The Ottoman Empire



Decline of the Ottoman Empire

After a long decline since the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire came to an end in the aftermath of its defeat in World War I when it was dismantled by the Allies after the war ended in 1918.

Learning Objectives

Explain why the Ottoman Empire lost power and prestige

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Ottoman Empire was founded by Osman I in the 14th century and reached its apex under Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century, stretching from the Persian Gulf in the east to Hungary in the northwest and from Egypt in the south to the Caucasus in the north.
  • In the 19th century, the empire faced challenges in defending itself against foreign invasion and occupation; it ceased to enter conflicts on its own and began to forge alliances with European countries such as France, the Netherlands, Britain, and Russia.
  • During the Tanzimat period of modernization, the government’s series of constitutional reforms led to a fairly modern conscripted army, banking system reforms, the decriminalization of homosexuality, and the replacement of religious law with secular law and guilds with modern factories.
  • The Ottoman Empire had long been the “sick man of Europe” and after a series of Balkan wars by 1914 was driven out of nearly all of Europe and North Africa.
  • The Second Constitutional Era began after the Young Turk Revolution (July 3, 1908) with the sultan’s announcement of the restoration of the 1876 constitution and the reconvening of the Ottoman Parliament. This marked the beginning of the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire.
  • The empire entered WWI as an ally of Germany, and its defeat and the occupation of part of its territory by the Allied Powers in the aftermath of the war resulted in its partitioning and the loss of its Middle Eastern territories, which were divided between the United Kingdom and France.
  • The successful Turkish War of Independence against the occupying Allies led to the emergence of the Republic of Turkey in the Anatolian heartland and the abolition of the Ottoman monarchy and caliphate.

Key Terms

  • Tanzimat: Literally meaning “reorganization,” a period of reformation in the Ottoman Empire that began in 1839 and ended with the First Constitutional Era in 1876. This era was characterized by various attempts to modernize the Ottoman Empire and secure its territorial integrity against nationalist movements from within and aggressive powers from outside of the state.
  • Turkish War of Independence: A war fought between the Turkish nationalists and the proxies of the Allies – namely Greece on the Western front, Armenia on the Eastern, France on the Southern and with them, the United Kingdom and Italy in Constantinople (now Istanbul) – after some parts of Turkey were occupied and partitioned following the Ottoman Empire’s defeat in World War I. It resulted in the founding of the Republic of Turkey in the Anatolian heartland and the abolition of the Ottoman monarchy and caliphate.
  • Young Turks: A political reform movement in the early 20th century that consisted of Ottoman exiles, students, civil servants, and army officers. They favored the replacement of the Ottoman Empire’s absolute monarchy with a constitutional government. Later, their leaders led a rebellion against the absolute rule of Sultan Abdul Hamid II in the 1908 Young Turk Revolution. With this revolution, they helped to establish the Second Constitutional Era in 1908, ushering in an era of multi-party democracy for the first time in the country’s history.

Overview: The Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire, also known as the Turkish Empire, was founded at the end of the 13th century in northwestern Anatolia in the vicinity of Bilecik and Söğüt by the Oghuz Turkish tribal leader Osman. After 1354, the Ottomans crossed into Europe, and with the conquest of the Balkans the Ottoman Beylik was transformed into a transcontinental empire. The Ottomans ended the Byzantine Empire with the 1453 conquest of Constantinople by Mehmed the Conqueror.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, at the height of its power under the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottoman Empire was a multinational, multilingual empire controlling much of Southeast Europe, Western Asia, the Caucasus, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa. At the beginning of the 17th century, the empire contained 32 provinces and numerous vassal states. Some were later absorbed into the Ottoman Empire, while others were granted various types of autonomy during the course of centuries.

With Constantinople as its capital and control of lands around the Mediterranean basin, the Ottoman Empire was at the center of interactions between the Eastern and Western worlds for six centuries. The Ottomans consequently suffered severe military defeats in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, which prompted them to initiate a comprehensive process of reform and modernization known as the Tanzimat. The empire allied with Germany in the early 20th century and joined World War I with the imperial ambition of recovering its lost territories.

The Empire’s defeat and the occupation of part of its territory by the Allied Powers in the aftermath of World War I resulted in its partitioning and the loss of its Middle Eastern territories, which were divided between the United Kingdom and France. The successful Turkish War of Independence against the occupying Allies led to the emergence of the Republic of Turkey in the Anatolian heartland and the abolition of the Ottoman monarchy and caliphate.

