This much is known: Up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed or deported in the violence unleashed by Ottoman Turks starting on April 24, 1915. But as the 100th anniversary of these events is marked on Friday, it remains a bitter source of contention between Turks and Armenians.
Armenians, along with many historians and European countries, have called it the 20th century's first genocide. Turkey suppressed accounts of the killings for decades, and to this day staunchly rejects the label of genocide.
Modern Turkey, which emerged following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, still reacts sharply to countries that say a genocide took place. It recalled its envoy from the Vatican after Pope Francis used the term last Sunday and did the same in Austria after lawmakers spoke the word.
The U.S. government does not call the events a genocide and neither does Israel. In both countries, this position appears based in part, if not mostly, on a desire not to offend Turkey.
So what exactly happened in 1915? Here's a look:
The Ottoman Empire once covered parts of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East and was home to Turks, Kurds, Armenians and many others. But by the start of World War I in 1914, it was crumbling. A few years earlier, a group of young army officers — named the Young Turks — seized power. And in WWI, they sided with the Central Powers — Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire — against the Allied Powers, Britain, France and Russia.
Historian Eugene Rogan, author of The Fall Of The Ottomans, tells NPR's Steve Inskeep the Ottomans crossed into Russia thinking they might be able to strike a blow. Instead, they lost. There had been massacres of Armenians in the past, but with the loss to the Russians, he says, the Ottomans began to question the loyalties of the Armenians.
He adds: "What happened was a small number of [Armenian] militants who did cross over to the Russian side, who did actively try and recruit Armenians to support the Russian cause, made life extremely dangerous for the majority of Armenian civilians who basically had no fight with anyone, did not wish to be drawn into any war and found themselves under tremendous pressure; soldiers who, suspected by their Turkish comrades, begin to get shot down."
The Ottomans' ruling Committee of Union and Progress and government officials planned to forcibly relocate the Armenians from Anatolia, where they lived, bordering Russia, to the Arab parts of the empire, where they were deemed to be less of a threat. But, Rogan adds, the plans for the Armenians went beyond those that were written down. He adds:
"It was through testimony presented in trials the Ottomans convened after the war that we now know that the Committee of Union and Progress agreed to give, orally, orders for the extermination of Armenians: that men and women would be separated at the moment of departing their villages, that the men would be massacred and that the women would be marched under conditions in which only a fraction of them would survive.
"And the theory that most Turkish scholars of the genocide are putting forward was that the Ottoman plan was to reduce the demographic profile of the Armenians so that they would not exceed 5 to 10 percent in any given province. It wasn't ... to try and eliminate the Armenians in their entirety, but it was to make sure that the Armenians would never constitute a critical mass to seek separation for the Ottoman Empire as an independent Armenian state."
Earlier Violence Against Armenians
Armenians in the Ottoman Empire were targeted even in the 19th century, but historians don't call those events a genocide. The reason, writer Peter Balakian tells NPR's Robert Siegel, was that the earlier killings were "putative — they were punishments for Armenian progressive reform movement. They weren't designed to exterminate the entire population or rid the Ottoman Empire of its Armenian population, but they begin a very important process of devaluing and dehumanizing this ethnic minority group."
Here's what he says was different about the events of 1915:
"I think that the Ottoman government's final solution for the Armenian people of Turkey represented a shift in organized, state-planned mass killing. The Ottoman government was able to expedite its mass killing of a targeted minority population in a concentrated period of time. So it's important to realize that the Ottoman government murdered more than a million Armenians between 1915 and 1916 alone — perhaps 1.2 million is the number you come to by the end of the summer of 1916."
The U.S. View
The U.S., a close ally of Turkey, does not call the events a genocide. The White House, in a statement this week, described it as an atrocity, a long-held position. But the Armenian community in the U.S. has long lobbied for the events to be recognized as a genocide.
The New York Times, in its reporting at the time, noted in a sub-headline: "More Atrocities Detailed in Support of Charge That Turkey is Acting Deliberately." Henry Morgenthau, the U.S. ambassador to the Ottomans at the time, also supported that view in his memoirs, as did other Americans and Westerners.
The word genocide was not coined until 1944 by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer who combined the Greek word "genos," meaning race or family, with the Latin word "-cidere," for killing, to describe the events of the Holocaust.
As a teenager, he was drawn to the story of what happened to the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire after reading about a survivor of the atrocities. And in interviews in the 1940s he described the events as the Armenian genocide.
The Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, which describes the events as a genocide, says Lemkin's "early exposure to the history of Ottoman attacks against Armenians, anti-Semitic pogroms, and other cases of targeted violence as key to his beliefs about the need for the protection of groups under international law. Inspired by the murder of his own family during the Holocaust, Lemkin tirelessly championed this legal concept until it was codified in the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948."
Turkey rejects the notion that a genocide was perpetrated against the Armenians, though its leaders have expressed regret for what happened at the time. Many Turks say there was no systematic plan to kill Armenians; admitting an Armenian genocide is seen as insulting Turkey, a crime under the country's law.
Related NPR Stories