The Armenian Genocide has been one of the most important issues of our public discourse for the past century. It has been intertwined with our public life, and it is difficult to even consider it as a historical issue because it is essentially a part of our daily life. It couldn’t have been any other way because the Armenian Genocide is the greatest tragedy of our history. Between 1915-1923, 1.5 million Armenians were systematically killed by the leaders of the Ottoman Empire.
First, Armenian men fighting in the Ottoman army on different fronts during the First World War were disarmed and killed by their Turkish comrades-in-arms. This was done to prevent a potential revolt by young Armenians capable of carrying weapons to prevent the massacre of their own people.
The next blow was dealt to the Armenian leadership. On the evening of April 24, 1915, arrests began in Constantinople (now called Istanbul), the capital of the Ottoman Empire, which later extended to the Armenian provinces. Hundreds of Armenian intellectuals – doctors, teachers, journalists, artists, writers, lawyers and clergy, as well as wealthy and political figures – were isolated in prisons, and later exiled and killed. This was meant to behead the nation as a whole, to silence the voice of protest, to rule out the organization of the resistance of the people. Today, April 24 is marked as the day of remembrance of the Armenian Genocide.
During the third phase of the Genocide, women, children and the elderly were exiled into the Syrian desert. They were driven out of millenia-old settlements and sent south. Hungry, exhausted by illness and the treacherous journey, the deportees were attacked by Turkish soldiers, police, Kurdish gangs and the local population. Only a small number arrived in Der Zor, Ras-ul-Ain, Meskene and the camps set up in the Syrian desert, which became their graveyard. They were simply massacred by Turkish gendarmes.
The remnants of the surviving Armenians were forcibly converted to Islam and others emigrated, forming the Armenian diaspora. The cultural heritage of Western Armenia was obliterated. The Armenian homeland was deprived of its indigenous people, the Armenians.
Over the course of their long history, the Armenian people were ruled by different conquerors. Unfortunately, repression, persecution and massacres show up frequently in the pages of Armenian history. However, the Armenian ethnos had never been this close to extinction. The need to understand the causes of the Genocide is paramount. This is the first question foreigners pose. The question of “why” tortures us Armenians. Of course, there can be no one answer or explanation because the Genocide is a combination of a number of factors, aspirations and developments, a “perfect storm,” when a number of causes come together at once and lead to catastrophic consequences.
The Fateful Revolution
In July 1908, several units of the Ottoman army in Macedonia led an uprising and marched toward Constantinople. The political-military elite and the intelligentsia were dissatisfied with the policies of Sultan Abdul Hamid II, who was forced to reinstate the abrogated 1876 Constitution. As a result of the revolution, a new power appeared on the political stage – the Young Turks. They were representatives of exiled groups, who were concerned with the continual weakening of the Ottoman state and aspired to bring it out of the crisis by implementing reforms and modernization.
The Armenians actively supported the Young Turks, especially since the goal was to fight against the Sultan who initiated the bloody massacres against Armenians in 1894-1896. Representatives of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation in Paris and Geneva were in active contact with the leaders of the Young Turks, united in their opposition to autocracy. The Armenian population in the empire enthusiastically welcomed the revolution. Massive rallies and meetings were organized in support of the new order, especially since positive reforms were noticeable during the first months following the power shift.
The principles of freedom, equality, fraternity and justice were declared in the Ottoman Empire. Political prisoners were freed, censorship was abolished and parliamentary elections were held. Armenian-Muslim joint meetings, marches and parties took place. The beginning of a new era of Armenian-Turkish friendship was declared.
Traditional Inequality of Power
The main obstacle to this friendship was the centuries-old system of inequality in the Ottoman Empire – with the domination of the Turks and the subordination of the Armenians (and other Christians). This inequality was based on the Islamic legal system, which subordinated non-Muslim subjects to the status of second-class citizens. The Christian “Dhimmis” were forbidden to bear arms or ride a horse, their words in court did not carry the same weight as the words of a Muslim. The daily persecution, the various forms of violence against the Armenian peasant and their general disenfranchised status kept the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire under constant pressure. In everyday life, Armenians were often labeled as “gyavurs” (infidels) and it was not coincidental that this was leveraged to organize massacres. For centuries, this was perceived as a normal situation, the natural order of things.