Decline and Modernization

Beginning in the late 18th century, the Ottoman Empire faced challenges defending itself against foreign invasion and occupation. In response to these threats, the empire initiated a period of tremendous internal reform which came to be known as the Tanzimat. This succeeded in significantly strengthening the Ottoman central state, despite the empire’s precarious international position. Over the course of the 19th century, the Ottoman state became increasingly powerful and rationalized, exercising a greater degree of influence over its population than in any previous era. The process of reform and modernization in the empire began with the declaration of the Nizam-ı Cedid (New Order) during the reign of Sultan Selim III (r. 1789-1807) and was punctuated by several reform decrees, such as the Hatt-ı Şerif of Gülhane in 1839 and the Hatt-ı Hümayun in 1856. By the end of this period in 1908, the Ottoman military was somewhat modernized and professionalized according to the model of Western European Armies.

During the Tanzimat period, the government’s series of constitutional reforms led to a fairly modern conscripted army, banking system reforms, the decriminalization of homosexuality, and the replacement of religious law with secular law and guilds with modern factories.

Defeat and Dissolution

The defeat and dissolution of the Ottoman Empire (1908–1922) began with the Second Constitutional Era, a moment of hope and promise established with the Young Turk Revolution. It restored the Ottoman constitution of 1876 and brought in multi-party politics with a two-stage electoral system (electoral law) under the Ottoman parliament. The constitution offered hope by freeing the empire’s citizens to modernize the state’s institutions, rejuvenate its strength, and enable it to hold its own against outside powers. Its guarantee of liberties promised to dissolve inter-communal tensions and transform the empire into a more harmonious place.

Instead, this period became the story of the twilight struggle of the Empire. The Second Constitutional Era began after the Young Turk Revolution (July 3, 1908) with the sultan’s announcement of the restoration of the 1876 constitution and the reconvening of the Ottoman Parliament. This era is dominated by the politics of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) and the movement that would become known as the Young Turks. Although it began as a uniting progressive party, the CUP splintered in 1911 with the founding of the opposition Freedom and Accord Party (Liberal Union or Entente), which poached many of the more liberal Deputies from the CUP. The remaining CUP members, who now took a more dominantly nationalist tone in the face of the enmity of the Balkan Wars, dueled Freedom and Accord in a series of power reversals that ultimately led to the CUP seizing power from the Freedom and Accord in the 1913 Ottoman coup d’état and establishing total dominance over Ottoman politics until the end of World War I.

The Young Turk government had signed a secret treaty with Germany and established the Ottoman-German Alliance in August 1914, aimed against the common Russian enemy but aligning the Empire with the German side. The Ottoman Empire entered World War I after the Goeben and Breslau incident, in which it gave safe harbor to two German ships that were fleeing British ships. These ships, officially transferred to the Ottoman Navy, but effectively still under German control, attacked the Russian port of Sevastopol, thus dragging the Empire into the war on the side of the Central Powers in the Middle Eastern theater.

The Ottoman involvement World War I in the Middle Eastern ended with the the Arab Revolt in 1916. This revolt turned the tide against the Ottomans at the Middle Eastern front, where they initially seemed to have the upper hand during the first two years of the war. When the Armistice of Mudros was signed on October 30, 1918, the only parts of the Arabian peninsula still under Ottoman control were Yemen, Asir, the city of Medina, portions of northern Syria, and portions of northern Iraq. These territories were handed over to the British forces on January 23, 1919. The Ottomans were also forced to evacuate the parts of the former Russian Empire in the Caucasus (in present-day Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan), which they had gained towards the end of World War I after Russia’s retreat from the war with the Russian Revolution in 1917.

Under the terms of the Treaty of Sèvres, the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire was solidified. The new countries created from the former territories of the Ottoman Empire currently number 39.

The occupations of Constantinople and Smyrna mobilized the Turkish national movement, which ultimately won the Turkish War of Independence. The formal abolition of the Ottoman Sultanate was performed by Grand National Assembly of Turkey on November 1, 1922. The Sultan was declared persona non grata and exiled from the lands that the Ottoman Dynasty ruled since 1299.

Photo of Mehmed VI, the last Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, leaving the country after the abolition of the Ottoman sultanate, 17 November 1922. He is walking through an archway surrounded by saluting soldiers.

The Dissolution of the the Ottoman Empire: Mehmed VI, the last Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, leaving the country after the abolition of the Ottoman sultanate, November 17, 1922

European Influence on the Ottomans

The “Eastern Question” refers to the strategic competition, often involving armed conflicts, between the European Powers during the slow, steady disintegration of the Ottoman Empire.

Learning Objectives

List a few ways in which Europeans pressured the Ottomans for various concessions

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The ” Eastern Question ” refers to the strategic competition and political considerations of the European Great Powers (especially Russia, Britain, and France) in light of the political and economic instability in the Ottoman Empire from the late 18th to early 20th centuries.
  • Characterized as the “sick man of Europe,” the relative weakening of the Ottoman Empire’s military strength in the second half of the eighteenth century threatened to undermine the fragile balance of power in Europe after the Napoleonic Wars.
  • During the Greek War of Independence, Russia established major influence and power over the Ottoman Empire.
  • The Crimean War (1853–1856) was part of this long-running contest between the major European powers for influence over territories of the Empire and focused on the rights of Christian minorities in the Holy Land, which was a part of the Ottoman Empire.
  • The continuing collapse of the Ottoman Empire led to two wars in the Balkans, in 1912 and 1913, which in turn was a prelude to world war.

Key Terms

  • Crimean War: A military conflict fought from October 1853 to March 1856 in which the Russian Empire lost to an alliance of France, Britain, the Ottoman Empire, and Sardinia. The immediate cause involved the rights of Christian minorities in the Holy Land, which was a part of the Ottoman Empire.
  • Concert of Europe: A system of dispute resolution adopted by the major conservative powers of Europe to maintain their power, oppose revolutionary movements, weaken the forces of nationalism, and uphold the balance of power. It operated in Europe from the end of the Napoleonic Wars (1815) to the early 1820s.
  • Greek War of Independence: A successful war of independence waged by the Greek revolutionaries between 1821 and 1832 against the Ottoman Empire. The Greeks were later assisted by the Russian Empire, Great Britain, the Kingdom of France, and several other European powers, while the Ottomans were aided by their vassals, the eyalets of Egypt, Algeria, and Tripolitania, and the Beylik of Tunis.
  • Eastern Question: In diplomatic history, this refers to the strategic competition and political considerations of the European Great Powers in light of the political and economic instability in the Ottoman Empire from the late 18th to early 20th centuries.

The Eastern Question

The Ottoman Empire was a crucial part of the European states system and actively played a role in their affairs, due in part to their coterminous periods of development. In diplomatic history, the “Eastern Question” refers to the strategic competition and political considerations of the European Great Powers in light of the political and economic instability in the Ottoman Empire from the late 18th to early 20th centuries. Characterized as the “sick man of Europe,” the empire’s weakened military in the second half of the 18th century threatened to undermine the fragile balance of power largely shaped by the Concert of Europe. The Eastern Question encompassed myriad interrelated elements: Ottoman military defeats, Ottoman institutional insolvency, the ongoing Ottoman political and economic modernization program, the rise of ethno-religious nationalism in its provinces, and Great Power rivalries.

The Eastern Question is normally dated to 1774, when the Russo-Turkish War (1768–74) ended in defeat for the Ottomans. As the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire was thought to be imminent, the European powers engaged in a power struggle to safeguard their military, strategic, and commercial interests in the Ottoman domains. Imperial Russia stood to benefit from the decline of the Ottoman Empire; on the other hand, Austria-Hungary and Great Britain deemed the preservation of the Empire to be in their best interests. The Eastern Question was put to rest after World War I, one of the outcomes of which was the collapse and division of the Ottoman holdings.

Russian Influence on the Ottomans

The Eastern Question became a major European issue when the Greeks declared independence from the Ottomans in 1821. It was at about this time that the phrase “Eastern Question” was coined. Ever since the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, there were rumors that the Emperor of Russia sought to invade the Ottoman Empire, and the Greek Revolt seemed to make an invasion even more likely. The British foreign minister, Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh, as well as the Austrian foreign minister, Metternich, counselled the Emperor of Russia, Alexander I, not to enter the war. Instead, they pleaded that he maintain the Concert of Europe (the spirit of broad collaboration in Europe which had persisted since Napoleon’s defeat).

As the war continued into 1829, Russia gained a firm advantage over the Ottoman Empire. By prolonging hostilities further, however, Russia would have invited Austria to enter the war, causing considerable suspicion in Britain. Therefore, for the Russians to continue with the war in hopes of destroying the Ottoman Empire would have been inexpedient. At this stage, the King of France, Charles X, proposed the partition of the Ottoman Empire among Austria, Russia, and others, but his scheme was presented too late to produce a result.

Thus, Russia was able to secure neither a decisive defeat nor a partition of the Ottoman Empire and chose instead to degrade it to a mere dependency. In 1829, the Emperor of Russia concluded the Treaty of Adrianople with the Sultan; his empire was granted additional territory along the Black Sea, Russian commercial vessels were granted access to the Dardanelles, and the commercial rights of Russians in the Ottoman Empire were enhanced. The Greek War of Independence was terminated shortly thereafter as Greece was granted independence by the Treaty of Constantinople in 1832.

