Armenian Genocide of 1915: An Overview

   < < Go Back
from The New York Times,

On the eve of World War I, there were two million Armenians in the declining Ottoman Empire. By 1922, there were fewer than 400,000. The others — some 1.5 million — were killed in what historians consider a genocide.

As David Fromkin put it in his widely praised history of World War I and its aftermath, “A Peace to End All Peace”: “Rape and beating were commonplace. Those who were not killed at once were driven through mountains and deserts without food, drink or shelter. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians eventually succumbed or were killed .”

The man who invented the word “genocide”— Raphael Lemkin, a lawyer of Polish-Jewish origin — was moved to investigate the attempt to eliminate an entire people by accounts of the massacres of Armenians. He did not, however, coin the word until 1943, applying it to Nazi Germany and the Jews in a book published a year later, “Axis Rule in Occupied Europe.”

But to Turks, what happened in 1915 was, at most, just one more messy piece of a very messy war that spelled the end of a once-powerful empire. They reject the conclusions of historians and the term genocide, saying there was no premeditation in the deaths, no systematic attempt to destroy a people. Indeed, in Turkey today it remains a crime — “insulting Turkishness” — to even raise the issue of what happened to the Armenians.

In the United States, a powerful Armenian community centered in Los Angeles has been pressing for years for Congress to condemn the Armenian genocide. Turkey, which cut military ties to France over a similar action, has reacted with angry threats. A bill to that effect nearly passed in the fall of 2007, gaining a majority of co-sponsors and passing a committee vote. But the Bush administration, noting that Turkey is a critical ally — more than 70 per cent of the military air supplies for Iraq go through the Incirlik airbase there — pressed for the bill to be withdrawn, and it was.

The roots of the genocide lie in the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

The empire’s ruler was also the caliph, or leader of the Islamic community. Minority religious communities, like the Christian Armenians, were allowed to maintain their religious, social and legal structures, but were often subject to extra taxes or other measures.

More From The New York Times: