Brigands of the Teşkilât-ı Mahsusa in Diyarbekir

The Origins and Evolution of the Armenian Genocide

From the massacres of 1894-1896 to the trials of the Young Turks

The last decades of the Ottoman Empire were marked by a series of attempts at political reform, modernization of society and loss of territory, primarily in the European part of the empire. Modernization meant breaking with the old imperial model that created a hierarchy distinguishing Muslims from non-Muslims and establishing equality among subjects. The Ottoman elite had long vacillated between the two models, but the sultans who set out down the path of reform were often eliminated before achieving their goal. It is in this context that Sultan Abdülhamit II assumed power in 1876 and opted for a policy of reduction by organizing campaigns of systematic repression against his subjects under the gaze of the European powers that were still involved in Ottoman affairs. Unlike the other Christian millets [national communities] in the Balkans, the Armenians were largely confined to Asia Minor, where they still lived in accordance with the rhythms of the seasons along with semi-nomadic or newly settled Kurdish populations, characterized by a turbulent tribal structure. 

The Massacres of 1894-1896 

In 1891, the sultan likely sought to preempt calls for national emancipation by carrying out a campaign of persecution against the Armenians. He first created a Kurdish militia, the hamidiye [see The Role of the Kurds], and simultaneously suspended the institutions governing internal affairs in the Armenian millet, in particular the Armenian National Assembly in Constantinople over which the Armenian Patriarch had presided since 1863.  

The formation of the hamidiye caused political and social upheaval in the eastern provinces of the empire. Directly linked to the sultan, the leaders of these militias (65 commanders overseeing 60,000 men) became the new regional masters, eliminating the influence of Kurdish feudal families who were less connected to the central government. The militia leaders served to gain control over the Armenians and ensure the sultan’s stronghold over the eastern provinces. The repression initially took the form of a campaign of dispossession, stripping the Armenians of their means of subsistence and forcing them to migrate to cities or abroad. During the same period, early revolutionary activity on the part of Armenian political parties started to develop in defense of the villagers who had fallen victim to pillaging, abductions and killings and against the hamidiye who were reaping the benefits of absolute impunity. 

Reports by consuls in the major cities of the eastern provinces indicate a considerable number of cases of pillaging and murder between 1879 and 1882 in 250 villages in the province of Moush and 7,000 cases of dispossession between 1890 and 1910. The massacres began with an unremarkable story of tax collection in the province of Sassoun. The villagers in Sassoun were required to pay taxes both to the state and to the Kurdish tribal chiefs. In August 1894, their refusal to pay prompted an intervention by regular troops as well as hamidiye regiments commanded by Zeki Pasha [see The Role of the Kurds]. The campaign ravaged nearly 100 villages and killed 7,000 Armenians. In Constantinople, the military intervention was justified by framing the massacres in terms of an uprising in need of suppression. An international investigation revealed, nevertheless, “a grave negligence on the part of the central government,” and the involvement of the sultan in the violence, which prompted the diplomatic intervention of European powers that demanded the sultan put in place a plan for reform in the six provinces with large Armenian populations. Submitted to the sultan on May 11, 1895, the plan was abandoned after the resignation of the British cabinet. In an attempt to relaunch the process, the Social Democratic Hunchakian Party organized a peaceful protest with 4,000 participants in front of the seat of the government [see Takeover of the Ottoman Bank]. The police fired shots into the crowd, causing approximately 1,000 deaths. A hunt for Armenians ensued in all neighborhoods of Constantinople, leading to thousands of additional casualties. Over the course of three weeks, a large majority of the 160,000 Armenians in the capital took refuge in churches and waited for a political resolution.  

After the massacres in Erzurum, victims are buried in the Armenian cemetary on November 2, 1895.
After the massacres in Erzurum, victims are buried in the Armenian cemetary on November 2, 1895.
After the massacres in Erzurum, victims are buried in the Armenian cemetary on November 2, 1895. Photo courtesy of Archives of Ministry of Foreign Affairs, France

“It was the first time since the Turkish conquest of Constantinople [in 1453] that we saw Ottoman Christians resist Turkish troops,” wrote French ambassador Paul Cambon. “The softats [religious students] and mullahs [clerics] came together in groups and hunted down Armenians together with the police. They committed abominations—innocent people were knocked unconscious, prisoners were massacred in the courtyard of the police headquarters, houses were pillaged, etc. The Armenians found refuge in churches, which the police had surrounded…” 