"The Russian menace: a Serio-Comic War Map for the Year 1877" an English cartoon from 1877 showing Russia as a monstrous octopus devouring neighbouring lands, especially the Ottoman Empire.

“The Russian Menace”: “The Russian menace: a Serio-Comic War Map for the Year 1877.” An English cartoon from 1877 showing Russia as a monstrous octopus devouring neighbouring lands, especially the Ottoman Empire. During much of the 19th century, Russia had considerable influence over the Ottomans.

The Crimean War

The Crimean War (1853–1856) was part of this long-running contest between the major European powers for influence over territories of the declining Ottoman Empire. It ended when the Russian Empire lost to an alliance of France, Britain, the Ottoman Empire, and Sardinia. The immediate cause was the rights of Christian minorities in the Holy Land, part of the Ottoman Empire. The French promoted the rights of Roman Catholics while Russia promoted those of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The longer-term causes were the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the unwillingness of Britain and France to allow Russia to gain territory and power at Ottoman expense.

The conflict began during the 1850s with a religious dispute. Under treaties negotiated during the 18th century, France was the guardian of Roman Catholics in the Ottoman Empire while Russia was the protector of Orthodox Christians. For several years, however, Catholic and Orthodox monks had disputed possession of the Church of the Nativity and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Palestine. During the early 1850s, the two sides made demands which the Sultan could not possibly satisfy simultaneously. In 1853, the Sultan adjudicated in favor of the French, despite the vehement protestations of the local Orthodox monks.

Germany and the Ottoman Empire

Germany drew away from Russia and became closer to Austria-Hungary, with whom she concluded the Dual Alliance in 1879. Germany also closely allied with the Ottoman Empire and reorganized the Ottoman military and financial system; in return, it received several commercial concessions, including permission to build the Baghdad Railway, which secured them access to several important economic markets and had the potential for German entry into the Persian Gulf area controlled by Britain. Germany was driven not only by commercial interests, but also by an imperialistic and militaristic rivalry with Britain. Meanwhile, Britain agreed to the Entente Cordiale with France in 1904, thereby resolving differences between the two countries over international affairs. Britain also reconciled with Russia in 1907 with the Anglo-Russian Entente.

Balkan Wars

The continuing collapse of the Ottoman Empire led to two wars in the Balkans, in 1912 and 1913, which were a prelude to world war. By 1900 nation states had formed in Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro, and Serbia, but many of their ethnic compatriots lived under the control of the Ottoman Empire. In 1912, these countries formed the Balkan League. There were three main causes of the First Balkan War. The Ottoman Empire was unable to reform itself, govern satisfactorily, or deal with the rising ethnic nationalism of its diverse peoples. Second, the Great Powers quarreled among themselves and failed to ensure that the Ottomans would carry out the needed reforms. This led the Balkan states to impose their own solution. Most important, the members of the Balkan League were confident that it could defeat the Turks. Their prediction was accurate, as Constantinople called for terms after six weeks of fighting.

The First Balkan War broke out when the League attacked the Ottoman Empire on October 8, 1912 and was ended seven months later by the Treaty of London. After five centuries, the Ottoman Empire lost virtually all of its possessions in the Balkans.

Ataturk and Turkish Independence

The occupation of the Ottoman Empire by the Allies in the aftermath of World War I prompted the establishment of the Turkish national movement under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal. This led to the Turkish War of Independence, which resulted in the establishment of the Republic of Turkey.

Learning Objectives

Outline the path taken to a Turkish state and the role played by Ataturk

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • After the Armistice of Mudros ended the Middle Eastern theater of World War I, the Allied forces began a process of occupying the defeated Ottoman Empire.
  • The occupation of Istanbul and Izmir by the Allies in the aftermath of WWI prompted the establishment of the Turkish National Movement under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Pasha, a military commander who had distinguished himself during the Battle of Gallipoli.
  • The Turkish revolutionaries in the National Movement rebelled against the occupation and partitioning established by the Treaty of Sèvres, a conflict which became the Turkish War of Independence (May 19, 1919 – July 24, 1923).
  • After the end of the Turkish-Armenian, Franco-Turkish, and Greco-Turkish fronts of the War of Independence, the Treaty of Sèvres was abandoned and the Treaties of Kars (October 1921) and Lausanne (July 1923) were signed.
  • The Allies left Anatolia and Eastern Thrace, and the Grand National Assembly of Turkey decided on the establishment of a Republic in Turkey, which was declared on October 29, 1923.
  • Mustafa Kemal (later given the honorific Atatürk meaning “Father of the Turks”) became the first President of Turkey and embarked upon a program of political, economic, and cultural reforms, seeking to transform the former Ottoman Empire into a modern and secular nation-state.

