Understanding Armenian Genocide

Joint Conference Held with Holocaust Museum

November 1, 2000 (released November 1, 2000)
Source: Library of Congress Information Bulletin (Washington, DC)

By Prosser Gifford

A daylong conference on Sept. 28 at the Library on "The American Response to the Armenian Genocide (1915-1923)" was preceded the night before at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum with a discussion by Martin Gilbert of the atrocities of the 20th century.

Mr. Gilbert began with an overview of the Boer War (1899-1902), when the British instituted "concentration camps." He then mentioned the horrors of King Leopold II's Congo during the turn of the 20th century, the massacres of Armenians in 1895 and 1904, and the bloodbath of the first World War (1914-1918), which included the Ottoman Empire's Armenian genocide of 1915-16. He then spoke of the loss of 46 million lives during the second World War before moving to the contemporary genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda and Kosovo.

Both the concept of genocide and the word itself derive from the barbarities inflicted on the Armenians. Rafael Lemkin, who had strong personal feelings about the Armenian massacres, coined the term, which came into general usage in 1944 with the further specification in United Nations documents of "crimes against humanity." Mr. Gilbert drew another connection: Hitler's riveting remark to his generals on Aug. 22, 1939, as they were poised to invade Poland, that they should be merciless in the territory Germany wished to reclaim, because "who, after all, is today speaking of the destruction of the Armenians?"

Professor Jay Winter of Cambridge University began the following day by arguing that World War I "created the space for genocidal acts." When the trench warfare on the Western front bogged down into "industrial siege warfare," leading to the use of poison gas, the demonization of the enemy, the merging of military and civilian fronts, the bombing of cities and the mobilization of "total war" that made the homefront an integral part of the war effort, any restraints inherited from 19th century conceptions of war disappeared.

The Gallipoli campaign, and the success of Russian forces (including Armenian units from Russian Armenia) in eastern Turkey, gave the Turks an excuse and an opportunity to begin systematic killings and deportations of Armenians in 1915, which worsened as the war dragged on.

The Armenians' increasingly desperate plight was witnessed firsthand by American consular officials and American missionaries living in some of the smaller cities of Ottoman Turkey. Clara Barton and four Red Cross teams had verified the earlier sufferings of Armenians in 1896. In 1915-18 consular and missionary reports were sent home by diplomatic pouch, by letters (sometimes using personal or biblical codes to evade the censor), by news reports (usually filed from Constantinople rather than the interior) and by volunteers who eventually organized into the Near East Relief Committee. Information came to Secretary of State Lansing, to President Wilson and to members of Congress, especially Henry Cabot Lodge, to missionary societies and to the newspaper-reading public. American sympathy for the Armenian anguish was complicated by several factors: the United States was not at war against the Ottoman Empire (even after 1917), there was very little that could be done to bring force (or even relief) to bear without the consent of the Ottoman government, and the United States was suspicious of British and French designs upon Ottoman territory.

The conference analyzed at length the kinds of information Americans received and the actions it provoked in Congress and internationally. By 1919 and the Versailles conference, there was considerable sentiment for the United States becoming the mandatory power for an Armenian Mandate. Two independent commissions in 1919 -- the King Crane Commission and the American Military Mission -- confirmed the horrors visited upon the Armenians and urged that the United states accept an Armenian mandate. In the end this did not happen because of President Wilson's insistence that the League of Nations be ratified first (it never was) and because political rivalries between Republicans and Democrats in the Senate vitiated the consensus that would have been required to accept a mandate in eastern Turkey.

Nonetheless, the evidence accumulated by a wide variety of individuals, including the Turkish Military Tribunal after the war, leaves little doubt of the intention to effect a systematic criminal plan to destroy Armenians and Armenian culture "under cover of war." A small exhibition accompanying the conference displayed some of the textual and photographic evidence of the destruction of 1.4 million Armenians. That the perpetrators escaped justice is a final irony in a bleak story, offset only in part by individual deeds of generosity, heroism and sacrifice on the part of Armenian survivors and their American supporters.

Mr. Gifford is director of the Office of Scholarly Programs.