How many Armenians died during the Genocide of 1915?

This is perhaps the most hotly debated question in the extremely heated debate surrounding the Armenian genocide of 1915-1916. A major part of the problem is that nearly all scholars who have studied the genocide in depth are either Turkish or Armenian or have strong sympathies for one side or the other. On one hand the debate seems pointless, because whether the death toll was hundreds of thousands or millions that is still a huge amount of dead people, either way. But for a debate in which the terms have become almost as hotly contested as the facts, numbers take on a heightened importance. If the toll was in the low hundreds of thousands, Turkish claims of a civil war become a little more plausible, while death tolls in the millions would clearly point to an event much more genocidal in character.

The standard figures favored by the Turks (when they do not deny the incident outright) are 200,000 at the low end, and 600,000 at the high end. The Turkish government has frequently cited Young Turk leader Talaat Bey's original estimate that some 300,000 Armenians had died during the deportation. Armenian scholars favor figures between 1 million and 2 million, with the majority favoring an estimate of 1.5 million.

In attempting to get at the truth behind these wildly divergent figures, historians ask two questions. First, how many Armenians were there living in Anatolia in 1915? Since there were virtually no Armenians in eastern Turkey by the end of 1916, if the original number can be established we would have an upper limit on the number of deaths. Second, where were these Armenians in 1916 - dead, fled, or in hiding? Surely the Turks did not kill every last Armenian, but did they kill most of them, or only a few?

The answer to the first question is unclear. No modern, systematic census was taken in Turkey until 1927, although vague and dramatically divergent estimates were variously reported by the Ottoman government, Armenian institutions such as the Patriarchate, and assorted European observers. In 1896, the Ottoman government recorded 1,144,000 Armenians living in Anatolia out of a total population of 13,241,000, although the counting system was unrefined. Armenian scholars like to cite estimates recorded by the Armenian Patriarchate, which variously claimed between 1,845,000 to 2,100,000 Anatolian Armenians just prior to 1915. Some tentative recent estimates, based on statistical analyses of Turkish government records, place the total Armenian population at roughly 1,500,000. These rough numbers suggest that the highest estimates of the death toll are unlikely, because they would require basically every last Armenian to have been killed.

The answer to the second question is even murkier. There were absolutely no records of any kind kept by either Turks or Armenians of the final dispositions of the deportees, dead or otherwise. It is possible that many Armenians successfully fled to Russia or elsewhere, or escaped persecution by concealing their ethnic identity. It is also possible that the Turks were as thorough as the Armenians claim, but the utter lack of statistics, reliable or otherwise, precludes an assessment of any confidence. More objective scholars have tended to reject Turkish and Armenian figures outright, and have searched for figures recorded by an independent observer.

The only such person they found was Arnold J. Toynbee, who served an intelligence officer for the British Foreign Office during the war. Writing at the end of 1916, based on what data he could find (which was likely very sketchy), Toynbee estimated that there had been 1.8 million Armenians living in Turkey before the war. Of these 1.8 million, Toynbee concluded that approximately 600,000 died or were murdered during deportation, 600,000 more escaped into exile, and another 600,000 either escaped notice or went into hiding within Turkey itself. Because he is the only source of apparent objectivity writing close to the events, Toynbee's figure of 600,000 dead has become the figure most widely cited by scholars seeking an objective estimate. While the method Toynbee used to derive these figures was extremely crude, his figures seem to jive with reasonable estimates of the total Armenian population and the maximum number that could have been killed. While 600,000 deaths is not as many as Armenian partisans interested in exacerbating Turkish guilt would like to find, it is still an incredibly large number. Killing off fully one third of a population of nearly 2 million in about two years time is still an atrocity of great proportion, and almost certainly qualifies as genocide.

Ultimately the only thing that can be said for certain, in a debate that has raged for almost a century now, is that the true death toll will never be conclusively known.