A Disputed Genocide. Armenians in the Ottoman Empire during the Nineteenth Century

A Disputed Genocide. Armenians in the Ottoman Empire during the Nineteenth Century

Guenter Lewy, 2005. Publisher The University of Utah Press

The literature is voluminous on what Armenians call the first genocide of the twentieth century and what most Turks refer to as an instance of intercommunal warfare and a wartime relocation. Yet despite the great outpouring of writing, an acrimonious debate over what actually happened almost one hundred years ago continues unabated. The highly charged historical dispute burdens relations between Turkey and Armenia and increases tensions in a volatile region. It also crops up periodically in other parts of the world when members of the Armenian diaspora push for recognition of the Armenian genocide by their respective parliaments and the Turkish government threatens retaliation. 

Vestnik Kavkaza publishes chapters from the book of Guenter Lewy "The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey: a Disputed Genocide," revealing the essence of the issue.

Armenian history reaches back more than two thousand years. In AD 301 the Armenians were the first people to adopt Christianity as their official religion; the Holy Apostolic and Orthodox Church of Armenia (also known as the Gregorian Church) has played an important role in the survival of a people who for much of their history have lived under the rule of foreigners. The last independent Armenian state, the Kingdom of Cilicia, fell in 1375, and by the early part of the sixteenth century most Armenians had come under the control of the Ottoman Empire. Under the millet system instituted by Sultan Mohammed II (1451-81) the Armenians enjoyed religious, cultural, and social autonomy. Their ready acceptance of subservient political status under Ottoman rule lasted well into the nineteenth century and earned the Armenians the title "the loyal community." 

Over time large numbers of Armenians settled in Constantinople and in other towns, where they prospered as merchants, bankers, artisans, and interpreters for the government. The majority, however, continued to live as peasants in the empire's eastern provinces (vilayets), known as Great Armenia, as well as in several western districts near the Mediterranean called Cilicia or Little Armenia. We have no accurate statistics for the population of the Ottoman Empire during this period, but there is general agreement that by the latter part of the nineteenth century the Armenians constituted a minority even in the six provinces usually referred to as the heartland of Armenia (Erzurum, Bitlis, Van, Harput, Diarbekir, and Sivas). Emigration and conversions in the wake of massacres, the redrawing of boundaries, and an influx of Muslims1 expelled or fleeing from the Balkans and the Caucasus (especially Laz and Circassians) had helped decrease the number of Armenians in their historic home. Their minority status fatally undermined their claim for an independent or at least autonomous Armenia within the empire-aims that had begun to gather support as a result of the influx of new liberal ideas from the West and the increased burdens weighing upon the Christian peasants of Anatolia.

Until the beginning of the nineteenth century Armenians had not suffered from any systematic oppression. They were second-class citizens who had to pay special taxes and wear a distinctive hat, they were not allowed to bear or possess arms, their testimony was often rejected in the courts, and they were barred from the highest administrative or military posts. The terms gavur or kafir (meaning unbeliever or infidel) used for Christians had definite pejorative overtones and summed up the Muslim outlook. Still, as Ronald Suny has noted, despite all discriminations and abuses, for several centuries the Armenians had derived considerable benefit from the limited autonomy made possible by the millet system. "The church remained at the head of the nation; Armenians with commercial and industrial skills were able to climb to the very pinnacle of the Ottoman economic order; and a variety of educational, charitable, and social institutions were permitted to flourish." Living in relative peace with their Muslim neighbors, the Armenians had enjoyed a time of "benign symbiosis."

In the eastern provinces the Armenians lived on a mountainous plateau that they shared with Kurdish tribes. During the second half of the nineteenth century relations with the Kurdish population deteriorated. Large numbers of Armenian peasants existed in a kind of feudal servitude under the rule of Kurdish chieftains. The settled Armenians provided winter quarters to the nomadic Kurds and paid them part of their crop in return for protection. As long as the Ottoman state was strong and prosperous this arrangement worked reasonably well. When the empire began to crumble and its government became increasingly corrupt, however, the situation of the Armenian peasants became difficult—they could not afford to pay ever more oppressive taxes to the Ottoman tax collectors as well as tribute to their Kurdish overlords. When they reneged on their payments to the Kurds, the tribes— never very benevolent—engaged in savage attacks upon the largely defenseless Armenian villagers that led to deaths, the abduction of girls and women, and the seizure of cattle. Ottoman officials, notoriously venal, were unwilling or unable to provide redress. The reforms introduced in 1839 and 1856 under Sultan Abdul Mejid I, which sought to establish elements of the rule of law and religious liberty and are known in Turkish history as the Tanzimat, did little to change the dismal situation of the common people and of the Armenian minority. In a period of twenty years before 1870 Armenian patriarchs, as heads of the Armenian community, submitted to the Ottoman government more than 500 memoranda in which they detailed the extortions, forcible conversions, robberies, and abductions common in the provinces.