Key Terms

  • Atatürk’s Reforms: A series of political, legal, religious, cultural, social, and economic policy changes that were designed to convert the new Republic of Turkey into a secular, modern nation-state and implemented under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in accordance with Kemalist ideology. Central to these reforms were the belief that Turkish society would have to Westernize itself both politically and culturally in order to modernize.
  • The Turkish War of Independence: A war fought between the Turkish nationalists and the proxies of the Allies – namely Greece on the Western front, Armenia on the Eastern, France on the Southern and with them, the United Kingdom and Italy in Constantinople (now Istanbul) – after some parts of Turkey were occupied and partitioned following the Ottoman Empire’s defeat in World War I. It led to the founding of the Republic of Turkey.
  • Mustafa Kemal: A Turkish army officer, revolutionary, and founder of the Republic of Turkey, serving as its first President from 1923 until his death in 1938. His surname, Atatürk (meaning “Father of the Turks”), was granted to him in 1934 and forbidden to any other person by the Turkish parliament.
  • Turkish National Movement: Encompasses the political and military activities of the Turkish revolutionaries that resulted in the creation and shaping of the modern Republic of Turkey, as a consequence of the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I and the subsequent occupation of Constantinople and partitioning of the Ottoman Empire by the Allies under the terms of the Armistice of Mudros.

Overview

The occupation of some parts of the country by the Allies in the aftermath of World War I prompted the establishment of the Turkish National Movement. Under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal, a military commander who distinguished himself during the Battle of Gallipoli, the Turkish War of Independence was waged with the aim of revoking the terms of the Treaty of Sèvres. By September 18, 1922, the occupying armies were expelled. On November 1, the newly founded parliament formally abolished the Sultanate, thus ending 623 years of Ottoman rule. The Treaty of Lausanne of July 24, 1923, led to the international recognition of the sovereignty of the newly formed “Republic of Turkey” as the successor state of the Ottoman Empire, and the republic was officially proclaimed on October 29, 1923, in the new capital of Ankara. Mustafa Kemal became the republic’s first President of Turkey.

Background: Allied Occupation of Ottoman Empire

On October 30, 1918, the Armistice of Mudros was signed between the Ottoman Empire and the Allies of World War I, bringing hostilities in the Middle Eastern theater of World War I to a close. The treaty granted the Allies the right to occupy forts controlling the Straits of the Dardanelles and the Bosporus and the right to occupy “in case of disorder” any territory in case of a threat to security. Somerset Arthur Gough-Calthorpe—the British signatory of the Mudros Armistice—stated the Triple Entente′s public position that they had no intention to dismantle the government of the Ottoman Empire or place it under military occupation by “occupying Constantinople.” However, dismantling the Ottoman government and partitioning the Ottoman Empire among the Allied nations was an objective of the Entente since the start of the war.

On November 13, 1918, a French brigade entered the city to begin the Occupation of Constantinople and its immediate dependencies, followed by a fleet consisting of British, French, Italian, and Greek ships deploying soldiers on the ground the next day. A wave of seizures by the Allies took place in the following months.

Turkish National Movement

The Turkish National Movement encompasses the political and military activities of the Turkish revolutionaries that resulted in the creation and shaping of the modern Republic of Turkey as a consequence of the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I and the subsequent occupation of Constantinople and partitioning of the Ottoman Empire by the Allies under the terms of the Armistice of Mudros.

The national forces were united around the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and the authority of the Grand National Assembly set up in Ankara, which pursued the Turkish War of Independence. The movement gathered around a progressively defined political ideology generally termed “Kemalism.” Its basic principles stress the Republic, a form of government representing the power of the electorate, secular administration (laïcité), nationalism, a mixed economy with state participation in many sectors (as opposed to state socialism), and national modernization.

Turkish War of Independence

The Turkish War of Independence (May 19, 1919 – July 24, 1923) was fought between the Turkish nationalists and the proxies of the Allies – namely Greece on the Western front, Armenia on the Eastern, France on the Southern and with them, the United Kingdom and Italy in Constantinople (now Istanbul) – after some parts of Turkey were occupied and partitioned following the Ottoman Empire’s defeat in World War I. Few of the present British, French, and Italian troops were deployed or engaged in combat.

