The debate over the legal definition of genocide regarding the tragic fate that befell the Armenians is one of the most controversial and heated debates within the field of Ottoman studies. On the one hand, you have scholars such as Justin McCarthy, Bernard Lewis, Stanford Shaw, Salahi Ramsdan Sonyel, Gunter Lewey, and Michael Gunter arguing that the Armenians did not suffer from genocide. According to Justin McCarthy:

Most of what has been called the history of the Caucasus and Eastern Anatolia in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has in fact been propaganda from the ethnic groups that vied for control of the region. While more than willing to exaggerate the losses of their own groups, the authors of such histories seem to have been unaware that enemy groups suffered losses as well. This has led to a tendency to label battles as massacres and wars as genocide. To do otherwise would be to admit that both sides were shooting and both sides died (23).

The pro-Turkish scholars also adhere to the provocation thesis, which argues that Armenian terrorists started a revolutionary movement in order to provoke reprisals from their Muslim neighbors, so that they could have their own autonomous region. According to Walter Laqueur:
Since they could not possibly hope to overthrow the government, their strategy had to be based on provocation. They assumed, in all probability, that their attacks on the Turks would provoke savage retaliation, and as a result the Armenian population would be radicalized; more decisive yet, the Western powers, appalled by the massacres, would intervene on their behalf as they did for the Bulgarians two decades earlier (Gunter 12).
The pro-Turkish scholars also believe that the conflict between Turks and Armenians started with the Treaty of Berlin, where foreign powers were intervening in domestic Ottoman affairs on behalf of the Armenians. As Gunter Lewey stated:

Before the Treaty of Berlin the Sultan had no special enmity to the Armenians, nor had the Armenian nation any political aspirations. It was the stipulations then made for their protection that first marked them out for suspicion and hatred, and that first roused in them hopes of deliverance whose expression increased the hatred of their rulers (10).

In the eyes of the pro-Turkish scholars, this conflict between Turks and Armenians would end in the relocation of the Armenian population from most of Anatolia, so that the Armenians would not become a fifth column for the advancing Russian forces. However, pro-Armenian scholars such as Vahakn Dadrian, Peter Balakian, Richard Hovannissian, Leo Kuper, and Robert Melson tell a very different story from the pro-Turkish scholars. For these people, the tragic fate that befell the Armenians was genocide and to deny this would be like denying the Holocaust. They often draw parallels between the tragic fate that befell the Armenians and the Jewish Holocaust. As Richard Hovannissian wrote:

While the dissemination of the Armenian people and the destruction of millions of persons in Central and Eastern Europe during the Nazi regime a quarter of a century later each had particular and unique features, historians and sociologists who have pioneered the field of victimology have drawn some startling parallels (30).

For the pro-Armenian scholars, the root of the problem was that the Ottoman authorities neglected to pay attention to their demands for badly needed reforms. Dadrian quotes French Ambassador Paul Cambon as saying:

The inaction of the Porte served to vitiate the good will of the Armenians. The reforms have not been carried out. The exactions of the officials remained scandalous and justice was not improved……from one end of the Empire to the other, there is rampant corruption of officials, denial of justice, and insecurity of life……The Armenian Diaspora began denouncing the administrative misdeeds, and in the process managed to transform the condition of simple administrative ineptness into one of racial persecution (35).

The Armenian scholars adamantly reject the provocation thesis that is upheld by the pro-Turkish scholars, for in their eyes it ignores a number of factors, most prominent among them being the power gap between Turks and Armenians, as well as the lack of unity amongst the Armenian people at the time. As Robert Melson stated,

The truth of the matter is that the Armenians were not united under a single agency, even under a single political party, and they certainly did not have any army or a police force either to conquer the Turks or to defend themselves (Hovannissian 68).

And all of the pro-Armenian scholars reject any kind of justification for the deportation and massacres that the Armenians suffered from. To them, any such justification is highly offensive and a personal insult to the Armenian nation. In this paper, I hope to balance out the complexities of this issue and determine the truth of what really happened beneath the strong sentiments of these two battling historiographies. In my opinion, the truth lies somewhere in-between the Armenian and Turkish positions. However, I don’t believe that genocide is the most appropriate term to describe what happened, although I also believe that the negative impact felt by the Armenian nation was too strong for the whole situation to be described merely as a civil war. My views on this subject are most closely associated with the Jewish American historian, Gunter Lewey, author of Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey: A Disputed Genocide.

The Birth of the Armenian Question

There is truth in the Armenian argument that the conditions in the Ottoman Empire in the late 1800’s was any thing but desirable for the Armenian people. As Gunter Lewey noted, the relations between Kurds and Armenians in the Eastern provinces were deteriorating, due to the fact that the Armenian peasants could no longer afford to pay tribute to their Kurdish overlords, which resulted in “savage attacks upon the largely defenseless Armenian villagers that led to deaths, the abduction of girls and women, and the seizure of cattle” (Lewey 4). The Ottoman officials at the time did not or were unable to address the grievances of the Armenian peasants that resulted from this situation, which led to a general feeling of discontentment amongst the Armenian peasants (4).

Nevertheless, it is also true that the Ottoman Turks did not have a special hatred towards their Armenian minority before the Treaty of Berlin. As Lord James Bryce wrote:

If there had been no Treaty of Berlin and no Anglo-Turkish Convention, the Armenians would doubtless have continued to be oppressed, as they had been oppressed for centuries. But they would have been spared the storm of the fire, famine, and slaughter which descended upon them in 1895. Before the Treaty of Berlin the Sultan had no special enmity to the Armenians, nor did the Armenians have any political aspirations. It was the stipulations then made for their protection that first marked them out for suspicion and hatred, and that first roused in them hope of deliverance whose expression increased the hatred of their rulers. The Anglo-Turkish Convention taught them to look to England, and England’s interference embittered the Turks (Lewey 8).