The constitution of 1876 proclaimed the equal treatment of all nationalities, but Sultan Abdul Hamid II suspended it in 1878 and began a period of autocratic rule that was to last thirty years. The situation of the Armenians soon went from bad to worse, accelerating the growth of Armenian national consciousness and the spread of revolutionary ideas. Armenian nationalistic feelings had begun in the diaspora and in the larger towns, from which they gradually permeated the eastern provinces. Protestant missionaries and their schools played an important role in this process of radicalization. Both the government and the Armenian church tried to discourage the influx of these foreigners and their Western ideas, but the number of missionaries, most of them American and German, kept growing. By T895, according to one count, there were 176 American missionaries, assisted by 878 native assistants, at work in Anatolia. They had established 125 churches with 12,787 members and 423 schools with 20,496 students. Even though the missionaries denied that they instilled Armenian nationalistic, let alone revolutionary, sentiments, the Ottoman government saw it differently. As Charles Eliot, a well-informed British diplomat with extensive experience in Turkey, put it: 

“The good position of the Armenians in Turkey had largely depended on the fact that they were thoroughly Oriental and devoid of that tincture of European culture common among Greeks and Slavs. But now this character was being destroyed: European education and European books were being introduced among them-The Turks thought that there was clearly an intention to break up what remained of the Ottoman Empire and found an Armenian kingdom-"Onward, Christian sol diers, marching as to war," in English is a harmless hymn, suggestive of nothing worse than a mildly ritualistic procession; but I confess that the same words literally rendered into Turkish do sound like an appeal to Christians to rise up against their Mohammedan masters, and I cannot be surprised that the Ottoman authorities found the hymn seditious and forbade it to be sung.”

The reports sent home by the missionaries made the outside world aware of the unhappy life of their downtrodden fellow-Christians in Anatolia. The missionaries were hardly impartial observers, but the injustices and indignities suffered by the Christian population were indeed quite real. The Ottoman authorities, for their part, as Suny has written, "interpreted any manifestation of cultural revival or resistance, however individual or local, as an act of national rebellion....Turkish officials and intellectuals began to look upon Armenians as unruly, subversive, alien elements who consorted with foreign powers."6 The Ottoman government began to protest the growing European interest in the fate of the Armenians, regarding it as interference in Ottoman affairs. They suspected, not without justification, that the European powers were using the Armenian problem as a convenient pretext for further weakening of the Ottoman Empire. It was felt that Russia, in particular, which had seized some of the Armenian lands following the Russo-Turkish war of 1828-29, was encouraging the Armenian agitation in order to annex the remaining Armenian provinces in eastern Anatolia.

Matters came to a head in the wake of the Bulgarian revolt against Ottoman rule in 1876. Reports reaching the West about the ferocious manner in which the rebellion had been suppressed helped solidify the image of the "terrible Turk." Russian public opinion clamored for help to the Southern Slavs, and in April T877 Russia declared war upon Turkey. The commander of the Russian army invading eastern Anatolia was a Russian Armenian, Mikayel Loris-Melikov (his original name was Melikian). The Russian troops included many Russian Armenians; Armenians from Ottoman Anatolia were said to have acted as guides. The spread of pro-Russian sentiments among the Armenians of Anatolia, who hoped that Russia would liberate them from the Turkish yoke, was well known. All this alarmed the Ottoman government and raised doubts about the reliability of the Armenians. The transition from "the most loyal millet" to a people suspected to be in league with foreign enemies was complete. Consequently, when the Russian troops withdrew, Kurds and Circassians pillaged Armenian villages in the border region, and thousands of Armenians took refuge in the Russian Caucasus. The massacres of 1894-96 arc unintelligible without taking note of this decisive change in the Turko-Armenian relationship. 

After some initial setbacks, the war of 1877-78 ended with a complete victory for Russia. In January 1878 Russian troops approached Constantinople; on the Caucasian front they took Erzurum. At the urging of the Armenian patriarch, the Treaty of San Stefano, signed on March 2, 1878, included a provision aimed at protecting the Armenians. According to article 16, the Sublime Porte (the Ottomangovernment) agreed "to carry out, without further delay, the ameliorations and reforms demanded by local requirements in the provinces inhabited by the Armenians, and to guarantee their security against the Kurds and Circassians." Russian troops were to remain in the Armenian provinces until satisfactory reforms had been implemented. 