British and French diplomats ultimately intervened to break the stalemate and rescue the Armenians from their churches. On October 6, 1895, the ambassadors of six European powers demanded the Ottoman government implement reforms. Two days later, a massacre took place in Trabzon. On October 17, Sultan Abdülhamit II signed a decree to put an end to the violence, but the attacks continued to extend across all of Asia Minor. From October to December, Armenians in the regions of Trabzon, Erzurum, Kighi, Hadjin, Erzindjan, Marash, Gumushhane, Bitlis, Van, Papert, Shabin Karahissar, Ourfa, Malatya, Arapgir, Diyarbekir, Mardin, Agn, Kharpert, Sivas, Gurun, Marsovan, Moush, Tokat, Amasya, Siirt, Kayseri, Samsun, Angora and Biredjik, among others, were murdered. In each town, the massacres were carried out in the same way: meetings were organized to gather local elites, teachers and clerics who were executed or imprisoned; Armenian businesses were pillaged and burned followed by neighborhoods in the towns and fields in the villages; men were the first to be targeted while women and girls were later subjected to rape throughout the massacres. Survivors converted to Islam, which became the norm in the dozens of villages in the province of Diyarbekir.  

This campaign, considered by the government to be just punishment, caused 200,000 deaths, orphaned 50,000 children and left a considerable number of Armenians homeless and subject to famine and disease in the years to follow. The socio-economic effects of the massacres were felt in the region for a decade after the violence had subsided. Furthermore, the demographic consequences were irreversible and the massacres greatly contributed to the process of disintegration of the Armenian rural presence in Anatolia.  

The atrocities illustrated a central element of Sultan Abdülhamit’s regime: the legitimization of violence carried out by the dominant group and the extent of the negative perception of the Armenians. This perception would continue in 1915 despite the change in regime. 

Phases of the Armenian Genocide 

Among the countless acts of violence that occurred during World War I, the extermination of the Armenians and Syriacs  
constitute the bloodiest episode involving civilians on the eastern front. More than 1.5 million people, victims of the Young Turk regime, lost their lives in 1915 and 1916. The guise of war—Turkey entered the conflict on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary—created optimal circumstances for an eruption of violence and allowed for the legitimization of measures that would have been inconceivable in a time of peace. But the war cannot be the sole explanation for the implementation of such a plan. Genocidal violence generally emerges out of a totalitarian ideology in a state led by a single party. These preconditions characterize the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), which put an end to four centuries of multicultural and multiethnic imperial Ottoman tradition to form a Turkish nation-state, which at its core involved a project to exclude groups—namely Armenians, Syriacs and Greeks—that could not figure into its socio-political vision. From this perspective, the mass violence perpetrated by the Young Turk regime, an offshoot of the CUP, during World War I can be considered as the product of modernity, committed in pursuit of the construction of a nation-state. In other words, the perpetrators acted with impunity because their actions were understood as serving a larger goal.  

Phases of the Armenian Genocide
Phases of the Armenian Genocide


The Ideology of Genocide 

Within the circle of thirty men who controlled the CUP, the notion of human rights was considered an abstraction, similar to national mottos that extolled liberty, equality and fraternity— archaic metaphysical fantasies that served no other purpose than to “gain the confidence of minorities and make them believe in Ottomanism.” The formation of a strong, authoritarian state that could implement and serve the goals of the CUP instead took the utmost precedence. Nothing could prevent the realization of that destiny, especially not opposition, as illustrated by the January 1913 attack on the seat of the Ottoman government and the assassination of the Minister of War. If unanticipated political circumstances at home and abroad had not occurred, the Young Turk dictatorship, established in January 1914, would have acted much earlier.  

The rejection of the Ottoman model and its characteristics of linguistic and cultural plurality, which the CUP sought to replace with “Ottomanism,” comprised another key element in the Young Turks’ plan. Their proposal, premised on the idea of a singular belonging to Turkism, opposed however, other long-standing identities—whether Arab, Greek, Syriac or Armenian—and therefore could only offer a tenuous basis for cultural identity. In fact, as Dr. Nâzim bluntly states, CUP ideology was more a rejection of difference than a desire to integrate non-Turks into its melting pot: “The protests and national aspirations are infuriating us. On our soil, there should only be one nation and one language.” The concept of Ottomanism was merely rhetoric, like the discourse on equality.  

