Understanding the Armenian Genocide.
A new Continuity Thesis: Genocide as a process with three different layers
How are we to understand the Armenian genocide of 1915-1918 and how are we to explain it? You would be justified in saying that asking a question that’s been asked and answered numerous times already is not an exercise that should be indulged. I’m ready to accept that the answers that can be given to these questions will likely lead to comments laced with distaste like “There’s nothing new here; everything’s been said already”. But at a very minimum, one has to accept that this idea however is new: the Armenian genocide has been debated for the most part as a phenomenon that occurred between the years 1915-1918. Naturally, the historical roots were discussed and there were different explanations for the causes but in the end, the point of the discussion was to understand what had occurred between 1915-1918. In other words, the genocide was taken up and debated as an event, an occurrence that took place between 1915-1918.
What I want to do here is something different. I propose that we use the concept of genocide, not just to describe an event that took place between 1915-1918 but as a process that started in 1878 and in one respect was concluded by 1923. This 1878-1923 genocidal process was made up of a whole series of genocidal moments; on of which is the extermination of Armenians during 1915-1918. Genocide, not as an occurrence, but as a process…
Of course, we will continue to talk about the genocide of 1915-1918 but it will consist of an event that took place during what I will claim is a process that covered the period 1878 – 1923. Stated in another way, I am proposing that we examine the events of 1915-1918, not as a singular phenomenon, but as a piece of a genocidal process that started with the Treaty of Berlin dated 1878 and concluded with the Lausanne Treaty of 1923. No doubt dates have symbolic significance and they can be pulled in either direction. What’s important is that the genocide concept will be used to describe not just a single action but a whole process. The 1878-1923 genocidal process was made up of a whole series of genocidal moments. It’s possible to draw three different frameworks in order to understand and explain this process.
First however, a small note on the issue of dates. The dates 1878 and 1923, that are used as ‘bookends’ to the process, are completely symbolic and the reason is quite simple. While the origins go further back, for reasons that are known, I want to use the 1878 Treaty of Berlin as the start date. With the 61st article of the treaty, the Armenian problem became an undeniable piece of international diplomacy and from that date forward, the great powers were not only active players who were part of the problem and process, they were the ones who also determined which direction it took.
Another significance of this date is that from that year onward, the issue started to be called the “Armenian Reform Problem”. This description provides us with the main characteristics of the period and the problem; Armenian problem was a Reform problem.
What I am suggesting here is a very simple idea: the Armenian problem should be understood and debated as a matter of reform that covered the period from 1878 – 1923. This period could be described within three different frameworks that are correlated with each other. These three separate contexts (frameworks) correspond to the three different sides of the Armenian problem.
The First Context is related to the policy directed only against the Armenians and based on a very simple idea: the Armenian problem should be understood and debated as a matter of reform that covered the period from 1878 – 1923. Without wanting to ignore the massacres that occurred elsewhere, like Sasun in 1904 and Marash in 1921, during this period three huge massacres occurred involving the Armenians. They are the massacres of the Abdülhamit period, 1894-96, wherein between 80 and 200 thousand Armenians were killed; the massacre of Adana in 1909 where 20,000 Armenians are estimated killed and the genocide of 1915-1918 which concluded with the annihilation of over one million Armenians. Up until now, these three large massacres were examined independently of each other, as unique singular phenomena. No one had tried to interpret these three events by looking through the same window.
Of course, there have been some very good attempts at explanation, which have endeavored to see and describe both the 1894-96 and 1909 massacres as preparation (rehearsal) for or precursor of the genocide of 1915-1918. In these studies, the one thing that connected all the massacres mentioned, was the actor who played a role in organizing them and some of the features that were attributed to him. This approach relied upon a monolithic perpetrator who was a composite of certain personality traits, regardless of differences in time and social roots (their class characters). Whether it was the Palace (Sultan Abdülhamit) or Party (Union and Progress Party), this homogenous actor killed for reasons that derived from certain personality traits that were attributed to him.
