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What to know about the mass killings of Armenians a century ago

The massacre of hundreds of thousands of Armenians by Ottoman forces during World War I — and the question of whether it should be called a genocide — remains highly contentious a century after the event.

The issue is an emotional one, both for Armenians, many of whose forebears were killed, and for Turks, the heirs to the Ottomans. For both groups, the question touches as much on national identity as on historical facts.

Some Armenians feel their nationhood cannot be fully recognized unless the truth of what happened to their people, beginning in April 1915, is acknowledged. Some Turks still view the Armenians as having been a threat to the Ottoman Empire in a time of war, and say many people of various ethnicities — including Turks — were killed in the chaos of conflict.

In addition, some Turkish leaders fear that acknowledgment of a genocide could lead to demands for huge reparations.

The declaration by US President Joe Biden on Saturday that it was a “genocide” risks a potential fracture with Turkey — but will fulfill a campaign pledge of his and signal a commitment to human rights.

April 24, known as Red Sunday, is commemorated as Genocide Remembrance Day by Armenians around the world.

What was the backdrop to the mass killings?

The Ottoman Turks, having recently entered World War I on the side of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, were worried that Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire would offer wartime assistance to Russia. Russia had long coveted control of Constantinople (now Istanbul), which controlled access to the Black Sea — and therefore access to Russia’s only year-round seaports.

Many historians agree that about 2 million Armenians lived in the Ottoman Empire at the time the killings began. However, victims of the mass killings also included some of the 1.8 million Armenians living in the Caucasus under Russian rule, some of whom were massacred by Ottoman forces in 1918 as they marched through East Armenia and Azerbaijan.

By 1914, Ottoman authorities were already portraying Armenians as a threat to the empire’s security.

Then, on the night of April 23-24, 1915, the authorities in Constantinople, the empire’s capital, rounded up about 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders. Many of them ended up deported or assassinated.

How many Armenians were killed?

This is a major point of contention. Estimates range from 300,000 to 2 million deaths between 1914 and 1923, with not all of the victims in the Ottoman Empire. But most estimates — including one of 800,000 between 1915 and 1918, made by Ottoman authorities themselves — fall between 600,000 and 1.5 million.

The government in Turkey puts the number of dead Armenians at 300,000.

Whether due to killings or forced deportation, the number of Armenians living in Turkey fell from 2 million in 1914 to under 400,000 by 1922.

While the death toll is in dispute, there are a number of photographs from the era documenting mass killings. Some show Ottoman soldiers posing with severed heads, others with them standing amid skulls in the dirt.

Victims are reported to have died in mass burnings and by drowning, torture, gas, poison, disease and starvation. Children were reported to have been loaded into boats, taken out to sea and thrown overboard. Rape, too, was frequently reported.

In addition, according to the website of the Armenian National Institute, “The great bulk of the Armenian population was forcibly removed from Armenia and Anatolia to Syria, where the vast majority was sent into the desert to die of thirst and hunger.”

Was genocide a crime at the time?

Although the mass killings of Armenians are said by some scholars and others to have been the first genocide of the 20th century, “genocide” was not even a word at the time, much less a legally defined crime.

The term was invented in 1944 by a Polish lawyer named Raphael Lemkin to describe the Nazis’ systematic attempt to eradicate Jews from Europe. He formed the word by combining the Greek word for race with the Latin word for killing.

Genocide became a crime in 1948, when the United Nations approved the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The definition included acts meant “to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”

Who regards the mass killings as genocide?

Armenia, the Vatican, the European Parliament, France, Germany, Russia, Canada, Argentina and the United States are among dozens of states and other bodies formally to have recognized what happened as genocide. Britain is among those that have not.

The government of Turkey often registers complaints when foreign governments describe the event using the word “genocide.” They maintain that it was wartime and there were losses on both sides.

Ankara also insists there was no systematic attempt to destroy a people.

What is the US position?

Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump both avoided using the word genocide in order not to anger Ankara.

But Biden has apparently determined that relations with Turkey and its president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan — which have deteriorated over the past several years anyway — should not prevent the use of a term that would validate the plight of Armenians more than a century ago and signal a commitment to human rights today.

Biden told Erdoğan on Friday that he planned to recognize the 1915 massacre of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire as a genocide, according to a person familiar with the conversation.

Readouts from the White House and Turkish presidency did not mention the issue. The call was Biden’s first with his Turkish counterpart since taking office in January.

In 2019, both the US House of Representatives and the Senate passed a resolution formally recognizing the mass killings as genocide. Prior to the resolution’s passage in the Senate, the Trump administration had asked Republican senators to block the move several times on the grounds that it could undercut negotiations with Turkey.

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