Anatomy of a massacre: How the genocide unfolded

August 28, 2007
Source: The Independent (London)

By Simon Usborne

An estimated 1.5 million Armenians died between 1915 and 1917, either at the hands of Turkish forces or of starvation. Exact figures are unknown, but each larger blob – at the site of a concentration camp or massacre – potentially represents the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.

The trail of extermination, and dispute about exactly what happened, stretches back more than 90 years to the opening months of the First World War, when some of the Armenian minority in the east of the beleaguered Ottoman Empire enraged the ruling Young Turks coalition by siding with Russia.

On 24 April 1915, Turkish troops rounded up and killed hundreds of Armenian intellectuals. Weeks later, three million Armenians were marched from their homes – the majority towards Syria and modern-day Iraq – via an estimated 25 concentration camps.

In 1915, The New York Times reported that "the roads and the Euphrates are strewn with corpses of exiles... It is a plan to exterminate the whole Armenian people." Winston Churchill would later call the forced exodus an "administrative holocaust".

Yet Turkey, while acknowledging that many Armenians died, disputes the 1.5 million toll and insists that the acts of 1915-17 did not constitute what is now termed genocide – defined by the UN as a state-sponsored attempt to "destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group". Instead, Ankara claims the deaths were part of the wider war, and that massacres were committed by both sides.

Several countries have formally recognised genocide against the Armenians (and, in the case of France, outlawed its denial), but it remains illegal in Turkey to call for recognition. As recently as last year, the Turkish foreign ministry dismissed genocide allegations as "unfounded".

One authority on extermination who did recognise the Armenian genocide was Adolf Hitler. In a 1939 speech, in which he ordered the killing, "mercilessly and without compassion", of Polish men, women and children, he concluded: "Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?"