These personality traits may not only be cultural values that derive from the group, like militaristic thinking or a tendency towards violence, they may also be ideologies like Islamicism or Turkishness. I am ready to accept that these types of methods of explanation, which can be called “essentialist” in nature, can provide us with some important clues that might help us understand the behavior of just one of the actors in the process (main perpetrator group). However, I would like to state that these studies that describe the period by putting the intention and motivation of the perpetrator who performs the act, as the focus of inquiry, are ahistorical. This sort of approach is a poor substitute for explaining a multi-faceted, dynamic process that was filled with many different actors.
What is being proposed here is an explanation of 1894-96, 1909 and 1915-1918 which doesn’t rely on the intention and motivation of a single actor (perpetrator) but rather one that puts the “Armenian Reform Problem” front and center, connects it all together and includes two other actors, in addition to the Ottoman rulers: the Armenian Reform Movement and the Great Powers. They too were active actors in this process. We would need to add here, of course, the dynamic relations and mutual interactions of different religious and ethnic groups (especially Kurds and Circassians) that were part of Ottoman society. All three huge massacres came about as a result of the common denominator of the dynamic relations of these various actors.
This dynamic model with multiple actors can help a better understanding of the process and more so without falling in the denialist pitfall this approach elevates the victim group from a passive receiver at the other end of the relation, curled up in its corner waiting its destiny, into an active social factor, whose decisions and actions was also matter. It is the character of dynamic relations and interactions of different actors that determines the parameters of a process. Perpetrators never decides in a vacuum. We should never refrain from acknowledging that perpetrators actions or non-actions were also often a response to the actions of victim groups. It is the perpetrators’ perception -how they perceive and interpret the victim groups’ actions- that launched the genocidal process.
Throughout the entire process, the one thing that distinguished the relations between the actors was the different positions they took on the “Armenian Reform Problem”. The three huge massacres were ultimately the product of the different positions that were being pushed on the reform issue and these massacres need to be interpreted from a common perspective based on this foundation. I would argue that despite certain differences in ideological preferences or social class roots, the massacres occurred as the common response of Ottoman-Turkish rulers, both Sultans and later CUP party leaders, to the Armenian Reform Issue. The critical case here is the Adana Massacre of 1909 and whether this massacre really does perform the role of a bridge between 1894-95 and 1915-1918. It might be appropriate to say that Adana 1909 appears to be the weakest link of my continuity thesis, which is based on the “Armenian problem = Reform Problem” argument. As known there are two different set of arguments in the assessment of the Adana massacres! While one position tends to consider Adana as a rehearsal for 1915 based on the model that I described above –especially because of the assessment of the CUP involvement in the massacre-, the other position interprets Adana as a deviation from the main process and emphasizes the special circumstances created by the 1908 revolution. The one commonality to each explanation is that both try to explain the massacre by focusing on the characteristics of its perpetrators. I, on the other hand, am of the opinion that the Adana massacre needs to be connected on the axis of the “Armenian Reform Problem” with 1894-96 and 1915-1918. In summary, I believe that a study which views the period of 1878 – 1923 as a genocidal process in which 1894, 1909 and 1915-1918 are the different legs of the genocidal process that can be interpreted with continuity, has yet to be done and this is what should be done.
The Second Context is that the Armenian genocide is not a stand-alone event that involved the Armenians alone; it must be treated as one part of the policies that were implemented towards other Christian communities both before and after 1878 by the Ottoman government. Ethnic cleansing of the Greek (Rum) population of the Thrace and Aegean regions following the Balkan war of 1912; the Assyrian genocide during the First World War, the genocide of the Pontus Greeks of the Black Sea during 1921 and 1922, the burning of Izmir in 1922 and the 1924 Turkish-Greek Population Exchange are among the most well-known events of this era. If the Armenian Genocide is taken up as one part of the policies implemented against the Christian population by the Empire, it becomes comprehensible. It would be appropriate to define the period between 1878-1923 as the period of Ottoman genocide to which the Armenian Genocide constitutes one part.
Within this context, the demographic policies that were implemented during the years 1913-18, especially by way of the opportunities afforded by the First World War, played an instrumental role. What was driving these policies was an attempt to rescue an Empire that was on the verge of collapsing and falling apart by homogenizing it around a collective identity called the Turkish-Islamic synthesis. The two fundamental pillars of this homogenization was a cultural Turkishness that still maintained a connection with Islam and a Sunni interpretation of Islam. For this reason, homogenization aimed not only for the removal of Christians through forced expulsion and annihilation but also the deportation and assimilation of non-Turkish Muslims.