Even the Armenian scholar Vahakn Dadrian agreed that the interference of the Europeans did nothing to help the Armenian nation. As Dadrian elegantly wrote:

The way they were structured, the international efforts of the European powers had the potential for aggravating the plight of the Armenians. By raising the consciousness and the hope of the subject nationalities of the Ottoman Empire, without concomitantly enhancing their power leverage, international actors afforded the rulers of that empire both the incentive and the excuse to inflict greater harm upon those nationalities through an increase of the level of their oppression. This is how the Armenian Question originated and crystallized itself in the last decades of the nineteenth century, fueling with greater force the engines of the Turko-Armenian conflict, in which that Question had found its most concrete expression. Encouraged by the promises of the Treaty of Berlin, the Armenians experienced a new sense of national consciousness, which in turn engendered rising expectations (34).

Thus, in this way, the Europeans actually made the plight of the Armenians worse instead of better. Due to the Treaty of Berlin, the Armenians began to expect improvements in their condition and became more nationalistic, which resulted in conflict with their Muslim neighbors. This sentiment would inevitably turn itself into “a struggle between two nations for the possession of a single homeland” (Lewis 350).

The Armenian Revolutionary Movement and the truth behind the Provocation Thesis

The Armenian nationalist intellectuals, disappointed by the lack of enforcement of the protective provisions of the Treaty of Berlin and encouraged by the successes of other Ottoman nationalities, such as the Greeks and Bulgarians, began to organize for armed rebellion against the Ottoman state (Lewey 11). As Michael Gunter noted:

That the Armenians were determined, now that self-government was about to be given to the Christian communities in Europe, to demand the same privileges for themselves in Asia. If the Congress refused to listen to the just demands of the Armenians, they were resolved to agitate until they could obtain what they required, and if they could not succeed without foreign aid, they would place themselves completely in the hands of Russia, and even prefer annexation to her to remaining under Turkish rule (10).

In 1887, a group of Armenian students in Geneva, Switzerland formed the Hunchakian Revolutionary Party, otherwise known as the Hunchaks (11-12). As Gunter Lewey illustrates:

The immediate objective was the resurrection of historic Armenia, which was to include the Armenians in Turkey, Russia, and Persia; the ultimate goal was a socialist government. Armenian independence was to be achieved by oral and written propaganda as well as by armed struggle of guerrilla fighters. Showing the impact of the Russian Narodnaya Volya revolutionaries, committed to direct action, the Hunchaks embraced political terror as a means of eliminating opponents, spies, and informers. Article 6 of the program of the Hunchaks party stated, ‘The time for the general revolution will be when a foreign power attacks Turkey externally. The party shall revolt internally.’” (11-12).

A few years later, in 1892, the rivals of the Hunchaks, the Dashnaks, would be formed. Their platform read, “It is the aim of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation to bring about by rebellion the political and economic emancipation of Turkish Armenia” (Lewey 12). The Dashnaks sought “a popular democratic government” which was to be elected with “free elections, freedom of speech and assembly, distribution of land to those who were landless, compulsory education, and other social reforms” (12). In order to achieve this, the goals of the Dashnaks were:
To arm the people,” “wage an incessant fight against the Turkish Government” and “wreck and loot government institutions.” They were “to use the weapon of the terror of corrupt government officials, spies, traitors, grafters, and all sorts of oppressors” (Lewey 12).

The Armenian scholar Louise Nalbandian has rightly concluded that “there was no radical difference between the Dashnak Program of 1892 and the aims and activities of the Hunchaks” (12-13). As Gunter Lewey noted, “Both organizations were committed to armed struggle to achieve their goals and accepted the use of terror” (12-13).

It is important to note, however, that the early activities of the Armenian revolutionaries were not supported by the majority of the Armenian people at the time. Even the Turkish historian, Salahi Sonyel, recognizes this. According to Sonyel:

At first the actions of these organizations were of no great importance, for the Armenians of the cities, who were mostly steady-going merchants or artisans, had no taste for insurrection, and were sensible enough to perceive that it had no chance of success, while the peasantry in Eastern Anatolia, although discontented, and complaining bitterly of local Muslim tribes, were unorganized, with few political ideas, and unprepared to join in insurrectionary movements. Nevertheless, a minority of enthusiasts chose the path of insurrection and treachery, even if success was so obviously impossible (111).

And despite the increased activities of the Armenian revolutionaries at this time, it is important to note that the Ottoman regime was in no danger of collapsing (Lewey 15). Nevertheless, the very fact that these organizations existed prove the provocation thesis to be true. Although not on a level playing field with the Turks, the Armenians nevertheless sought the interference of the Great Powers on their behalf and the seeking out of these powers has always been a fundamental part of the strategic thinking of the Armenian revolutionary organizations. “The provocative intentions of at least some of the Armenian revolutionaries to bring about such an intervention are well-documented and are mentioned by many contemporary observers of the events in question” (Lewey 17). As Michael Gunter noted, ““The Hunchaks and the Dashnaks […] began deliberately using terror against the Turks in order to incite Turkish reprisals and massacres, which would then encourage broad Armenian support for revolution and finally great power intervention" (11).

The Sassun Massacre

In the summer of 1894, the Armenian villagers of the Sassun province declared that they were no longer going to pay tribute to their Kurdish chieftains, due to the provocation of a group of Armenian rebels led by Hampartsoum Boyadjian. “Good relations had existed between the Muslims and the Armenians in the district of Talori until the arrival there of Hampartsoum Boyadjian in the spring of 1894” (Sonyel 170). However, Boyadjian and his gang were going to ruin all of that. According to Salahi Sonyel:

Accompanied by an armed band and an old comrade named Damadian, he traversed the villages of the district in order, ostensibly to practice medicine, and persuaded the Armenians to free themselves from the evil custom of hafir and hala, which kept them in subjugation to the Muslims. They had guns and ammunition, and roamed in the mountains. [….] They had been accused of many crimes: thefts, barbarous murders, rape, and others. These facts […] could not fail [….] to arouse among the Muslims some agitation which caused them to attack the Armenians (170).

