot.

Forced exodus to rid Turkey of Armenians once and for all

On April 24, 1915, as anti-Armenian sentiment became increasingly violent, raids were carried out in Istanbul where authorities arrested and deported thousands of intellectuals belonging to the Armenian elite. The Ottoman interior minister at the time declared that the aim of the operation had been to rid the capital of Armenians.

In May, the Ottoman army began the mass deportation of all remaining Armenians from the eastern regions of the empire, claiming they might aid invading Russian troops. At the time, Germany's vice consul in the eastern city of Erzurum wrote to the German ambassador in Istanbul, saying: "After the war, as a leading personality literally said, 'we won't have any Armenians in Turkey.' And if that aim cannot be achieved through various massacres, they hope the hardships of long journeys to Mesopotamia and its strange climate will."

Map of Armenian settlements in Turkey in 1915

'Shameful act of the past'

In 1919, following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, Grand Vizier Damat Ferid Pasha officially declared that a "crime" had been perpetrated against the Armenians and the empire's foreign minister admitted that some 800,000 Armenians had been deported. When Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey, opened his new country's parliament in Ankara on April 24, 1920, he called the genocide of Armenians a "shameful act of the past" — subsequent Turkish governments, however, including the current administration, have refused to utter the word.

Late German apologies and a contentious resolution 

The United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, which went into effect on January 12, 1951, defines genocide as "acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group." Most historians say that intent is clearly documented in historical source material. Many countries have officially recognized the crimes committed against Armenians as genocide, among them, the Federal Republic of Germany.

In a June 2005 statement, Germany's Bundestag parliament expressly apologized to the Armenian people for the fact that the then German Empire did not undertake steps to stop the killing. In 2016, Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, passed a non-binding resolution on the "Remembrance and commemoration of the genocide of Armenians and other Christian minorities in 1915 and 1916" — German Chancellor Angela Merkel, then Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, and then foreign minister and now Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, did not, however, participate in the vote.  

Germany condemns Turkish threats against lawmakers

This article has been translated from German by Jon Shelton