Small Wars Journal

Remembering the Late Ottoman Genocides

Fri, 05/20/2022 - 2:54pm


Remembering the Late Ottoman Genocides

By Michael Panfil Jr.


The act of genocide is often considered to be the most depraved method of political violence that can be imposed upon a group of people. Since the Holocaust, genocide has gained a reputation as an international taboo, as the methodical, systematic extermination of a group of people constituted a crime that has no equal. The international community, through the codification of prohibitionary laws, the creation of widely adopted committees, and with the cooperation of non-governmental watchdog organizations have made great strides to alert and minimize the effects of genocide. The keystone of these efforts is the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (the Genocide Convention), an international convention ratified in 1951 that highlights and outlaws the methods and act of genocide.

From 1894 to 1924, the Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Turkey committed acts of genocide against its ethnic minorities. The Late Ottoman Genocides were a series of systematic atrocities committed with the political objective of exterminating and expelling many of the ethnic and religious minorities of Anatolia. Although initiated under Padishah Abdülhamid II, expulsion efforts escalated into all-out genocide under the Committee of Union and Progress after Mahmut Şhevket Pasha was assassinated in 1913. The status of whether the Late Ottoman Genocides were truly acts of genocide has been hotly contested by academics for nearly a century; it should be obvious that such an episode constitutes genocide according to the definition set by the Genocide Convention which defines genocide as “acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group” (CPPCG 1951, Article 2). This episode originated from multiple sources which stem from the reign of Abdülhamid II and later the extraordinary ideology of the Committee of Union and Progress. According to Dr. Mary C. Winston in King Abdullah, Britain, and the Making of Jordan, such sources include the birth of pan-Islamic nationalism, radical racial policy, and the fear of a rising wealthy Helleno-Armenian elite (Wilson 1987, 19). These atrocities targeted a wide range of ethnic minorities. To cite the work of Dr. Benny Morris and Dr. Dror Ze’evi’s The Thirty-Year Genocide: Turkey’s Destruction of Christian Minorities (1894 – 1924), the Greek, Assyrian, and Armenian populations had lived peacefully under Ottoman rule for centuries and by 1894, were significantly integrated in the cultural, economic, and political processes of Ottoman society (Morris and Ze’evi 2019, 23). By 1913, this changed after the Committee of Union and Progress took power. The Committee of Union and Progress was, according to Dr. Taner Akçam in The Young Turks’ Crime Against Humanity, concerned not only with the homogenization of Anatolia, but also of the alleged existential threat posed by ethnic minorities such as the Armenians, Assyrians, the Greek (Akçam 2021, xviii). What resulted from this was thirty years of systematically organized massacres and other acts of state-sanctioned genocide upon the ethnic minorities of the Ottoman Empire.

            What makes the Late Ottoman Genocides so controversial among the episodes of political violence is the opacity that it is shrouded in. Many academics as well as the Turkish government remain in what Dr. Gregory Stanton’s The Eight Stages of Genocide describes as denial, preventing international investigations, distributing misinformation, and destroying evidence (Stanton 1998, 2). Many academics have actively sought to disprove that the genocide had ever occurred to begin with, despite unsurmountable evidence that points to the contrary. Such an effort in academia makes it crucial that people care for and take lessons from the Late Ottoman Genocides, as it is a text-book display of each stage of genocide and how the state can be shaped into a system predicated on political violence. Therefore, the Late Ottoman Genocides must be discussed in all spheres relating to the topic of political violence and genocide, as it not only accurately depicts each stage of genocide, but it also is at the risk of being reduced and fictionalized. This episode will be presented with qualitative work and historical analyses which document the context, causes, and consequences of the Late Ottoman Genocides. These analyses will span from statistics that measure the demographical consequences of genocide, primary historical documentation, and secondary thesis assertions surrounding the region of Anatolia; cases of massacre, evidence of ethnic cleansing, and acts of genocide will be sourced from. The areas of interest where most evidence will be sourced from are the effects on the Armenian population, as well as other ethno-religious minorities effected by the genocide. This evidence will be synthesized with standing laws which define genocide, which will deduce whether there is truth in the claim that the Late Ottoman Genocides were truly acts of genocide and a case of political violence.

            The turn of the twentieth century was preluded by a type of political violence that can clearly be identified as an act of genocide. As defined previously, acts of genocide are actions “committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group” (CPPCG 1951, Article 2). The methods of genocide include targeted killings, deliberate harm done upon the living conditions of a group, and any other action that is done to bring about their physical destruction. In the case of the episode of Late Ottoman Genocides in Anatolia, it is critical that the episode be contextualized with great depth as it is a case marked with controversy. The contextual details of the episode will help not only present the historical causes and consequences of the episode, but also how it constitutes an act of political violence.

