The Armenian Genocide

Enver Pasha salutes Emperor Wilhelm II. in greeting, Konstantinopel, 15 October 1917. Photograph: Imperial War Museums, UK

Writing to Reich Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg on 7 July 1915 about the goals of the Young Turk government, Hans von Wangenheim, German ambassador to Constantinople, says that as far as he can tell it was “actually pursuing the objective ... of exterminating the Armenian race within the Turkish empire.”1 This was a clear statement, and indicates that the Reich government knew that a genocide was being carried out early on. A question put to the Reichstag by Karl Liebknecht in January 1916 about the “extermination of the Turkish Armenians”2 was without consequences, due to the military alliance between Germany and the Ottoman Empire. The most important debate on the subject in a German parliament only took place a hundred years later, when in 2016, after lengthy preparation, the Bundestag passed a resolution unequivocally declaring that the crimes against the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire were indeed genocide.3

In the historical literature, the genocide of the Armenians under the Ottoman Empire is characterised as the “prototype of the genocides of the 20th century”.4 During the First World War, the one-party dictatorship of the Young Turk Committee of Union and Progress5 implemented a nationalist and racist population policy that claimed more than one million lives. Due to the ongoing denialist policy of the Republic of Turkey and its academic institutions, the extermination of the Armenians has been and continues to be the subject of revisionist debates. However, a glance at the historical scholarship from the last four decades makes any equivocation on the matter impossible. In historiographic terms, source-based political history – similar to the early research on the Shoah – has resulted in a shift from an interpretation emphasizing genocidal intention6 to an investigation of the cumulative radicalization of the Young Turk elites.7 If the former approaches concentrated on ideological factors such as the role of religion (Turkish Muslims versus Armenian Christians), the latter has broadened our understanding of a reciprocal process of radicalization between late Ottoman society, its institutions, and its decision-makers.

“Our sole aim is to keep Turkey on our side until the end of the war, regardless of whether Armenians perish over it or not.”

Reich Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg in December 1915, on the German Empire’s position on the mass violence against Armenians and the plans for their extermination.

Young Turk Fantasies of Homogeneity

The revolutionary days of 1908, heralding a change of government in the Ottoman Empire, seemed “like flashes of European lightning in the Orient”.8 By introducing a constitutional system, the Committee of Union and Progress hoped to bring a halt to the decline of the Ottoman Empire. Born from dissatisfaction with the theocratic government of Sultan Abdul Hamid II, in the 1890s various clandestine groups emerged that saw themselves as a political avant-garde contesting an entrenched system.9 What initially looked like a liberal political transformation was in fact the path to a one-party dictatorship that was willing to use and legitimate violence as a political tool. This was the first time in the 20th century that a revolutionary committee was in command of a large empire. After the revolution, power was officially vested in the parliament, but the latter was overseen by the Committee, which functioned as a kind of “auxiliary government”.10

From 1913 onwards, the ultra-nationalist wing of the Committee prevailed in a coup d'état, and began to impose an amalgam of Turkish ethnicization (“union”) and secular modernisation (“progress”) that was supposed to help the Ottoman Empire achieve new greatness. Fantasies of ethno-national homogenization and scenarios of existential threat dominated the Committee’s thinking. That the minorities in the Ottoman Empire were viewed as a threat to internal security was already evident in the reactions and patterns of activity during the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913.

Military defeats at the hands of a coalition of Balkan states resulted in the loss of the territories of Macedonia, Epirus, Kosovo and Western Thrace. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims fled these areas into the Ottoman Empire.11 The committee reacted with a fusion of doomsday rhetoric and a violent politically and ideologically oriented population policy directed against the Greeks and Bulgarians of the Aegean coast and Thrace. These people were expelled, their property confiscated. The Armenian population near the eastern border – after a long prior history of persecution and massacres – also became a focus for the Committee’s attention, as possible collaborators with the would-be enemy, Russia. The “Special Organization” (Teşkilat-ı Mahsusa)12, originally set up as a political propaganda and guerrilla outfit, was expanded, supposedly as a precautionary measure, with its headquarters established in Erzurum in the east of Anatolia. Today’s Eastern Anatolia was the geographical area where most Armenians lived. The Committee’s aim was to be prepared against any presumptive “internal enemy”. In a manner analogous to Theodor W. Adorno’s dictum about antisemitism, this enemy was only able to obtain a spurious reality in the form of the largely deliberately produced ‘rumour about

the Armenians’. The Special Organization’s force of politicized military irregulars, taking orders directly from the CUP’s central committee, later played a key role in the Armenian genocide.

Before the deportation began, the most respected men - intellectuals, doctors, lawyers, merchants - were taken from each larger town under the guard of the field police and beaten to death in the nearest remote location. This photograph shows such a group from the town of Charberd (Turkish Harput, now Elaziğ) at the beginning of May 1915.(Source: Maria Jacobsen: Diary 1907-1919; Kharput-Turkey. Antelias 1979; probably first published in the book by the Danish author Amalie Lange: Et Blad af Armeniens Historie, Kvindelige Missions Arbejdere 1910-1920. [Eine Seite aus der Geschichte Armeniens: Die Mitarbeiterinnen der Frauenmission], Nr. 115).Photograph:

The Armenian Reform Plan

Since the revolution, Armenian political elites had been attempting to secure the minority rights guaranteed them at the 1878 Congress of Berlin. From the end of the 19th century, the accelerating disintegration of the Ottoman Empire (bankruptcy of the state in 1875, military defeat by Russia in 1877–78) had led to an increased interest in its development on the part of the European powers and Russia. At the Congress of Berlin, the Armenians were being taken into the world of European states, which raised great expectations among them.

The Ottoman Empire was urged to commit itself, “without further loss of time, to bringing about the improvements and reforms required by local needs in the provinces inhabited by the Armenians”.13 Yet the reforms were never implemented. In 1894–1896, Sultan Abdul Hamid II reacted to these demands with massacres in which between 90,000 and 150,000 Armenians were killed.14 It was not until 1912 that the reform project began to move forward again.

On 8 February 1914, Russia initiated the signing of an “Armenian Reform Plan”, which provided for international observers to implement the reforms. At the latest after this agreement was concluded, Armenians began to be regarded as a “fifth column” of the European powers. Only a few months later, the First World War began and the reform plan was revoked. The Ottoman Empire entered the war on the side of the Central Powers. What this meant for the Armenians soon became terribly apparent.

Armenian deported mother with her daughter. Source: Maria Jacobsen: Diary (Oragrutjun) 1907-1919, Kharput-Turkey. Antelias 1979 from Arbeitsgruppe Anerkennung – Gegen Genozid, für Völkerverständigung e.V. (AGA)

The Genocide

The first wave of deportations took place from April to the beginning of June 1915.15 On 24 April, prominent Armenians were arrested throughout Ottoman territory, including 235 Armenian journalists, clergymen, politicians, and teachers in Constantinople. Many of them were tortured and killed. In May 1915, Armenians were deported from the Taurus Mountains, the eastern border of the Empire, and from the province of Mosul (today’s northern Iraq), to Deir ez-Zor (in the east of what is now Syria). The second wave took place from June to the beginning of August 1915, and targeted the Armenians from Erzurum, Trapezunt, Van, Bitlis, Karberd, Diyarbakir, and Sebastia. Systematic confiscation of Armenian property by the Ministry of the Interior also began during this period.16 The third wave began in August 1915, encompassing the central and western provinces of Asia Minor.

Aleppo and its surroundings became the crossroads of death. Women, children, and the elderly were driven from there into the Mesopotamian desert, with no provisions, and repeatedly killed en masse by the Special Organization at designated execution sites. At the end of August 1915, the Ottoman Interior Minister and Grand Vizier Mehmet Talaat remarked to German Special Ambassador zu Hohenlohe-Langenburg: “La question arménienne n'existe plus” – there is no more Armenian question.17 Indeed, by September 1915 the Armenian population had been deported from the majority of Ottoman provinces. However, the death marches along the Euphrates into the desert continued through to the autumn of 1916, and were followed by another wave of major massacres in the summer of 1916.

Armin T. Wegner, second lieutenant in the German Sanitary Corps, who partially documented the deportations in photographs, left a vivid eyewitness description of the route along the Euphrates: “We soon come across the first refugees. The waysides are strewn with their bones, bleached by the harsh sunlight ... In a ravine I find a piled up heap of human skeletons. White skulls, still covered with hair; a pelvis; a child’s ribcage, delicately curved like a comb.”18

Some 1.3 million Armenians were murdered during the First World War. The exact number of the victims will never be known, because the available population statistics are incomplete and should be viewed critically.19 Ideally it would be possible to name every victim. After 1918, almost no Armenians remained in the former territory of the Ottoman Empire.

1915 - A Turkish soldier looks at the remains of victims from an Armenian village.Bild: Armenian Genocide Museum, Yerevan

1 Political Archive of the Foreign Office, PA-AA/R14086; A 21257, pr. 12/7/1915 p.m.
2 Political Archive of the Foreign Office, PA-AA/R14089.
3 German Bundestag, 18th legislative period, Drucksache 18/8613.
4 Ternon, Yves, Der verbrecherische Staat, Hamburg, 1996 [L’État criminel, Paris, 1995], p. 139.
5 On the structure of the Young Turk regime see Erik-Jan Zürcher, “Jungtürkische Entscheidungsmuster 1913-1915”, in Rolf Hosfeld and Christin Pschichholz (eds.), Das Deutsche Reich und der Völkermord an den Armeniern [The German Reich and the Armenian Genocide], Göttingen, 2017, pp. 81–105.
6 See, e.g., Vahakn N. Dadrian, The History of the Armenian Genocide: Ethnic Conflict from the Balkans to Anatolia and the Caucasus, Oxford, 1995.
7 See, e.g., Rolf Hosfeld, Tod in der Wüste. Der Völkermord an den Armeniern [Death in the Desert: The Armenian Genocide], Munich, 2015; Hilmar Kaiser, “Genocide at the Twilight of the Ottoman Empire”, in Donald Bloxham and A. Dirk Moses (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Genocide Studies, Oxford, 2010, pp. 365–385.
8 Hosfeld 2015, p. 63.
9 M. Şükrü Hanioğlu, The Young Turks in Opposition, Oxford, 1995, p. 18.
10 According to the correct assessment of theologian and humanist Johannes Lepsius, in Lepsius, Bericht über die Lage des Armenischen Volkes in der Türkei, Potsdam, 1916, p. 158.
11 For the numbers, see Kaiser, p. 369ff.
12 Cf. Raymond Kévorkian, The Armenian Genocide: A Complete History, London, 2011, pp. 217–223; and Oktay Özel, “The Role of Teşkilat-ı Mahsusa (Special Organization) in the Armenian Genocide”, in Christin Pschichholz (ed.), The First World War as a Caesura? Demographic Concepts, Population Policy, Genocide in late Ottoman, Russian, and Habsburg Spheres, Berlin, 2020.
13 Imanuel Geiss (ed.), Der Berliner Kongress 1878. Protokolle und Materialien, Boppard am Rhein, 1978, p. 405.
14 Jelle Verheij, “Die armenischen Massaker von 1894–1896. Anatomie und Hintergründe einer Krise” [The Armenian Massacres of 1894–1896: Anatomy and Background of a Crisis], in: Hans-Lukas Kieser (ed.), Die armenische Frage und die Schweiz (1896-1923) [Switzerland and the Armenian Question], Zurich, 1999, pp. 69–129.
15 Here we follow the interpretations given by Rolf Hosfeld, Hilmar Kaiser, and Raymond Kévorkian, who have meticulously reconstructed the history of the deportations.
16 Cf. Taner Akçam and Ümit Kurt, The Spirit of the Laws: The Plunder of Wealth in the Armenian Genocide, New York, 2015.
17 Political Archive of the Foreign Office, Turkey 183/38, A 26474, Hohenlohe to Bethmann Hollweg, Pera, 4 September 1915.
18 Arnim T. Wegner, Das Zelt. Aufzeichnungen, Briefe, Erzählungen aus der Türkei [The Tent: Sketches, Letters, and Tales from Turkey], Berlin, 1926, pp. 133, 137. 19 Cf. Hilmar Kaiser 2010, p. 382ff.