Context &
 & Atrocities
& Demands 
The Armenian Genocide - Introduction

By Prof. Richard G. Hovannisian

The "Forgotten Genocide"

he general public and even many historians know very little about the genocide of the Armenians by the government of the Ottoman Empire. Civilian populations have often fallen victim to the brutality of invading armies, bombing raids, lethal substances, and other forms of indiscriminate killings. In the Armenian case, however, the government of the Ottoman Empire, dominated by the so-called Committee of Union and Progress, or Young Turk Party, turned against a segment of its own population. In international law there were certain accepted laws and customs of war that were aimed, in some measure, at protecting civilian population, but these did not cover domestic situations or a government's treatment of its own people. Only after World War II and the Holocaust was that aspect included in the United Nations' Genocide Convention. Nonetheless, at the time of the Armenian deportations and massacres beginning in 1915, many governments and statespersons termed the atrocities as "crimes against humanity".

Except for the Young Turk leaders, no government denied or doubted what was occurring. The govemments of Germany and Austro-Hungary, while allied with the Ottoman Empire, received hundreds of detailed eyewitness accounts from their officials on the spot and privately admitted that the Armenians were being subjected to a policy of annihilation. Newspapers throughout the world, including Australia, carried headlines condemning the atrocities. Between 1915 and 1918, hundreds of declarations, promises, and pledges, were made by world leaders regarding the emancipation, restitution, and rehabilitation of the Armenian survivors. Yet, within a few years those same governments and statespersons turned away from the Armenian Question without having fulfilled any of those pledges. And, after a few years, the Armenian calamity had virtually become "the forgotten genocide".

History of the Armenians

he Annenians are an ancient people. They inhabited the highland region between the Black, Caspian, and Mediterranean seas for nearly 3,000 years. They are noted in Greek and Persian sources as early as the sixth century B.C. On a strategic crossroad between East and West, Armenia was sometimes independent under its national dynasties, sometimes autonomous under native princes who paid tribute to foreign powers, and sometimes subjected to direct foreign rule. The Armenians were among the first people to adopt Christianity and to develop a distinct, national religious culture.

The Turkish invasions of Armenia began in the eleventh century AD, and the last Armenian kingdom fell three centuries later. Most of the territories that had once formed the ancient and medieval Armenian kingdoms were incorporated into the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth century. The Armenians were included in a multinational and multi-religious realm, but as a Christian minority they had to endure official discrimination and second-class citizenship, including special taxes, inadmissibility of legal testimony, and the prohibition of bearing arms.

Despite these disabilities, most Armenians lived in relative peace so long as the Ottoman Empire was strong and expanding. But as the Empire's administrative, fiscal, and military structure crumbled under the weight of' internal corruption and external challenges in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, oppression and intolerance increased. The breakdown of law and order was accelerated by Ottoman inability to modernise and compete with the West.

The decay of the Ottoman Empire was paralleled by cultural and political revival among many of the subject peoples. The national liberation struggles, supported by one or another European power, resulted in the Turkish loss of Greece and most of the Balkan provinces in the nineteenth century and aggravated the Eastern Question; that is, what was to happen to the enervated empire and its constituent peoples. A growing number of Ottoman liberals came to believe that the empire's survival depended on effective administration reforms. These men were movers behind several significant reform measures promulgated between 1839 and 1876. Yet time again the advocates of reform became disillusioned in the face of the entrenched, vested interests that stubbornly resisted change.

Of the various subject people, the Armenians perhaps sought the least. Unlike the Balkan Christians or the Arabs, they were dispersed throughout the empire and no longer constituted an absolute majority in much of their historic homelands. Hence, most Armenian leaders did not think in terms of independence. Expressing loyalty to the sultan and disavowing any separatist aspirations, they petitioned for the protection of their people and property from corrupt officials and marauding bands.

The Armenians had passed through a long period of cultural revival. Thousands of youngsters enrolled in elementary and secondary schools, and hundreds af students travelled to Europe for higher education. Many returned home imbued with the ideas of Enlightenment and the French Revolution to engage in teaching, journalism, and literary criticism.

As it happened, however, this Armenian self-discovery was paralleled by heightened administrative corruption and exploitation. It was this dual development, the conscious demand for enlightened government and security of life on the one hand, and the growing repression of and insecurity on the other, that gave rise to the Armenian Question as a part of the larger Eastern Question. Some Armenians gave up hope that reforms could be achieved peaceably. They organised underground political parties and encouraged the population to learn to defend itself.

Massacres: Preface to genocide

uring the reign of Sultan Abdul-Hamid II ( 1876-1909), a new reform measure relating specifically to the Armenians was promulgated under pressure from the European powers. However, European interest was inconsistent, and foreign intervention unsustained by effective measures to oversee the implementation of the reforms only compounded Armenian troubles. Beginning in the mountainous district of Sassun in 1894 and then spreading to every province inhabited by Armenians in 1895 and 1896, pogroms organised by the Sultan's agents resulted in the deaths of up to 200,000 Armenians, the flight into exile of thousands more, and the looting and burning or forced conversion of hundreds of towns and villages.

Lord Kinross, the author of several books on the Ottoman Empire and Turkey, has described how the organisers of the massacres exploited religious sentiments:

Their tactics were based on the Sultan's principle of kindling religious fanaticism among the Moslem population. Abdul Hamid briefed agents, whom he sent to Armenians with the specific instructions as to how they should act, It became their normal routine first to assemble the Moslem population in the largest mosque in a town and then to declare, in the name of the Sultan, that the Armenians were in general revolt with the aim at striking at Islam. Their Sultan enjoined them as good Moslems to defend the faith against these infidel rebels . . . Each operation, between the bugle calls, followed a similar pattern. First into the town there came the Turkish troops, for the purpose of massacres; then came the Kurdish irregulars and tribesmen for the purpose of plunder. Finally came the holocaust, by fire and destruction, which spread, with the pursuit of fugitives and mopping-up operation throughout the lands and villages of the surrounding provinces. This murderous winter of 1895 thus saw the decimation of much of the Armenian population and the devastation of their property in some 20 districts of eastern Turkey.

. The Sultan's use of violent methods was a desperate attempt to maintain the status quo in the face of severe external and internal challenges. In this regard, a major difference between Abdul-Hamid and his Young Turk successors was that he unleashed massacres in an effort to preserve the status structure in which the Armenians would be kept submissive and unable to resist tyrannical rule, whereas the Young Turks were to employ the same tactics on much grander scale to bring about a fundamental and far-reaching changes in the status quo and create an entirely new frame reference that did not help the Armenians at all.

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