After 1908, relations between Armenians and Turks were officially changed in the Constitution; however, in everyday life, these changes only added to the tension in an already difficult relationship. Armenians tried to exercise their constitutional right to equality, but the Muslim reaction to this was often severe.
A Dangerous Rivalry
After the reinstatement of the Constitution in 1908, Armenians began to be perceived as rivals in the political and cultural spheres. Their contact with European ideas and movements, mainly through schools founded by European and American missionaries and visits to European capitals, inspired them with the enthusiasm and opportunities provided by the developments of the 19th century.
Armenian political parties started to demand more sovereignty and political rights from the Ottoman Empire. The Armenian population saw the revolution of the Young Turks and the consequent reinstatement of the Constitution as a tool to alleviate the difficult social conditions of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, and to expand the community’s rights and prospects. Armenians were extremely enthusiastic about the possibilities that the Constitution afforded them, while the Muslim population considered the proposed reforms unacceptable, especially since these reforms would improve the social status of the Christians. This resulted in feelings of envy and deep hatred. In a January 19, 1909 report, the Russian Consul General in Erzurum reports the following to Zinovyev, the Russian Ambassador in Constantinople: “The fascination of Armenians with the proclaimed freedoms is increasingly provoking the hatred of Muslims against them, even among the more progressive Young Turks, who until recently openly expressed their gratitude to the Armenians for initiating the liberation movement in Turkey. The distrust toward Armenians is growing not by the day, but by the hour.”
Attempts to prevent the competitiveness of the Armenians was evident in every sphere. In his memoirs, parliament member Vahan Papazian writes about secret circulars disseminated to all the regional Young Turk branches saying the advancement of Armenians in national, educational and economic spheres should be limited by all means possible; the activities of political parties and the events they organize should be closely monitored.”
Economic Prosperity and Envy
We should not ignore the economic component when discussing the ill-treatment of Armenians.
As part of 19th century trade development in the Ottoman Empire, the Christian entrepreneurial middle class also developed. As a result, it increased its wealth, became more self-confident and established a network of community institutions – schools, cafes, charities, sports clubs, etc. The visible rise in the wealth and economic status of the Christian communities led to a rise in negative attitudes toward them among Muslims.
As an oppressed minority and being excluded from the Ottoman military and, to a lesser degree, the civil service (there were certain expectations for translators), the Armenians did maintain, however, substantial influence in certain domains of the Ottoman economy, in finance, trade and later on in different branches of industry. Armenian businessmen, financiers and tradesmen controlled about 25% of the empire’s production and trade. The Armenian factor was also significant in agriculture and the crafts.
The economic prosperity of the Armenians also made them a target of envy and enmity; Armenians were perceived as pillagers who plundered Ottoman land and wealth.
The drive to take ownership of Armenian property and the massive scale of looting accompanying the Genocide were becoming the main justifications for the annihilation of the Armenian population.
The Pan-Turkic Dream: From Empire to Nation-State
All of this had an ideological basis. Having lost whole regions (the Balkans, North Africa) and having suffered defeats in the battlefield, the Ottoman Empire was almost moribund when the decision was made to attempt a shift from the centuries-old imperial model of development toward becoming a nation-state.
The economic successes of the Armenians were useful as long as the Ottoman state was an empire. In general, empires are more tolerant toward minorities. Each ethnic or religious minority has and knows its place in the social hierarchy, through which it brings its contribution to the advancement of the empire.
However, the situation changes when a nation-state comes to replace the empire. A nation-state seeks to establish a homogeneous, prevailing national unanimity within its borders. And, in such cases, minorities that do not wish to take part, by losing their own national identity and assimilating, are subject to annihilation.
During the rule of the Young Turks, the ideologies of pan-Islamism and ottomanism were replaced with Turkism and pan-Turkism. The concepts put forth by Ziya Gökalp and Yusuf Akçura aimed to create a homogenous Turkey and a Great Turanian superpower that would unite all Turkic-speaking peoples as far as Central Asia.
According to the ideologues of pan-Turkism, Armenians were considered a “disobedient element,” an obstacle in the way of building a united, homogeneous Turkish state. The homeland of the Armenians separated the Turkic-speaking peoples of Asia Minor and the Middle East from the Turkic-speaking people of the Caucasus and Central Asia. Subsequently, the Armenian territory was to be Turkified through cultural and linguistic assimilation. After that approach failed, the next solution was to be the physical annihilation of the Armenians.