After Boyadjian and his gang got the Armenian peasants to rebel against the Kurdish chieftons, the Kurds appealed to the Ottoman authorities for help. “After prolonged and sharp fighting and having been promised amnesty if they laid down their arms, the Armenians surrendered. Yet large numbers of villagers, without distinction of age or sex, were massacred” (Lewey 16). On top of that, in the village of Semal, the Turkish authorities seized a priest after the Armenians surrendered, whom they then proceeded to gauge out his eyes and bayonet him to death (Balakian 55). The devastation that the Armenians of Sassun suffered from is described very vividly by Dadrian:

The Sassoun massacre was the first instance of organized mass murder of Armenians in modern Ottoman history that was carried out in peace and had no connection with any foreign war. It lasted 24 days. The details are provided by British Vice Consul Cecil M. Hallward, who was able to conduct an investigation of these atrocities. According to his report, “a large majority of the population of some twenty-five villages perished, and some of the villages were unusually large for this country.” The contingent of soldiers from Bitlis alone “took eighty tins of petroleum….which was utilized for burning the houses, together with the inhabitants inside them.” At one particular village, Geliguzan, a number of young men were bound hand and foot, laid in a row, had brushwood piled on them, and were burnt alive.” […..] In another place, “some sixty young women and girls were driven into a church, where the soldiers were ordered to do as they liked with them and afterwards kill them, which order was carried out.” He adds in that report, “the details given above were principally collected from soldiers who took part in the massacre, and I have heard the main facts substantiated from various different quarters, among others by a Turkish zaptieh (military police), who was there and saw the whole affair” (117).

Even Salahi Sonyel acknowledges that the Armenians were massacred by the Ottoman Turks in the Sassun province.

The villages of Kavar, Senik, Semal, and Geliguzan, and the entire district of Talori, Agpi, Hetink, Spagank, with their descendents, were laid waste, and almost all the inhabitants, left without homes or means, were forced to scatter among the Armenian villages of the plain. The absolute ruin of a district could never be regarded as a measure proportionate to the punishment of even a revolt (170).

However, Salahi Sonyel then proceeds to state that “the reason why they meted out such a severe punishment to the Sassun Armenians [….] was that, when the insurgent Armenians had fled to the mountains, they had ravaged all the Muslim villages in the most cruel way, knowing that the remaining Armenian peasants would pay for their misdeeds, and thus cause the intervention of the Great Powers” (159). Indeed, the Armenians were not the only ones to suffer from this incident. For example, “the Muslims were forced to kiss the Cross and to denounce their religion, under pain of having their ears and noses cut off, and their eyes gauged; while Muslim girls were subjected to all kinds of indignities before they were violently put to death” (Sonyel 159).

Thus, the Armenian insurgents’ had been seeking to provoke reprisals in an attempt to bring about international intervention. In Sassun, they succeeded in provoking such reprisals, resulting in many innocent Armenians being massacred. But unfortunately for the Armenians, they would not get the international intervention that they had hoped for. To date, pro-Armenian authors such as Dadrian don’t acknowledge that the Armenians of Sassun were in rebellion against the Ottoman Turkish authorities. Dadrian quotes British Vice Consul Hallward as stating,

There was no insurrection, as was reported in Constantinople; the villagers simply took up arms to defend themselves against the Kurds. The statement made to me by an official here of their having killed soldiers and zaptiehs, I found after careful inquiry, to be false. Before arriving in Moush, I naturally supposed that something of the sort must have occurred to call for such a display of military force, but neither Mutessarif nor the Military Commander with whom I spoke on the subject hinted at any thing of the sort, nor did I learn elsewhere that the Armenians had been guilty of any act of rebellion (Dadrian 118).

However, Sonyel reports that a notebook consisting of poems in Armenian and a biography of Damadian was found that recorded the actions that he took, which proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Hampartsoum Boyadjian “had come into the country with a concealed political end in view, and with the intention of provoking encounters between the Armenians and the Muslims” (Sonyel 171). On top of that, Hallward did not travel to the region in question and relied mostly on “second and third hand sources, based mostly on rumors and hearsay” (161). Most importantly, although he eloquently described Armenian suffering, “he did not mention any thing about what the Armenians had done to the Muslims,” thus making Hallward a very biased source (161). Besides, it seems kind of suspect to claim that the villagers “took up arms to defend themselves” but then to deny that any sort of rebellion took place. If Armenian people took up arms to defend themselves, then that obviously means that the Armenians were rebelling. On top of that, Peter Balakian stated in his book, “As spring broke in the Sassun highlands in 1894, the Armenians were ready to fight for justice, this time with whatever force it might take” (Balakian 55). How could the Armenians be ready to fight for justice and then declare that no rebellion occurred? Although the rebellion might not have been as threatening as the Ottoman Turks made it out to be, might have been totally justified from the Armenian perspective, and what happened afterwards was definitely not in proportion to what the Armenians did, to say no rebellion occurred seems a bit absurd to me, given the fact that even Armenians have admitted that they did rise up in arms. Nevertheless, there can never be any excuse for massacring innocent people and there is no doubt that the Ottoman Turkish authorities did a terrible job in differentiating between the guilty and the innocent. As Peter Balakian noted:

No distinctions were made between persons or villages as to whether or not they were loyal and had paid their taxes or not. The orders were to make a clean sweep. A priest and some leading men from one village went out to meet an officer, taking in their hands their tax receipts, declaring their loyalty and begging for mercy; but the village was surrounded, and all human beings put to the bayonet (56).

No excuses should ever be made for massacres. No excuses should ever be made for killing innocent people. But when evaluating controversial historical events such as this, it is very important to look at the full picture.