The harsh provisions of the Treaty of San Stefano stripped the Ottoman state of substantial territories in the Balkans and yielded Russia the Armenian districts of Ardahan, Kars, and Bayazid as well as the important Black Sea port or Batum. These gains aroused the fears of the British that Turkey would become a client state of Russia, thus upsetting the balance of power in the eastern Mediterranean. Hence Russia, under pressure from the European powers, had to agree to the Treaty of Berlin several months later (July 13, 1878), which greatly reduced Russian gains. The creation of a Bulgarian vassal state subservient to Russia was shelved; the Armenian district of Bayazid was returned to Turkey and Batum converted into a free port; the independence of Serbia, Montenegro, and Rumania was reaffirmed; and BosniaT Ierzegovina was to be occupied and administered by Austria-Hungary. The new treaty also required Russia to withdraw its troops from Ottoman territory and placed the responsibility for enforcing the Armenian reform provisions of the Treaty of San Stefano (article 61 of the new treaty) upon the entire Concert of Europe. As George Douglas Campbell, Duke of Argyll, a former cabinet minister, later observed correctly: "What was everybody's business was nobody's business."? In the separate Cyprus Convention of June 4, 1878, which allowed Britain to occupy the island of Cyprus, the Porte made an additional promise to introduce reforms into Armenia; but all these commitments remained mere words. 

The overall result was to increase antagonism between Turks and Armenians. The agreements raised the expectations of the Armenians, while they provided no effective security for them. The sultan was angry over the continuing interference of the European powers in Turkey's internal affairs. He became more fearful of the Armenians, whose lands constituted a crucial segment of the reduced empire, and hence was more inclined to use violence. The Armenians had become pawns in the European struggle for power and dominance.

The contribution of the Treaty of Berlin and the Cyprus Convention to the Armenian tragedy was noted by Lord James Bryce, a great friend of the Armenians. Writing in 1896, after a wave of Armenian massacres, he remarked: 

If there had been no Treaty of Berlin and no Anglo-Turkish Convention, the Armenians would doubtless have continued to be oppressed, as they had been oppressed for centuries. But they would have been spared the storm of fire, famine, and slaughter which descended upon them in 1895.... Before the Treaty of Berlin the Sultan had no special enmity to the Armenians, nor had the Armenian nation any political aspirations. It was the stipulations then made for their protection that first marked them out for suspicion and hatred, and that first roused in them hope of deliverance whose expression increased the hatred of their rulers. The AngloTurkish Convention taught them to look to England, and England's interference embittered the Turks.

The European powers did nothing to enforce the treaty provisions designed to help the Armenians. Having an uneasy conscience, they repeatedly remonstrated with the sultan. Yet these remonstrations only further irritated Abdul I lam id and stiffened his back. He would rather die, he told the German ambassador in November 1894, than yield to unjust pressure and grant the Armenians political autonomy. 

In 1891, fearful of Russia's continuing interest in the eastern Anatolian region and of Armenian revolutionaries on both sides of the Russian border, the sultan decreed the formation of Kurdish volunteer cavalry units. Modeled after the Russian Cossacks, the Hamidiye regiments, named after the sultan, were to strengthen the defense of the border provinces. They also had the purpose of bringing the Kurds under some control and using the Hamidiye as a counterweight to the Turkish notables of the towns, who often challenged the sultan's writ. By 1895 the Hamidiye consisted of fifty-seven regiments and probably close to fifty thousand men. Their marauding also affected the settled Muslims, but the Armenian peasants were the hardest hit. For them the new Kurdish armed bands meant more depredations and further pillaging of their villages. The fox, it appeared, had been put in charge of the henhouse. During the disturbances of 1894-96 the Hamidiye participated in punitive expeditions against the Armenian population.

Archbishop Mugrdich Khrimian, who had been one of the spokesmen of the Armenians at the Congress of Berlin in 1878, preached a sermon in the Armenian cathedral of Constantinople upon his return. He had gone to Berlin with a petition for reforms, a piece of paper, he told the large crowd, while the other small nations—Bulgarians, Serbians, and Montenegrins—had come with iron spoons. When the European powers placed on the tabic of the conference a "Dish of Liberty," the others were able to scoop into the delicious dish and take out a portion for themselves. The Armenians, however, had in their hands only the fragile paper on which their petition was written. Hence when their turn came to dip into the dish of liberty, their paper spoon crumbled, and they were left without any share of the meal. Archbishop Khrim-ian's famous sermon was a not so subtle appeal for the use of arms— "iron spoons." During the following decades a growing number of Armenians were to act upon this call for armed struggle.