If this was the conception of modernity that the CUP strived to embody through the creation of the Turkish nation, it produced with it a policy of rejection towards minorities who could not figure into its way of thinking. It was no longer a question of dominating the other as it had been in Ottoman times, but of assimilating the other. How was it then possible to design a political space or a space for dialogue? Both only existed in theory, and, as many have argued, the few changes in political power observed during the Young Turk period came as a result of violent coups d’état. Under these conditions, there was no chance of according real equality to non-Turks, much less to non-Muslims. 

World War I offered the CUP the opportunity to carry out its plans for unification. According to Arif Cemil, leader of the Special Organization: “[The CUP] took the first opportunity it had to realize the project of incorporating the Turks of Russia into Turkey. This idea was so ingrained in them that they only had to draw up concrete plans for its realization.”  


Convoy of refugess near Susehri, near Zara, on the road toward Sivas.
Convoy of refugess near Susehri, near Zara, on the road toward Sivas.
Convoy of refugess near Susehri, near Zara, on the road toward Sivas. Photo by Viktor Pietschmann/Naturhistorischen Museum, Vienna

The economic dimension of the CUP’s plans to eliminate the Ottoman Armenian community cannot be ignored, although the topic is not often well understood. It is even more rarely viewed as one of the major material and ideological objectives of the central committee of the CUP or as one of the catalysts of the genocidal act. 

Shortly after the implementation of the Temporary Law of Deportation, an order issued on June 10, 1915 tasked local commissions with the “protection of abandoned assets.” It is on the basis of this administrative measure that the process of dispossession was carried out until the fall of 1915. It can therefore be understood that the law granting administrative approval for the pillage of Armenian assets was adopted after the fact. It is important to specify that the Temporary Law of Expropriation and Confiscation issued on September 26, 1915 was prepared by the Directorate of Tribal and Immigrant Settlement [Iskân-ı Aşâyirîn ve Muhâcirîn Müdîriyeti], which was affiliated with the Ministry of the Interior that planned the deportations.  

These ideological and economic motivations were realized by implementing a plan to eliminate non-Turks, specifically the Christians of Asia Minor. According to Kuşçubaşızâde Eşref [Sencer], head of the Special Organization along the Aegean coast, a “homogenization plan” for Anatolia, a cleansing of non-Muslim “tumors” and the elimination of “concentrations of non-Turks” had been discussed since January 1914 with the minister of war over the course of several secret meetings of the central committee of the CUP, without the knowledge of many of the ministers. The plan first targeted the Greeks of Anatolia on the Aegean coast starting in the spring of 1914, putting in place: 1) “general measures” enforced by the governor, Mustafa Rahmi; 2) “special measures” of which the army was put in charge during the ethnic cleansing of the region; 3) “measures” taken by the CUP. In his memoir, Halil [Menteşe] noted that the goal was for the government and administration to avoid appearing to be involved in the violence, which took the form of massacres, deportations, exile and pillaging of approximately 180,000 Greeks. 

The recent discovery of the archives of the Second Bureau of the Ottoman Ministry of the Interior, housed in the Ottoman Archives of the Office of the Prime Minister in Istanbul, revealed that immediately before and during World War I, the Directorate of Tribal and Immigrant Settlement drafted ethnographic maps and conducted censuses, which were used to change the demographic composition of certain regions and eradicate particular groups in order to replace them with others. In this context, a massive displacement of populations took place, including among Muslims like Circassians, Kurds and migrants from the Balkans who had been settled in regions that had been emptied of their Armenian and Syriac populations. 

While the plan anticipated the deportation of the Greeks from western Anatolia, followed by the relocation of the Armenians towards Syria and Mesopotamia, the context of war put a temporary halt to the deportation of the Greeks on the Aegean coast and the initial “relocation” of Armenians transformed into systematic extermination a few months later. 

Genocidal will was nurtured by the central committee of the Young Turk regime, but the extermination itself was entrusted to the Special Organization [Teşkilât-ı Mahsusa], a paramilitary group led by four of the ten members of the central committee: Dr. Ahmed Nâzım, Dr. Bahaeddin Şakir, Atıf bey and Yusuf Rıza bey. 

The Modus Operandi 

The operations were carried out in several phases and were characterized by an almost identical modus operandi. On February 25, 1915, Minister of War Enver Pasha ordered that the tens of thousands of Armenian conscripts serving in the Third Ottoman Army be disarmed and assigned to labor battalions or executed. Some soldiers from western Anatolia serving in the Fourth Army based in Palestine fought until 1918. The authorities began arresting Armenian elites in Constantinople and the provinces beginning at the end of April 1915. In May, they detained men ages 16 to 60 in several waves and chose, in the most densely populated Armenian regions, to conscript men ages 16 to 19 and 45 to 60, who had previously been spared. In the six eastern provinces, men were executed in small groups by units of the Special Organization. 

The deportations beginning in May 1915 comprised the next phase of the extermination plan. By this time, few if any Armenian or Syriac men remained in the eastern provinces. Studying the process of deportation and elimination region by region illustrates that the populations of the six eastern provinces, considered the historic land of the Armenians, were specifically targeted as part of the broader plan to eradicate the Armenian population. The operations targeting Armenians in western Anatolia which began two months later, can be considered the conclusion of the program of eradication. In the east, the plan called for the immediate extermination of men, both conscripts and civilians, and the use of their labor, while in the western regions men were deported with their families. With regard to women, children and the elderly, a difference in treatment can also be observed. The caravans in the eastern provinces were systematically attacked along their route. Only a small minority arrived at the “relocation sites.” On the other hand, Armenians in western Anatolia and Thrace were often sent to Syria by train and arrived without incurring substantial losses as a result of deportation. 

Armenian refugees in the street in Aleppo in the fall of 1915.
Armenian refugees in the street in Aleppo in the fall of 1915.
Armenian refugees in the street in Aleppo in the fall of 1915. Photo courtesy of Archives of the German Foreign Office, Bonn

The most significant execution sites used by the Special Organization were located near gorges. At the gorge in Kemah, southwest of Erzindjan along the Euphrates River, tens of thousands of men were exterminated in May and June of 1915 under the direct supervision of Dr. Bahaeddin Şakir of the Special Organization. At the gorge in Kahta, in the highlands south of Malatya, 500,000 deportees were executed. 

The final phase of the process of destruction, “the second phase of the genocide,” specifically targeted refugees from Anatolia and Cilicia. The sites of this unprecedented form of violence—the 25 concentration camps in Syria and Mesopotamia that had been operational as of October 1915—have long been a terra incognita for researchers. Orchestrated by a sub-division of the Directorate for the Settlement of Tribes and Immigrants under the Ministry of the Interior, approximately 800,000 refugees were forced through the camps. Moved from one camp to another, many often succumbed to the consequences of deprivation and disease. A secret network, facilitated by missionaries based in Aleppo and supported by the American and German consuls and the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople, nevertheless provided aid to prevent complete eradication. The support provided by this network prompted the Young Turk regime’s ultimate decision to eliminate the remainder of the deportees toward the end of February and the beginning of March 1916. This campaign targeted approximately 500,000 surviving deportees who had arrived six months earlier and more in Syria and Mesopotamia, often having already adapted to their new environment. From April to December 1916, Ras al-Ayn in the north and Der Zor in the south were the sites of systematic massacre where hundreds of thousands perished.  

The surviving refugees can be divided into two main categories: several thousand women and children abducted by Bedouin tribes and rescued after the armistice in October 1918, and more than 100,000 deportees, especially those from Cilicia, who were sent along the Aleppo-Homs-Hama-Damascus-Maan-Sinai axis and employed in businesses working for the Ottoman army. The British army discovered these deportees in indescribable conditions during its conquest of Palestine and Syria in 1917 and 1918. 

The Trial of the War Criminals 

Once the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople had been reestablished after the Armistice of Moudros, an Information Bureau [Deghegadou Tivan] was created to gather materials in preparation for a trial. 

The Mazhar Commission, an investigatory commission under the auspices of the Ottoman Bureau of Public Safety, was established by imperial decree on November 21, 1918. The Mazhar Commission set out to collect facts and accounts, focusing its investigation particularly on civil servants involved in the crimes committed against the Armenian population. The commission’s capacity for action was wide-reaching, having the power to institute legal proceedings, seize documents and arrest and imprison suspects with the help of the judiciary police as well as other state services. Hasan Mazhar immediately issued an official memorandum to the prefects and sub-prefects of the provinces to recover the original or certified copies of orders received by local authorities concerning the deportation and massacre of the Armenians. The commission also questioned witnesses under oath. In less than three months, it compiled 130 investigation files, which it gradually sent to court-martial.  

Concentration camp in Meskene, along the banks of the Euphrates river.
Concentration camp in Meskene, along the banks of the Euphrates river.
Concentration camp in Meskene, along the banks of the Euphrates river. Photo courtesy of Armin Wegner photography

The reactions in the press in Constantinople during the trials of the Young Turks illustrate that the vast majority of the population did not consider these acts to be punishable crimes. The courts-martial were careful to assign blame for the crimes to a small group of men in order to absolve the Ottoman state of its obligations and protect the image of the nascent republic, which was preparing to sign a peace treaty with the Allied Powers.  

