Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day: What Was the Armenian Genocide?

By Nova BarelaLast Updated May 3, 2021 3:55:41 PM ET
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People attend a flower laying ceremony at the Armenian Genocide Memorial Complex on Tsitsernakaberd Hill on Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, which commemorates the victims of the Armenian Genocide in the Ottoman Empire. Credit: Hayk Baghdasaryan\TASS via Getty Images

In 1915, when the start of World War I was just around the corner, there were an estimated two million Armenian people living in the then-declining Ottoman Empire. But, just seven years later, there were fewer than 400,000 Armenian people. Over one million Armenian people were systematically murdered and subject to ethnic cleansing at the hands of the Ottoman Empire — now, present-day Turkey. While historians have deemed the tragedy a genocide, it has been largely ignored by the Western world, left out of history books and outright denied by the Turkish government.

To this day, if someone so much as raises the question of what happened to the Armenian people, the Turkish government considers it a crime of "insulting Turkishness." Armenian activists in the United States have long advocated for the federal government to denounce the Armenian Genocide, but, despite numerous near-successful attempts, the U.S. government repeatedly backed down, citing Turkey as an important ally.

While campaigning for office, President Joe Biden acknowledged the Armenian Genocide and pledged to formerly recognize it when he took office, noting that "silence is complicity." While the Turkish foreign minister warned that an official acknowledgement of the Armenian Genocide could "harm" U.S.-Turkey relations, Biden broke America’s silence on Saturday, April 24, which marks Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, by becoming "the first U.S. president to officially recognize the massacre of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire as genocide," reported CNN. But what led to the deliberate murder of millions of Armenians during the First World War, and why is acknowledgement of the genocide so politically contentious?

What Led to the Armenian Genocide?

At the time of the events, Armenia was part of the Ottoman Empire, and, within this empire, Christian Armenians were considered a religious minority. Treated unjustly, the Armenian people were even taxed at a higher rate. In an act of resilience, Armenian activists campaigned for equal civil rights, but the Turkish Sultan, Abdul Hamid II, was suspicious of the Armenian people, believing that they had loyalties to Russia. As a result, he declared that he would "solve the Armenian question once and for all" and force Armenians to "relinquish their revolutionary ambitions."

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Photo Courtesy: Karen Minasyan/Getty Images

Large-scale protests were met with violence from Ottoman-Turk military officials: Armenian villages were destroyed and hundreds of thousands of people were killed. In 1908, a group of reformers known as the "Young Turks" would overthrow Sultan Abdul Hamid II, resulting in a new, more modern government. The Armenian community was hopeful that this new authority would help them attain their rights, but, in the end, the Young Turks aimed to "Turkify" the empire, positioning Armenian Christians as traitors.

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The Young Turks made up the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) (or Ittihad ve Terakki Jemiyeti) and were tasked with carrying out the systematic mass murder of Armenian citizens. Using the media, the CUP promoted its vision of making the area "exclusively Turkic," which mobilized ordinary citizens against their fellow Armenian citizens. The CUP’s propaganda efforts not only popularized, but justified the crimes that would soon follow. In 1914, the Turkish people joined World War I, allying with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Ottoman religious authorities concurrently declared a holy war against all Christians — except their allies.

In an attempt to fight back, the Armenian people organized volunteer battalions to help the Russian army fight the Turkish forces, making the rumors of Armenian folks’ loyalty to Russia a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. As a result of this egregious misinterpretation, the Turkish government would push for the "removal" of Armenian people from the war zones, thus beginning the genocide.

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A Crime Against Humanity: The Armenian Genocide

Through the spring and summer of 1915, the Ottoman army began carrying out mass deportations. There was hardly any resistance or means to fight back against the deportations, and a majority of deportees were brutally murdered during these forcible removals.

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Photo Courtesy: Stephan Poghosyan/Getty Images

Armenian community leaders and intellectuals were being executed at a rapid pace. Groups of Armenian people, which included older adults, women, and children, were pulled from their homes, stripped naked, and sent on "death marches'' through the scorching Syrian desert with no food or water. People who attempted to stop marching were shot to death. Survivors who made it to northern Syria were then placed in concentration camps.

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The Young Turks remained involved in the eradication of Christian Armenian citizens. They organized "killing squads," made up of ex-convicts, to carry out mass murders. Children were kidnapped and given to Turkish families, so that they could forgo their Christian upbringings. Women were raped; enslaved; forbidden from grieving their losses; and forced to adopt the language and religion of their captors.

Although there were many witnesses to these atrocities, the government had placed restrictions on both reporting and photography, which hampered any efforts to document the on-going genocide.

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Why Have Countries Refused to Recognize the Armenian Genocide Until Now?

The few surviving Armenian refugees eventually settled in countries around the globe. Relieved of accountability to the victims and survivors, the Turkish government designed a policy to dismiss the charge of genocide. They denied that the deportations and murders were part of a deliberate plan to execute their Armenian citizens.

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Armenian people with the support of the Committee of Armenians, the local community and Greeks demonstrate in front of the White Tower in Thessaloniki, Greece to protest the war that broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan with the support of Turkey. Credit: Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto/Getty Images

In fact, when the genocide ended in 1922, even American news media refrained from using the term "genocide" to describe the events — that is, until coverage of the tragedy appeared decades later in a 2004 edition of The New York Times. The Turkish government, however, continues to deny the genocide, deeming the mass deaths a "necessary war measure."

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After the years-long atrocity ended, the Young Turks fled to Germany where they were promised protection from charges of genocide. However, the Young Turks were not completely protected: Operation Nemesis, which was organized by a group of Armenian nationalists, aimed to assassinate Young Turks as retribution.

Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day in 2021

Each year, April 24 marks Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day — a time to reflect on all that was lost and honor all who were lost. Around the world, Armenian communities visit the sites of memorials raised by survivors. 

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In America, the full scope of the genocide wasn't acknowledged until nearly a century after it occurred. In March 2010, a U.S. Congressional panel finally voted to recognize the genocide. On October 29, 2019, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution that recognized the Armenian Genocide. And, this year, President Biden released an official statement from the White House. 

"Each year on this day, we remember the lives of all those who died in the Ottoman-era Armenian genocide and recommit ourselves to preventing such an atrocity from ever again occurring," Biden explained in the official statement. "Beginning on April 24, 1915, with the arrest of Armenian intellectuals and community leaders in Constantinople by Ottoman authorities, one and a half million Armenians were deported, massacred, or marched to their deaths in a campaign of extermination."

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The president went on to cite the importance of April 24, saying, "We honor the victims of the Meds Yeghern so that the horrors of what happened are never lost to history. And we remember so that we remain ever-vigilant against the corrosive influence of hate in all its forms."