Genocide in the Late Ottoman Empire: A Three-Part Survey

Although the Holocaust looms large in conversations about the origins of genocide theory and studies, the Armenian genocide is also widely known among western audiences. In fact, legal scholar and author Raphael Lemkin coined the word ‘genocide’ in his 1944 text, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, specifically in reference to the Armenian genocide in the collapsing Ottoman empire and explained how the crimes committed by the Young Turk regime shared a pattern of ideology and behaviour with Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist regime in Germany two decades later.

What is less-known among western audiences is the fact that the Armenians were not the only Christian minority targeted with extermination by the Young Turks and their collaborators. During this period, many other ethno-religious minorities were viewed as a threat to the movement’s goal of an ethnically- homogeneous Islamic Turkish state. Violent efforts to expel and destroy minority groups including the Assyrian and Greek populations of the Ottoman Empire also meet the definition of genocide and should be acknowledged when talking about the crimes of the emerging Turkish state in this period. We must consider both the uniqueness of each group’s experience as well as understand the way this violence was interconnected as a part of a broader policy of ethno-religious nationalism.

The following discussion will provide an introduction to the three largest genocides committed by Turkish authorities against minority Christian populations from several ethnic communities within the Ottoman Empire’s vast borders, namely the genocidal persecution of the Armenian, Assyrian and Greek populations. Although each of these groups had their own unique experience, their stories also intertwine and occur within the same geopolitical context- the collapse of the Ottoman Empire into the modern Republic of Turkey during the First World War era. The unifying goal of many different episodes of violence was to erase difference and mitigate the threat of rebellion in the newly-created Islamic Republic.

Before we delve into the stories of Armenian, Assyrian,and Greek civilians targeted with genocide from 1913-1923, it is beneficial to have some context about the Ottoman Empire and key events in the late 19th-early 20th century leading into this period of violence.

Ottoman Empire in History- Brief Overview

At the outbreak of World War I, Asia Minor was ethnically diverse, its population including Turks and Azeris, as well as the native groups that had inhabited the region prior to the Turkish conquest, including Pontic Greeks, Caucasus Greeks, Cappadocian Greeks, Armenians, Kurds, Zazas,Georgians, Circassians, Assyrians, Jews and Laz People.

Ottoman Empire at the Turn of the 20th Century

The dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, viewed by most historians as occurring between 1908–1922, began with the Young Turk Revolution of 1908. An ultra-nationalist movement seeking to modernize and purify the Empire, the York Turks led a revolution led to the restoration of the Ottoman constitution of 1876 and instituted multi-party politics and a two-stage electoral system under the Ottoman parliament.  Two of the parties introduced under this new system included the "Committee of Union and Progress" (CUP), and"Freedom and Accord Party"also known as the Liberal Union (LU). The spirit of change and return to constitutional rule offered hope to many by providing the empire's citizens the potential to modernize and have political agency. However, this period is now better known as the ‘story of the twilight struggle’ of the Empire as war,internal conflict, and emerging nationalist movements in the empire’s disparate territories led to its ultimate collapse at in 1920.

However, there had been earlier signs. In the early 19th century, Europe became dominated by nation states with the rise of nationalism across the continent.The Ottoman Empire was at its core a religious empire. The Empire never integrated its conquests economically and therefore never established a binding link with its subjects.[2] Between 1828 and 1908, the Empire tried to catch up with industrialization and a rapidly emerging world market by reforming state and society.

In the second decade of the twentieth century, the Ottoman Empire suffered a string of setbacks that exacerbated tensions and set its leaders on a much more violent and fanatical course and led to the final destruction the Empire. Despite military reforms,the Ottoman Army met with disastrous defeat in the Italo-Turkish War (1911–1912) and the Balkan Wars (1912–1913),resulting in the Ottomans being driven out of North Africa and almost entirely out of Europe. Despite military reforms,the Ottoman Army was met with disastrous defeat again and again.

Meanwhile, continuous internal unrest came in the form of a series of coups and counter-coups that threw the empire into further chaos between 1909 and 1913 and weakened the empire’s ability to contend with external threats. And then, in July of 1914, the First World War began. 

The Ottoman Empire played a crucial role in the progression of the First World War, acting as one of the Central Powers allied with Germany and enemy to the Triple Entente powers (Britain, France,Russia). Ottoman entry into World War I in the Middle Eastern theater was ultimately a disaster and ended with the partition of the Ottoman Empire's remaining territories under the terms of the Treaty of Sèvres.

The Young Turks seized power in 1913, forming a military dictatorship run by the triumvirate of Ismail Enver Pasha, Minister of War; Mehmet Tala’t Pasha, Minister of Interior Affairs; and Ahmet Cemal Pasha, Minister of the Navy. The “Three Pashas” (as they came to be known) would serve as key leadership driving genocidal efforts in the new Turkish state. Over the course of the next decade, Armenian, Assyrian and Greek communities,who had lived within the boundaries of the Ottoman Empire for centuries, were subjected to extermination campaigns that led to the displacement and death of millions of people. These crimes were committed in the service of eradicating resistance to Turkish authority and to eliminate ethnic and religious difference within the new Turkish state.

