Ottomans Attempt to Exterminate Armenians Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Troubled and angered by the extent of Armenian nationalism and opposition to Ottoman rule, Sultan Abdülhamid II is said to have killed more than 100,000 Armenians in acts of genocide that created an enormous outcry around the world. Great-power politics precluded any direct intervention, however, by the Western world.

Summary of Event

The Armenian people historically are residents of the region corresponding to the ancient kingdom of Van, located near the Caucasus on the plateau between the Black and Caspian Seas. After centuries of occupation by warring empires, the Armenians had to contend with further oppression by the Ottoman sultans in the 1860’s, motivating the afflicted to offer resistance in the form of a nationalist movement. After protests by the Armenian mountaineer population for having to pay taxes to the central government and Kurdish chieftains, Ottoman troops were sent to subdue the population, resulting in widespread massacres. Ottoman Empire;Armenians Armenians Genocide of Armenians Hamidian Massacres [kw]Ottomans Attempt to Exterminate Armenians (1894-1896) [kw]Exterminate Armenians, Ottomans Attempt to (1894-1896) [kw]Attempt to Exterminate Armenians, Ottomans (1894-1896) [kw]Armenians, Ottomans Attempt to Exterminate (1894-1896) Ottoman Empire;Armenians Armenians Genocide of Armenians Hamidian Massacres [g]Armenia;1894-1896: Ottomans Attempt to Exterminate Armenians[5910] [g]Turkey;1894-1896: Ottomans Attempt to Exterminate Armenians[5910] [g]Ottoman Empire;1894-1896: Ottomans Attempt to Exterminate Armenians[5910] [c]Atrocities and war crimes;1894-1896: Ottomans Attempt to Exterminate Armenians[5910] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1894-1896: Ottomans Attempt to Exterminate Armenians[5910] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;1894-1896: Ottomans Attempt to Exterminate Armenians[5910] [c]Human rights;1894-1896: Ottomans Attempt to Exterminate Armenians[5910] Abdülhamid II Damadian, Mihran Boyadjian, Hamparsum

A second wave of massacres came in 1875 in Zeytoun, but this wave had been merely a harbinger of things to come. With the loss of Ottoman control of the Balkans and the dwindling income of the empire, the Armenians continued to be targets of insidious political and military terror. In 1894-1896, there was another series of massacres in Sassoun, which then spread to other parts of Turkish Armenia. When Mihran Damadian Damadian, Mihran and Hamparsum Boyadjian, Boyadjian, Hamparsum two leaders of the Hunchakists (a Marxist Armenian revolutionary party), tried to organize an armed insurrection (tacitly encouraged by Russia), the sultan characterized the protest and isolated acts of brigandage as an open revolt and ordered a ruthless massacre.

Ottoman sultan Abdülhamid II.

(R. S. Peale/J. A. Hill)

The massacre lasted twenty-four days between August 18 and September 10 and was horrifying in its scale. Young men were bound hand and foot, laid out in a row, and burned alive. Many men were bayoneted, women raped, children cudgeled to death, and unborn babies torn from their mothers’ wombs. Churches were attacked and set on fire. Great Britain and the other great powers refrained from action. Armenians were of marginal significance to the Western leaders who had imperial, colonial, and mercantile aspirations in the Ottoman Empire. Instead of intervening directly, the Powers crafted the May reform project that the sultan would stall and finally reject. No reparation or remedy was ever afforded the Armenians.

Contemporary map of the Armenian massacres, with estimated numbers of people killed at each site. The spellings of many place names differ from modern spellings but should be recognizable.

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In September of 1895, members of the Hunchak committee of Constantinople organized a demonstration that was to move from the cathedral of Kumkapi to the Sublime Porte (High Gate of the palace and chief office of justice), where a memorandum was to be placed that denounced the massacre of Armenians, the mistreatment of prisoners, corrupt tax collectors, the migration of nomadic Kurds to Armenian vilayets (main administrative districts), and the lack of equality before the law. The document also demanded reforms of police and gendarmerie, economic changes, and a general amnesty of Armenians in detention or exile. The demonstrators (roughly four thousand persons) were split into groups, one of which became involved in a bloody incident.

Major Servet Bey, the aide-de-camp of the minister of police, insulted a student who had challenged his authority, only to have the Armenian shoot him dead with a revolver, propelling a Turkish retaliation that was immediate and brutal. Soldiers and police rushed upon the demonstrators, killing forty and wounding hundreds. In another section of town, Kurds hunted down Armenians (even infants and the elderly) and clubbed them to death as Turkish police and soldiers often watched silently or joined in the murders. As the massacres continued for the next week, those who suffered the most were the poor working classes, but no Armenian of any social class was safe. Turks surrounded and burned churches, where thousands of Armenians had sought refuge.

The sacrilegious acts accentuated the deep religious animosity of Muslim Turks against Christian Armenians Islam;and Armenians[Armenians] , an animosity that was stoked to fever-heat by the sultan and his Ottoman henchmen, who exploited the theocratic principle of ummet (a grouping of peoples sharing the same religion) to deepen the cleavage between Turks and Armenians. Historians tend to see the massacre at Sassoun as having facilitated the Constantinople carnage and for paving the way for the outbreak of empirewide massacres.