            The historical origins of the Late Ottoman Genocides are remarkably political and can be traced along ethnic tensions of a uniquely diverse Ottoman Empire. For much of the nineteenth century, the Ottoman Empire was ruled by Sultan Abdülaziz, who had by 1876 westernized and consequently secularized the much of the empire under his reign. In the May of 1876, under the accusation that he was squandering the financial resources of the empire, Abdülaziz was deposed in a coup d’état. Abdülaziz was succeeded by his nephew, Sultan Murad V, who after three months was similarly deposed, this time on the grounds of mental instability. Finally, Murad V’s younger brother succeeded the throne, Abdülhamid II, a naïve reformist who inherited an empire on the brink of crisis. The empire, afflicted by drought, with high-interest loans now nearing their due dates, and a new ruler who was still transitioning into power, had the right conditions for insurrection.

            The April Uprising of 1876 occurred in the Bulgar Millet of the Ottoman Empire. Abdülhamid was quick to act. He marched on Bulgaria to reinstate imperial authority and stripped away many of the civil liberties afforded under the Millet System. Additionally, he suspended the constitution and dissolved parliament to further centralize his rule. These actions triggered intense outrage from the West, who now demanded that not just Bulgaria, but the Balkans as a whole be liberated from Ottoman rule. This was the justification that the Russian Empire needed to invade. In 1877, the Russo-Turkish War (1877 – 1878) began with the Russian invasion of the Balkans and Eastern Anatolia. The fighting persisted until the Russian advance threatened the balance of power of Europe, which forced Great Britain and the German Empire to coerce them to adopt a ceasefire. This ceasefire later developed into the Treaty of San Stefano, which on March 3, 1878, effectively ended the Russo-Turkish War. This treaty was not without its consequence however, and the Ottomans paid a steep price for peace. They were forced cede a sizable portion of their territorial possessions in the Balkans which granted the independence of Romania, Serbia, Montenegro, and Bulgaria. They also lost their foothold in the Caucasus, having ceded a portion of eastern Anatolia to the Russian Empire. The loss of the war plunged the empire into a state of social depression with the Turkish majority looking for someone to blame.

            Conversely, many of the ethnic minorities discovered newfound nationalist sentiments during and after the Russo-Turkish War. These sentiments were founded on the precedent established by the Bulgarians during the April Uprising but were quickly realized as war spilled over the Danube. Many of the Ottoman Empire’s ethnic minorities, who were now outcast due to the rebellion in the Balkans, were forced to decide where their loyalties remained. While some fought for the Sultan, many others joined forces with Bulgarian and Russian combat units in the hopes that they too would be promised independence (Morris and Ze’evi 2019, 16). Thousands of ethnic minorities, primarily Armenians, volunteered to take up arms against the Ottoman Empire and soon, a nationalist fervor spread throughout the empire. In Dr. Davut Hut’s Armenians in 1877-1878 Ottoman-Russian War, he cites that “the Armenians had a significant majority in the commanding positions” of the Russian Caucasia army, who helped expedite the military invasion of Eastern Anatolia (Hut 2021, 1). They also committed espionage and exploited the dense financial systems of the empire, which at the time many ethnic minorities were deeply entrenched in. This trend was similar in the west, where according to Dr. A.B. Şikorad in 240 Years of Russo-Ottoman Wars in the Eyes of Russia, Ottoman Greeks, Romanians, and Serbs aided and logistically supported the Russians as they invaded the Balkans (Şikorad 2009). While there was a constant effort to subvert the military capacity of the Ottoman Empire, so to were there domestic efforts by ethnic minorities to secure independence. The efforts of Armenian Patriarch Nerses II Varzhapetian of the Armenian Apostolic Church are of particular note. As cited by Dr. Richard Hovannisian in Armenia on the Road to Independence, Nerses pleaded with the Russian Empire during and after the war for the promise of provisions meant to protect Ottoman Armenians in the Treaty of San Stefano; his efforts never came to fruition however, and he was forced to renounce these claims until his death in 1884 (Hovannisian 1969, 29). Abdülhamid II, humiliated by such a disaster, was infuriated by the subversive role that many members of the ethnic minority played in the war. The conflict itself precipitated a sense of solidarity among the ethnic minority groups of the empire (Morris and Ze’evi 2019, 20), which he understood to be an existential threat to imperial rule. He understood that his empire was in a state of decline and at the mercy of nationalist sentiments of his subjects. This motivated him and the Ottoman elite to paint the ethnic minority as traitors and abettors of the invasion. The reason for this was so they could appeal to the nationalist sentiments of the Ottoman Turks and alienate the Assyrians, Armenians, and Greek under his rule.

