Young Turks and the Armenian Genocide

The Young Turks were the perpetrators of the Armenian Genocide. The Young Turk Movement emerged in reaction to the absolutist rule of Sultan Abdul-Hamid (Abdulhamit) II (1876-1909). With the 1878 suspension of the Ottoman Constitution, reform-minded Ottomans resorted to organizing overseas or underground. The backbone of the movement was formed by young military officers who were especially disturbed by the continuing decline of Ottoman power and attributed the crisis to the absence of an environment for change and progress. Working secretly in unconnected clusters under the watchful eye of the Hamidian secret police, the Young Turks succeeded in overturning the rule of the autocratic sultan when the Ottoman armies in European Turkey openly supported the movement. Abdul-Hamid's reinstatement of constitutional and parliamentary rule in July 1908 ushered in a brief period of legalized political activity by a panoply of reformist Turkish parties as well as Armenian political and revolutionary organizations. The Young Turks earned further public support when their intervention was required to suppress the April 1909 counter-revolution staged by the palace.

At the center of the Young Turk Revolution stood the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) (Ittihad ve Terakki Jemiyeti) formed in 1895. Its members came to be known as Ittihadists or Unionists. The most ideologically committed party in the entire movement, the CUP espoused a form of Turkish nationalism which was xenophobic and exclusionary in its thinking. Its policies threatened to undo the tattered fabric of a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society. Taking advantage of the political confusion reigning in the aftermath of the First Balkan War which the Ottoman Empire lost in 1912 to its former subject states, the CUP seized power in a coup d'etat in January 1913. As it led the empire to a partial recovery in the Second Balkan War, the CUP monopolized political power domestically by bringing the Parliament completely under its influence. It also began to steer away from the long-held Ottoman foreign policy of alliances with Great Britain and France, and forged a stronger military cooperation with Germany. Moreover, the CUP compensated for the Ottoman retreat in the Balkans by promoting Pan-Turkism, an expansionist program designed to challenge Russia in its southern tier. By the time World War I broke out in August 1914, the CUP constituted a chauvinistic band which had subordinated the Ottoman state to its Turkist ideology. It also propelled the country into war against its better interests by entering into a secret accord with Germany.

To consolidate Turkish rule in the remaining territories of the Ottoman Empire and to expand the state into the so-called Turanian lands in the east, most held by Iran and Russia, the CUP devised in secret a program for the extermination of the Armenian population. From the viewpoint of Ittihadist ideology and its new and ambitious foreign policy, the Armenians represented a completely vulnerable population straddling an area of major strategic value for its Pan-Turanian goals. Ottoman misrule had made the Armenians, a prosperous minority despite its political disadvantages, sympathetic to Russia. To the Ittihadists, the global crisis of 1914 represented a rare opportunity to change the fortunes of the Ottoman state and to use the cover of war to embark upon a policy of both internal and external social engineering the likes of which had not been attempted or imagined. Once again they gambled on the element of surprise, subterfuge, and radical daring, this time against a civilian minority population.

Even though the initial advance of Ottoman forces in 1914 into Russia and Iran did not result in a permanent expansion, on the whole the Ottoman armies held Allied forces in check until 1916 and did not capitulate until 1918. The main thrust of the Armenian Genocide, however, was implemented within the first year of the war, years ahead of any imminent collapse. While the mass deportations of the civilian Armenian population was carried out in the spring and summer of 1915 and were completed by the fall, the systematic slaughter of the Armenians had started earlier with the murder of the able-bodied males already drafted into the Ottoman armed forces. By expropriating the movable and immovable wealth of the Armenians, the CUP also looked upon its policy of genocide as a means for enriching its coffers and rewarding its cohorts. The elimination of a commercially viable minority fulfilled part of the nationalist program to concentrate financial power in the hands of the state and promote greater Turkish control over the domestic economy.

Enver, Talaat, and Jemal, who were responsible for these policies formed the governing triumvirate which had concentrated power its hands with the January 1913 coup. The triumvirs divided the governance of the Ottoman Empire among themselves.

A young military hero who married into the Ottoman dynasty, Enver provided the most public face of the CUP. As Minister of War he coordinated the buildup of the Turkish armed forces with German financial, logistical, and planning support. In an ill-conceived plan of attack, he precipitated land warfare against Russia in the Caucasus in the dead of winter. His December 1914 campaign cost an entire army lost in a period of four weeks. In his capacity as the Deputy Commander-in-Chief (the honorary command being reserved for the sovereign), Enver exercised ultimate control over the Ottoman armies which carried out major atrocities, first in 1915 and then with renewed vigor when Turkish forces broke the Russian line in 1918 and invaded the Caucasus. The forces under the command of his brother, Nuri, and uncle, Halil, spread devastation through Russian Armenia and carried out massacres of Armenians all the way to Baku. Talaat as Minister of the Interior in Istanbul ran the government for a figurehead grand vizier. He was the mastermind of the Armenian Genocide and coordinated the various agencies of the Ottoman government required for the deportation, expropriation, and extermination of the Armenians. Jemal who was Minister of the Navy controlled the southern part of the Ottoman Empire as virtual viceroy from his seat in Damascus and was responsible for checking the British line in Egypt. As commander of Syria, the concentration camps and extermination sites fell within his jurisdiction. Beyond the government ministries, the CUP also operated secret groups for the purpose of infiltrating enemy territory and for promoting Pan-Turkism in neighboring countries. The most infamous of its operations was the Teshkilâti Mahsusa, Special Organization, composed of outlaws especially recruited to carry out the CUP secret agenda. The high purpose of their mission was evidenced by their disposition at the command of two major CUP ideologues, Dr. Nazim and Dr. Behaeddin Shakir, both of them medical professionals, the prime organizers of the on-site implementation of the Armenian Genocide. Lastly, the CUP entrusted local command of the genocidal process to the provincial valis, or governors-general, who were made responsible for the execution of Talaat's and Enver's orders.

With the defeat of the Ottomans in World War I the denouement of the CUP became a drawn out matter pursued by all their opponents. Fully cognizant of the Allied threat to hold them responsible for war crimes, the CUP cabinet ministers resigned from the government with the signing of the Armistice of Mudros in October 1918. The key Ittihadist leaders fled Turkey, while the rank and file went underground. The post-war Ottoman government convened tribunals in 1919 to hear testimony on the conduct of the war and the implementation of the Armenian Genocide. While many second rank figures were prosecuted individually, the party as a whole was indicted for the crimes of conspiracy and massacre. The verdicts found the accused guilty of capital crimes, but the principal culprits were only tried in absentia. To bring them to justice, a clandestine group was formed by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnak Party) to seek out and execute the Ittihadists in hiding in Germany and Italy. Vowing vengeance they tracked down Talaat in Berlin where he was assassinated in 1921. Behaeddin Shakir was also killed in Berlin in 1922, and Jemal in Tbilisi in 1922. Enver in a last adventure met his end in 1922 in Central Asia leading a cavalry charge against an advancing Red Army unit. Though most of the CUP chieftains had taken refuge in Germany, Jemal and Enver had established contact with the Bolsheviks offering their services in the cause of one more revolution. In the meantime, as he led the Turkish Nationalist movement, Mustafa Kemal distanced himself from the Ittihadists but absorbed into his forces former CUP members prepared to switch allegiance. In 1926 Kemal himself stamped out the remaining cells of the CUP when they were accused of plotting his assassination and sent Dr. Nazim and others to the gallows.

--Rouben Paul Adalian