The preparations on the part of the French and British governments to bring the Young Turks to justice before an International High Court are largely unknown in Western historiography. The judicial classifications devised by the Commission of Responsibilities and its sub-commissions in the context of the preliminary peace conference in Paris in February 1919 were not, in fact, implemented to try the Young Turks, although they directly inspired the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide adopted by the United Nations in 1948 as well as one of its principle authors, Raphael Lemkin.   

Takeover of the Ottoman Bank  

The takeover of the Ottoman Bank—a financial institution run jointly by the French, British and Ottoman governments—by militants from the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) on August 26, 1896, constitutes an episode of particular importance in Armenian history due to its unprecedented nature. The operation involved modern tactics designed to attract media attention, creating an even greater international stir than the Armenian massacres that had taken place in the fall of 1895 and the winter of 1896. The attention was undoubtedly the result of the threat that the takeover posed to European financial interests. Unlike coverage of the peaceful protests in October 1895, the French press reacted to news of the takeover with virulence, portraying the Armenians as terrorists. The Social Democratic Hunchakian Party, which had been working over the course of the year in Paris to raise awareness about the Armenian massacres among the French public, considered the takeover of the Ottoman bank as a setback, and expressed their disagreement with the ARF's strategy. 

The Role of the Kurds 

The idea of cohabitation between the Kurds and the Armenians long relied on the more euphemistic concept of symbiosis, premised on the notion that the Armenians farmed the lands and, in exchange, the Kurdish tribal chiefs guaranteed their safety. This phenomenon endured for centuries until the Ottoman government created a centralized state and reduced the autonomy of the local Kurdish tribal chiefs in the middle of the 19th century. 

Convoy of Armenian men taken from Mezre/ Kharpert under escort, May 1915.
Convoy of Armenian men taken from Mezre/ Kharpert under escort, May 1915.
Convoy of Armenian men taken from Mezre/ Kharpert under escort, May 1915. Photo courtesy of Mekhitarists of Venice Collection

This change disrupted the local equilibrium and resulted in hostility towards the central government. As a consequence, the Armenians were subjected to permanent insecurity. The strategy of Sultan Abdülhamit II consisted of pitting the Kurds and Armenians—the two dominant groups in the eastern provinces—against each other. Accordingly, he fostered the emergence of a new generation of local Kurdish leaders, replacing the hereditary feudal system already in place, by creating hamidiye regiments. The 65 commanders of these regiments—appointed, armed and financed by the government—formed a new local political class with far-reaching power. Zeki Pasha—one of the sultan’s henchmen—commanded these tribal militias, which fell under the control of the Ottoman state. It was under their leadership that the dispossession of Armenian agricultural lands took place by encouraging the settlement of previously nomadic Kurdish tribes. In many cases, the cohabitation between Armenian and the newly settled Kurdish peasants fostered the transference of agricultural knowledge from the former to the latter. This phenomenon is one of the key stages in the progressive replacement of one homogenous group with another and represents a form of transference, notably through violence, of Armenian skills and material heritage to the Kurds, according to the Khaldoumian law that states that young groups on the path to settlement often seize power and territory of older nations and make use of limited resources to defend themselves. In this regard, the Kurdish populations demonstrated great respect for the fedayis, armed Armenian militants who went underground to resist the oppression of the sultan and knew how to exact revenge on the tribal chiefs who committed abuses against the Armenians, but who continued to prey on them nonetheless. 

After the establishment of the Committee of Union and Progress in 1908 and the removal of Sultan Abdülhamit II from power in 1909, the Armenian militants did not manage to secure the dissolution of the hamidiye regiments. The new regime kept the regiments intact and renamed them the As¸iret Hafif Süvari Alayları [Light Tribal Cavalry]. During World War I, these tribal militias were used in the extermination of the Armenians under the guise of defending national borders. 

In the aftermath of the war, after a brief period of cooperation with the Turkish nationalist forces, the Kurds also fell victim to the politics of the Turkification of Anatolia and suffered massacres in 1921, 1925 and 1934, as the government deemed them incapable of being assimilated into the larger Turkish nationalist plan. 

Translated from French by Jennifer Manoukian. 

Banner photo is courtesy of Nubarian Library Archives

Originally published in the April 2015 ​issue of AGBU Magazine. end character

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