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The Armenian Genocide by Ottoman Turkey, 1915-1916

Facts and Figures Against Turkey's Myths and Holocaust Denials

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Armenian genocide monument bikfaya

A monument to the victims of the Armenian genocide, in which some 1.5 million Armenians perished at Turkish hands in 1915-16, rises on the rocks above the city of Bikfaya in the Lebanese mountains.

Ashnag via Flickr (http://www.flickr.com/photos/studioashnag/)
Updated March 19, 2009

Basic Facts of the Armenian Genocide

The Armenian genocide, the first instance of “ethnic cleansing” in the 20th century, was conceived and carried out by Ottoman Turks in 1915 who attempted to eradicate the empire’s Armenian population. The genocide fell short of its goal. Some 1.5 million Armenians were killed, 500,000 were uprooted from homes and properties they had occupied for more than two millennia, and deported.

The genocide is a historical fact rigorously documented—except in Turkey, where it is documented in the country’s archives but officially denied in its histories and politicians’ public declarations. There, official Turkish policy since 1923 has been not only to deny that a genocide ever took place, but to punish those who claim that it did. Those who make the claim of genocide in Turkey may be prosecuted under Turkish law for “insulting Turkish identity.”

The Armenian Genocide and Ambiguous American Policy

Nevertheless, the definition of the Armenian Holocaust as a genocide has posed a problem for recent American presidential administrations. Ronald Reagan in 1981 and Sen. Bob Dole in 1990 did not equivocate, calling the genocide by its name. But presidents since – the first George Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush—have refused officially to call the genocide as such except while campaigning for president. Once elected, they dropped the word from official diplomacy out of fear of alienating Turkey, a staunch (if temperamental) ally and a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Barack Obama pledged, on the campaign trail, that he “will recognize the Armenian Genocide,” noting that as a senator he “strongly” supported passage of the Armenian Genocide Resolution, which has been introduced by the U.S. House of Representative in every Congress since 2003, but, as of March 2009, had yet to get a floor vote.

The House resolution cites the joint declaration by the allies in 1915 (although the resolution incorrectly refers to the date of that declaration as May 24, rather than May 23, 1915), referring to the “crimes of Turkey against humanity and civilization.”

The Armenian Genocide: A Century of Evidence

The resolution also notes historical facts long established:

  • That the post-World War I Turkish government indicted and executed leaders involved in the organization and execution of the genocide.

  • That the chief organizers of the genocide, Minister of War Enver, Minister of the Interior Talaat, and Minister of the Navy Jemal were all condemned to death for their crimes, although the verdicts were not carried out.

  • That the genocide and Turkey’s judicial failures are documented with overwhelming evidence in the national archives of Austria, France, Germany, Great Britain, Russia, the United States, the Vatican and many other countries, including those at the United States National Archives and Record Administration (especially in its holdings under Record Group 59 of the United States Department of State, files 867.00 and 867.40, which are open and widely available to the public and interested institutions.

  • That Henry Morgenthau, U.S. Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1913 to 1916, explicitly described to the United States Department of State the policy of the Government of the Ottoman Empire as “a campaign of race extermination,” while a U..S. Senate Resolution on Feb. 9, 1916, resolved that “the President of the United States be respectfully asked to designate a day on which the citizens of this country may give expression to their sympathy by contributing funds now being raised for the relief of the Armenians.”

In addition, Senate Resolution 359, dated May 11, 1920, stated in part that evidence “clearly established the truth of the reported massacres and other atrocities from which the Armenian people have suffered.” Testimony heard in the Senate included evidence of “[m]utilation, violation, torture, and death [which] have left their haunting memories in a hundred beautiful Armenian valleys, and the traveler in that region is seldom free from the evidence of this most colossal crime of all the ages.”

The United Nations and U.S. Courts Call It Genocide

Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term “genocide” in 1944, was the earliest proponent of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide. He invoked the Armenian case as a definitive example of genocide in the 20th century. So did the United Nations War Crimes Commission in 1948. On September 10, 1984, a U.S. House Resolution resolved that “April 24, 1985, is hereby designated as `National Day of Remembrance of Man's Inhumanity to Man', and the President of the United States is authorized and requested to issue a proclamation calling upon the people of the United States to observe such day as a day of remembrance for all the victims of genocide, especially the one and one-half million people of Armenian ancestry.”

The following year, a United Nations report entitled “Study of the Question of the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide,” concluded that the Nazi Holocaust, in which 6 million Jews perished, “has unfortunately not been the only case of genocide in the 20th century. Among other examples which can be cited as qualifying are . . . the Ottoman massacre of Armenians in 1915-1916.”

Even America’s federal courts got involved. The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 1993, after a review of documents pertaining to the policy record of the United States, noted that the assertion on ambiguity in the United States record about the Armenian Genocide “contradicted longstanding United States policy and was eventually retracted.”

Turkey, Denial and the European Union

Turkey, meanwhile, continues to deny that a genocide took place, conceding only that deaths occurred on both Turkish and Armenian sides during World War I, and that many Armenians died of hunger.

Turkey's bid to gain admittance to the European Union hinges, in part, on Turkey passing a law that forbids trivializing or denying genocide. Such a law would directly contradict Turkish presumptions about a part of its history it refuses to face.

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