The Sublime Porte Rebellion

On September 30, 1895, the Armenians gathered in Istanbul in order to protest the Sassun Massacre and to call upon the government to make a series of reforms. “They demanded from the Sultan and from Europe legal rights, guaranteeing the safety of their persons and property, freedom of conscious, of the press, of public meeting, and equality before the law” (Sonyel 181). They also demanded that the entire police force be re-organized, the tax system be reformed, the abolition of the Muslim clan system, the disbanding of the Hamidiye irregular cavalry, that taxes be spent for the good of the local populations, and a general amnesty for all Armenians in detention or in exile (181). On top of that, they wanted the administrative divisions of the six Eastern Provinces to be re-organized into “homogenous ethnographical divisions” and for a European governor-general to administer these provinces under the name of the Sultan (181). “The petition was [….] an extraordinary statement about civil rights” (Balakian 58). Balakian stated that the Armenians protested, “The systematic persecution to which our people have been subjected, especially during the last few years” (58). The petition also stated that the Armenians have been waiting patiently for the reform provisions promised in the Treaty of Berlin to be enforced. “It was the first time in Ottoman history that a non-Muslim, subject minority had dared to confront the central authorities in the very capital of the empire” (58).

However, these demonstrators, although their cause may have been just, were any thing but peaceful. “Many of the approximately four thousand demonstrators were armed with pistols and knives” (Lewey 22). Given this fact, “it is hard to escape the conclusion that they wanted blood to flow” (Sonyel 180). And carnage is precisely what happened, too. According to Sonyel:

The Major first urged them to halt, and advised them to disperse. When they refused and insisted on proceeding, he ordered the seizure of their leader. When the situation got worse, he ordered his men to use the butt ends of their rifles to push the crowd back. At the same time two mounted gendarmes seized the leader of the procession, who carried the memorial to be presented to the Porte, but an Armenian student drew out a hidden revolver and blew Server’s brains out. Thereupon the police let hell loose on the demonstrators (182).

“An outbreak of mob action all over the city ensued, in which Armenians were hunted down and hundreds brutally killed” (Lewey 22). According to Balakian, “a massacre began in the clear daylight on the streets of the capital. Foreigners and European diplomats looked on in horror” (58). Sonyel writes:

The Armenian provocation inflamed the Muslim masses of the capital, then thronged by thousands of homeless and jobless refugees from Bosnia and Bulgaria, passing through the city on their way to Anatolia. Rumors about the death of an Ottoman policeman in trying to control the demonstration caused a general riot, leading to inter-communal massacre and counter-massacre which helped the cause of the Armenian revolutionaries (182-3).
The following days, the violence continued to haunt the city of Istanbul. Only pressure from the great powers got the Sultan to agree to some of the reforms, which brought an end to the Sublime Porte Rebellion.

The Zeytun Rebellion

Despite promises to reform the system, nothing really changed after the Sublime Porte Rebellion. Conditions for the Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire continued to deteriorate. According to Dadrian, Turkish soldiers serving in Armenian areas would “buy goods but refuse to pay for them; they would molest young people sexually, and swear at the mountaineers, with the government itself resorting to tax-related acts of confiscation” (127). Then, “the government deposed the governor of […] Zeytun and replaced him with a certain Avni Bey, reportedly a sworn enemy of the Armenians” (Dadrian 128). The Armenians were obviously frustrated by all of this and on top of that, received false assurances that if they rebelled, they would receive support from foreign powers (Lewey 24). “Finally, military units began to deploy nightly and proceeded to burn down selected Armenian villages in the area. […] The military commander informed the Sultan by wire that the Zeitounlis were in rebellion and were mercilessly massacring Muslims” (Dadrian 128).

The Zeytun Rebellion was a nightmare for the Ottoman government. “The Armenian leader of the rebellion claimed that 125 Armenians and 20,000 Muslims had been killed, surely an exaggeration, but the Ottomans undoubtedly had a difficult time in putting down the rebellion” (McCarthy 120). According to Gunter Lewey, the Armenian rebels “overwhelmed the local garrison and for several weeks successfully defended their stronghold against a large Turkish force that soon arrived on the scene and laid siege to the town” ((Lewey 24). During the Armenian occupation of Zeytun, the Armenians did massacre Turkish soldiers held in their captivity. According to Salahi Sonyel:

While the men of Zeytun were away in the hills, resisting the advance of the Turkish security forces, the Armenian refugees from Fernuz, which fell to the Turks on December 14, began to pour into the town and roused the angry passions of the people by the story of their sufferings. Toward sunset, an excited Armenian mob, among whom were many women, armed themselves with hatchets, butchers knives and pickaxes, and with loud yells and imprecations forced their way to the room where young Turkish soldiers, who had been captured earlier, were confined. Padre Emanual, a Catholic priest, who had witnessed the tragedy from the roof of his house, told the British Consul Barnham that it took two hours hard work to dispose of them, and that their shrieks were appalling (195).

Around 350 Turkish prisoners of war were massacred by the Armenian rebels in Zeytun (Sonyel 196). On top of that, “the consuls […] established that 11 Muslim villages, and an equal number of Armenian villages, were destroyed” (Sonyel 197). In the end, “European representatives forced the Ottomans to raise the siege, grant amnesty to the rebels, and allow five leaders of the rebellion to immigrate” (McCarthy 120).

The Van Rebellion

According to Dadrian, Van was “a landmark of Armenian culture and civilization, steeped in the traditions of the ancient Armenian church” (131). It was a beautiful city, which included “Aikesdan (Garden City), where the bulk of Van’s Armenian population lived, and where villas and other homes stood, enveloped by flower and vegetable gardens and orchards” (Dadrian 135). According to Sonyel:

The local situation in Van favored the Armenian rebels. The gardens area of the town consisted of a maze of narrow streets in which every house had communication through its gardens with the next one. In this rabbit warren the revolutionary leaders lived openly, believing that they could easily escape if pursued. They were constantly seen by the soldiers and the police, occasionally wearing a kind of uniform, and always armed and covered with bandoliers (206).

Van also was situated in a strategic location, on the border between the Ottoman Empire and Russia. According to Balakian, “Van drew political energy from the reform movements in Russian Armenia, which is why the Turks regarded the ancient Armenian city and the surrounding province with suspicion. And, because it was on the border between competing empires, it was a region that also felt the tug of political tensions between the sultan and the tzar” (60).

