The Rise of Nationalism and the Collapse of the Ottoman Empire | Facing History & Ourselves
A group of men gather to pose at the Young Turk Revolution Declaration.
Lesson

The Rise of Nationalism and the Collapse of the Ottoman Empire

Students turn their attention to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the emergence of a strong current of ethno-nationalism rooted in Turkish identity.

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At a Glance

Lesson

Language

English — US

Subject

  • Civics & Citizenship
  • History
  • Social Studies

Grade

6–12

Duration

One 50-min class period
  • The Holocaust
  • Human & Civil Rights

Overview

About This Lesson

In the previous lesson, students examined historical and present-day antisemitism. This lesson continues the study of “We and They,” as students turn their attention to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the emergence of a constitutional state with a strong current of ethno-nationalism rooted in Turkish identity. During this time, the Christian Armenian minority’s call for equality before the law, coupled with the loss of 75% of the Ottoman Empire’s European territory, threatened the new leaders’ sense of power and control. As a result, the Armenian people, as well as other Christian groups in the empire, including Greeks and Assyrians, became targets of mass violence and, later, under the cover of World War I, genocide. In this lesson, students will learn about the rise of Turkish nationalism and examine the challenges Armenians faced during the second half of the nineteenth century as they advocated for equal rights. Students will then consider how nations define their “universe of obligation” and the consequences that can befall individuals and groups who are excluded from this circle of responsibility.

By learning about the particular history of the Armenian struggle for equality and the conditions and choices that led to the Hamidian massacres (1895–1896) and the Armenian Genocide (1915–1918), students can begin to form more universal conclusions about the vulnerability and injustice experienced by those forced to live with second-class status because they have been excluded from a nation’s identity. These conclusions will also help students better understand and make connections to the fall of democracy and the rise of Nazism in Germany, which they will explore later in the unit.  

How can learning about the choices people made during past episodes of injustice, mass violence, or genocide help guide our choices today?

  • How do groups, nations, and empires define their “universe of obligation”?
  • What might be the consequences for individuals and groups who are excluded from a nation’s universe of obligation?
  • Students will explore the rise of nationalism within the collapsing Ottoman Empire, which led to persecution of and mass violence against Armenians.
  • Students will examine how the creation of “the other” within a society can lead to dire consequences for minority groups who can become vulnerable in the face of injustice and violence.

This lesson is designed to fit into one 50-minute class period and includes:

  • 4 activities
  • 1 teaching strategy
  • 1 image gallery 
  • 1 video
  • 1 handout
  • 1 assessment 
  • 2 extensions 

The Armenians are an ancient people that have lived on much of the same land for more than two thousand years. For some of that time, they ruled their own kingdom. During long periods of Armenian history, however, they have been a subject population, ruled by others. By the sixteenth century, the Armenians were subjects in the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman sultan not only ruled as a monarch but also assumed the title of caliph—the official leader of the Islamic faithful. Ottoman law conformed in many ways with Islamic law and was overseen by the Sheikh-ul-Islam (a religious leader who was appointed by the sultan). Jews and Christians, including Armenians, Bulgarians, Croatians, Greeks, Romanians, Serbs, and others, were classified as dhimmi (protected subject non-Muslims). The dhimmi were granted considerable religious freedom, but they were not subject to Islamic law and therefore were without equal legal standing. Codes also prohibited non-Muslims from certain professions—including service in the Ottoman army—and made them subject to additional taxes. Despite their second-class status, as long as the empire prospered, the Armenians fared reasonably well.

During the nineteenth century, the Ottoman Empire’s fortunes declined. The economy stagnated and corruption was rampant. In addition, the empire was in debt to the European powers, especially France, England, and Belgium. Life for Armenians and other non-Muslims became progressively more difficult. Burdened by increasing taxation and without legal means to protect themselves or their families from exploitation, the subject populations looked for a way to improve their conditions.