As a result of this demographic policy, by 1918 the ethnic makeup of Anatolia had been completely changed. The estimated 17.5 million people of Anatolia were so uprooted that by the end of the period, at least one-third of them had been re-settled elsewhere, deported or annihilated. The establishment of modern Turkey was possible as a result of these policies.
The third context interprets the Armenian genocide as part of the history of the collapse of the four large empires of Europe. By this process, which started in the middle of the 19th century and which came to a head in 1918, the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman Empires collapsed. The struggles for nation statehood which arose within each of these empires, fed by the French Revolution and its calls for equality and freedom, played an important role in this collapse. Forcibly attempting to suppress the awakening nationalist movements within their own territories nevertheless did not stop them from fanning the flames of similar movements that were occurring in rival empires, in order to promote their own expansionist visions. The nationalist awakening movements in each country turned into the direct subject of power struggles between different empires.
Among these Empires, the Ottomans ended up being the most unlucky and vulnerable. These large-scale power struggles between the empires devastated the equilibrium of the Empire. The Ottomans who were called the sick man of Europe in 1854 by the then Russian Czar, were exposed and defenseless to foreign meddling due to their weaknesses and were quite obviously negatively impacted by them. Even though Great Britain and Russia had competing interests, when it came to meddling during the entire 19th century, they both vied for a top position. The most visible reason behind the meddling was to ameliorate the conditions of Ottoman Christians. The most common expression that was used during the frequent meetings was “to give security and content to the Christians by obtaining for them a fair share in the Administration.” It was because of the Islamic institutional makeup of the state as well as the effect of Islamic culture whereby Muslims did not see Christians as equal to themselves, that Ottomans could not formulate a way to bring Christians into an equal status with Muslims.
The actual framework which drove and determined the intervention by outside powers was less about humanitarian concerns and more about calculations based upon realpolitik by the Great Powers, especially Great Britain and Russia. The Great Powers viewed the problems that the Ottoman state had with its Christians citizens as part of European security. If the Ottomans did not find a resolution to their internal problems, it could turn into an internal conflict within Europe in short order. Security concerns in Europe were one of the biggest justifications for intervention. Actually a final solution to the problem, where the territories over which there was Ottoman state sovereignty would be divided up, should have been reachable by consensus between the Great Powers. The fact that this consensus would be delayed and never reached gave the Ottomans the opportunity to exist longer.
It’s possible to trace the start of foreign interventions, for the purpose of bettering the condition of Christians within the Empire, to the insurrection of Serbs during 1804-1814. However, the Greek War for Independence in 1821-29, in particular and the intervention of the Great Powers gave rise to a new concept that is a topic of frequent discussion today: humanitarian intervention. One could say that Humanitarian Intervention, which vacillated between the imperialistic self interest of the Great Powers and the moral responsibility for helping improve the conditions of Christians living within Ottoman territories, ended up paving the way to the Armenian Genocide.
It would help to recap. The meddling of the Great Powers with the internal affairs of the Ottoman state under the rubric of Humanitarian Intervention played a very important role in the decisions leading to genocide. We can say that genocide ended up being the negative side impact of this intervention because the Ottomans perceived these interventions as a threat against the existence of their state. This threat phenomenon did not occur suddenly; it developed slowly over the course of the 19th century.
The mindset of the Ottoman-Turkish ruling elite was formulated as a result of accumulated knowledge, which took shape from the “humanitarian intervention” of the Great Powers. This “accumulated knowledge” was the product of political developments that had a common pattern and that were observable throughout the 19th century. Christian communities within the Ottoman territories (Serbian, Greek, Romanian and Bulgarian) engaged in demands for certain reforms to improve their social and political status. These demands for reform by Christians, which would make them both equal to Muslims and possibly allow them to become part of the administration, at least at the local level, were met with firm opposition by the central government; in many instances it led to harsh acts of suppression and massacres. These massacres meanwhile, lead to intervention by the Great Powers. Despite defining these interventions as “an obvious assault on their sovereignty rights”, because of the weakness of the Ottomans, they could not oppose them and ended up making promises of reform to Christians. As a rule however, none of the promises of reform were ever actually realized.