Van escaped many of the tensions that had existed between Armenians and their Muslim neighbors up until now. However, in 1896, Armenian Revolutionary activity was going to change all of this. According to Sonyel,
For some time past tension between Muslims and Christians in the Province of Van had been increasing, mainly because of the many outrages committed by the Armenian revolutionaries. It was feared that serious disturbances would break out there during the spring. [….] The Armenian secret societies within the country, particularly the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutiun), were very active in Van. On February 18, 1896, the Dashnaktsutiun issued a provocative manifesto attacking the Ottoman reforms as sham, and accusing the government of massacring the people (206).

The Van Rebellion began on the night of June 14, 1896, when around midnight “, a patrol of regular infantry was attacked, and the officer and one soldier badly wounded” (Sonyel 206). The Muslim population, believing that the assailants were Armenian, was utterly outraged by this incident and the following day, there was an outbreak of violence between Armenians and their Muslim neighbors. According to Sonyel,

Lord Salisbury was informed about the Van disturbances by Anthopoulo Pasha, the Ottoman ambassador, who saw him on June 19. The ambassador explained that the Province of Van, which had not experienced any disturbances during the recent disorders, had become the arena of the Armenian agitators who tried to foment disorders in the town, and had caused the wounding or death of [..] people on both sides. The authorities at once took strict steps to restore order, to prevent a renewal of the disorders and to calm public feeling, but the Armenians, reinforced by their co-religionist from neighboring villages, continued their attacks on the Muslims, killing many of them (207).

The Muslims felt heavily provoked by the Armenian rebels. As a result of this Armenian provocation, on the third day of the uprising, the Armenians of Van would suffer from a massacre. According to Dadrian, “the Armenians of four exposed quarters with mixed populations were the first victims; without distinction of age or gender, men, women, and children were killed with axes, sticks, hammers, and daggers, as some others were burned alive. As a result, the rest of the Armenian population tried to escape to the Armenian quarters” (136). The Armenians responded to this massacre with a massive uprising that would last five more days until a massive Ottoman bombardment would force the Armenians to surrender in exchange for amnesty and safe passage out of the country.

It is important to note that the leaders of the Van Rebellion were not from the Ottoman Empire. This is a fact that both Dadrian and Sonyel agree on. According to Dadrian, “Perhaps the greatest handicap was the alien origin of the Hunchak and Dashnak parties, who were rather imported leaders. Some of them were products of European education, others of Russian culture. As such, they lacked familiarity with regional and local conditions” (133). It was reported by Major Williams, British-Vice Counsel that the 15 leaders of the Van Rebellion were all naturalized subjects of Russia and America, armed with Russian weapons (Sonyel 207). According to Major Williams, “Those people were no patriots trying to defend their wives and children, but pure and simple rebels. I have ample proof that they murdered in cold blood unarmed and inoffensive Muslims, who were unfortunate enough to come near their positions” (Sonyel 207). It is for good reason that the Sultan put the blame for the rebellion on outside forces. Thanks to these outside forces encouraging the rebellion of the Armenians, Williams claims that around 500 Armenians and 300 Turks died in Van alone, while if you include the villages surrounding Van, 418 Muslims and 1,715 Armenians were killed (Sonyel 208).

But even after the rebellion was over, in revenge for the massacre of the 350 captive Turkish soldiers in Zeytun, the Armenian rebels, who were supposed to be given amnesty and leave the country via Iran, were all massacred. According to Dadrian, only around 35 of the Armenians who were supposed to be granted amnesty and safe passage out of the country actually survived (137).

The Seizure of the Ottoman Bank by Armenian terrorists

With the reform proposals effectively brought to a halt, the Dashnaks grew frustrated and decided to do something dramatic in order to capture the attention of the Europeans. “After weeks of preparations, they raided and captured, on August 26, 1896, the Ottoman bank, a bastion of European finance where British, but especially French, investments predominated and accordingly the bank was managed and controlled by these interest groups” (Dadrian 138). The demands of the Dashnaks were spelled out in three different letters.

In the first letter they took the Turkish government to task for compelling Patriarch Mathias Ismirlian to resign, for suppressing the Mixed Council, and for having replaced it by certain civilians and priests in the pay of the Palace, who had been ordered to elect [….] Bartolomeos, the most unworthy Prelate of their church. The Armenian nation, they declared, protested against this violation of its constitutional and ancient rights which had hitherto been respected. They also criticized the Powers for having made themselves accomplices of the Porte. In the second letter they declared that they had incessantly protested to Europe against Turkish tyranny but their legitimate protests had been systematically ignored. Europe had also insolently imposed resignation upon the Armenians, and insulted them by refusing their rights. ‘We can no longer bear it. The time of diplomatic play has passed,’ they declared, and put forward a number of demands, including the nomination of a high commissioner for Armenia, of European origin and nationality, elected by the six Great Powers, with authority to appoint valis, mutasarrifs, and kaymakams, sanctioned by the Sultan, organization of a militia, gendarmerie and police, drawn from the native population, under the command of European officers; introduction of judicial reforms according to the European system; a general amnesty for the Armenians condemned on political charges; and appointment of a temporary commission[…] to watch over the execution of the reforms and others. They warned that they would sacrifice every thing to gain their ends, and would accept no responsibility for the consequences. In the third letter addressed to the French Charge D’Affaires they declared that they would not leave the bank for two days and demanded that peace should be secured through out the entire country by international intervention. [….] The demands put forward by the Central Committee of Istanbul of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation should be accepted; force should not be used against them; and the lives of all those who were in the bank, and of those who had taken part in the disturbances in the town, should be completely guaranteed. The furniture and money of the bank would remain untouched until the fulfillment of these demands; if they were not fulfilled, all business papers and money would be destroyed, and they with the employees, would meet their deaths beneath the ruins of the bank (Sonyel 211-212).