After a series of battles during the Greco-Turkish war, the Greek army advanced as far as the Sakarya River, just eighty kilometers west of the GNA. On August 5, 1921, Mustafa Kemal was promoted to commander in chief of the forces by the GNA. The ensuing Battle of Sakarya was fought from August 23 to September 13, 1921 and ended with the defeat of the Greeks. After this victory, on September 19, 1921, Mustafa Kemal Pasha was given the rank of Mareşal and the title of Gazi by the Grand National Assembly. The Allies, ignoring the extent of Kemal’s successes, hoped to impose a modified version of the Treaty of Sèvres as a peace settlement on Ankara, but the proposal was rejected. In August 1922, Kemal launched an all-out attack on the Greek lines at Afyonkarahisar in the Battle of Dumlupınar and Turkish forces regained control of Smyrna on September 9, 1922. The next day, Mustafa Kemal sent a telegram to the League of Nations saying that the Turkish population was so worked up that the Ankara Government would not be responsible for massacres.

By September 18, 1922, the occupying armies were expelled, and the Ankara-based Turkish regime, which had declared itself the legitimate government of the country on April 23, 1920, started to formalize the legal transition from the old Ottoman into the new Republican political system. On November 1, 1922, the Turkish Parliament in Ankara formally abolished the Sultanate, ending 623 years of monarchical Ottoman rule. The Treaty of Lausanne of July 24, 1923, led to international recognition of the sovereignty of the newly formed “Republic of Turkey” as the successor state of the Ottoman Empire, and the republic was officially proclaimed on October 29, 1923, in Ankara, the country’s new capital. The Lausanne treaty stipulated a population exchange between Greece and Turkey in which 1.1 million Greeks left Turkey for Greece in exchange for 380,000 Muslims transferred from Greece to Turkey. On March 3, 1924, the Ottoman Caliphate was officially abolished and the last Caliph was exiled.

Clockwise from top left: Delegation gathered in Sivas Congress to determine the objectives of the National Struggle; Turkish people carrying ammunition to the front; Kuva-yi Milliye infantry; Turkish horse cavalry in chase; The Turkish army entering Izmir; last troops gathered in Ankara Ulus Square leaving for the front.

Turkish War of Independence: Clockwise from top left: Delegation gathered in Sivas Congress to determine the objectives of the National Struggle; Turkish people carrying ammunition to the front; Kuva-yi Milliye infantry; Turkish horse cavalry in chase; the Turkish army entering Izmir; last troops gathered in Ankara Ulus Square leaving for the front.

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s Presidency

Mustafa Kemal became the republic’s first President of Turkey and subsequently introduced many radical reforms with the aim of founding a new secular republic from the remnants of its Ottoman past. The Turkish parliament presented Mustafa Kemal with the honorific surname “Atatürk” (Father of the Turks) in 1934. For the first 10 years of the new regime, the country saw a steady process of secular Westernization through Atatürk’s Reforms, which included the unification of education; the discontinuation of religious and other titles; the closure of Islamic courts and the replacement of Islamic canon law with a secular civil code modeled after Switzerland’s and a penal code modeled after Italy’s; recognition of the equality between the sexes and the granting of full political rights to women on December 5, 1934; the language reform initiated by the newly founded Turkish Language Association; replacement of the Ottoman Turkish alphabet with the new Turkish alphabet derived from the Latin alphabet; the dress law outlawing the fez); the law on family names; and many others.

The Armenian Genocide

In 1915, the Ottoman government decided to issue the Tehcir Law, which started the mass deportation of ethnic Armenians, particularly from the provinces close to the Ottoman-Russian front. This resulted in what became known as the Armenian Genocide.

Learning Objectives

Deconstruct the arguments for and against referring to these events as a genocide

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The ethnic cleansing of Armenians during the final years of the Ottoman Empire is widely considered a genocide, with an estimated 1.5 million victims. A wave of persecution in the years 1894 to 1896 eventually culminated in the events of the Armenian Genocide in 1915 and 1916.
  • With World War I in progress, the Ottoman Empire accused the (Christian) Armenians as liable to ally with Imperial Russia, and used this as a pretext to deal with the entire Armenian population as an enemy within their empire.
  • In 1915, as the Russian Caucasus Army continued to advance in eastern Anatolia, the Ottoman government decided to issue the Tehcir Law, which started the deportation of the ethnic Armenians, particularly from the provinces close to the Ottoman-Russian front. This resulted in what became known as the Armenian Genocide.
  • Widespread rape, mass burnings, drownings, and other atrocities were an integral part of the genocide.
  • Governments of Republic of Turkey have since consistently rejected charges of genocide, typically arguing either that those Armenians who died were simply in the way of a war or that killing Armenians was justified by their individual or collective support for the enemies of the Ottoman Empire.
  • There have been several movements, largely led by the Armenian Diaspora, to official recognize the events of 1915-1916 as a genocide (a termed coined in 1943 in response to these same events). Though this has received widespread academic and political support, it remains controversial.

