The wartime fate of the Ottoman Empire's Armenian minority continues to be
controversial. The debate in the main revolves around the causes and nature of that fate. Some
historians have alleged that what is involved is centrally organized mass murder—or, to use
contemporary terminology, genocide. This school of thought maintains that the Ottoman
authorities were waiting for a suitable opportunity to undertake the wholesale liquidation of the
empire's Armenian population, and the outbreak of World War I provided that opportunity.
The Committee of Union and Progress (CUP, or Unionists), who controlled the Ottoman
government, they argue further, did in fact undertake this liquidation under cover of the war.1 Others, however, dispute these assertions, especially that of genocidal intent. This group maintains that Armenian acts of disloyalty, subversion, and insurrection in wartime forced the central government to order, for purposes of relocation, the deportation of large sections of the Armenian population. According to this argument, apart from those who were killed in “intercommunal” clashes—that is, a “civil war”—the bulk of the Armenian losses resulted from the severe hardships associated with poorly administered measures of deportations, including exhaustion, sickness, starvation, and epidemics. In other words, this school of thought holds that the Ottoman Empire, in the throes of an existential war, had no choice but to protect itself by resorting to drastic methods; therefore, the tragic fate of the Armenians must be understood in the context of the dire conditions of World War I.2 These views are encapsulated in the formula that the noted Middle East historian Bernard Lewis has used—namely, the desperate conditions of “an embattled empire.”3