Innocent people died in this heinous terrorist attack that was committed as part of a greater Armenian political strategy to incite provocations and receive appraisals in order to achieve international intervention from the great powers. Even Dadrian admits this, when he states, ““The seizure of the bank was but the main part of the overall plan to create chaos and confusion in the Ottoman capital and provoke military intervention by the Powers” (142). The terrorist-like nature of this attack is described very well by Sonyel:

When some of them entered the great hall of the Ottoman bank on August 26, they blew out the brains of a guard who had asked them what their business was, and killed the gendarmes whose heads they cut off and threw onto the tramway line. Taking advantage of the tumult and panic caused by these crimes, they closed the doors of the bank and began their work of destruction by continually throwing bombs on the passer-bys in the streets, and by firing upon many innocent and peaceable citizens. Among their victims were four Turkish ladies who were driving along the street when they were blown to pieces by bombs” (214).

As could naturally be expected, such terrorism incited the Muslims to take revenge on the Armenian population, leading to mass killings all over Istanbul. According to Gunter Lewey:

At six o’clock the same evening, bands of Muslims, chiefly lower-class Kurds and Laz armed with iron bars and wooden clubs, appeared in the streets and began to kill all the Armenians they could find. [….] Few soldiers participated in the orgy of killing, but neither did they try to stop it. The mob was in control of the city until the evening of the next day. It is estimated that five thousand to six thousand Armenians lost their lives, most of them poor porters” (Lewey 24-25).

In the end, the Sultan would offer the Armenian terrorists a pardon and permission to leave the Ottoman Empire unmolested. According to Dadrian, the Armenians agreed to this agreement because 1) they were running out of ammunition and no longer had enough ammunition to blow up the bank. 2) Of the original 25 men that raided the bank, six had been wounded and four had died, including the principal leader of the operation. 3) The fear that should they proceed to destroy the bank with all of its European employees inside it, not only would the seek vengeance against the Armenian population of the provinces, but Europe might abandon the Armenians to their fate. 4) The persuasive negotiation skills of Russian Ambassador Maximof (140). Indeed, it is very important to note the words of Russian Ambassador Maximof to the Dashnaks:

I beg you; I go down on my knees, please hurry up and leave the premises. I obtained Sultan’s permission with great difficulty. Tomorrow he may change his mind. Think of the enormous responsibility falling on your shoulders, should new waves of massacre further decimate your people (Dadrian 141).

As a result of these four factors, the Armenian terrorists evacuated the bank premises and the 15 Armenian terrorists who were not wounded or killed boarded Sir Edgar’s yacht and left the Ottoman Empire (Sonyel 212). “These Armenian terrorists, who had just escaped, were the lucky ones. They had left behind them their fellow Armenians, including some of the accomplices, to face the wrath of the Turks” (Sonyel 215).

The Young Turks come to power
In February, 1902, the first congress of the Ottoman opposition convened in Paris, France. “Among the chief players were the Ottoman liberals, the Committee of Union and Progress or Ittihad ve Terraki, known as the Young Turks, and an Armenian delegation in which the Dashnaks played an important role” (Lewey 32). Both the CUP and the Dashnaks agreed that the current sultan needed to be deposed, but there was disagreement between the CUP and the Dashnaks over the issues of Armenian autonomy and foreign intervention. The CUP was divided into two separate camps. “The largest faction, led by Prince Mehmed Sabaheddin, was willing to grant the national minorities of the empire a great measure of autonomy and to accept the help of European powers in implementing the necessary reforms. A group around Ahmad Riza, however, denounced such intervention as an act of imperialism and opposed any form of regional self-rule” (32). Nevertheless, the conclusions of the congress demanded “the reestablishment of the constitution that had been suspended in 1878 and called upon the European powers to carry out the treaty obligations that they had assumed” (32).

By July 24, 1908, Abdul Hamid was forced to restore the constitution that he had suspended in 1878 due to a bloodless coup orchestrated by the Young Turks. “Turks and Armenians together celebrated the principles of liberty and equality that they had achieved in their joint struggle. There were scenes of public reconciliation; Young Turk leaders such as Mehmed Talaat, Ismail Enver, and Ahmad Djemal visited churches, and prayers were said for the future of the new order of national harmony” (Lewey 32-33). As a response to this new development, the Dashnaks announced that although they would maintain their organization, they would abandon their armed struggle and instead transform into a political organization (32-33).

However, soon after the CUP took power, Armenians were massacred in Adana and other parts of Cilicia in the wake of a conservative counter-coup in April 1909. According to the British author Charles Woods,

The events of 1909 were probably remotely caused by the talk of equality which roused the Muslims to a state of fury, by the extreme orators of both religions, by the somewhat foolish actions of a very small section of the Armenian community, and by the feebleness and negligence of the governmental officials in the localities in which massacres actually occurred (Lewey 34).

Nevertheless, unlike their predecessors, the Young Turks actually did punish the perpetrators of this crime committed against the Armenian people. “Money was appropriated for the relief of the victims on May 1 the chamber of deputies voted almost unanimously to set up a court-martial to try those guilty of the massacres. Eventually fifty Turks were condemned to death for murder and incitement to riot; twenty of those were actually executed------the first time that Muslims had been hanged for murdering Christians” (Lewey 34). After the countercoup, Abdul Hamid was forced to abdicate the thrown in favor of his brother, Mohammed V.

An important question to ask is how did this liberal political party known as the CUP, who advocated reform and equality for all Ottoman subjects, transform into an entity that would later on relocate almost the entire Armenian population from Anatolia, which would result in the deaths of countless Armenians? According to Dadrian, “The homogenous Ottoman society Talat envisioned as a precondition for real equality thus required the liquidation in one form or another of the existing heterogeneous elements” (Dadrian 180). Dadrian believes that the Young Turks always had a hidden agenda to harm the Armenians and that they never truly had the intention of improving things. In other words, in Dadrian’s view, the Young Turks had always had harmful intentions towards the Armenian nation. However, there is no real evidence to prove this conspiracy theory. As Suny notes,

The leadership of the CUP never agreed on a clear ideological orientation, and their political thinking represented an uneasy mixture of Ottomanism and Pan-Islamism. The notion of Turanism-----the idealization of an imaginary homeland of all Turks in Central Asia and potentially an expansionist ideology------was espoused by the sociologist and prominent educator Ziya Gokalp, but he and his followers constituted a fringe movement in Young Turk politics. Moreover, even for Gokalp Turanism never represented a program of action. Still less did it envision the genocide of the Armenian minority, as has been charged by some writers (Lewey 35).