            Alienation soon developed into systematic neglect and by 1894, minority nationalist sentiments developed into all-out movements in response to an Ottoman elite that cared extraordinarily little for their minority subjects. The rise of nationalist movements, especially those regarding the Armenians who constituted 6.5% of the empire’s total population (Morris and Ze’evi 2019, 24), created the perfect conditions for Abdülhamid II to seek retribution. In 1894, under the pretext that the Armenian and Assyrian Christians posed an impending revolutionary threat, Abdülhamid II motivated his people to cleanse Anatolia. Abdülhamid II, asserted by Dr. Taner Akçam in A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility, used pan-Islamism to initiate mass pogroms and targeted killings against the Armenians and Assyrians of eastern Anatolia (Akçam 2006, 44). Starting in Sasun, these killings (which would later be known as the “Hamidian Massacres”) would be the first of thirty years of ethnically driven genocide. Historical records cited in Paul Bartrop and Samuel Totten’s Dictionary of Genocide indicate that an estimated 100,000 Armenian and Assyrian Christians died during the killings (Batrop and Totten 2007, 23), although some estimate that as high as 300,000 were killed (Akçam 2006, 42). The attacks were indiscriminate and ruthless: the city of Diyarbekir alone being the scene to the deaths of approximately 25,000 Assyrian Christians. In addition to the killings, according to Dr. Heather Sharkey’s A History of Muslims, Christians, and Jews in the Middle East, many Armenian and Assyrian Christians were forcefully converted to Islam, having assimilated to escape the genocide (Sharkey 2017, 268). The massacres ended in 1897 and quickly the conditions of the empire’s minorities were eclipsed by the imposing threat of a bunch of political upstarts known as the Young Turks.

            In 1908, the Young Turks deposed Abdülhamid II in what is known as the “Young Turk Revolution.” With the revolution now over, the Committee of Union and Progress led by Mahmud Şhevket Pasha assumed complete control over the Ottoman Empire. They replaced Abdülhamid II with his half-brother, Mehmed V, who served as a political puppet until his death in 1918. Originally, the Committee of Union and Progress consisted of liberal reformists, but after Abdülhamid II’s countercoup in 1909, they began to adopt what Dr. David Gutman describes in Historiography and the End of the Genocide Taboo: Writing the Armenian Genocide into Late Ottoman History as “increasingly illiberal and chauvinistic policies” dedicated to the preservation of the empire (Gutman 2015, 171). They strengthened the power of the imperial state through radical political reforms which subverted the Millet System, a system of governance favored by the empire’s ethnic minority. Consequently, the relationship that the Committee of Union and Progress shared with their ethnic minorities deteriorated (Gutman 2015, 171) and soon nationalist sentiments began to resurface. Concurrently, the Committee of Union and Progress matched these sentiments with the ideological revival of Pan-Islamism, an idea that advocated for one, unified Islamic state (from hereon this will be adopted under the theory of Extraordinary Ideology). As a result, ethnic tensions between the government and minority communities began to soar.

            Another disastrous war in the Balkans (the First Balkan War, 1912-1913) against their previous subjects, the Romanians, Serbs, Bulgarians, Montenegrin, and Greek, stripped the Ottomans of their remaining territory in Europe. This war also afforded Ottoman Albanians their independence, further riling the nationalist sentiment of the empire’s remaining Armenians, Assyrians, and Greek. This, coupled with the assassination of Mahmud Şhevket Pasha in 1913 created the conditions for the Committee of Union and Progress to become concerned with the demographic make-up of their remaining territory, primarily in the central region of Anatolia. Like Abdülhamid II, they became fearful that the Armenians and Assyrians, whose homelands resided in much of Eastern and Southern Anatolia, would attempt to break free from the empire as others did previously. Aroused by these fears and guided by Pan-Islamic sentiments, the Committee of Union and Progress began to prepare for genocide with the goal of exterminating the non-Turkish demographic of Anatolia.

