The Young Turks and The Armenians: From Revolution to Genocide

Scholar Taner Akçam describes the Young Turks’ rise to power in the Ottoman Empire and their policies that led to the Armenian Genocide.

Transcript (Text)


By the 1890s, the once massive and dominant Ottoman Empire was racked by internal unrest. Many groups, including Armenians and Turks, called for change. One group to emerge was a faction within the reformist Committee of Union and Progress Party, or CUP. This faction was known as the Young Turks.

On July 24, 1908, the Young Turks and the CUP successfully overthrew the Sultan and took control of the Ottoman government. Many Armenians supported this shift, because the Young Turks promised equality for all groups within the empire, including Armenians.

Reforms meant, very simple, participation of Armenians in the administration, in the police, in the security forces, and allowing Armenians free in the education. And then, total equality. For example, acceptance Armenian testimonies in Islam, Muslim courts also, and so on and so forth.

And Armenians, through their revolutionary organization, Armenian Revolutionary Federation, ARF, they were part of Ottoman government also. So they were in a strategic alliance with Union and Progress Party.

Both party, for example, beginning of 1909, established a joint committee and the task of this committee was to implement reforms. And this committee went to Eastern Anatolia, prepared the report on what the reforms should be and so on and so forth. But these reforms never realized.

The Young Turks came to power with a promise of equality for all. However, tensions continued within the empire, as former supporters of the Sultan rebelled in a violent backlash against Armenian equality. Problems continued with a series of conflicts in the Balkans that resulted in the Ottoman Empire losing its non-Turkish, non-Muslim populations in the region, as well as much of its territory. These conflicts came to a head in the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913.

Balkan War 1913 was a really important turning point. Ottomans lost, within one week, approximately 80% of their European population and maybe more than 60% of their European landholding. It was a big shock for them to lose these territories within one week.

And another important information to understand the shock that it created, they actually—the ruling elite of Union and Progress Party—they actually lost their birthplaces. They were all coming from Balkan.

And this was really very difficult to digest. And I think—I say, I think, because we don't know any evidence that they decided, you know what? This is it. We cannot live with these Christians in this country together.

In 1913, Young Turks Mehmed Talaat, Ahmed Djemal, and Ismail Enver organized a military coup and formed a coalition of ultranationalists who believed that the only way to hold on to the empire was to embrace a radical ideology of ethnic resettlement, deportation, and eventually, genocide.

It was the end of the policy of unity of the subject people within the empire. So then, they openly declared their Turk-ism. Turkish nationalism became official party policy. And then, they started to develop certain plans for Anatolia.

They started implementing a policy, which I call homogenization of Anatolia. The purpose was to get rid of the Christians out of Anatolia.

During that time, there were approximately two and a half million or three million Greeks and around 1.8 million Armenians. And according to these plans, first, they targeted Greek population on the Aegean coast.

The outbreak of World War I in the summer of 1914 provided the Young Turks with the perfect cover to carry out their murderous plans.

Ottoman government established a secret organization within Defense Ministry. And this special organization attacked the Greek villages on the coastal area. But the main purpose was not extermination. To create fear and to empty the Greek religious and to push the Greek people on the shores, so that they should leave Anatolia. And Ottoman government's official policy was, we don't have anything to do with it.

And it stopped 1st November 1914, emptying of the Greek villages. The reason was Germany. German government asked Turkey to stop this forcible expulsion policy. Because they were hoping to get Greece on their side during the First World War. And Ottomans obeyed the German demand. And 1st November 1914, deportation of Greeks stopped.

Then, Armenians started, also, asking reforms, encouraged by Balkan countries. Ottomans never wanted to implement this reform. This is the reason why they entered the World War I. This was the reason why they canceled, immediately, this reform agreement when they entered the war, November 1914.

During the war, the Ottomans' greatest fear was losing the mostly Armenian region of Eastern Anatolia to the Russians, who would, they feared, invariably support Armenian reforms.

When Russia invades this area, they would implement the reform plan. We will lose these territories. Instead of losing this territory, let's get rid of the Armenians and we can secure this land. This is what happened.

They emptied the entire territory of Armenians. They destroyed the Armenian communities, exterminated them. And this is one of the central reasons why Turkey denies today the Armenian Genocide, because we basically built our nation-state on that genocide.

Genocide was not only as a response to the war, or was not only a plan to destroy the Armenian communities.

Their main goal was to create a country that consists of Muslim Turkic majority. And how you get Muslim Turkic majority? You can develop these on two ways. Number one, you get rid of the Christians, by massacres or expelling. The second way of homogenization is assimilation. You can assimilate them. But you can assimilate people and groups only if they come a certain level.

The ruling elite of Union and Progress Party developed a plan, saying that Christians and non-Turkish elements should not exceed, in certain areas, 10% of the population. This is their governability threshold.

So throughout this period, the genocidal period, they implement both policy—physical examination and assimilation, hand in hand. And their purpose was to reduce the Armenian numbers as much as possible so that they should never raise their demands again.

The Muslim population of the area, the resettlement area, with a very generous estimate, were around 1.8 to 2 million. And the total number of Armenians that had to be deported were around 1.3 million. And you have to make 1.3 million 10% of 2 million. So this means, you have to really find a way that reduce Armenian number from 1.3 million all the way down to 1.8 or 200,000. And this is really, at the end, the number of surviving Armenians.

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