I believe that Gunter Lewey’s explanation for this transition is closer to the truth. To Gunter Lewey, “the series of devastating foreign policy defeats experienced by the Ottoman government during the years 1908-13” that resulted in the Ottoman Empire loosing 32.7 percent of its territory and 20 percent of its population by 1913, which implied that the Ottomans lost 83 percent of their European territories, led to the development of a “a siege mentality and strong resentment of the Christian states that had brought about these humiliating defeats” (Lewey 35). On top of that, a general increase in tensions between Armenians and Turks, especially in light of the Balkan Wars, as well as the “influx of almost half a million Muslim refugees who had been forced to flee from their homes in the lost European provinces of the empire” probably was more responsible for the ideologically shift of the CUP than any flaky hidden agenda theory that Dadrian proposed.

The Great Tragedy

On November 2, 1914, Turkey joined WWI on the side of Germany and Austro-Hungary. The Armenians of Eastern Turkey were heavily suspected of supporting the Russian enemy during wartime. This belief was reinforced by the refusal of the Ottoman Armenian leaders to help the government initiate an Armenian uprising in Russian Transcaucasia and the fact that the Russian Armenians were publicly advocating the liberation of Turkish Armenia (Kurtz and Merari 10). As a result of such activities, the Turks grew quite worried about the danger that the Armenians could pose to their war effort. “Alleging treasonable acts, separatism, and other assorted acts by the Armenians as a national minority, the Ottoman authorities ordered, for national security reasons, the wholesale deportation of the Armenian population of the empire’s eastern and southeastern provinces” (Dadrian 219).
Armenians would suffer a lot from this decision. Approximately 600,000, or 40 percent, of the Ottoman Armenians perished due to starvation, disease, and outright murder (Gunter 19). Today, due to this decision, the once vibrant Armenian community in Eastern Turkey does not exist. The intellectual life of the Turkish Armenians was almost completely obliterated. On April 24, 1915, at least eighty-two Armenian writers were murdered, in addition to thousands of Armenian teachers, cultural and religious leaders through out Anatolia (Balakian 216). “In this [….] way the CUP destroyed a vital part of Armenia’s cultural infrastructure and succeeded in practically silencing a whole generation of Armenian writers” (216).

Nothing can excuse the suffering that the Armenians had to endure in 1915. According to Reverend Leslie, American agent for the district of Urfa:

For six weeks we have witnessed the most terrible cruelties inflicted upon the thousands of Christian exiles who have been daily passing through our city from the northern cities. All tell the same story and bear the same scars: their men were all killed on the first days march from their cities, after which the women and girls were constantly robbed of their money, bedding, clothing, and beaten, criminally abused and abducted….. Their guards forced them to pay even for drinking from the springs along the way and were their worst abusers but also allowed the baser elements in every village through which they passed to abduct the girls and women and abuse them. We not only were told these things but the same thing occurred right here in our own city before our very eyes and openly on the streets. The poor weak women and children died by thousands along the roads and in the khan where they were confined here. There must be not less than five hundred abducted now in the homes of the Muslims in this city and as many more have been sexually abused and turned out on the streets again (Balakian 255).

“The misery, suffering, and hardships endured by these people are indescribable. Deaths are innumerable” (Lewey 185). Hundreds of Armenian children were abandoned by their parents who could not bear to see them suffer any more. Many of these children were left by the roadside and there were cases where the Armenian children were thrown from the railroad cars (185). According to Dr. William S. Dodd, an American missionary in Konia:

There were, at one time, 45,000 lying out in the fields with no provision for their food or shelter. The sanitary conditions were, of course, of the very lowest, and can only be described as horrible; women, men, girls, and children, could be seen anywhere partly dressed, and the stench from the whole region was so great that the Turks of the city complained to the Government that their health was endangered by these encampments. The death rate was very great but I have no means of estimating it. Around about the encampment, I saw men and women lying in ditches half-filled with mud and water and gasping out their last breadth (Lewey 187).

Nothing can excuse such immense suffering. The massacres, the rapes, and the conditions that the Armenians had to endure on their journey towards Syria, where many were massacred or died of disease and starvation, has absolutely no justification at all whatsoever. The deportation of the entire Armenian population from almost all of Anatolia was definitely not in proportion to the threat that the Armenians posed to the Ottoman authorities.
Nevertheless, it is important to recall the true intentions of the Turkish authorities. “Encouraged by the Russians, the Armenians had already begun to cause much trouble behind the Turkish lines” (Sonyel 208). While the Russian forces were advancing from the East and the Allies were attacking the Empire along a wide front from Galicia to Iraq, the Armenian guerrillas were attacking the Ottoman Turkish soldiers from the rear (299). Turks suffered considerable hardships at the hands of the Armenian revolutionaries. To give one example of testimony from Muslim villagers who suffered at the hands of the Armenian revolutionaries:

I am from Gollu village. The Armenians revolted when the army in Van retreated toward Erzurum. Our mothers and fathers were all slain by Armenians. My father, a gendarme, was amongst those killed. The villagers in Mollkasim, Amik, Sihayne, Gollu, Hidir, Kurtsatan, and Koprukoy were also murdered. Part of our village hid in Zeve and was later killed, but we were able to escape. Armenians tortured and inflicted all types of cruelties on the people they kidnapped. They cut up pregnant women and removed the unborn children with bayonets. They raided and burned all of the Muslim villages, murdering men, women, young and old (Lewey 116-117).