Key Terms

  • Red Sunday: An event during the Armenian Genocide in which leaders of the Armenian community in the Ottoman capital of Constantinople, and later other locations, were arrested and moved to two holding centers near Ankara. The order to do so was given by Minister of the Interior Talaat Pasha on April 24, 1915. On that night, the first wave of 235 to 270 Armenian intellectuals of Constantinople were arrested. Eventually, arrests and deportations totaled 2,345.
  • Tehcir Law: A law passed by the Ottoman Parliament on May 27, 1915, authorizing the deportation of the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian population. The resettlement campaign resulted in the deaths of anywhere between 800,000 and more than 1.8 million civilians in what is commonly referred to as the Armenian Genocide.
  • genocide: The United Nations Genocide Convention defines this as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.” The term was coined in response to the mass deportation and killing of Armenians by the Ottomans.

Overview

The Armenian Genocide was the Ottoman government’s systematic extermination of 1.5 million Armenians, mostly Ottoman citizens within the Ottoman Empire and its successor state, the Republic of Turkey. The starting date is conventionally considered April 24, 1915, the day that Ottoman authorities rounded up, arrested, and deported 235 to 270 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders from Constantinople to Ankara, the majority of whom were eventually murdered. The genocide was carried out during and after World War I and implemented in two phases: the wholesale killing of the able-bodied male population through massacre and subjection of army conscripts to forced labor, followed by the deportation of women, children, the elderly, and the infirm on death marches to the Syrian desert. Driven forward by military escorts, the deportees were deprived of food and water and subjected to periodic robbery, rape, and massacre. Other indigenous and Christian ethnic groups such as the Assyrians and the Ottoman Greeks were similarly targeted for extermination by the Ottoman government in the Assyrian genocide and the Greek genocide, and their treatment is considered by some historians to be part of the same genocidal policy. Most Armenian diaspora communities around the world came into being as a direct result of the genocide.

Raphael Lemkin was explicitly moved by the Armenian annihilation to define systematic and premeditated exterminations within legal parameters and coin the word genocide in 1943. The Armenian Genocide is acknowledged as one of the first modern genocides, with scholars noting the organized manner in which the Armenians were eliminated. This is the second most-studied case of genocide after the Holocaust.

Turkey, the successor state of the Ottoman Empire, denies the word genocide as an accurate term for the mass killings of Armenians that began under Ottoman rule in 1915. Recently, it has been faced with repeated calls to join the 29 countries that have officially recognized the mass killings as genocide, along with most genocide scholars and historians.

Deportations, Death Marches, Rape, and Mass Burnings

By 1914, Ottoman authorities had already begun a propaganda drive to present Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire as a threat to security. An Ottoman naval officer in the War Office described the planning:

In order to justify this enormous crime the requisite propaganda material was thoroughly prepared in Istanbul. [It included such statements as] ‘the Armenians are in league with the enemy. They will launch an uprising in Istanbul, kill off the Ittihadist leaders and will succeed in opening up the straits [of the Dardanelles].’

On the night of April 23-24, 1915, known as Red Sunday, the Ottoman government rounded up and imprisoned an estimated 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders of the Ottoman capital, Constantinople, and later those in other centers, who were moved to two holding centers near Ankara. This date coincided with Allied troop landings at Gallipoli after unsuccessful Allied naval attempts to break through the Dardanelles to Constantinople in February and March 1915.

On May 29, 1915, the CUP Central Committee passed the Temporary Law of Deportation (“Tehcir Law”), giving the Ottoman government and military authorization to deport anyone it “sensed” as a threat to national security.

With the implementation of Tehcir Law, the confiscation of Armenian property and the slaughter of Armenians that ensued upon its enactment outraged much of the western world. While the Ottoman Empire’s wartime allies offered little protest, a wealth of German and Austrian historical documents has since come to attest to the witnesses’ horror at the killings and mass starvation of Armenians. In the United States, The New York Times reported almost daily on the mass murder of the Armenian people, describing the process as “systematic”, “authorized” and “organized by the government.” Theodore Roosevelt would later characterize this as “the greatest crime of the war.”

