On Oct. 29, 2019, the U.S. House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to acknowledge the Armenian genocide that occurred at the hands of the Ottoman Turks during the First World War. Armenian-Americans have long-awaited this action, which was taken at a time of worsening U.S. and Turkey relations. The Prime Minister of Armenia, Nikol Pashinyan, lauded the motion on Twitter and called it “a bold step towards serving truth and historical justice.” Here are 10 facts about the Armenian genocide to further contextualize this important decision.
10 Facts About the Armenian Genocide
- The Armenian genocide refers to the systematic, premeditated massacre and forced deportation of more than one million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire. While the number of victims of the genocide is disputed, some estimates, such as one from the U.S. Congress, puts the number of Armenians killed by the Ottoman Empire at 1.5 million Armenians between 1915-1923. The genocide was an attempt by the Turks of the Ottoman Empire to eradicate the Armenian people.
- Prior to the twentieth century, the Armenian people had resided in the Caucasus region for approximately 3,000 years. The Armenians are predominantly Christian and in the fourth century A.D., the kingdom of Armenia was the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as its official religion. In the 1400s, that empire was that of the Ottomans. Led by Muslim Turks, the Ottoman Empire was suspicious of the Armenians who they feared would be more loyal to Christian governments. Nevertheless, the Armenians thrived under the empire until its decline, beginning in the late 1800s. Ottoman discrimination towards the Armenians reached a new high as the empire grew weaker. By the 1890s, the regime was already committing mass atrocities, including the killing of hundreds of thousands of Armenians.
- In 1908, the Young Turks, a nationalistic reformist group, overthrew the Sultan and formed a constitutional government. The Young Turks wanted to “Turkify” the empire and viewed the Christian non-Turks of Armenia as a threat to their regime. Indeed, when the Ottoman Empire entered the First World War on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary, the Turks declared war on all Christians with the exception of their allies in the war. World War I was the immediate backdrop of the Armenian genocide. The Turks used it as justification for their persecution of the Armenians, whom the Turks called traitors. As the war dragged on and some Armenians sought to aid the Russian army against the Ottomans, the Turkish regime set out to remove Armenians from their Eastern front.
- Historians consider the beginning of the genocide to be April 24, 1915. On this day, the Turks arrested and killed between 50 and more than 100 of Armenian intellectuals. After that, the Turkish government sent thousands of people on death marches and deprived them of basic needs, such as food and water. Often, Armenians were forced to walk naked until they died. The government had other gruesome ways to kill Armenians, including burning people alive.
- Most of the killings occurred between 1915-1916, during which period the Ottoman Empire systematically slaughtered and terrorized Armenians by raping, starving, shooting, drowning and maiming them. Many Armenians died from disease or were subjected to mass deportations as well. Even after World War I, the Turkish nationalist government continued its persecution of Armenians and other ethnic minorities in Cilicia, Smyrna (Izmir) and the Armenian highlands. The nationalist regime confiscated property from Armenians in order “to finance the ‘Turkification’ of Anatolia” and to incentivize ordinary Ottoman citizens to take part in the ethnic cleansing campaign.
- Ottoman forces sought to rid of the region of Armenian landmarks such as churches, homes and other cultural sites by destroying or confiscating the properties. According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, “tens of thousands of Armenian children were forcibly removed from their families and converted to Islam” because the Ottoman government wanted them to assimilate into Turkish society. In some cases, children could convert to Islam in exchange for staying alive. In addition to the Armenians, the Ottoman government targeted non-Turkic minorities, namely Yezidis, Assyrians and Greeks.
- Turkey refuses to acknowledge the Armenian genocide, though the Turkish government acknowledges that some atrocities happened. However, the government argues that the killings of the Armenians were not systematic or premeditated and were an unavoidable consequence of the war. Recognition of the Armenian genocide is illegal in Turkey, as it is considered to be “insulting Turkishness.”
- Recognition of the genocide by the U.S. is controversial because of the United States’ alliance with Turkey. For the first time in decades, the entire U.S. House of Representatives considered and decided to acknowledge the Armenian genocide. At the time of the ethnic cleansing and since then, the U.S. has condemned the Turks’ genocidal activities on various occasions. U.S. Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire (1913-1916), Henry Morgenthau, declared the Ottoman’s actions as a “campaign of race extermination” and organized protests by officials against the Ottomans. The U.S. government officially recognized the genocide in May 1951, April 1981, 1975 and in 1984.
- The Armenian genocide still has consequences to this day. There are 7-10 million people in the Armenian diaspora, and 3 million people in Armenia, who are descendants of the genocide. The genocide is, for some, core to Armenia’s identity. Yet others would like for Armenia to move and focus on problems in their own country. Turkey’s refusal to recognize the genocide affects its politics today and its relations to Armenia. However, there are groups (including liberal intellectuals and Kurdish groups) in Turkey that have acknowledged and apologized for the genocide.
- Denial of the genocide has far-reaching implications. Turkey’s denial of the genocide has hindered peace between Turkey and Armenia. This denial undermines the commitment to preventing future genocides and atrocities. The institutionalized denial shields the perpetrators of the genocide from blame. The U.S. has refused to acknowledge the genocide as such, under the argument that doing so would threaten regional security and U.S. interests in the Middle East. Turkey’s genocide denial has perpetuated the distrust and resentment Armenians have towards the Turks, as well as anxiety Armenians have that they are still under threat.
H. Res. 296: Affirming the United States Record on the Armenian Genocide
The House of Representatives recently passed a resolution acknowledging the genocide. This action is significant, as the previous U.S. attempts to recognize the genocide have resulted in renewed bilateral talks between Turkey and Armenia. Another positive effect of the United States’ recognition of the genocide is that it is front-page news across Turkey. Thus, recognition of the Armenian genocide brings greater awareness to it, especially to Turks who never knew it occurred since the history of the mass killings was omitted from school books.
On April 8, 2019, Representative Adam Schiff [D-CA-28] introduced H.Res. 296 which had 141 cosponsors, including 120 Democrats and 21 Republicans. The House passed the resolution on Oct. 29, 2019, by a margin of 405 to 11. In the weeks leading up to the vote, Turkey outraged members of Congress by its ground offensive against the Syrian Kurds and U.S./Turkey relations have continued to sour since then.
On Dec. 12, 2019, the Senate unanimously voted to affirm the Armenian genocide, despite the Trump administration’s objections.
The Armenian genocide was a horrific tragedy that led to the deaths of one and a half million people, yet many people still deny the reality of the genocide for political reasons. As these 10 facts about the Armenian genocide prove, the mass ethnic cleansing did happen, and its effects are felt to this day.
– Sarah Frazer