Within the Ottoman Empire, Armenians formed four broad classes. The first consisted of the rich and influential men in the government and civil service. The second was the mercantile and trading class of Istanbul and the cities of Anatolia; this was the class with which Western travelers came into most contact. The third class was the peasantry—much the largest of the four and the least regarded, except by a few knowledgeable travelers such as H. F. B. Lynch. The fourth was the warrior class of the mountaineers—men living a tough, independent existence in remote mountain fastnesses like Zeitun. In addition, there was a numerous priesthood and higher clergy.
How many Armenians were there in Turkey? There were no reliable independent population statistics. Ubicini (1854) put the figure at 2,400,000, and held that they constituted a majority in the provinces of Erzerum (which then included Kars, Bayazid and Childer) and Kurdistan (Van, Moush, Hakkiari and Diyarbakir). In 1882 the Armenian patriarchate in Constantinople produced figures estimating Armenians in the Empire at 2,660,000, of whom 1,630,000 lived in the ‘six [Armenian] vilayets’—the provinces of Sivas, Mamuret el-Aziz, Erzerum, Diyarbakir, Bitlis and Van. Later statistics from the patriarchate in 1912 put the total at only 2,100,000; the decrease was due to the massacres of the 1890s, and the continual shift of the Armenian population across the frontier into the Russian Caucasus. Official Turkish figures put the Armenian population considerably lower.
The Ottoman Turkish government had exercised little direct authority over the majority of its Armenian citizens until the second half of the l9th century. Up to that date, the majority in the country areas were beholden to local Kurdish feudal lords. When central government encroached, the result was almost always bad: it meant extra taxes for the peasantry, and an increase in oppression. The Armenians in ‘Turkish Armenia’ (that is, eastern Turkey of today) had an additional problem to cope with. They were heavily intermixed with a large Kurdish population… These Kurds, originally from more southerly regions, had been settled there by Sultan Selim in the 16th century, on condition that they guard the frontier with Persia. The Kurds are mostly orthodox Muslims. Though not fanatical, their tendencies for pillaging, and for stealing Armenian girls, were strong. Moreover the Kurds were armed, whereas the Armenians, as a Christian subject race, were forbidden to bear arms.
Bit by bit the Armenians were squeezed out. In 1839, Consul Brant had reported that ‘in the whole plain of Moush there are not any Moham me dan peasants intermingled with the Armenians’, but within a few decades, they were a minority in their own land. The Armenian peasantry was sometimes heavily indebted to the Kurds, who acted as money-lenders, and charged a rate of interest of between 3% and 4% per month.
The reform movements of the l9th century in Ottoman Turkey, known as the ‘Tanzimat’ or reorganization, hardly benefited the Armenians at all outside Constantinople, the main reason being that the civil administration of the empire was not reorganized. And it is arguable that the ‘Tanzimat’ was little but a piece of window dressing, designed to pacify European diplomats pressing the ‘sick man of Europe’ towards some semblance of reform.
Armenia and the Great Powers
Armenia did not feature as an issue in international diplomacy until 1878. Her people were not rebellious, so European diplomats tended to overlook them. But the education that Armenians were receiving, whether in France, Venice or Russia, meant that the old subservience would not last. Moreover, the capture of eastern Armenia by the Russians from the Persians in 1828, and their creation there of an ‘Armenian province’, gave a boost to nationalist sentiment…
With the Treaty of Paris (1856), Ottoman Turkey was first admitted as a treaty partner with the great powers; and entry into the ‘club’ was secured through article 9 of that treaty, which promised ameliorations for the Christian population of the empire. At the time the European powers were thinking not of the Armenians but of the Balkan Christians; however there was no distinction between Balkan and Armenian in the treaty itself. No substantial reforms were made, except for Armenians in the imperial capital; conditions in the provinces continued as they had always been.
At the same time it was a period of ‘exchange of populations’, exacerbating distinctions of race and religion. Tens of thousands of Armenians fled to eastern Armenia following its Russian conquest in 1828; and following the Crimean war and the Russian subjugation of Circassia, hundreds of thousands of Muslims fled to the Ottoman Empire. Russia moved on to subdue Central Asia, where the fate of rebellious or disaffected Muslims was frequently death. These things increased rather than diminished racial and religious feelings.
Nevertheless Armenians continued to hope that the administration of their people in the Ottoman provinces would improve. (It is perhaps worth pointing out that Armenians were seeking reforms in the administration, not independence; not until after World War I did any of them, except a small unrepresentative group of revolutionaries, seek independence.) Armenian hopes were highest after the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78- by this time they had grown in self-awareness, and knew that their people deserved better than to be treated as serfs by the local Turks and Kurds.