The tensions between the Ottoman government and the Armenians erupted in 1894 after the Hunchak party in Sassun, the first Armenian political party, founded in 1887, encouraged ordinary Armenians—farmers, peasants, and merchants, frustrated by their second-class status as symbolized by double taxation—to withhold their taxes. Ottoman troops were sent in to stop the protest. Instead of restoring the peace, the soldiers began massacres that would spread throughout the Turkish Armenian provinces during the winter of 1895–1896. The semi-regular Hamidiye regiments of Kurdish and Circassian horsemen carried out the campaign. In all, nearly 200,000 Armenians were killed in the massacres. Reports of the massacres were smuggled out of Turkey and later collected as part of an official investigation conducted by the British, French, and Russian governments.

In 1908, the Young Turk revolution brought great hope for many people living in the Ottoman Empire. Part of this hope stemmed from the restoration of a constitutional monarchy, which had been originally established in 1876 but lasted only two years before being suspended by Sultan Abdul Hamid II. The reintroduced constitution, with its promises of equal rights, seemed to offer opportunities to people who had been left behind in the old system. The Young Turk vision of a strong central government promised an alternative to the corruption and disorder of the sultan’s regime. Many hoped the violence that had come to characterize the sultan’s reign would now end.

However, there were tensions within the Young Turk movement, as well. Between 1908 and 1913, the diversity of opinion within the movement became clear. Although one branch of the movement worked with Armenians and others, another branch of the party, favoring Turkish nationalism, began to gain influence.

Nationalism—the belief in a collective identity and destiny determined by membership in an ethnic, linguistic, or religious group—influenced the various subject groups of the empire. In 1912, the Balkan League was formed with Russian help. Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, and Montenegro, all former subjects of the Ottoman Empire, united with the goal of taking the Ottoman territory of Macedonia. At the same time, Ottoman forces were already fighting a war with Italy over Tripoli (Libya), a Muslim territory in North Africa. On October 8, Montenegro declared war on the Ottoman Empire. It was joined by the rest of its allies from the Balkan League ten days later. During the war, Armenian Christian soldiers fought alongside Muslims in defense of the Ottoman Empire for the first time. Their cooperation wasn't enough; the forces of its former subjects routed the Ottoman army. An armistice was signed on December 3, 1912, but before the peace agreements were completed, a military coup organized by Minister of the Interior Mehmed Talaat, Military Governor of Constantinople Ahmed Djemal, and Minister of War Ismail Enver toppled the Ottoman government.

The new leaders formed a coalition of ultra-nationalists who believed that the only way to hold on to the empire was to embrace a radical ideology of ethnic resettlement and deportation. British historian Christopher Walker describes how the Young Turks searched for an ideology that could unify the fraying empire:

Turkish nationalism was in part based on an idea of the “Turkish” race, which gained popularity among Turkish thinkers from the 1890s. It grew from ideas expounded by Europeans who were friendly to the Turks and who perhaps also sought to weaken imperial Russia. The idea that the Turks were not just the ruling elite in a declining empire, but had a vast kinship, based on race and the Turkic languages, stretching from the Balkans to Siberia, was attractive, something to revive them after the hangover of democracy. Turkism soon became the central ideology of the Young Turks. It gave them a clear new vision of their position, following the ending of the old hierarchies that had occurred with the 1908 revolution. Within a few years it had been accepted by most leaders of the Committee of Union and Progress as a central ideology. 1

The Turkish nationalists gained strength when Germany and the Ottoman Empire entered into a military alliance just before World War I. Old stereotypes about Armenian disloyalty were combined with long-held views of the Armenians as “other” and were spread by the government to further a sense of “us” and “them.” As a result, the Armenian people became increasingly vulnerable in the face of persecution that would lead to one of the worst episodes of mass violence of the twentieth century and inspire the genesis of the term genocide.

  • 1Christopher J. Walker, “World War I and the Armenian Genocide,” in Richard G. Hovannisian, ed., The Armenian People from Ancient to Modern Times, vol. 2 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997), 241.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before you teach this lesson, please review the following guidance to tailor this lesson to your students’ contexts and backgrounds.

