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Crimes of an Empire: The Armenian Genocide

Crimes of an Empire: The Armenian Genocide


Meskeneh was a horrible, horrible place. 60,000 Armenians had been buried under the sand there. When a sandstorm hit, it would blow away a lot of the sand and uncover those remains. Bones, bones, bones were everywhere then. Wherever you looked, wherever you walked.” Arpiar Massikian, survivor of the Armenian Genocide

Like all empires, the Ottoman Empire has a dark history of oppression. Issue 18 | A Magnificent Reign covers the harder truths of its “Classical Age” and the reign of Süleyman I. But this time period was only a fragment of its long history. The empire's final years mark a tragic chapter in its story.

During World War I, a new Ottoman government committed horrible atrocities against many groups of people, including the Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians. The acts against the Armenians, lasting from 1915 to 1923, are known as the Armenian Genocide. We wanted to take a moment to give a brief history of these events and provide further resources to discuss the topic with your kids.


Armenians in Ottoman Empire 1896
This map shows the Armenian population in the historical Armenian regions in 1896, Petermanns Geographische Mitteilungen.

History of Armenians during the Ottoman Empire

For centuries, the Armenian people lived in
 lands across the present-day Republic of Armenia and Republic of Turkey. Their traditional homeland was brought under the Ottoman Empire in the 15th and 16th centuries. During the early Ottoman Empire, Christian Armenians were able to retain their distinct linguistic and religious identity. The Ottoman sultan practiced Islam but gave non-Muslim subjects a level of autonomy in different regions.


This did not mean life was easy. Most Armenians lived in lands dominated by Kurdish nomads, who largely practiced Islam. The law in these regions favored Muslims, and Armenians often found themselves the victims of theft and violence. As non-Muslims, they also faced heavier taxes and limited rights. Still, many Armenians built successful careers under the Ottoman Empire. During the 17th to 19th centuries, Armenians obtained positions in banking, trade, government, and architecture.

Nigoğayos Balyan
Nigoğayos Balyan served as an architect for Sultan Abdulmecid I
and made many notable works. The Balyan family was one of the most
well-known Armenian families during the Ottoman Empire. Image credit:


Armenian success, and a growing Armenian political movement, created hostility and distrust from the Ottoman rulers. This distrust would erupt into mass violence against the Armenian people in the late 19th century. Between 1894 and 1896, Armenians formed their own political parties and protested harsh taxes. In response, hundreds of thousands were killed by the hands of Ottoman troops and Kurdish tribesmen.

Anti-Armenian feelings would increase in 1913. A revolutionary group called the Young Turks took complete control of the government and banned all other political parties. The same year, the Ottoman Empire lost almost all its lands in Europe. To save a dwindling empire, the Young Turks sought to modernize. But these ideas to modernize degraded into Turkish nationalism. Armenians, who were non-Turks and protested against unfair treatment, were seen as a threat to the empire. 

Young Turks Revolition
 This Greek lithograph celebrates the Young Turk Revolution. The Young Turks, also called the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), ran under the slogan of equality and liberty. In 1908, they overthrew the sultan and instituted a constitutional government. Unfortunately, the Young Turks turned away from ideals of liberty and towards a discriminatory policy of Turkification. Image credit: Wikimedia.


Genocide (1915 -1923)

During World War I, Armenians’ loyalty was divided—many lived near the border between the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire. Those who lived in Russian lands fought for the Triple Entente (Great Britain, France, and Russia) while Armenians in Ottoman lands fought for the Central Powers (Germany and Austro-Hungary). 

When the Ottoman army lost against Russia in the battle of Sarikamish in 1915, the Young Turks blamed the Armenians for the defeat. Armenians and non-Muslim soldiers were disarmed, and the Armenian soldiers were killed. At the same time, Ottoman troops attacked Armenian villages near the Russian-Ottoman border. Armenians, however, fought back. The Young Turks met this resistance with harsher tactics and mass-killings.

Later that year, the Ottoman government passed a law authorizing the deportation of Armenians. The Armenian people, who had lived in their homeland for millennia, were forced to leave for concentration camps in the desert. Many died on the way to or in these camps, and mass-killings continued. Similar methods were used to oppress the Greek and Assyrian populations of the Ottoman Empire. By this time, the Ottoman government’s crimes were getting international attention.  


“There are very few men among them as most of them have been killed on the road… The entire movement seems to be the most thoroughly organized and effective massacre this country has even seen.” Letter from American diplomat Leslie A .Davis describing conditions of the camps in 1915.

Armenian relief World War I poster
Poster from 1918 to raise money for refugees,
from the 
Library of Congress, LC-USZC4-1343.  
Americans raised over
$110 million (over $1 billion adjusted for inflation)
to help Armenian refugees and orphans.


From 1915 to 1923, the Ottoman empire justified discrimination under the guise of national security— something historians have seen again and again throughout the twentieth century. It resulted in the murder of an estimated 600,000 to 1,500,000 Armenians. Surviving women and children were taken from their families and forced to convert to Islam. In some cases, Turkish families risked their lives to rescue their Armenian neighbors. Those who escaped, fled to France, the United States, Russia, Spain, the United Kingdom, and countless other countries. By 1916, more than 80 percent of the Christian Armenians in the Ottoman Empire were gone. The events of 1915-1923 heavily motivated and informed Raphael Lemkin, the lawyer who coined the term “genocide” in 1944.

 Raphael Lemkin
 Raphael Lemkin. Image credit: Center for Jewish History.


As of 2021, thirty-one countries recognize the events of 1915-1923 as an act of genocide. The UN defines victims of genocide as people who are “deliberately targeted  not randomly – because of their real or perceived membership of a [national, ethnical, racial, or religious] group." Today, the Turkish government acknowledges that violence occurred but denies it was a targeted attack to eliminate the Christian Armenian people. Many Armenians hope this will change. After enduring over a century of denial, Armenians continue their fight to have the genocide recognized around the world.


Resources for Kids and Educators

At Honest History, we want parents and educators to have the best tools to explore the harder truths of history. We know genocide is a difficult topic to discuss with kids. Please take a look at the resources below and find the ones best suited for your family or classroom.


Cover image: Armenian Defenders of the City of Van, Summer 1915 from Greene, Joseph K. Leavening the Levant. Boston, MA: Pilgrim Press, 1916.