The Young Turks ruled the Ottoman Empire from 1908 to 1918. During the last three years of their rule, the Young Turks killed over a million Armenians. The Turkish government to this day still denies that the genocide ever took place, and other countries share this view.
The Armenian nation originated from ancient tribes who settled in the Armenian Highlands around 1,000 BCE. In the 4th century, they began to develop a separate culture related to their conversion to Christianity.
In the middle of the 15th century, Armenia was conquered by the Ottoman Empire. The Empire was ethnically, culturally, and religiously diverse, but Islam was the ruling religion. Christianity and Jews in the Empire were considered second-class citizens and designated into “Millets” (dhimmī, Proteges), politico-religious communities defined according to their religion, and allowed only a certain amount of political and religious freedom. The community’s leadership directed its members according to the laws of the religion, as long as the laws did not conflict with the State’s or its interests. In return, the communities agreed to be loyal to the Empire and accepted certain limitations on their freedoms, such as the payment of special taxes; a ban on carrying weapons; a requirement to wear identifying clothing or symbols; and in certain areas, a ban on speaking in the community’s language.
In the late 19th century, the Empire’s power began to wane because of internal corruption and external threats from the European powers, especially Russia. At the same time, a national awakening began amongst various nations in the area, including the Turkish nation, but also nations under Ottoman rule, like the Armenians.
The Hamidian and Adana Massacres:
In August 1894, an Armenian uprising broke out in the region surrounding the city, Sasun. The Ottomans brutally suppressed the uprising, and many Armenians were massacred. Local conflicts between the Turks, Kurds, and Armenians continued for about three years. The government-sponsored commission to investigate the events did not satisfy the Armenians, and in September 1895 they demonstrated against the commission’s findings. The Muslim population attacked the protesters, escalating into another massacre and outbreak of violence against the Armenians in the Anatolia Highlands. Following the massacre, the Sultan promised to institute reforms to improve the status of the Armenians, mostly due to diplomatic pressure from England, Russia, and France, but the reforms were never implemented, and the massacres and violence against Armenians continued throughout the Empire.
Armenians from the ARF seized the European-managed Ottoman Bank on August 26, 1896, in order to bring the rest of the world’s full attention to the massacres. The Turks responded with drastic measures, massacring thousands of Armenians. News of the bloody massacre brought Britain to propose military involvement to save Armenians, but Russia and France feared the strengthening of Britain’s power in the region, and in the end the European powers did nothing to intervene. These events which came be called the Hamidian Massacre, came to an end, but its perpetrators were never brought to justice. The amount of deaths is estimated anywhere from 80,000 to 300,000, resulting in at least 50,000 orphans.
The Young Turks and Adana Massacre:
In July 1908, the Young Turks overthrew the Ottoman government. The Young Turks were a party founded by young people who had been educated in Europe and wanted to create a parliamentary government, which would unite various factions of the Empire. Their slogan was “Unity and Progress.” Due to the national awakenings, as well as the weakening of the Empire after military losses, and the subsequent losses of territory in Europe and North Africa, the Young Turks developed a Pan-Turkish outlook. Their idea was to unify all the Turkish-speaking groups of the Caucasus, in order to expand towards Asia, and found a centralized, unified, Muslim-Turkish state. The large Armenian population of the Armenian Highlands in the east became an obstacle to the realization of the Pan-Turkish dream.
When the Young Turks came to power, the Armenians hoped to gain autonomy and to realize their aspirations of self-determination. And indeed, at the beginning of the Young Turk regime, the Armenians received equal rights such as the right to serve in the army, and the right to serve in parliament. However, in March 1909, during the conflict between the Sultan, who was attempting to regain power, and the Young Turks, massacres were renewed. In this massacre, which came to be called the Adana Massacre, Armenians served as scapegoats for the national conflicts, and about 20,000 Armenians were killed.
In 1911, the Young Turks’ Committee of Union and Progress announced its aim to adopt a policy of “Ottomanization,” essentially a process of “Turkizization” and “Islamization” across the Empire. The direct result of this decision was a dark era of ethnic cleansing targeting the Christian minorities in the Ottoman Empire, among them the Assyrians, the Armenians and the Greeks.
In reaction to the outbreak of World War I, the Turkish Army made an attempted attack on Russia, but was defeated. The Armenians were once again used as a scapegoat and blamed for the defeat. Simultaneously, as the war escalated mass murders continued, unable to be prevented or monitored, as many foreign diplomats left the Empire. About 250,000 young Armenians who were drafted into the army were taken out of combat units and put into work brigades, where they were systematically slaughtered during the course of the war.
In 1915, during the night between April 23rd and 24th, the Istanbul police broke into the homes of respected Armenian families and killed an estimated 235 to 270 leaders and intellectuals. Today, April 24th is considered the beginning of the genocide and has been declared the official Genocide Remembrance Day. In June 1915, the Ottoman government ordered the entire non-Turkish population within the supply-lines of the Turkish army to be deported. At this time, Kurds also killed and expelled Armenians, because they hoped that they could take their land. The conduct of the expulsions and genocide fell on the police and a special unit, composed of criminals and prisoners released from jail, which was created to kill Armenians.
The Armenian population in both urban and rural areas was warned to pack up their belongings and leave. Men and boys over age 15 were seized, supposedly to serve in the army, but then killed. Women, children, and the elderly were taken on forced marches during which they suffered acts of rape, pillage, and massacre. Local tribes and Kurdish civilians were encouraged to attack the convoys. Some of the convoys were crushed to death by trains. A small number survived the forced marches only to have arrived in Syrian Desert, where they were held in camps with poor conditions, where they were starved to death and died of disease. in some cases concentrated in caves and gassed to death.Other convoys arrived at Black Sea ports, where the Armenians were forced onto old ships which were then sunk by the Turks.
In Van, in northeastern Anatolia, Armenians fought against the Ottoman army who tried to enter the city from April 19. The Ottoman army besieged the city. About 55,000 Armenian were killed in the siege. After a month of fighting the Russian military conquered the region. It was almost the only act of self-defense during the genocide.
Five months after the expulsion order was given, the majority of the Armenians who lived in six villages, under the leadership of their local priest, decided to take advantage of the days before their removal to entrench themselves in Mount Musa-Dag in northern Syria. The priest requested help from French priests to save them by sea. The group fortified themselves on the mountain and battled the Turkish army for 53 days until French and British ships arrived to save them. About 4,049 Armenians were saved.
After the Genocide:
Following World War I, Turkey was distanced from the Western world, as were the Armenians. After the humiliation of the war, and later, the rise of the Nazis in Germany, the Armenian massacres did not interest most of the world.
Only in 1965, 50 years after the genocide, did the Armenians begin to try to remind the world of the atrocities. In 1967, a memorial was set up in Yerevan, today the capital of Armenia and then under Soviet rule. During this period, Turkey was on the front lines of the struggle between NATO and the Soviet Union; Western countries did not want to be reminded of this sensitive and complicated issue. In the 1990s, after Armenia gained independence from Soviet rule, the Armenian Genocide Museum and Institute opened in 1995, also as part of the National Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Armenia.
April 24th was declared the official Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, yet many countries, including Israel and the United States, to this day refuse to recognize the Armenian genocide in order to preserve their diplomatic relationships with Turkey, which has still never admitted to the occurrence of the genocide.
*This article was written with the help of Dr Asya Darbinyan