Teaching about Resistance to Genocide

Special Issue: Genocide Education for the 21st Century
The Armenian Weekly, April 2023

“I believe in the resistance as I believe there can be no light without shadow;
or rather, no shadow unless there is also light.” 

―Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

The defiance of victims is fundamental to the history of genocide. Without it, our understanding of the dynamics of mass atrocities would be flawed and inadequate. Using the Armenian Genocide as a case study, this essay argues for making resistance, broadly defined, an integral part of teaching about genocide in high schools and colleges.1

Ask students to describe what happened during the Holocaust, and most responses will focus exclusively on acts the Nazis committed and the Jewish people were subjected to. Any knowledge of other mass atrocities will likely be framed in a similar manner, rarely with any reference to how the victims resisted. In our well-intentioned effort to demonstrate the enormity of the perpetrators’ crimes, we strip the victims of their agency, and unwittingly contribute to their silencing.

Therefore, it is key to emphasize that while the genocidal machine aims to maximize the very power asymmetry that propels it, it cannot erase the opposition of the victims as individuals and as a group: the perpetrator never wields absolute power, and the victims often demonstrate feats of individual and collective resistance. These actions merit a prominent place in our lesson plans.

This is not a call to turn teaching about genocide into communicating a hagiography of resisters, nor an attempt to glorify victims “by exaggerating resistance, which can imply a condemnation of those who did not resist,” to quote historian John M. Cox.2 It is a call to give resistance as much time—and emphasis—as we allocate to the perpetrators’ crimes. 

The Breadth of Resistance

In the scholarship on anti-Nazi resistance, a broad, inclusive definition has for decades been the norm. Sociologist Nechama Tec sees resistance “as a set of activities motivated by the desire to thwart, limit, undermine, or end the exercise of oppression over the oppressed.”3 Historian Bob Moore defines resistance to Nazis in Western Europe as “any activity designed to thwart German plans, or perceived by the occupiers as working against their interests.”4 Historian Yehuda Bauer has defined resistance to the Holocaust as “any group action consciously taken in opposition to known or surmised laws, actions or intentions directed against the Jews by the Germans and their supporters,” although more recently he has argued for including individual acts of resistance and referring to the perpetrators as “Germans and their collaborators.”5 

While historians have been successful in dispelling, in the words of historian Paul Bartrop, “one of the greatest myths of the Holocaust…that the Jews made little or no effort to defend themselves against their Nazi oppressors,”6 scholarship on other cases of mass violence has been slow to catch up. To this day, some authoritative histories of the Herero, Armenian and Rwandan genocides still equate resistance with armed action and ignore civilian forms of resistance, like organizing relief efforts, forging documents to facilitate escape, creating networks of solidarity and upholding religious and cultural practices against the will of the perpetrators. This neglect of the scope of resistance extends into—and, I would argue, is magnified—in the classroom setting.

One way to explore the theme of resistance in the classroom setting is to have students analyze multiple definitions, note similarities and particularities and examine the significance of these variations. Some useful questions to consider in this exercise include:

—How broad is the scholar’s definition? Does it include armed and unarmed forms of resistance? Does it consider both individual and group acts? 

—What possible acts does the definition leave out? What considerations may have led the scholar to exclude these acts?

—What are similarities and differences among the definitions under study? What are key words and phrases in each? What are the implications of these word choices?

— Can this definition be applied to other mass atrocities? (see next section)

Based on their responses, students can then come up with a definition of their own and excavate manifestations of what they consider to be acts of resistance from assigned memoirs and accounts. This will lead them to discover resistance and resilience in the very pages where they were taught to see subjugation and erasure.

The Armenian Genocide and Resistance: A Case Study

A discussion of resistance during genocides other than the best-known case, the Holocaust, can broaden students’ analytical aperture, help them apply what they have learned and challenge them to test and revise their conclusions. This section provides educators with background information and helpful resources to explore resistance to the Armenian Genocide.

The decision to uproot, dispossess and destroy Armenian communities on the pretext of wartime security measures and military necessity was spurred by an exclusionist ideology and a drive to homogenize the crumbling Ottoman Empire. What was known as the Armenian Question would be resolved through a policy of expulsion, expropriation and extermination.