But the hopes of the Armenians were frustrated, largely by the British Prime Minister, Disraeli. He viewed the introduction of reforms in the Ottoman Empire merely as an advance in Russian power, which was unacceptable. Disraeli and Lord Salisbury forced the Russians to evacuate Erzerum, although they were allowed to keep Kars and Ardahan. An unworkable clause was introduced into the Treaty of Berlin (1878), laying the Western powers under an obscure collective obligation to check on Turkey’s introduction of administrative reforms; the upshot was that ‘What was everybody’s business became nobody’s business’, as the Duke of Argyll was later to observe. Half a dozen British consuls were left with the impossible task of policing- without any real powers of coercion- an area the size of England and Wales; and they were ordered home after four years. Disraeli, however, cleverly wrested Cyprus from the Turkish sultan, as the price for a defense treaty with Britain. Britain’s guilt in leaving the Armenians unprotected was later recognized by Lloyd George; he noted in 1938 that, in the Treaty of Berlin, which was ‘entirely due to our minatory pressure’ and which ‘was acclaimed by us as a great British triumph which brought “Peace with honor” ‘, ‘Armenia was sacrificed on the triumphal altar we had erected. The Russians were forced to withdraw; the wretched Armenians were once more placed under the heel of their old masters…’ (However, despite these high sentiments, it should be pointed out that during his premiership, in 1920 Lloyd George did as little for the Armenians as any of his predecessors. He exhibited the fatal tendency of the British to wring their hands at the fate of Armenians but do nothing concrete in their behalf).
Bit by bit Britain lost its position of predominance at the court of the sultan. Reforms were never introduced into Turkish Armenia. And the Turkish court gravitated more and more towards the German capital at Berlin, where Bismarck and later Kaiser Wilhelm II were proclaiming that ‘Might is Right’.
The Armenian Revolutionary Movement
Though life continued to be tolerable, even enviable, for the wealthy Armenians of the great cities of the Ottoman empire, the situation in the eastern provinces went from bad to worse. Instead of the administration being reformed, oppression by local officials grew more intense. Abdul Hamid armed the Kurds, and encouraged them to attack the Armenian villagers. In 1891 he formed the Kurdish Hamidiye regiments, which terrorized the civilian population, just as Cossack troops in Russia did during the final years of Tsarism. The Armenians for their part began to form underground defense groups and armed revolutionary societies. The first of these were the Armenakans of Van(1885), followed by the Hunchaks (1887, founded in Geneva) and the Dashnaks (1890, Tiflis)… The split which opened within the Armenian community between conservatives and gradualists on one side, and radicals and party authoritarians on the other side, was to have serious and lasting implications.
During the early 1890s, these groups carried out a few acts of armed defiance of the Turkish authorities, and put up seditious placards calling on the people to revolt. But the first really significant action was the attempt by Hunchaks in 1894 to incite the Armenians of Sasun in Turkish Armenia to defy both the Ottoman government and their local Kurdish overlords. The two leading revolutionaries, Mihran Damadian and Hampartzum Boyadjian, were respectively a teacher and a doctor.
Sultan Abdul Hamid and the 1894-96 Massacres
The Sasun rising was suppressed with considerable ferocity by Ottoman regulars, which led to an international outcry. Foreign pressure forced the sultan to appoint a commission, with delegates from Britain, France and Russia as observers. Abdul Hamid promised reforms, but there followed in October-December 1895 a series of massacres throughout Turkish Armenia, in almost every one of which, impartial observers, including British consuls, noted official complicity. Just before these killings took place, the Hunchaks had organized a large and violent demonstration in Istanbul, which served as an additional pretext for the authorities to slaughter the Armenian populace.
In these massacres, up to 300,000 Armenians perished. Perhaps the grimmest was the second massacre at Urfa on 28-29 December 1895. About 3000 Armenian men, women and children had taken refuge in their cathedral, but troops soon broke in. After shooting down many unarmed victims, the Turks collected straw bedding, poured kerosene on it, and set it alight. British Consul Fitzmaurice later wrote: ‘The gallery beams and wooden framework soon caught fire, whereupon, blocking up the staircase leading to the gallery with similar inflammable materials, they left the mass of struggling human beings to become the prey of the flames. During several hours the sickening odor of roasting flesh pervaded the town, and even today, two months and a half after the massacre, the smell of putrescent and charred remains in the church is unbearable.’
