The Ottoman Government and the
End of the Ottoman Social Formation, 1915-1917


by Hilmar Kaiser


Since the Ottoman Empire’s foundation in late Middle Ages, deportation programs were a common feature of Ottoman administration in Asia Minor and the Balkans. In general, the Ottoman elite sought to replace potentially troublesome communities with peasant populations which were easy to control and tax. A primary goal of such displacements was the sedentarization of the deported nomads. After the conquest of a region or town, Ottoman sultans used deportations as a tool to re-populate devastated areas. Therefore, demographic engineering was an important device for securing the central government’s hold over its territory and population. It also provided the necessary human resources for further developing the economic basis of this agrarian society. The extensive use of land by nomads could not provide the revenue needed for the upkeep of the Ottoman military and bureaucracy.
Following military setbacks during the 17th and 18th centuries, the central government lost in part its direct control over the provinces. In the process, local strong men secured a degree of independence from direct interference in local affairs on the part of the Constantinople authorities. In regions like Kurdistan, Albania, Egypt, but also in some areas on the Aegean littoral of Asia Minor, these local rulers were able to secure for themselves a large part of the revenue. During the Tanzimat (Reforms) period of the 19th century, successive imperial administrations sought to reassert full control over all territories. With the exception of Egypt, Ottoman armies eliminated local contenders for power in a series of bloody military campaigns. While the destruction of internal competition stabilized the rule of ‘reform’ elites at the imperial center, other competitors were more difficult to deal with. European powers had emerged as a formidable challenge. By 1878, Russia, Britain, Austro-Hungary, and France had gained full possession of former Ottoman provinces in the Balkans, North Africa, and the Caucasus, while in some areas, like Cyprus and Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ottoman sovereignty only continued nominally. Unable to match the challenge militarily, the Ottoman government sought to preempt the danger of further territorial losses by stabilizing its control through new settlement programs. Accordingly, the administration sent out fact-finding missions to areas that had just returned to direct central control and were considered as being threatened by outside intervention. Especially, large coastal plains that were sparsely inhabited and promised some economic potential became the focus of ambitious settlement projects. Muslim refugees and emigrants from those areas lost to newly independent states in the Balkans or other regions recently conquered by Russia in the Caucasus formed the majority of settlers. Many of these pioneers died within a short time because of lack of provisions and unhealthy conditions. Consequently, within a few years some districts were re-settled several times with new immigrants building their homes almost literally over the graves of the deceased earlier arrivals. It seems that the central authorities accepted such losses of human life as the price for the success of central policies. As long as enough Muslims were willing to settle in the Ottoman Empire the program was in no danger. However, when the flow of immigrants ebbed down, the government tried to attract immigrants with promises that were not to be kept.
A second focus of the settlement program became those districts where Armenians peasants and small town dwellers formed a solid demographic majority. Here, the Ottoman government used Muslim immigrants and Kurdish nomads who were eager to settle down as a tool to change local demographics. Already by the 1870s, the expropriation of Armenian lands had reached an extent that the Armenian ecclesiatical leadership felt compelled to appeal to the Ottoman government to bring about change. However, Armenian efforts were without avail. Being frustrated in its efforts for a solution, the Armenian leadership turned to European Powers in 1878. This way, the Armenian Question was established as a constant item on the agenda of the European Concert for years to come. In other words, the attempts at strengthening central control in outlying provinces in order to thwart off foreign intervention produced increasingly adverse results as the central government was unwilling to take into consideration the interests of the local non-Muslim population.
In response to European demands at reform in the Armenian provinces, the Ottoman government sought to create a counter weight against the perceived danger of outside intervention and internal Armenian challenges. It invited some Kurdish tribes to enter special relations with the Ottoman sultan. The government enlisted these in irregular cavalry regiments that resembled the Russian cossak units. These tribes enjoyed a degree of leniency to prey on rival Kurdish tribes that had not been enlisted, but their first targets were the sedentary, unarmed Armenian villagers. In 1894-1896, in a wave of massacres that claimed tens of thousands of lives, numerous Armenian communities were either completely destroyed or critically reduced. The Kurdish invaders established themselves on occupied Armenian property for good. While no large-scale massacres took place in the years leading up to the revolution of 1908, the expropriation of Armenian peasants continued throughout the period on a slower and less spectacular pace.