Similar accounts can be found in the Ottoman Turkish Archives. A district governor reported on March 4, 1915, that local Armenians [….] had slaughtered forty-two men and thirteen women in the village of Merhehu. “They had raped, cut off breasts, burned a baby in an oven, and so forth. Numerous reports tell of the destruction of mosques and other public buildings” (Lewey 117). Due to such incidents, the Ottoman Turks felt genuinely threatened by the Armenian revolutionaries and thus, collectively punished the entire Armenian community because they felt that was the only way to save their empire. Although the majority of Armenians were not revolutionaries, the sympathies of the majority of Armenians did lie with the Allies and as the testimony above proves, some Armenians did overtly express such sentiment (Lewey 95). For the Ottoman Turks, this was great cause for concern and enough of a justification to do what they did to the Armenian nation. Nevertheless, nothing can justify what the Ottoman Turks did. There can be no justification for the collective punishment of a nation just because a few Armenians acted in such a barbaric manner. However, it is pivotal to keep the true intentions of the Ottoman Turks in perspective------they did not intend genocide, they sought collective punishment of all Armenians for what a handful of Armenians were doing and this collective punishment, due to mismanagement by the Ottoman authorities, popular hatred of the Armenian nation, and general bad conditions that existed in the empire during the time period, caused the Armenian nation to suffer an unspeakable tragedy.

The Reasons Why This Was Not Genocide

Despite the fact that the Armenian nation suffered an unspeakable tragedy that they still have not recovered from till this day, it is very hard for me to label what happened as genocide, due to the lack of solid verifiable evidence that shows that the Ottoman intentions were indeed the annihilation of the Armenian nation, even though the effect that 1915 had upon the Armenian nation was very similar to the effect that the Holocaust had upon European Jewry. According to the international legal definition of genocide, which can be found in Articles II and III of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, there are two elements of the crime of genocide:

1) The mental element, meaning the "intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such", and
2) The physical element which includes five acts described in sections a, b, c, d and e. A crime must include both elements to be called "genocide" (“the crime of genocide defined in international law”).

Armenian authors such as Dadrian argue that the “attained results can give us an indication of the objectives of the Young Turk regime-----an exterminatory intent is best revealed in an exterminatory outcome” (Lewey 53). However, Gunter Lewey eloquently points out the flaws in this logic:
This approach, of course, raises a difficulty of logic, for objective results are not the same as subjective intent. Finding a man with a smoking gun standing next to a corpse tells us nothing about the motive for the killing----it may have been murder or a case of self-defense. Indeed, we can not even be sure that this man is the killer. Similarly, the fact that large numbers of Armenians died or were killed during the course of the deportations can give us no reliable knowledge of who is responsible for these losses of life (54).

It is true that the Young Turk government did callously order the Armenians to march without providing them with adequate security and provisions to survive such a harsh journey. Nevertheless, this is the same government that did not care if their own soldiers lived or died. It is a fact that the average Turkish foot soldier did not fare much better than the Armenians did. “Nearly seven times as many Turkish soldiers died of illnesses as died of wounds experienced in combat. No other army in WWI appears to have had such a disastrous ratio of losses from disease and wounds versus the number lost in combat. Furthermore, it is estimated that at least one and a half million Muslim civilians died as a result of the war, most of them probably from disease and malnutrition or starvation” (Lewey 61). On top of that, due to the corruption and incompetence of the Ottoman government, which was aggravated by a natural catastrophe, there was a general famine through out Anatolia at the time and conditions were bad for every one in the region at this time period, not just the Armenians (57). “As Gunter Lewey concluded:

The terrible death toll among Turkish Muslims quite obviously does not excuse the horrible fate of the Armenians, but neither can it be ignored. Many of the Turkish deaths, as we have seen, could have been prevented by better sanitary conditions and medical care. A government as callous about the suffering of its own population as was the Young Turk regime could hardly be expected to be very concerned about the human misery that would result from deporting its Armenian population, rightly or wrongly suspected of treason. The Ottoman government decided to dislocate an entire community------men, women, and children----and send them on a trek of hundreds of miles. The Armenians from Eastern Anatolia had to pass through the most inhospitable terrain, a voyage that would have exacted a heavy cost in lives even during the best of times. As it turned out, thousands died of starvation or disease, while large numbers of others were massacred. Still, we can account for this tragedy without the hypothesis of a CUP genocidal plan (61).

For these reasons, I conclude that although the Armenians suffered from an unspeakable tragedy and I sympathize with the Armenians for the suffering that they unjustifiably were forced to endure, given that they were collectively punished for the actions taken by a minority of the Armenian population, I can not call what happened genocide, for the Ottoman Turks did not intend to annihilate the entire Armenian population, even though the results show that there are almost no Armenians left in Anatolia today because of this and that 40 percent of the entire Ottoman Armenian population would perish due to this tragedy. However, I can’t call what happened a civil war either, for although Armenian sentiment was very much with the Allies, only a minority of the Ottoman Armenians considered themselves revolutionaries and committed atrocities against their Muslim neighbors. What happened was not genocide, it was not a civil war, but a great tragedy for all of those involved.

Source Citations:

Balakian, Peter. The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response.
Harper Collins Pub., New York: 2003.

Dadrian, Vahakn. The History of the Armenian Genocide. Berghahn Books,
Providence: 1995.

Gunter, Michael. Pursuing the just cause of their people: A study of contemporary
Armenian terrorism. Greenwood Press, Westport, Conn.: 1986.

Hovannissian, Richard G. The Armenian Genocide in Perspective. Transaction Pub,
New Brunswick: 1991.

Kurt, Anat and Ariel Merari. ASALA: Irrational Terror or Political Tool. Jaffee Center
for Strategic Studies, Jerusalem, Israel: 1985.

Lewey, Gunter. The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey: A Disputed Genocide.
University of Utah Press: 2005.

Lewis, Bernard. The Emergence of Modern Turkey. Oxford University Press, New
York : 1961.

McCarthy, Justin. Death and Exile : The ethnic cleansing of Ottoman Muslims, 1821-
1922. The Darwin Press Inc., Princeton: 1995.

Sonyel, Salahi Ramsdan. The Ottoman Armenians: Victims of Great Power Diplomacy.
K. Rustem and Brother, London: 1987.

“The crime of "genocide" defined in international law.”
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