In despair, the Armenian revolutionaries resolved to force intervention by the European powers who had signed the Berlin treaty of 1878. In August 1896, a group of armed Dashnaks seized the Ottoman Bank in Constantinople, and threatened to blow it up unless their political demands were met. But they gave in after holding the Bank for thirteen hours- all they obtained was free passage out of the country. However, they were the lucky ones; as they left, the sultan organized another massacre of Armenians on the streets of the capital, right under the noses of the foreign ambassadors. Most of those killed were Armenians of the poorest class—migrant workers, porters, dockers and caretakers.
Pressed by Gladstone and others to intervene, Lord Salisbury commented that, unfortunately, British battleships could not operate over the Taurus mountains. The European powers discussed the possible partition of the Ottoman Empire, or even the forcible deposition of the bloodthirsty sultan. But their mutual rivalries and mistrust, and the enormous sums invested by some of them in the economy of the Ottoman Empire, prevented any effective action being taken.
A False Dawn: Armenia and the Young Turk Revolution
The Young Turk revolution of 1908 removed the autocratic powers of Sultan Abdul Hamid and reintroduced the Constitution of 1876. Initially there was a tremendous sense of liberty and fraternity among the nationalities within the Empire; Armenian Dashnaks had collaborated closely with the Young Turks in staging the revolution, and maintained an alliance with them for a few years thereafter.
Yet even within one year, relations turned rather sour. In 1909 there was a furious massacre of Armenians in Adana, claiming about 30,000 victims. It is not clear whether the Young Turks, or partisans of the deposed Abdul Hamid, were behind this bloodthirsty episode. Soon the Young Turk revolution was degenerating into mere dictatorship, and the policy of the ruling junta became one of ‘the Turks above all other nationalities’. The British Ambassador described their policy in September 1910 as ‘pounding the non-Turkish elements in a Turkish mortar’—a remark which applies equally well to the Turkish government in the 1980s.
At the same time, a Turkish nationalist ideology was taking shape which was to have grave and far-reaching implications for the Armen ians. This was pan-Turkism or pan-Turanianism—a doctrine which continues even today to have many powerful adepts…
The implications of pan-Turkism for the Armenians were extremely grave. They were among the least willing of the minorities within the empire to be Turkicized, clinging to their ancient Church as a symbol of that defiance. Moreover, their fellow Armenians in the Russian Caucasus stood in the way of the ‘second stage’ of pan-Turkism- the expansion to Baku, the oil city on the Caspian.
This theorizing was far from being harmless intellectual specula tion—any more than the Aryan myth was under the regime of Adolf Hitler. By 1914 Ottoman Turkey was ruled by a triumvirate of Young Turk militants, and pan-Turkism was the personal ideology of the most powerful of the three, Enver Pasha. The second of the trio, Talaat, was less of a theoretician, but capable of crushing the minority nationalities, and with an abundance of bureaucratic cruelty in his character. The third, Jemal, was of a more affable disposition, but with more than a streak of ruthlessness.
The First World War and the "Final Solution" of the Armenian Question
It is often stated by Turkish historians that the mass deportation of the Armenians was forced on the Young Turk government of that time, because the entire Armenian population constituted a dangerous ‘Fifth Column’, sympathetic to the Western Allies and to Russia. This claim is less than the whole truth. Just two years before, Armenians had fought bravely in the Ottoman army during the Balkan War; the British ambassador had remarked that ‘the several thousand of Armenian troops have fought better than any of the other non-Turkish elements’. In 1914, there were a number of professions of Armenian loyalty to the Ottoman empire (notably the enlistment of Armenians in the Ottoman army); however, the last forty years had taught the Armenians to be wary of any Turkish government, none of which had shown evidence of being their government.
Shortly before the First World War broke out in 1914,the Dashnak party held its eighth party conference in Erzerum. During the conference, Young Turk representatives approached the Dashnaks and suggested that they should foment a rebellion across the frontier, in the Russian Caucasus. In return, Turkey would set up an autonomous Armenia under her own protection. The Dashnaks turned down the plan, proposing instead that Turkey should stay neutral in the impending conflict; but in the event of Turkey joining the war, Armenians everywhere would be advised to do their duty as Ottoman citizens.
When war broke out, most Turkish Armenians behaved as loyal Ottoman citizens. An estimated 250,000 were conscripted into the Ottoman armies. When Enver Pasha was defeated by the Russians at Sarikamish, it was Armenian soldiers who saved him from being killed or captured by the Tsarist forces. However, some Armenians fled from Turkey into Russia, and joined volunteer regiments which the Tsarist authorities were encouraging. In Cilicia, Armenian leaders instigated a revolt against the Ottoman government, but this came to nothing.
Soon events took a tragic turn. Turkish Armenians in the Ottoman army were disarmed and herded into labor battalions, where they were starved, beaten or machine-gunned. On 24April 1915, two hundred and fifty-four Armenian intellectuals in Istanbul were arrested and deported to the provinces of Ayash and Chankiri, where nearly all of them were murdered by the authorities. Further arrests in Istanbul brought the number to 5000.