The Armenians were marched out to the Syrian town of Deir ez-Zor and the surrounding desert. There is no evidence that the Ottoman government provided the extensive facilities and supplies that would have been necessary to sustain the life of hundreds of thousands of Armenian deportees during their forced march to the Syrian desert or after. By August 1915, The New York Times repeated an unattributed report that “the roads and the Euphrates are strewn with corpses of exiles, and those who survive are doomed to certain death. It is a plan to exterminate the whole Armenian people.” Authorities were completely aware that by abandoning the Armenian deportees in the desert they were condemning them to certain death.

Rape was an integral part of the genocide; military commanders told their men to “do to [the women] whatever you wish,” resulting in widespread sexual abuse. Deportees were displayed naked in Damascus and sold as sex slaves in some areas, including Mosul according to the report of the German consul there. This constituted an important source of income for accompanying soldiers and resulted in the deaths of girls and women left behind.

Eitan Belkind was a Nili member who infiltrated the Ottoman army as an official, assigned to the headquarters of Kemal Pasha. He claims to have witnessed the burning of 5,000 Armenians.

Lt. Hasan Maruf of the Ottoman army describes how a village’s population was taken together and burned. The Commander of the Third Army Vehib’s 12-page affidavit, dated December 5, 1918, was presented in the Trabzon trial series (March 29, 1919) included in the Key Indictment. It reported a mass burning of the population of an entire village near Muş: “The shortest method for disposing of the women and children concentrated in the various camps was to burn them.” Vahakn Dadrian wrote that 80,000 Armenians in 90 villages across the Muş plain were burned in “stables and haylofts.”

While there is no consensus as to how many Armenians lost their lives during the Armenian Genocide, there is general agreement among western historians that more than 500,000 Armenians died between 1914 and 1918. Other estimates vary between 800,000 and 1,500,000.

Photo of dead Armenians lying in a field in 1915 during mass deportations.

Armenian Genocide: “Those who fell by the wayside. Scenes like this were common all over the Armenian provinces in the spring and summer months of 1915. Death in its several forms—massacre, starvation, exhaustion—destroyed the larger part of the refugees. The Turkish policy was that of extermination under the guise of deportation.”

Controversy and Terminology

According to Kemal Çiçek, the head of the Armenian Research Group at the Turkish Historical Society, in Turkey there is no official thesis on the Armenian issue. The Republic of Turkey’s formal stance is that the deaths of Armenians during the “relocation” or “deportation” cannot aptly be deemed “genocide,” a position with a plethora of diverging justifications: that the killings were not deliberate or systematically orchestrated; that the killings were justified because Armenians posed a Russian-sympathizing threat as a cultural group; that the Armenians merely starved to death; or various characterizations of marauding “Armenian gangs.”

As a response to continued denial by the Turkish state, many activists from Armenian Diaspora communities have pushed for formal recognition of the Armenian genocide from various governments around the world. Twenty-nine countries and forty-three U.S. states have adopted resolutions acknowledging the Armenian Genocide as a bona fide historical event. On March 4, 2010, a U.S. congressional panel narrowly voted that the incident was indeed genocide; within minutes the Turkish government issued a statement critical of “this resolution which accuses the Turkish nation of a crime it has not committed.”

The Armenian Genocide is widely corroborated by international genocide scholars. The International Association of Genocide Scholars, consisting of the world’s foremost experts on genocide, unanimously passed a formal resolution affirming the factuality of the Armenian Genocide.

The Armenian Genocide happened before the term “genocide” was coined. English-language words and phrases used by contemporary accounts to characterize the event include “massacres,” “atrocities,” “annihilation,” “holocaust,” “the murder of a nation,” “race extermination,” and “a crime against humanity.”

Armenians After the Genocide: Diaspora

Following the breakup of the Russian Empire in the aftermath of World War I, Armenia was briefly an independent republic from 1918 to 1920. In late 1920, the communists came to power following an invasion of Armenia by the Red Army, and in 1922, Armenia became part of the Transcaucasian SFSR of the Soviet Union, later forming the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic (1936 to September 21, 1991). In 1991, Armenia declared independence from the USSR and established the second Republic of Armenia.

The modern Armenian diaspora was formed largely after World War I as a result of the Armenian Genocide. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Turkish nationalists led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk took the region of Western Armenia. As a result of the Armenian Genocide, approximately half a million Armenians were forced to flee to different parts of the world and created new Armenian communities far from their native land. Through marriage and procreation, the number of Armenians in the diaspora who trace their lineage to those Armenians who survived and fled Western Armenia is now several million. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, approximately one million Armenians have joined the diaspora largely as a result of difficult economic conditions in Armenia.