In reliance upon support from the Great Powers, Christians then engaged in new and even more progressive reform demands. These would lead to yet more massacres and more intervention. In many instances, this process lead the Great Powers, both singly and in concert, to declare war against the Ottomans in support of Christian societies ultimately leading to the Christian society in question being severed from the Ottomans and establishing their own independent state.
This process, which is interpreted by Christian society to be one of escape from cruelty and gain of freedom and independence, represented intolerable loss of territory for the Ottomans. This process which started with the rebellion of Serbs in 1804 and lasted through the Bulgarian insurrection of 1875, created a four-pronged pattern of “reform, massacre, intervention, secession”. The direct result of this pattern was that Ottomans began to view demands by Christians for reform as a serious threat against their own existence and security. The promise of Armenian reform in the Treaty of Berlin from 1878 was given in light of the accumulated knowledge that this pattern had created. The wishes for reform by Ottoman Christians became caught between the ‘screws’ of European internal security and Ottoman perception of being under threat. According the words of an historian known for his studies of the Ottoman security apparatus, the aftermath of the Treaty of Berlin was a muddying of the division between internal and external politics when it came to Ottoman security problems.
These words from a statement in the 1890s sent by Salisbury, the Prime Minister of Great Britain, to the ambassador in Istanbul about the reforms that were about to be introduced by the Ottomans, are enough to illustrate how meaningless the boundaries that I had mentioned, had become: “I trust that the Powers will, in the first instance, come to a definite understanding, that their unanimous decision in these matters is to be final, and will be executed up to the measure of such force as the Powers have at their command.”
My central argument is this: both Abdul Hamid and the Union and Progress Party which overthrew him, actually approached the Armenian problem through a threat-security perception that was constructed upon a four legged “stool” of “reform, massacre, intervention and secession” which had developed through accumulated knowledge. This is why when the Great Powers presented an ultimatum to Abdul Hamid in 1895 regarding Armenian reforms he perceived it to be a huge threat against state security and responded with massacres against Armenians. The famous words attributed to him, “under no circumstances would he yield to… pressure, and that he would rather die than introduce far-reaching reforms in Armenia. The position of the Union and Progress party which came to power in 1908 was no different.
The requests by Armenians for reforms, especially just after the defeat of the Balkan War of 1912 in which so much territory was lost and the Armenian reform meetings by the Great Powers which started in the summer of 1913 were perceived by the Unionists as the appearance of a new threat to the country’s security. Moreover, the reform negotiations of 1913 took the 1895 Reform Package as their basis. The imminent result was that Armenians were viewed by the Union and Progress Party as the main source and responsibility for a new fatal threat towards the Empire.
When the reform negotiations of 1913 concluded with the signing of a reform agreement in February 1914, the problem for the Unionists had turned into finding a way to remove this threat completely and ensuring security for the Empire. In the atmosphere of the First World War, instead of pursuing temporary measures, as had been done the past, a permanent solution was sought for the Armenian Reform Question and the problems around security that it had created. What the Unionists were searching for “wasn’t just temporary security….it was, as the Nazi elites had called permanent security.” Genocide, quite obviously, represents a marked departure from consensus building and compromise through political means between differing groups. It is a solution for security that seeks permanency through the complete destruction of the perceived threat.
In summary, the Armenian Genocide came about as the product of the accumulated knowledge of the “four legged stool’ of “reform, massacres, intervention and secession” or stated in another way as a result of the “memory of a century of trauma”. It was as if the Armenians were the remaining representatives of the entire 19th century’s worth of “unfaithful” Christians and so therefore, they needed to be annihilated, no less, as a ‘precaution’, in order to prevent the possibility of repeating the previous traumatic experiences.
The official communique written by Talat Pasha, Minister of the Interior during the years of the Genocide, to the office of the Prime Minister on May 26, 1915, carries historical importance for this reason and in some ways represents a summary of what I am arguing here. In the statement Talat describes the reason the Armenians were being deported and explains that it is directly related to the “Armenian Reform Question” which opened the way for intervention by the Great Powers. The purpose was to prevent the intervention of the Great Powers which would inevitably result in the partition of Ottoman territory.
