The 1915 Armenian Genocide: History & Causes

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  • 0:03 The Armenian Genocide
  • 0:41 History of Armenia and Turkey
  • 1:40 Causes of the Armenian…
  • 3:01 The Elimination of the…
  • 5:08 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erica Cummings

Erica teaches college Humanities, Literature, and Writing classes and has a Master's degree in Humanities.

The Armenian genocide of 1915 was one of the most brutal extermination attempts ever. In this lesson, we take a look at the history, causes, and effects of the systematic killing of over 1.5 million people.

The Armenian Genocide

Unfortunately, genocides, or the systematic extermination of a group of people, have been a part of the human experience since civilization began. The 1915 Armenian genocide is not as well-known as genocides like the Holocaust, and that's partly because some in the international community do not even acknowledge that it occurred. But it was, in fact, one of the most horrific mass exterminations in history. From 1915 to 1918, the Turkish government deported, enslaved, tortured, and killed 1.5 to 2 million Armenians in an effort to ethnically and religiously cleanse the Turkish nation.

History of Armenia and Turkey

Looking at the historical relationship between Armenia and Turkey helps explain how this genocide occurred. The Armenians are a predominantly Christian ethnic group that for 3,000 years resided in eastern Anatolia, which is modern-day Turkey in the Middle East. Throughout their history, the Armenians were at times autonomous and at times ruled by other empires. In the 15th century, the Ottoman Empire, an Islamic Turkish kingdom, conquered Armenia and surrounding areas. Though the Ottoman Empire was once very powerful, it declined by the end of the 19th century.

In its decline, the Ottoman Empire attempted to subjugate any non-Turkish and non-Muslim ethnic groups. The Armenians (a religious and ethnic minority) were thus the target of increasing oppression. In the 1890s, the Armenians pushed for democratic reforms and civil rights, but the Ottomans pushed back and massacred hundreds of thousands of Armenians in 1894-1896. As bad as this was, the elimination of the Armenians had just begun.

Causes of the Armenian Genocide

The most immediate cause of the Armenian genocide was the brutal intolerance of a tyrannical regime. But there are additional factors that help explain how such a horrific event occurred. For one, many Turkish people resented the Armenians because they were generally more educated and wealthier.

In addition, a new group of Turkish leaders, called the Young Turks, took over the Ottoman Empire in 1908 and dedicated themselves to eliminating enemies of the state. The Young Turks initiated reforms in order to restore Turkish glory. Unfortunately, part of these 'reforms' meant eradicating all non-Muslim, non-Turkish groups. The Young Turks perpetuated suspicion, resentment, and intolerance of the Armenians, even blaming them for the nation's problems. As this hateful rhetoric and propaganda spread, people began massacring Armenians on their own, even before the official genocide of 1915 began.

A final cause of the Armenian genocide was World War I, which began in 1914. The war pitted the Ottoman Empire and the Central Powers against Russia and the Allies. At the time, Armenian communities were wedged between the Ottoman and Russian Empires. So, the Ottomans feared that the Armenians would defect to the Christian Russian Empire instead of supporting the Islamic Ottoman Empire during the war. To the Young Turks, the Armenians were a social, religious, and political enemy that needed to be eliminated.

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