This lesson introduces students to the rise of Turkish nationalism. The targeting of Armenians (seen as Christian “non-Turks” by the Young Turk government) was in part influenced by ideas about nationalism and ethnic identity that were prevalent at the time. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, biological views of ethnicity and race shaped how many Europeans and Americans defined the word nation. Members of a nation shared not only a common history, culture, and language but also common ancestors, character traits, and physical characteristics. Many believed, therefore, that a nation was a biological community. Nationalists believed that their biological communities—their nations—were inherently superior to other nations, and they therefore conceived of outsiders as major threats to the “health” of their nations. For more information about the connection between race and nationalism, see these readings from Chapter 2 of Holocaust and Human Behavior:

While the overview of this lesson and the included film clip both reference the “Armenian Genocide,” the word genocide did not exist in 1915 when the Armenians were being massacred and forced on death marches. In the Ottoman Empire, journalists, diplomats, and other witnesses struggled to find language to convey the depth and enormity of the anti-Armenian measures. Accounts refer to “horrors,” “barbarity,” “massacres,” “murder,” “deportations,” or “ravages.” To avoid historical anachronism, this lesson circumvents the use of the word genocide in the student handouts and discussion questions until Lesson 22: Justice and Judgment after the Holocaust. You might choose to introduce students to the term genocide earlier in the unit, while informing them that the events they are learning about inspired the genesis of this term.

In this lesson, students will watch and take notes on an 11-minute video clip from the film The Armenian Genocide. We recommend that you preview the film in advance to prepare to help students discuss it and consider how it can help them answer the lesson’s two guiding questions. Some, but certainly not all, important factors mentioned in the video segment that contributed to the vulnerability of the Armenian people and, eventually, to genocide include the following: Turkish nationalism and the emerging idea of “Turkey for the Turks,” loss of land and fear of the empire’s collapse, a culture of violence, religious tensions between Christians and Muslims, horror stories of persecution by Balkan Christians of Ottoman Muslims, and a refugee crisis.

The following are key vocabulary terms used in this lesson:

  • Infidel
  • Millet: Semi-autonomous communities organized by religion and administered by leaders of a religious group during the Ottoman Empire
  • Nationalism

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Lesson Plan

Activities

  • Start by explaining that in the next two lessons, students will apply what they’ve learned about the concept of “universe of obligation” to a specific historical case: the story of the Armenians, a Christian minority group within Ottoman Empire. By learning about the particular history of the Armenians, students will start to establish specific precedents for the history of the Holocaust they will learn about later in the unit.
  • To help students review the geography of the Ottoman Empire, project the first map in the image gallery The Changing Geography of the Ottoman Empire (1300–1920). Ask for volunteers to identify countries they can place on the map. Next, explain that in this lesson, students will be focusing on this region during the time period between the late 1800s and early 1900s.
  • Have students work in pairs to discuss the following questions for each map in the image gallery. Project each map for about 30 seconds.
    • What do you notice about this map?
    • What factors might account for the changing geography of the Ottoman Empire?
    • What does this map make you wonder?
  • Briefly discuss as a class what students noticed and wondered.
  • Explain to students that now they will watch a video that provides historical context for the plight of the Armenian people within the Ottoman Empire. Let students know that Armenians were the minority and did not have equal rights under Ottoman rule. During the years when the empire was strong and expanding, they lived in relative peace. However, as the Ottoman Empire started to collapse and nations in eastern Europe defeated Ottoman armies and declared their independence, the Armenian people, who were asking for equality before the law, became targets of mass violence and atrocities.
  • Pass out the handout The Armenian Genocide Viewing Guide and explain to students that they will be using it to collect information about the rise of Turkish nationalism within the Ottoman Empire and how this shift impacted the Armenian Christian minority. Also explain that you will pause the video so students can take notes on the handout without missing any of the important images.
  • Show the video clip from The Armenian Genocide (02:35–13:30), pausing three times (04:50, 07:45, 11:15) for note-taking. If you think students would benefit from collaboration, have them record notes with a partner when you pause the film. Or, to provide additional support, assign pairs of students one of the categories on the handout to focus on rather than asking them to take notes on all four.
  • After watching the video, invite students to share the information they gathered in pairs or small groups, adding notes to their own handouts about key ideas they missed.
  • Then discuss the video as a class by asking students use information from the film to respond to the following question: What are some of the conditions that led to the Armenians becoming targets of persecution and violence in the Ottoman Empire? Record notes on the board, clarifying information as needed. See the Notes to Teacher section for a list of some of the important information students should include on their handouts.

Facilitate a class discussion about the following questions, which you can project one at a time or distribute on a handout that you create. Time allowing, give students one or two minutes to process each question in writing or with a partner before discussing it together. Students can create a list of ideas for the first question and draw and label a universe of obligation graphic for the second question. If possible, record notes on the board or chart paper to refer back to during the next lesson about the Armenian Genocide.

  • In what ways did the Ottoman Turks signal who was part of their universe of obligation and who was not? What can this history teach us about what can happen when some individuals and groups fall outside of a nation’s universe of obligation?
  • Kate Cronin-Furman, a scholar who studies mass atrocities, observes that “when nations are defined around a majority ethnic group, that can lead to a sense of siege—a belief that the majority status needs to be protected, because if it shrinks, the claim of the majority on the nation could as well.”
    • In your own words, summarize what Cronin-Furman might mean by a “sense of siege.”
    • How can you apply Cronin-Furman’s ideas to the events in the Ottoman Empire that you learned about in this lesson?
    • Where else in the past or recent history that you have studied has a majority felt a “sense of siege” and acted upon that feeling?

Have students respond to the following prompt on an exit card that you collect at the end of the class period:

  • Today I learned that . . .
  • This is important to my life because . . .
  • Tomorrow I hope we review __________ from today’s lesson because . . .

Assessment

  • While students are taking notes on the handout The Armenian Genocide Viewing Guide, circulate to observe what ideas they are capturing and what content you will need to review when you discuss the film as a class. See the Preparing to Teach section for a list of some of the information students should capture on their handouts and be able to talk about during the discussion.
  • Collect the exit cards to evaluate students’ understanding of this lesson’s content and to see what connections they are making between what they learned and their own lives. Use data from the exit cards to modify the next lesson in the unit to better fit the needs of your students by creating a short warm-up activity that helps to clarify any misunderstandings and questions shared by the group. You can also schedule time to check in one-on-one with individual students or with small groups that need more focused attention.

Extension Activities 

If you would like to spend an additional class period examining the “We and They” theme and the concept of “universe of obligation” through the lens of the Armenian quest for equal rights, choose from the following readings and connection questions from the resource book Crimes Against Humanity and Civilization: The Genocide of the Armenians, which is available on the Facing History website. These readings also introduce students to the international response to the Hamidian massacres that they learned about in this lesson.

  • Reading 4: Humanity on Trial (pages 35–38)
  • Reading 6: Seeking Civil Rights (pages 42–44)
  • Reading 7: Humanitarian Intervention (pages 45–47)

To deepen students’ understanding of nationalism and the human behavior of creating “in” and “out” groups in society, spend some time teaching from the lesson Understanding the Conditions that Lead to “Ethnic Cleansing,” which introduces students to the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic group in majority-Buddhist Myanmar who have been attacked, driven from their homes, and often killed by the military as part of what observers are calling a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

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Materials and Downloads

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These are the handouts that students use throughout  The Rise of Nationalism and the Collapse of the Ottoman Empire lesson plan.

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Handout
The Armenian Genocide Viewing Guide - PDF
Students take notes as they watch a film about the history of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.

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Handout
The Armenian Genocide Viewing Guide
Students take notes as they watch a film about the history of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.

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