Talat states: [A]s the question of reform, which is a completely internal matter of the Ottoman State, has now become an international question, as a result of the intervention of foreign countries, and with some of the Ottoman provinces now passing under foreign influence, it is demanded that certain concessions [be granted] and that a special administrative organization be created. Nevertheless, since it has been seen through bitter experience that reforms and organizations that are created under foreign influence and pressure have led to the dividing and partition of the Ottoman homeland.”
Talat relates another revelation, just before the start of the war, “deliberations were under way as to how to prepare and implement the means for eliminating this trouble [gaile – meaning the Armenian problem], which represents an important section in the list of vital questions of the Ottoman state, in a manner that is both comprehensive and absolute”; According to Talat, since the war had broken out, they had had to make do with certain provisional measures but now the time had come to give the problem “an orderly manner of arrangement in accordance with appropriate procedure and principles”.
As can be seen, the decisions driving the Armenian Genocide were not directly related to the exigencies of the First World War. Rather they were directly the result of seeking a solution to the Armenian Reform Question, which was considered a huge thorn in the side of the Ottomans that had gone on for the better part of the 19th century up to that point. The aim was to prevent the intervention of the Great Powers and the perceived inevitable secession of yet more territory from the Empire.
For this reason what I am saying is that the only way to understand the Armenian Reform Question and the Armenian genocide is if we examine it as a part of European history, in particular as a part of the policies behind humanitarian intervention by the Great Powers.
I will try to explain my main ideas based on a report penned by German Ambassador to Istanbul Marschal von Bieberstein dated June 3, 1909.
The report starts with the words “during the past few days [so June 1909) a topic which had not awakened much interest in either the press or the public was being debated in the Grand National Assembly, however I later learned it was of the utmost political importance” and he presents very detailed information about the subject. The Assembly debate that Bieberstein was talking about was about a reform bill on the measures that needed to be taken in the 6 provinces where the Armenian population was greatest.
According to the bill, councils were going to be sent to these provinces, comprised in half, of state employees and the half consisting of parliamentarians. These councils were going to study the administrative issues and the relations between different ethnic and religious groups in these provinces. These commissions were going to possess certain authorities such as the ability to remove individuals, like the Governor or other staff, from their positions, appoint others and monitor court decisions. At the conclusion of their reviews, they were going to present suggestions of legal proposals necessary in furtherance of reform.
According to Bieberstein, the proposal about the councils to be sent to 6 Provinces was presented to the Assembly by the Kamil Pasha government on February 13, 1909. As is known, between this date and the month of June, when it was formally rejected, Kamil Pasha resigned, a military insurrection occurred in Istanbul on April 13 and a massacre in Adana, between April 13 – 26, 1909, resulted in around 20,000 Armenians being killed. During the debates in the Assembly in June, a new government was in place and the new Interior Minister Ferid Pasha declared to Parliament that the reform bill was being withdrawn.
Bieberstein reports that he had a very intimate (vertraulich) meeting over the topic with the Minister of the Interior Ferid Pasha. Ferid Pasha, who called the reform proposal as pro-Armenian, inform Bieberstein that according to this plan prepared by previous government the Armenian parliamentarians were targeted to be chosen for the commissions and selecting and sending commissions like this was as good as starting Muslim Armenian conflicts in the region. And this was the reason why the new government withdraw it from the parliament. According to Pasha the law proposal was prepared by the Grand Vizier of that era, Kamil Pasha, with Sir Gerald Lowther, the Ambassador to Istanbul from Great Britain and that Kamil Pasha had given a formal promise to Lowther that he was going to bring the bill to the Assembly and do whatever it takes to ensure its passage.