This was a zero-sum game between nations, a peculiar social-Darwinist theory which presupposed that the survival of the Ottoman state and nation ostensibly required the homogeneity of Western Armenia.
In a Geopolitical Trap
After the 1877-1878 Russian-Turkish War and the 1878 Berlin Congress, the Turks began to accuse the Armenians of being Russian and Western agents. Article 61 of the Treaty of Berlin required administrative reforms in the Armenian regions of the Ottoman Empire under the supervision of the Great Powers. With this, the Great Powers introduced international diplomacy into the Armenian Question and began to use it to put pressure on the Ottoman Empire. The Turks began to feel threatened by an alleged betrayal by Armenians. These fears intensified in 1914, after the launch of the reform program in the Armenian vilayets, initiated by the Great Powers and especially Russia.
These allegations of betrayal against the Armenians were constantly tapped following every Turkish military failure. In 1915, after the shameful defeat at the hands of the Russian army in Sarikamish, Enver Pasha accused the Armenians of military cooperation with the Russians. Later on, several instances of resistance actions organized by Armenians were used as “evidence” of infidelity and preparation for revolution. In reality, however, the loyalty of the majority of the Armenian population was evident. The leaders of the Armenian community, both political and religious, tried to prevent provocations, as they encouraged the participation of Armenian youth in the war as part of the Ottoman army; they considered it a service to the homeland. Thousands of Armenian soldiers bravely fought in the Ottoman army in World War I.
The War as an Opportunity
World War I broke out in the summer of 1914. The Young Turks decided to side with Germany and Austria-Hungary. A secret agreement was signed with Germany, one of the clauses of which stated that, after the victorious end of the war, the German side would guarantee a reconfiguration of Turkey’s eastern border, which would allow it to establish direct contact with the Turkic-speaking and Muslim peoples of the Caucasus. This was the confirmation of the Young Turks’ Pan-Turkic program, the main obstacle of which was the “Armenian wedge.”
Turkish authorities saw the war as an opportunity to realize their planned Genocide of the Armenians. Turkey’s Minister of Interior Affairs Mehmet Talaat and Defense Minister Ismail Enver, in a memorandum sent to Berlin demanding the removal of German Ambassador Metternich, who had defended the Armenians, reiterated that “the work must be done now; it will be too late after the war.” Talaat expressed the same opinion in 1915 during a meeting with the French ambassador on February 2, stating that “now is the only good time” to get rid of the Armenian problem.
The Armenian Genocide was the end result of a number of factors and developments. Each of these can coincide or be supplemented with several others, which never manifest in a clear way.
The ideological: An empire transformed into a nation-state, which aimed to have a homogenous population. At the same time, to recreate a new state from a failing empire, the new concept, that of a utopian Pan-Turkism, was put to action which would see all Turkic speaking nations unite. The Armenian regions were a strategic obstacle on that path.
The internal politics: The Young Turks who came to power after the revolution did not want to have strong political opponents in the form of the dynamically advancing, modernized and progressive Armenian community.
The geopolitical: The Ottoman Empire was under constant pressure from Europe and Russia. Christian Armenians were perceived as European and Russian allies and therefore untrustworthy elements to be eliminated when possible.
The economic: Armenian assets were very seductive for the newly emerging Turkish national bourgeoisie. It became a means to involve the average Muslim in the process of the extermination of Armenians. Armenian property, possessions and other material wealth was confiscated and redistributed among the Muslim population of the empire.
The psychological: Armenians welcomed the Young Turks’ promises of equality with naive enthusiasm. Their ambitions only aroused hatred among the Muslim population, who could not accept the idea that “yesterday’s slaves” could be equal to the Turks, who had ruled them for centuries. In its turn, the Armenian population, giving in to the slogans of the Young Turks, lost vigilance and were unprepared to face the coming catastrophe.
And finally, World War I provided a convenient opportunity to realize the intention to exterminate the Armenians. The elite of the Ittihad Party, using all state resources – material, organizational, military and propaganda – mobilized large swaths of the Muslim population of the empire in this “project.”
The last stage of the Armenian Genocide is the Turkish government’s utter and absolute denial of the genocide of the Armenian people on its own homeland. Despite the ongoing process of international condemnation of the Armenian Genocide, Turkey continues to fight against the recognition of the Armenian Genocide in every possible way, through falsification of history, anti-Armenian propaganda, political, economic, lobbying and other means.