Having lost both its able-bodied male population (from the army) and now its intellectual elite, the Armenian community was now almost leaderless, and the authorities turned upon it with fury. In every town and village of Turkish Armenia and Asia Minor, the entire Armenian population was ordered out. The men were usually led away and shot down just outside their villages. A far worse fate awaited the women and children: they were forced to walk southwards in huge convoys to the burning deserts of northern Syria. Few survived the privations of these terrible death marches; for months afterwards, the roads and tracks of Anatolia were littered with corpses and skeletons picked clean by the vultures. There were variations on this pattern. In Trebizond, the local Armenians were embarked in boats, and thrown overboard when well out into the Black Sea. A number were despatched by being hurled down the Kemakh Gorge, near Erzinjan.
Those who survived the long journey south were herded into huge open-air concentration camps, the grimmest of which was that at Deir ez-Zor, in Ottoman Syria, where they were starved and killed by sadistic guards. A small number were able to escape through the secret protection of friendly Arabs in villages in northern Syria. Otherwise, the only refugee routes were to Russian Transcaucasia or the Balkans, apart from the remarkable escapes of four thousand besieged villagers from Musa Dagh, near Antioch, rescued by a French warship. (The Musa Dagh episode forms the subject of a novel by Franz Werfel.)
This systematic and successfully executed genocide resulted from decisions taken at the highest government level. The Interior Minister, Talaat Pasha, boasted to Morgenthau, the American ambassador, that the Armenian question was dead for fifty years. The government itself was but an instrument of the Young Turk party, the ‘Committee of Union and Progress’, whose dominant ideology was pan-Turkism. The mass-murder was not just a matter of ‘isolated incidents’: it was carefully thought out and executed with precision. Nor did it result from religious intolerance, though the Young Turks mobilized the fanaticism of the village mullahs, and the greed of Turkish have-nots. There were in fact Muslim leaders who were shocked by the measures taken, and protested against them.
In recent years the government of the Turkish Republic has, through various official and semi-official channels, strenuously denied that the former Young Turk regime undertook a genocide against the Armenians. It is currently spending vast sums in propaganda and public relations—the firm of Gray and Company in Washington DC has been hired for the purpose—in order to try to demonstrate that no genocide took place in 1915. Pamphlets are published in Ankara aiming to show that the government orders issued in 1915 were humane; that the Armenians staged a treasonable revolt in Van- and that the events of l915 would best be characterized as a civil war between various armed bands. All these claims are fallacious. As far as the orders are concerned, we know, from the testimony (which is in the Public Record Office, Kew) of an Ottoman Muslim officer who was a participant in the Armenian genocide that there were two sets of orders, one open and the other secret. The secret orders were the ones which had to be obeyed, and they detailed the violent measures to be undertaken against Armenians. So for the Turks to publish books and pamphlets showing that some orders were benevolent is no more than an exercise in naivete.
As regards Van in April 1915: on the evidence of independent eye witnesses, the Armenians’ defiance of the Turkish governor has been shown to have been self-defense, not rebellion. On the matter of the alleged ‘civil war’, no reputable military historian gives any grounds for support of this view (least of all the standard work on the subject, Allen and Muratoff’s Caucasian Battlefields). By equating Turkish and Armenian forces at this time, the proponents of this view are attempting to minimize or ignore the vast power of the Ottoman state, and its extensive deployment of the armed gendarmerie and party officials used to kill Armenian civilians at this time.
Who did the killing? In some cases it was ordinary gendarmes. The government also recruited a ‘Special Organization’ (Teshkilat-i Makhsu siye), mostly composed of common criminals released from prison in Western Anatolia, on condition that they engage in the slaughter of the Armenians.
How many Armenians died? Viscount Bryce, speaking in the House of Lords on 6 October 1915, put the figure then at ‘around 800,000’. The slaughter continued well into 1916, and later still. The Turkish offensive into the Russian Caucasus in the summer of 1918 claimed many thousands of victims. The Turks then used Armenian refugees as targets for bayonet practice. When the Ottoman army captured Baku in the autumn of 1918, 15,000 Armenians were butchered. Scores of thousands of refugees died of famine after the October Revolution. As late as 1921, a British colonel in Erzerum found the Kemalists beating and starving Armenian captives to death.
Before 1914, around two million Armenians lived in Turkey; since the First World War this figure has hardly exceeded 100,000. Thus the number of Armenian dead may safely be put at around 1,500,000. Another half-million became refugees, whose descendants, with their tragic memories, can be found in a score of countries today.