Unfortunately, the violence committed against Armenian, Assyrian and Greek minorities in this period has not been recognized as genocide by past or present Turkish leadership. It is, however, officially recognized by Canada and many other nations. In 2007, the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS) reached a consensus that the "Ottoman campaign against Christian minorities of the Empire between 1914 and 1923 constituted a genocide against Armenians, Assyrians, and Pontian and Anatolian Greeks."  Gregory Stanton, former President of the IAGS and the founder of Genocide Watch, called for the "repudiation by the world's leading genocide scholars of the Turkish government's ninety-year denial of the Ottoman Empire's genocides against its Christian populations, including Assyrians, Greeks, and Armenians." Although it is a topic that remains politically charged internationally, the experiences of Armenians and other ethnic and religious minorities in the late Ottoman Empire have helped to define our understanding of the crime of genocide and how violence progresses from hateful words and ideology towards outright extermination.

Armenian Genocide

Location: Ottoman Empire(Republic of Turkey)

Year(s): 1914–1923 (start date contested)

Victim Group: Armenian ethnic/religious  minority

Perpetrators: Young Turk political movement, Turkish Army & collaborators

Number of deaths (estimated):800,000- 1.5 million (Canada accepts the number 1.5 million)

Methods of Killing: forced deportations,internment in concentration camps, death marches to Syrian desert without access to basic necessities, forced labour battalions and military conscription, mass starvation, burning, drowning, lethal medical experimentation, and others                                                                                    

Recognized by Canada? Yes


Significant Individuals:

·        The “Three Pashas”

·         Behaeddin Shakir (politician, founding member of CUP Party)

·        Committee of Union and Progress ( functioned like a special forces outfit, has since been compared by some scholars to the Nazi Einsatzgruppen)

·        Mustafa Kemal Ataturk

·        Henry Morganthau Sr.



Key events during this genocidal process include:

·        March 31, 1908 - A group of reformers calling themselves the "Young Turks" overthrow Sultan Abdul Hamid and established a constitutional government based on previous constitution. Armenians and other Christian minorities initially hoped to have an equal place in this new state, but the nationalistic Young Turks, led by a triumvirate known as the Three Pashas, soon announce their plan to "Turkify" the empire and remove all threats to the empire.

·        August 2, 1914 The Turco-German Alliance is formed. The agreement gives Germany virtually all control over Ottoman military forces and sets the stage for Ottoman entry into the First World War.

·        October 28, 1914- Under German command,Ottoman forces bomb Russian Black Sea ports. With this event, the Muslim Ottoman Empire formally enters World War I on the side of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Allied powers declare war on the Ottoman Empire several days later.

·        November 11, 1914- Ottoman leadership issues a proclamation of Jihad is issued against the Allied powers. This has significance for the Armenian minority because this jihad declared a holy war against all Christians (excepting Turkey’s allies) and legitimized armed paramilitary forces.

·        November 14, 1914- The first attacks on Armenians begin after the minority group is accused of planning to join Russian forces. First village attacked is Otsni in Erzerum Province when local priest and many civilians are killed. Other Armenian villages in the province are attacked as well.

·        March 31, 1915 -Deportations of Armenian citizens to Konia and Syrian deserts begin. Many deportees are also murdered/die en route

·        April 17, 1915 -Turkish forces besiege the city of Van, a historic center of Armenian life for over a thousand years. The Armenians of the city organized a defense that lasts for more than a month. The violence is finally stopped by the advance of the Russian Army. Russian forces identify around 55,000 Armenians dead in the province.

·        April 24, 1915 -The first official phase of the Armenian massacres begin. This phase begins with the arrest of hundreds of intellectuals in Constantinople,the capital of the empire. They are later murdered.

·        July 6, 1916 Russian forces occupy Armenian regions of the Ottoman Empire. After gradually advancing into Armenian regions of the Ottoman Empire, Russian forces finally take over all Armenian regions. However, most Armenians have been deported or murdered at this point.

·        March 3, 1918 The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk returns Armenia to the Ottoman Empire.

·        The Soviet Union (having taken over Russia)signs the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and concludes hostilities with the Central Powers. In the treaty the Soviets are forced to return all of Ottoman Armenia and part of Russian Armenia to the collapsing Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans, in turn,announce amnesty to all remaining Armenians, but in reality they are still being systematically murdered.

·        May 28, 1918 An Armenian Republic is formed. After a short-lived federation with Georgia and Azerbaijan collapses, Armenia declares an independent republic in Russian Transcaucasia. While this republic is short-lived as well, it is the first independent Armenian state since the Middle Ages.

·        October 30, 1918 The Ottoman Empire surrenders and the Three Pashas flee. The Ottoman Empire surrenders to Allied powers, and the armistice agreement provides for the return of Armenian deportees to their homes. The Three Pashas flee to Germany, where they are given protection. The Armenian underground forms a group called Operation Nemesis to hunt them down.  All three are ultimately assassinated in the years that followed.

·        February 1919- A court martial meant to address war crimes (including the Armenian genocide) convenes in Constantinople. A number of leaders are found guilty and sentenced to death for their involvement in the genocide. Selected former officials were charged with several crimes including subversion of the constitution, wartime profiteering, and the massacres of both Armenians and Greeks. Many perpetrators escape the country and go into hiding.

·         September 9, 1922- The Turkish Army pillages Smyrna. Thousands of Greeks and Armenians are killed, and the city is later burned. Some historians mark this as the last massacre in the Armenian genocide.

·        July 24th 1923- The Treaty of Lausanne is signed and international powers recognize the Republic of Turkey. Although there had been demands on Turkey to acknowledge ethnic violence against Armenians, these efforts are abandoned and Armenians are left out of conversation.  Ottoman Empire officially ceases to exist on this date.

·        April 2004- Canadian Government officially recognizes the Armenian Genocide

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