Unit Essential Question: How can learning about the choices people made during past episodes of injustice, mass violence, or genocide help guide our choices today?
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 WWI, 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.
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 Hamidye regiments of Kurdish and Circassian horseman 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."