The Ottoman Turkish authorities began arresting Armenian leaders and deporting the empire’s Armenian population in the spring of 1915. Hundreds of communities were forcibly removed from their ancestral lands and marched in the direction of the Syrian Desert. Those who survived the massacres and privations along the transport routes on the forced marches were interned in concentration camps near Aleppo, in Ras el-Ain, and along the lower Euphrates, from Meskeneh to Der Zor. Gendarmes and groups of irregulars massacred most survivors of this camp system (about 200,000 people) in Der Zor in the summer and fall of 1916. 

The literature on the Armenian Genocide tells us that Armenian resistance was rare and limited to armed struggles in places such as Van, Urfa, Musa Dagh and Shabin Karahisar. Oral historians Donald E. Miller and Lorna Touryan Miller write:

“In the course of our interviews, we often wondered why there was so little resistance to the deportations. This is a complex question…. First, the Armenian leadership had been imprisoned or killed; second, weapons had been confiscated; and, third, the young men most capable of defending their communities had been drafted into the Turkish army.” 

The authors also attributed Armenian passivity to an ingrained receptiveness to authority that had been developed over centuries and to the fact that “they could not perceive the master plan of extermination that was unfolding.”7 

Yet, as we broaden our analytical aperture to include non-violent forms of defiance, the argument for Armenian passivity crumbles. It becomes evident that Armenians resisted genocide from the moment authorities enacted the empire-wide arrests, deportations and massacres. 

Shavarsh Misakian, an Armenian intellectual in Istanbul who had escaped the arrest of hundreds of Armenian thought leaders on 24 April 1915 and the weeks that followed it, organized a clandestine chain of communication across the empire. A network of informants prepared reports of atrocities that were then smuggled out of the country. These reports proved crucial sources of information to western diplomats, humanitarians and journalists.8 

Others created groups that procured, transferred and distributed funds, food and medication to exiles, saved them from sexual slavery, created safe houses and underground orphanages and upheld morale. These groups were loosely inter-linked, operating out of cities where the population was only partly deported (Istanbul and Aleppo) and along railroad lines stretching from Istanbul to Konya, Aleppo, Ras el-Ain and Mosul.

Ignoring unarmed forms of defiance or ascribing such actions a supporting role diminishes the importance of women’s contributions.

During the Armenian Genocide, many women saved lives by engaging in unarmed resistance. The story of Elmasd Santoorian is a case in point. She was a “massacre widow” from the town of Marash who lost her husband during an earlier anti-Armenian pogrom in the Ottoman Empire. She went on to study midwifery in Istanbul, before returning to her home town in 1914. A year later, she was deported. She came down with typhus in Aleppo, but recovered with the help of an Armenian doctor. Santoorian’s skills as a nurse and her immunity to typhus propelled her, within a few months, to the position of head nurse at a top Ottoman military hospital in Aleppo’s Azizieh quarter. There, she hired “Armenian refugee girls, some orphaned, but all hiding from the gendarmes,” securing documents for them and preventing their deportation to the desert.

Many other women engaged in humanitarian resistance, endangering their lives as authorities cracked down on efforts to save refugees. Nora Altounyan established an orphanage in Aleppo for Armenian children whose parents had perished. Two other women established a makeshift orphanage in the Meskeneh concentration camp, repeatedly confronted gendarmes demanding rations for the children and were deported to their deaths alongside the orphans they protected.  

These individuals resisted without firing a single bullet. 

Below is a list of books, essays, and audiovisual resources on resistance to the Armenian Genocide. 

—For armed resistance, see Vahram L. Shemmassian, The Armenians of Musa Dagh: From Obscurity to Genocide Resistance and Fame 1840-1915 (The Press at California State University, Fresno, 2020); Carlos Bedrossian, “Urfa’s Last Stand” in Richard Hovannisian, ed., Armenian Tigranakert/Diarbekir and Edessa/Urfa (Santa Ana, Calif.: Mazda, 2000), 467-507; Simon Payaslian, “The Armenian Resistance in Shabin Karahisar, 1915,” in Richard Hovannisian, ed., Sebastia/Sivas and Lesser Armenia (Santa Ana, Calif.: Mazda, 2000), 399-426; and Anahide Ter Minassian, “Van 1915,” in Richard Hovannisian, ed., Armenian Van/Vaspurakan (Santa Ana, Calif.: Mazda, 2000), 209-244.

—Franz Werfel’s 1933 novel The Forty Days of Musa Dagh is unmatched in the literature on Armenian resistance. For a book review, see Stefan Ihrig, “From Musa Dagh to Masada: How Franz Werfel’s novel about the Armenian Genocide inspired the Warsaw Ghetto fighters and the Zionist resistance,” Tablet Magazine, 18 April 2016. https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/arts-letters/articles/from-musa-dagh-to-masada (Accessed on 12 March 2023). The Musa Dagh Resistance is also featured in director Terry George’s 2016 film “The Promise.” 