The autocratic rule of Abdul Hamid II and its repressive methods gave birth not only to Armenian and Balkan Christian opposition parties. Among the Muslim population a spectrum of Muslim opposition groups came into being, formed after a series of re-organizations the ‘Committee of Union and Progress’ (CUP). In 1908, the CUP together with Armenian and other allies overthrew the autocratic rule of the Empire and established a representative monarchy. Within months, the victorious coalition faced a serious threat when in April 1909 a counter-revolution sought to re-institute autocracy. In the course of the rising, religious circles organized large massacres in the province of Adana and adjacent districts. About 30,000 Armenians, but also Greeks and Assyrians, were slaughtered. Similar massacres had been prepared in other provinces as well. But only in the boom region of Adana the instigators met with success as intense competition for land and jobs had created favorable conditions for their designs.
The Adana massacres made it clear to the CUP that its future policy had to take into consideration the interests of certain Muslim elites. These elites possessed large estates and controlled politics on a local level. The notables had been allied with the old autocracy and profited from its anti-Armenian policy. Therefore, the CUP found itself in a dilemma. It could not win over the Muslim landed elites without antagonizing its Armenian allies. The latter insisted on the restitution of Armenian lands that had been illegaly takenover by the Muslim notables and their dependent settlers. In the end, the CUP did not resolve the conflict. For a time, it followed a stalling policy, making promises to its Armenian allies while not touching the interests of Muslim notables. Even more so, the CUP increasingly integrated the landed Muslim elites in its own party organization. Not surprisingly, the resulting conflicts between the CUP and the Armenian leadership lead to an end of the political alliance in 1912.
During the Balkan Wars of 1912/13, the Ottoman Empire was soundly defeated by a coalition of Balkan States. It lost all of its European provinces, except for the districts located on the outskirts of Constantinople up to Adrianople. The Balkan Wars were in a sense ‘total wars.’ Civilians were not spared. Systematic massacres of populations that were considered to be ‘alien’ became a daily occurrence. Besides its military collapse in Europe, the Ottoman government faced a humanitarian disaster. Coping with exhausted economic reserves, it could hardly provide any assistance to the tens of thousands of Muslim refugees arriving at the Straits, hoping to escape extermination at the hands of the armies of the Balkan states by fleeing into Asia Minor. However, the Ottoman army employed the same strategy of ethnic cleansing as well. It even employed such brutal methods against its own citizens. For instance, Ottoman units displaced and massacred Ottoman Christian communities on their advances from the Straits. They presumably did this because these communities were considered as being unreliable and dangerous as long as they remained in a strategically important area.
The peace negotiations at the end of the Balkan Wars brought the unresolved Armenian Question back to the top of the international diplomatic agenda. Dissatisfied with unfulfilled government promises of the preceding years, Armenian representatives lobbied for internationally secured guarantees for their communities. After much maneuvering the European Powers agreed on a reform scheme for six eastern provinces where the majority of the empire’s rural Armenian population lived. The area was to be divided into two regions, each of which would be under the supervision of a European administrator who would supervise the implementation of reforms for the benefit of all citizens. The CUP opposed the reform plan strongly but was unable to block it. Thus, it took resort to a policy of obstruction. It tried to man the administrators’ staff with trusted CUP members while preventing the nomination of known local Armenians.
In the west, the Ottoman government faced a perceived Greek threat to its territorial integrity. Thus, it continued its campaign against its Non-Muslim citizens. CUP emissaries toured the Aegean coast of Asia Minor and organized with local officials the assassination of Greeks and even massacres of whole villages. The goal was to eliminate the Ottoman Greek communities in these areas and replace them with Muslim refugees from the Balkans. The campaign had to be conducted clandestinely for fear of outside interference. Soon, Ottoman Greeks appealed for help to the representatives of the European powers. In response, an international commission was formed to inquire into the outrages. While the Ottoman government did its best to obstruct the work of the commission, the results, nevertheless, implicated the government and the CUP as being responsible. Due to international diplomatic pressures the government felt compelled to terminate its anti-Greek campaign for the time being.