            The outbreak of the First World War (1913 – 1918) was the perfect distraction for the Committee of Union and Progress to act on their fears. After global tensions escalated in 1914, the Ottoman Empire, compelled by their membership in the Central Powers, invaded Qajari Persia and the Russian Empire. Local irregulars, primarily ethnic Armenians, were quick to resist the invasion and side with the Russians and Persians. The Committee of Union and Progress took local resistance as a sign of rebellion, and with the west distracted by war, they were finally able to initiate their plan to systematically liquidate Anatolia of its Armenians, Assyrians, and Greek. This part of the greater episode of the Late Ottoman Genocides began with the relocation and deportation of Constantinople’s Armenian and Greek intellectuals. As cited by Rouben Adalian in The Armenian Genocide, many of them were relocated across Anatolia, where most inevitably succumbed in detention camps (Adalian 2013, 121). After the Ottomans silenced minority intellectuals, they systematically rounded up millions of Armenians and Greek. As J.M. Winters notes in America and the Armenian Genocide of 1915, Men, women, and children were forced into a death march south into the Syrian Desert towards the Deir ez-Zor and Ras al-Alyn concentration camps, which were concentrated around Aleppo (Winter 2003, 162). As they were force marched, many succumbed to the deprivation of food and water and those that did survive were subject to intermittent executions and sexual violence by their captors. Many Assyrians were also subject to mass murder and deportation as the Ottomans marched. These marches continued until 1917 and resulted in the death of an estimated 600,000 to 1,500,000 people (Morris and Ze’evi 2019, 1) and the forced conversion and relocation of 100,000 to 200,000 young women and children. Moreover, the Committee of Union and Progress also targeted cultural and religious sites which were sacred to their minorities, primarily the Assyrians and Armenians. As mentioned by Dr. Alexis Dermidjian in A Moving Defense: The Turkish State and the Armenian Genocide, they destroyed an estimated 2,500 Armenian churches and confiscated large swathes of land from land-owning Armenians, Assyrians, and Greek (Dermidjian 2018, 502). Even after the First World War concluded in 1918, ethnically driven killings, land confiscation, and sexual exploitation of the ethnic minorities in the Ottoman Empire and later the Turkish Republic continued up to as far as 1924; many other isolated incidents regarding the Turkish government and its ethnic minorities can be traced even farther, some scholars tracing as far as to 1934.

            The actions issued by the Ottoman Empire from 1894 to 1924 constitute nothing less than the act of political violence known as genocide. Abdülhamid II and later the Committee of Union and Progress were motivated to consolidate the receding political authority of the empire. The empire for quite some time had been in a state of decline, its unique ethnic make-up leaving it vulnerable to nationalism and insurrection. The ruling elite felt that given the unique make-up of their empire, that its existence was at the mercy of its ethnic minorities. They believed that the Armenians, Assyrians, and Greek were an existential threat to the survival of the Ottoman state. This mindset, coupled with the Pan-Islamic movement, is what motivated the empire to prepare for ethnic extermination. By ethnically exterminating these populations, they could consolidate their territorial integrity and create a Turkish nation-state within the region of Anatolia. This sentiment was established with the Hamidian Massacres of 1894 – 1897 but was truly realized after the Committee of Union and Progress seized power in 1908. Under the Committee of Union and Progress, the Ottoman Empire deployed methods such as sexual violence, mass deportation and murder, and the forcible transfer of women and children. These methods are what disqualifies this episode from being defined as an episode of ethnic cleansing, as the Genocide Convention recognizes these acts as genocide and prohibits them; in doing so, it retrospectively categorizes the Late Ottoman Genocides as an episode of genocide.

            One theory that can be employed to further analyze how and why the Late Ottoman Genocides occurred is the Dr. James Waller’s Theory of Extraordinary Ideology, which he highlights with great depth in his Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Mass Genocide and Killing. In the text, he defines extraordinary ideology as the cultural and ideological characteristics which mold individual identities (Waller 2002). To him, extraordinary ideology is a rationalization of personal conviction, a culmination of psychological influences and situational factors which may lower the threshold for people to commit extraordinary acts. He cites Daniel J. Goldhagen who states that “extraordinary culture shaped by an extraordinary ideology can mold ordinary people into extraordinary killers” (Waller 2002, 37). Such is the case of Ottoman Empire, whose government adopted Pan-Islamism and believed that they were existentially threatened by their minorities. The intersection of these beliefs as well as a series of disastrous wars (the Russo-Turkish War and the First Balkan War) allowed for an extraordinary ideology to fester within the government and among the Ottoman Turks, who began to dehumanize their ethnic neighbors and declare them as traitors. Quickly, the dream of a homogenous, Islamic Anatolia at the expense of the Armenians, Assyrians, and Greek was widely adopted by the Ottoman Turks and their rulers. Waller describes the adoption of this dream as “collective potentiation,” which is the lowering of a threshold for action through the organization of groups, communities, organizations, or nations (Waller 2002, 36). As this extraordinary ideology became more commonly adopted, it lowered the threshold for action and increased the willingness of the Ottoman Turks to become extraordinary killers. This is what allowed for them to exterminate the Armenians, Assyrians, and Greek of Anatolia, because they were convinced that what they were doing was justified and in the defense of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Turks succeeded in their political objectives, the Late Ottoman Genocides resulting in the Islamic homogenization of Anatolia through ethnic extermination and deportation. The consequences of the Late Ottoman Genocides were unbelievably high, with an estimated death toll of 600,000 to 1,500,000 ethnic Armenians, Assyrians, and Greek. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the new Turkish Republic had little to worry about what remained of its Armenians, Assyrians, and Greek, as these populations were largely destroyed in years previous. Overall, the outcome of the conflict was the successful homogenization of Anatolia through extermination, with demographic scars that can be seen in Turkey even today.