On October 2, 1895, after two unknown assailants shot and wounded Bahri Paşa Bahri Paşa , the notorious former governor of Van, and the local commandant in Trebizond—where seven thousand Armenians lived—armed Turks attacked the Armenian quarter under the pretext of searching for the attackers. As the governor sent telegraph reports to Sultan Abdülhamid Abdülhamid II II on the progress of the massacre, soldiers and brigands devastated the Armenian community. Unsuspecting pedestrians and innocent shopkeepers were shot in the street; stores and homes were ransacked with the intention of impoverishing and blotting out all Armenians. By the end of the slaughter (which started and ended with a bugle signal), 920 Armenians lay dead and the rest faced starvation. What became known as the autumn killings continued in various Armenian districts.

The historical record is appallingly gruesome: unprovoked attacks on Armenians at Akhisar; major massacres at Bitlis and Gumush-khana (October 25), where survivors were forced to convert to Islam; Islam;and Armenians[Armenians] eight hours of pillaging and killing in Baiburt on October 27; a two-day massacre at Urfa (October 27-28) precipitated by a quarrel between a Turk and an Armenian, leading to their deaths and a full-scale attack by the whole Turkish-Kurdish population; and agony in Erzerum (October 30), where all night and day Armenians were slaughtered and hung from butchers’ hooks before their bodies, soaked in oil, were thrown onto fires. The fundamental patterns in all the attacks remained the same: the deliberate provocation of the Armenians to instigate a protest or quarrel or bloody incident, followed by massive retaliation by the provokers.

In mountainous Zeytoun, Armenians felt threatened by the influx of new Turkish military units, the erection of new barracks and munitions depots, and social and economic injustices. Turks would “buy” goods without paying for them, sexually molest children, verbally abuse priests and mountaineers, and resort to tax-related acts of confiscation. After Zeytounis retaliated for the burning down of select villages, the Turks engaged them in ferocious battles. However, the fifteen hundred insurgents, equipped with only flintlock and old rifles, could not be broken. Beyond the massive battlefield casualties in the course of the uprising (October 24, 1895-February 2, 1896), thousands of Turkish soldiers froze to death in subzero winter temperatures, and thousands of others died from their wounds.

The six Western powers—Great Britain, Austria, Italy, Germany, Russia, and France—offered to mediate the matter, and an accord was put into effect on February 12, 1896. The sultan agreed to tax relief for the Zeytounis and to specific reforms in law and government. In return, the Armenians surrendered their weapons, and their four top leaders were expelled from the Ottoman Empire. In this way, Zeytoun escaped the massacres, while the sultan was saved from an alarming situation.

Although organized for defense, Van was the target of a massacre that lasted nine days (June 15-23, 1896). Leaders of the three Armenian parties established a Joint Directorate of Defense, with 200 armed and 700 unarmed men in the Armenakan group, 125 in the socialist Dashnak contingent, and only 25 in the well-disciplined Hunchak. In the intense, last-ditch battle, only 35 Armenians survived and the cream of their youth and intellectuals perished. Farther from Van, in the outlying villages, Armenian losses were even greater, though only rough estimates exist on the number of casualties.

Following the examples of the Armenakans and Hunchaks in the organization of the Sassoun outbreak and Grand Porte protest, a small band of Dashnaks in August 14-26, 1896, raided and captured the Ottoman Bank (which contained flourishing British, French, and other European investments). Running low in ammunition and fearing Turkish vengeance and European rejection, the rebels agreed to mediation, which led to the rebel’s surrender and exile in France. Government reprisals against the Armenian population resulted in nearly six thousand fatalities in three days, fatalities suffered within sight of the European embassies.

Significance

The Hamidian Massacres, as they are also called, showed the ability of the Turks to implement a systematic policy of murder and plunder against a minority population and to grant immunity to criminal parties in the face of international protest. When it was found that police repression alone could not prevent the renaissance of a major communal group, a policy was devised by which to reduce that group, seriously harm its economic base, humiliate its leadership, and reassert the strength of the Turkish government.

In addition to showing that collective punishment could take the form of mass murder, the massacres taught several lessons. One lesson was that a communal group could be seen as a threat to the establishment by virtue of its ideology and ability to influence its social and political context. A second lesson was that the group could seem a threat if it appeared to be linked to external powers dangerous to the ruling class or state. A third lesson was that the faster and higher a group rose, the more intense would become the government’s opposition to that group, leading to violence and massacres. The massacres of 1894 to 1896 set a precedent for the twentieth century Armenian genocide and, indeed, for the subsequent genocide of European Jews by the Nazis.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dadrian, Vahakn N. The History of the Armenian Genocide: Ethnic Conflict from the Balkans to Anatolia to the Caucasus. New York: Berghahn Books, 2003. An Armenian historian’s account of the breakdown of Armenian-Turkish relations during and after Abdülhamid II’s reign.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Warrant for Genocide: Key Elements of the Turko-Armenian Conflict. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1999. Excellent on the advent of Armenian revolutionaries and the Ottoman Turkish backlash. Extensive end notes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kirakossian, Arman J. The Armenian Massacres, 1894-1896: U.S. Media Testimony. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 2004. Reprints of a number of articles and essays from the period of the massacres.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ternon, Yves. The Armenians: History of a Genocide. Translated by Rouben C. Cholakian. Delmar, N.Y.: Caravan Books, 1981. A good overview of the revolutionary movement, the massacres, and the twentieth century genocide. Includes notes, a bibliography, and a geographical index.

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