In addition to all of this detailed information, Bieberstein informs us that the British were behind the military insurrection in Istanbul on April 13st. According to him, both Kamil Pasha and Lowther were working together against the Unionists in order to bring back the Abdul Hamid regime. Even though the argument that the British had a hand in the military insurrection of April 13st is very speculative what Biberstein has to say about the reform bill is very important: “here the British are going to [ruin] the internal peace of Turkey and along with this, we catch them in the midst of committing an act that is meant to thrust the new system into danger [with new system he was referring to the revolution of 1908 – Taner Akçam]. The entire world knows that the devastating Armenian massacres that occurred in 1895 and 1896 followed immediately after and were directly related to the reforms proposed by the British for the Armenians.”
What is clear is that Bieberstein believes there is a causal (kasıl) connection between the pressure that Great Britain exerted for an Armenian reform bill on Abdul Hamid during the 1890s and the massacres of 1894-96. He then moves from this connection and comments on the reform bill before the Assembly in 1909 and makes the claim that this reform bill, which was drafted by British Ambassador Lowther, would lead to massacre.
Bieberstein’s report is extremely important from several aspects. For the first time it shines a light on an Armenian Reform initiative in 1909 that hadn’t drawn any attention in the Armenian genocide research and in fact was not known at all. We don’t know yet whether there is any connection between the Armenian Reform proposal and April 31st uprising in Istanbul or the Adana massacres. Based on what we know, we can even argue that there could be no causal connection; however the information that he provides on the Reform plans can completes a missing link between the Abdul Hamid period of massacres and the Genocide. It can also give us the chance to look into the Adana massacres from a different perspective and to understand it as product of the revolution of 1908 and the attempt of the Young Turks to reform the entire system. Adana might be an example of local resistance of the Ottoman system against the reforms.
We possess enough information to make the direct connection between the massacres of 1895-96 and the Armenian Reform Plans of the Great Powers in 1895. The Abdul Hamid massacres began almost immediately after the reforms were formally declared, unwillingly and under duress by Abdul Hamid as a result of British insistence. It was Abdul Hamid’s response to the intervention of Great Powers for reforms.
We know also that a similar situation occurred in 1914. In some way one could consider the Armenian genocide of 1915-18 to be a response to the Armenian Reform Agreement of February 1914. More importantly, the 1895 Reform Packet was taken as the basis for reform negotiations during 1913-14. The pressure by the Great Powers in 1913-4 created exactly the same results as 1895-6 but this time due to conditions created by the war, it was bloodier and more definitive. The Ottomans were absolutely convinced that if the forced Reform initiatives of 1914 were realized, they would conclude with the loss of territory and in an environment where they could lose the war, in order to not confront a situation like this they were ready to destroy the Armenians, in an absolute way.
 Sir P. Currie to the Earl of Kimberley, Constantinople, April 10, 1895, Great Britain, Foreign Office. Blue Book: Turkey. 1896, No. 1 (Correspondence Respecting the Introduction of Reforms in the Armenian provinces of Asiatic Turkey), London: Harrison and Sons, 1896, 19.
 Nadir Özbek, “Osmanlı Imparatorluğu’nda Iç Güvenlik, Siyaset ve Devlet, 1876-1909”, [Internal Security, Politics and State in the Ottoman Empire, 1878-1909] Türklük Araştırmaları Dergisi 16 (Fall 2004): 94.
 Great Britain, Foreign Office, Blue Book: Turkey. 1897, No. 2, Correspondence respecting the introduction of reforms in the administration of the Ottoman Empire, London: Harrison and Sons, 1897, 17.
 Vahakn Dadrian, The History of the Armenian Genocide. Ethnic Conflict from the Balkans to Anatolia to the Caucasus, (Providence/Oxford: Berghahn Books, 1995), 163.
 Dirk Moses’ “Genocide Versus Security: A False Opposition”, Margaret Lavinia Anderson, Michael Reynolds, Hans-Lukas Kiser, Peter Balakian, A. Dirk Moses & Taner Akçam (2013) Taner Akçam, The Young Turks’ Crime against Humanity: The Armenian Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing in the Ottoman Empire (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012), Review Forum, Journal of Genocide Research, 15:4 (2013): 493.
 Ati, 24 February 1920.
 Ibid. For a more detailed debate over the document see Taner Akçam, Young Turks’ Crime Against Humanity, Armenian Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing in the Ottoman Empire (Princeton & Oxford: Princeton Publishing House, 2012), 128-135.