—For an exploration of unarmed resistance, see Khatchig Mouradian, The Resistance Network: The Armenian Genocide and Humanitarianism in Ottoman Syria, 1915-1918 (Michigan: Michigan State University Press, 2021); Khatchig Mouradian, “The Very Limit of our Endurance: Unarmed Resistance in Ottoman Syria during WWI,” in Hans-Lukas Kieser, Margaret Anderson, Seyhan Bayraktar, and Thomas Schmutz, eds., End of the Ottomans: The Genocide of 1915 and the Politics of Turkish Nationalism (London: I.B. Tauris, 2019), 247-261; Hasmik G. Grigoryan, “Food Procurement Methods During the Armenian Genocide as Expressions of ‘Unarmed Resistance’: Children’s Experiences,” International Journal of Armenian Genocide Studies, 6:2 (2021), 40-52; and Hilmar Kaiser, At the Crossroad of Der Zor: Death, Survival, and Humanitarian Resistance in Aleppo, 1915-1917 (London: Gomidas Institute, 2002).


Once they adopt a definition and make a list of actions that constitute resistance, students realize that it was hidden in plain sight. They observe acts of resistance in most memoirs and survivor testimonies, developing a deeper understanding of the dynamics of mass violence and human agency.

Delving into the analysis of the agency and resistance of those targeted for genocide offers students the opportunity to critically examine power dynamics and explore questions of choice and voice in the media and public discourse. How do we portray refugees and asylum seekers? How do we speak of the experience of victims of sexual violence? How do we present human rights issues of the day? How do we think about breakthroughs in genetics, neuroscience and technology and their implications on human agency?

Ultimately, exploring resistance during genocide is good scholarship and good pedagogy. Students explore human agency and solidarity even in the most restrictive and perilous of circumstances, and consider resilience against oppression, hatred and cataclysm. In a world beset by human rights crises, population displacement emergencies and environmental disasters, reading about genocide depresses—pondering resistance uplifts.


1 A version of this essay first appeared in Samuel Totten, editor, Teaching Genocide: Insights and Suggestions from Professors, High School Teachers and Staff Developers (Vol. 3) (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2020), 137-143. I would like to thank Nanore Barsoumian for her edits and suggestions.

2 John M. Cox, “Jewish resistance against Nazism” in Johnathan C. Friedman, ed., The Routledge History of the Holocaust (London: Routledge, 2011), 329.

3 Nechama Tec, Resistance: Jews and Christians who defied the Nazi terror (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 4.

4 Bob Moore, ed., Resistance in Western Europe (Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2000), 2.

5 Yehuda Bauer, Rethinking the Holocaust (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 119.

6 Paul Bartrop, Resisting the Holocaust: Upstanders, Partisans, and Survivors (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2016), xxii.

7 Donald E. Miller and Lorna Touryan Miller, Survivors: An Oral History of the Armenian Genocide (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 72. In his authoritative history of the Armenian genocide, historian Ronald Suny agrees: “Most Armenians did not resist, hoping that they would survive by obeying the authorities, not imagining that arbitrary and massive killing was occurring daily.” Ronald Grigor Suny, ‘They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else’: A History of the Armenian Genocide (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 332.

8 See Yervant Pamboukian, ed., Medz Yegherni Arachin Vaverakroghe` Shavarsh Misakian (The First Chronicler of the Great Crime: Shavarsh Misakian) (Antelias, Lebanon: Catholicosate of Cilicia, 2017).

Dr. Khatchig Mouradian

Dr. Khatchig Mouradian

Khatchig Mouradian is the Armenian and Georgian Area Specialist at the Library of Congress and a lecturer in Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia University. He also serves as Co-Principal Investigator of the project on Armenian Genocide Denial at the Global Institute for Advanced Studies, New York University. Mouradian is the author of The Resistance Network: The Armenian Genocide and Humanitarianism in Ottoman Syria, 1915-1918, published in 2021. The book has received the Syrian Studies Association “Honourable Mention 2021.” In 2020, Mouradian was awarded a Humanities War & Peace Initiative Grant from Columbia University. He is the co-editor of a forthcoming book on late-Ottoman history, and the editor of the peer-reviewed journal The Armenian Review.
Dr. Khatchig Mouradian

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