The Ottoman Empire and the Armenian Genocide

The Ottoman Empire was the state responsible for the Armenian Genocide. The Ottoman Empire was in existence from 1300 to 1923. It was ruled by Muslim Turks headed by the sultanate of the Osmanli/Ottoman dynasty. The Ottoman state, variously called Turkey or the Turkish Empire, was governed according to Islamic law which relegated non-Muslims to second class status by denying them basic civil rights and requiring them to pay extra taxes. This discriminatory system was institutionalized through the so-called millet system which permitted the Armenians communal autonomy as a religious minority, much as the Greeks and Jews, while depriving them from all forms of political participation.

Since the conquest of Armenia and Cilicia in the early part of the sixteenth century, the larger portion of the Armenian population of the Middle East was absorbed into Ottoman Turkey. The great size of the empire created economic opportunity for the Armenians. Their presence grew noticeably in the capital city of Constantinople and other important urban centers where they specialized in a variety of commercial and manufacturing enterprises and established themselves as intermediaries of the European trade with the East. Turkish administration in the more remote provinces of Armenia, however, ranged from the exploitative to the oppressive. In the competition for land, official licensing of the Kurds in eastern Anatolia encouraged the unlawful transfer of property, the dispossession of the rural Armenian population and their emigration from their homeland. Misrule in Armenia prompted the Great Powers to obligate Sultan Abdul-Hamid (Abdulhamit) II to reform provincial administration according to the terms of the 1878 Treaty of Berlin. The abrogation of the Ottoman Constitution, however, foretold of official reluctance to extend equality and security. The ensuing repression prompted Armenian revolutionary activity as the Ottomans reneged on their treaty obligations and resisted international pressure to introduce meaningful reform. Hamidian autocracy also fostered the clandestine Young Turk movement dedicated to the cause of overthrowing the despotic sultan.

The decline of Turkish power and the steady territorial losses in the face of Balkan revolts and Russian military advances isolated the Armenians in a precarious situation. To firmly secure and perpetuate Turkish rule in the remaining territories of the Ottoman state, Abdul-Hamid initiated a program of demographic and political consolidation through the mass slaughter of vast numbers of Armenians beginning in 1894. By so doing he also restricted the economic role of the Armenians, a program which enjoyed popular support among the Turks. In the face of international condemnation, and despite changes in government, the Hamidian policies were applied with regularity over the course of the next thirty years. In a series of genocidal massacres repeated in 1895-1896, 1909, 1915-1918, and 1920-1922, the Armenian population of Turkey was annihilated. The Armenian, also called Hamidian, massacres of 1894-1896 affected all of historic Armenia and Constantinople. The 1909 or Adana massacre devastated Cilicia. The combined deportations and massacres during World War I acquired the dimensions of total genocide and was implemented by the Young Turks who had removed Abdul-Hamid from the throne in 1909. The atrocities between 1920-1922 were committed by the Nationalist Turks who seized power in the Anatolian hinterland in the final years of the Ottoman Empire and created the Turkish Republic.

Most of these massacres were carried out with impunity and the majority of criminal offenders escaped prosecution. Only in the aftermath of its defeat in World War I did the Ottoman government indict the Young Turk leaders responsible for the Armenian Genocide. Through a series of military tribunals and parliamentarian investigations convened between 1919 and 1921 in Constantinople, the covert planning, secret organization, and brutal implementation of policies designed to destroy the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire were uncovered. The evidence was presented in courts-martial and guilty verdicts handed down, confirming the mass scale state-sponsored policy of extermination. The post-war government, however, balked at carrying out the sentences and the tribunals were closed under pressure from the Nationalists.

In 1915 Armenians lived in all the major cities of the Ottoman Empire, Van, Bitlis, Erzerum, Kharpert, Sivas, Trebizond, Konya, Kayseri, Adana, Izmir, Bursa, Edirne, and many others. By 1923 the Armenian population of Turkey had been reduced to those living in Constantinople. Armenians had participated in all aspects of Ottoman life and had made major contributions to Turkish commerce, industry, architecture, and even music. Yet, in the final analysis, the centuries of Turkish rule resulted in the utter ruin of historic Armenia, the expulsion of the Armenians from Asiatic Turkey and the permanent exile of surviving Armenians. The net effect of the Ottoman era is summed up then in the violent transformation of historic Armenia into Turkey.

--Rouben Paul Adalian