            To reiterate, the Ottoman Empire and its successor state, the Republic of Turkey, committed acts of political violence that can be defined as genocide. Through the cultivation of extraordinary ideology, Abdülhamid II and later the Committee of Union and Progress were able to set the conditions for the Ottoman Turks to carry out extraordinary killings across Anatolia with the political objective of homogenization through extermination. Their logic was that in order to crush the existential threat that they believed the empire’s ethnic minorities posed, they had to consolidate their political territory by deporting and exterminating them, thereby consolidating and homogenizing Anatolia. They used all sorts of methods to carry out these acts; ethnically targeted murder, mass deportation, and the forcible transfer of women and children; all committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, the ethnic minority of the Ottoman Empire. They committed genocidal violence with the overarching political objective of homogenizing Anatolia, which constitutes the Late Ottoman Genocides as an act of political violence because violence was used to secure the political goal of consolidating political territory. The methods used by the Ottoman Turks during the Late Ottoman Genocides such as the Deir ez-Zor and Ras al-Alyn concentration camps were prophetic to the methods used during Holocaust, an episode of genocide which prompted the creation of the Genocide Convention in 1951.

            The Late Ottoman Genocides are a part of a wider problem which is the controversy of genocide denial. The Turkish Republic has, as previously cited, prevented international investigation, destroyed evidence, and tasked Turkish academics with misinformation campaigns meant to disprove or fictionalize the episode all together. The international community must act; because of the old nature of the episode, those who were responsible cannot be held accountable because they are most likely dead, but it is important to legitimize the fact that the genocides did occur and that millions of lives have either been lost or effected as a result of it. This is necessary because as long as it is not recognized and the facts not understood, genocide will continue to happen.


Work Cited:

Adalian, Rouben P. 2013. “The Armenian Genocide” Centuries of Genocide, 4(1): 121.

Akçam, Taner. 2006. A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility. New York City, NY: Metropolitan Books (Henry Holt and Company).

Akçam, Taner. 2021. The Young Turks’ Crime Against Humanity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Bartrop, Paul and Samuel Totten. 2007. Dictionary of Genocide. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group.

Dermidjian, Alexis. 2018. “A Moving Defense: The Turkish State and the Armenian Genocide.” Journal of International Criminal Justice, 16(3): 501-526.

Gutman, David. 2015. “Historiography and the End of the Genocide Taboo: Writing the Armenian Genocide into Late Ottoman History.” Journal of the Ottoman and Turkish Studies Association, (2)1: 167-183.

Hovannisian, Richard. 1969. Armenia on the Road to Independence. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Hut, David. 2021. “Armenians in the 1877-1878 Ottoman-Russian War.” Turkish-Armenian Relations Throughout History, (1)1: 1.

Morris, Benny, and Dror Ze’evi. 2019. The Thirty-Year Genocide: Turkey’s Destruction of Christian Minorities (1894 – 1924). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Sharkey, Heather. 2017. A History of Muslims, Christians, and Jews in the Middle East. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Şikorad, A.B. 2009. 240 Years of Russo-Ottoman Wars in the Eyes of Russia. Istanbul: Selenge Yayınları.

Standon, Gregory. 1998. The Eight Stages of Genocide. Genocide Watch.

UN General Assembly. 1948. “Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.” United Nations, Treaty Series (78)1: 277.

Waller, James. 2002. Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Mass Genocide and Killing. New York City, NY: Oxford University Press.

Wilson, Mary. 1987. King Abdullah, Britain, and the Making of Jordan. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Winters, Jay M. 2003. America and the Armenian Genocide of 1915. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.


About the Author(s)

Michael Panfil Jr. is currently a BA/MA student at Loyola University of Chicago, where he studies Political Science & Government with a focus on War Studies. His research interests include the study of power differentials, genocide studies, and weapons system analysis. He is on track to receive both degrees in 2024 and is hoping to graduate with a commission from the U.S. Army through Loyola’s Rambler Battalion that same year. His present goal is to pursue a PhD in Political Science and to enter academia after his military service.