In this lesson, students will learn about President Biden’s decision to use the term “genocide” to describe the Ottoman Empire’s killing of Armenian civilians during World War I. Then they will explore the Times archive from 1915.
Featured Article: “The Armenian Genocide, in History and Politics: What to Know”
More than a century after the Ottoman Empire’s killing of an estimated 1.5 million Armenian civilians, President Biden declared on April 24 that the atrocities were an act of genocide. The action signaled that the American commitment to human rights outweighs the risk of further fraying the U.S. alliance with Turkey.
In this lesson, students will learn about why the United States changed its long-held policy this month and consider what the change means. In the Going Further section, we provide three teaching ideas that invite students to explore the New York Times archive from 1915 and wrestle with important questions about language and remembrance.
Watch the two-minute video below from Facing History and Ourselves introducing what happened during the Armenian genocide. Take notes on two things you learned and one question you have.
Before you watch, it might be helpful to be familiar with some of the vocabulary used in the video:
- The Ottoman Empire is the predecessor of modern Turkey. For centuries it controlled significant territory in western Asia, northeastern Africa and southeastern Europe.
- The Balkan Wars (1912-13) were conflicts in which the Ottoman Empire lost the bulk of its territory in Europe. They took place right before World War I.
- During World War I (1914-18), the Ottoman Empire was allied with Germany and was fighting against Russia.
- Anatolia is the peninsula in western Asia that makes up the majority of modern-day Turkey.
- Armenians are an ethnic group from western Asia who lived for centuries as a minority in the Ottoman Empire. Today they make up the vast majority of the population of Armenia, a small, landlocked nation that borders Turkey. There is also a wide-ranging diaspora of more than five million Armenians that was largely formed in the wake of the Armenian genocide.
The Armenian Genocide: an Introduction
Questions for Writing and Discussion
Read the article, then answer the following questions:
1. What did President Biden declare on Saturday? Why was his announcement such a big deal, given that the historical events he discussed took place more than a century ago?
2. In your own words, what does the word “genocide” mean? How is its meaning different from other terms like massacre or mass murder?
3. What happened during the Armenian genocide in 1915?
4. Even though Turkey acknowledges that atrocities were committed against Armenians during World War I, it vehemently denies that a genocide took place. What is the country’s argument? And how is that argument reinforced in Turkish society through education and law?
5. Why have American presidents refused for decades to use the term genocide in describing the atrocities committed against Armenians by the Ottoman Empire?
6. Why was Mr. Biden willing to make this declaration while his predecessors refused to?
7. Do you think Mr. Biden made the right decision? Do you think the symbolism of the announcement is important? Why, or why not?
The activities below are updated from our 2015 lesson plan for the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide.
Option 1: Explore the Times Archives
Investigate the archives of The New York Times for clues about the causes and consequences of the Armenian genocide. Below, we provide links to 12 original articles from 1915 for you to read individually or within research teams. If you have more time, we encourage you to do your own research in the Times archives using “Armenians” as a search term, and March 1, 1915, to Dec. 31, 1917, as a date range.
As you conduct your research, consider the following questions:
- What does Times reporting reveal about the scope and the kinds of atrocities being committed against Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915?
- What did The Times report as the cause or causes of these atrocities?
- What variety of sources did The Times use as a basis for its reporting? What are the strengths and limitations of Times coverage as a primary source?
After you have read one or more articles, share what you learned using the above questions as a guide.
Original Times Reporting from 1915
Note: The first link is to the original newspaper in TimesMachine, which is available with some New York Times subscriptions. The second link is to a PDF of the article.
Option 2: Weigh Word Choice
Today Turkey does not deny that thousands of Armenians were killed during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The Turkish president has referred to the genocide as “deportations” and even once said that they were “reasonable” for the period. Until 2004 The New York Times did not officially use the term “genocide” to describe what happened to the Armenians in 1915, instead using terms like “tragedy” or “Turkish massacres.”
Does word choice matter? Is it enough that the Turkish president offered his condolences to Armenians? Or is it important to recognize the events of 1915 as a genocide, as that is what most historians agree (PDF) they were? You can discuss these questions with your classmates as part of a barometer activity, where students literally stand up for what they believe on a “barometer” line in the classroom measuring how strongly they agree or disagree with an issue.
Option 3: Contemplate the Dangers of Forgetting
Millions of Armenians around the world trace their flight from historical western Armenia in the Ottoman Empire to the Armenian genocide during World War I. Many have worked hard to make sure that the Armenian genocide is not forgotten or erased from memory.
But recognizing the Armenian genocide in Turkey has at times been either illegal or dangerous. The prominent Armenian journalist Hrant Dink campaigned relentlessly for official recognition of the Armenian genocide in Turkey until he was shot dead by ultranationalists in Istanbul in 2007.
What are the dangers of forgetting? What happens when history is erased or denied? Is it important for schools around the world to teach about the atrocities against Ottoman Armenians? Is it important for Turkish textbooks to acknowledge the Armenian genocide? Are commemoration events important to keep history alive and relevant? Consider these questions with your classmates and then design your own monument or memorial to remember the Armenian genocide.