In July 1908, reform-minded Turkish nationalists known as the “Young Turks” forced the ruling Sultan of the Ottoman Empire to allow a constitutional government and guarantee basic rights. The Young Turks were ambitious army officers who hoped to halt their country’s steady decline. After seizing full control of the government via a coup in 1913, the Young Turks launched a series of measures against the country’s Armenians minority, some of whom had opposed the government and actively sought independence.

Beginning in the fall of 1914, Armenians in the Ottoman army were disarmed.  Roundups began on the evening of April 24, 1915, when as many as 300 Armenian political leaders, educators, writers, clergy and dignitaries were taken from their homes and jailed. A number of them were killed.  Following these arrests and executions, hundreds of thousands of Armenians were relocated en masse from eastern Anatolia to the Syrian desert and elsewhere. Further forced relocations and massacres of Armenians occurred between 1915-1918.

The Armenians managed to acquire weapons and fight back against the Ottoman army. The Armenians even defeated the army at the battle of Sardarabad. Following the victory, Armenian leaders declared the establishment of the independent Republic of Armenia in a small portion of their historic homeland in the Caucasus. 

Nevertheless, the overall result of the conflict was a catastrophe for the Armenians. The total number of Armenians killed is widely disputed. Armenians believe that upwards of 1.5 million were killed while The Republic of Turkey estimates the total to be 300,000.

Several senior Ottoman officials were put on trial in Turkey in 1919-20 in connection with atrocities during the Armenian conflict. The Young Turks' top three leaders had already fled abroad. They were sentenced to death in absentia.

Applying the genocide label to the Armenian tragedy has proven to be very controversial. Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Italy, Russia and Uruguay are among more than 20 countries that have formally recognized genocide against the Armenians. The European Parliament has also done so. However, the UK, United States, Israel and Turkey are among those that do not formally categorize the events as genocide.

The Czech-Austrian Jewish writer Franz Werfel, who would later narrowly escape the Nazis thanks to the assistance of American rescuer Varian Fry, based his 1933 novel Forty Days of Musa Dagh on the defense of Musa Dagh’s Armenian population, who were facing systematic deportations and massacres ordered by the Ottoman government. The book was translated and became a best-seller, raising awareness of the Armenian genocide just at the time when Hitler was beginning his own campaign against the Jews.  Later, when Jews had been sequestered in ghettos, Werfel’s novel about Armenian defiance in the face of extreme persecution became an inspiration for resistance. 

There is some evidence that Adolf Hitler also took note of the Armenian genocide, but learned a different lesson. On the eve of the September 1, 1939 invasion of Poland he was reported to have said: “Our strength consists in our speed and in our brutality. Genghis Khan led millions of women and children to slaughter — with premeditation and a happy heart. History sees in him solely the founder of a state. It's a matter of indifference to me what a weak western European civilization will say about me. I have issued the command — and I'll have anybody who utters but one word of criticism executed by a firing squad — that our war aim does not consist in reaching certain lines, but in the physical destruction of the enemy. Accordingly, I have placed my death-head formations in readiness — for the present only in the East — with orders to them to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language. Only thus shall we gain the living space (Lebensraum) which we need. Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”