In 1944, Raphael Lemkin invented the term genocide to describe the methodical murdering of millions of Jews during World War II. Genocide entails the deliberate killing of a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group of people. The United Nations adopted this term but some are against calling the massacre of the Armenians during World War I a genocide. The Armenian genocide took place in the Ottoman Empire, which had previously been extremely religiously tolerant and accepted many different ethnic groups who thrived in the Muslim empire. Being an expansionist empire, the Ottomans wanted people to join and many people of different origins did due to the economic opportunities. Non-Muslims were required to pay an extra tax, called the jitza, which many prefered over being persecuted harshly in other countries.
Many non-Muslims thrived in the Ottoman, including the Armenians, who were predominantly Christian. The Ottoman Empire conquered Armenia during the fifteenth century but they maintained their autonomy by way of the millet system. This allowed each religion to rule over themselves in the tremendous empire and stopped persecution. Nonetheless, many Ottomans came to dislike the Armenians due to their economic success and this hostility intensified as the Ottoman Empire collapsed.
This led to the first Armenian genocide at the end of the nineteenth century in which thousands of Armenians were murdered. However, in 1908 the Young Turks overthrew the Sultan and established a more modern type of government. This change gave hope to many Armenians but this was soon dashed when they heard that the Young Turks wanted to make the Ottoman Empire more Turkish and eradicate Christians.
In 1914 the Turks entered World War I alongside Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. However, many Turks felt that the Armenians were untrustworthy and a threat to Ottoman society and that they would rather side with the Allies. The Turks were especially worried about the Armenians fighting alongside the Russians against the Turks on the Eastern Front. This fear, as well as the built up hatred against the Armenians, led to the complete massacre of the Armenians during World War I. On April 24, 1915, Turkish authorities rounded up a few hundred Armenian community leaders and killed them. Following that, Turks started to exterminate all Armenians and killed them in similar ways to how Hitler killed Jews during the Holocaust. People were poisoned, gassed, thrown off of cliffs, and tortured to death.
Groups of Armenians were sent on death marches until they dropped dead and many were simply burned alive. An eyewitness to the massacre, Shogher Tonoian, said that “it was a real Sodom and Gomorrah.” Historians estimate that before World War I approximately two million Armenians lived in the Turkish Empire. The number of people killed remains a controversy but most estimate that over one million Armenians were killed, possibly more counting the Armenians outside of the Turkish Empire. Pictures were taken of the massacre and and a few eye witness accounts have told of the atrocities that took place. Henry Morgenthau, the American Ambassador to the Turkish Empire at the time of the massacre, reported of the systematic killing of the Armenians.
Entire towns were rounded up and snatched out of their homes. Many of the women were raped or sold as slaves and the men were murdered. At times during the marches people would jump into rivers by choice to end the misery, occasionally with their children in their arms.