The beginning of World War I in Europe provided the Ottoman government with a unique chance to free itself of foreign intervention. International political circumstances were very favorable to Ottoman designs. While the Triple-Entente hoped to keep the Ottoman Empire neutral, the Central Powers and especially Germany did their best to win it as an ally for their side. As a result, the Ottoman government enjoyed an unprecedented degree of political importance which it used right away. In October 1914 it unilaterally abrogated those international treaties that had limited Ottoman sovereignty as far as foreigners and foreign interests within the empire had been concerned. With the abrogation of the so-called ‘Capitulations’ the CUP had achieved one of its major political goals. Since most powers did not recognize the Ottoman move, the government did its best to create facts. It moved swiftly against a group that seemed to threaten Ottoman sovereignty from within in a very sensitive region. Between October and December 1914, a special envoy of the Ottoman Ministry of the Interior started an anti-Zionist campaign in Jaffa. Local authorities harassed Zionist colonies and in December 1914 a roundup of Jewish families in Jaffa ended with their deportation to Egypt. The measures continued well into 1915. U.S. and German protests seemed to have some impact when the campaign seemed to come to a climax with threats against the Zionist leadership of the empire.
Meanwhile the Ottoman war effort on the side of the Central Powers had gained some momentum. By early1915, however, all Ottoman campaigns on the Eastern front, in Persia, in Mesopotamia, and on Sinai had failed. The setbacks were accompanied by a tremendous loss of human life. Now, counter measures of the Entente became a serious problem for the Ottoman General Staff. In February, a combined British and French naval squadron attacked the Dardanelles. German officers serving in the Ottoman army advised the government that they could not guarantee a successful defense if the attack were repeated. In panic, the Ottoman government prepared for the evacuation of the capital. Meanwhile, on the eastern front Ottoman army units and CUP cadres took their revenge for the Ottoman defeats on the local Armenian population. Lack of food and other supplies further induced these circles and army units to rob what they could. Often, they were joined by Muslim civilians as well. In areas where a Russian advance seemed probable, Ottoman units turned to a scorched earth strategy and massacred wholesale Armenian communities. In the city of Van, an Armenian center, the Armenians resisted, however. The news of this defense together with intelligence of an imminent and decisive attack at the Dardanelles triggered a series of decisions within the highest echelons of the Ottoman government and the CUP.
On April 24, Talaat, the Ottoman Minister of the Interior, decreed the empire-wide arrest of Armenian community leaders. At the same time, Armenians from Zeitoun that had been deported from their town earlier to the interior provinces were to be re-directed into the Syrian Desert. Thus, a repressive action modelled on the earlier deportation policies turned into an extermination campagin. Although the landing at the Dardanelles did not result in a breakthrough, the Ottoman government did not reverse its anti-Armenian policy. Within two weeks, the Armenian leadership had been almost entirely arrested, tortured, and killed. Officially the government legitimized its measures with an alleged widespread Armenian conspiracy that aimed at the overthrow the government. The Armenian Genocide had begun.
In May and June 1915, the Ottoman authorities drafted a series of programs aimed at the complete expropriation of all Armenian communities. With the partial exceptions of a few places, all Armenians were to be deported and forced to leave their belongings behind besides a few items. The Ottoman government appropriated all assets and asserted itself as the sole beneficiary of any claims due to deported and deceased Armenians. The confiscations proceeded systemically according to a pre-determined schedule and precise rules. Local officials were to prevent any waste or thefts of assets. The Ottoman government even concerned itself even with the proceeds from the sale of perishable garden products like cucumbers. The confiscated goods were used either for the supply of the army or sold exclusively to Muslims. Muslim settlers took over Armenian farms, Muslim merchants Armenian firms, and the government all Armenian schools, foundations, and religious institutions. Although the government declared that the deportations were a temporary measure, it was clear from the beginning that these changes were for good. Within three months, all Armenians settlements with very few and limited exceptions such as Constantinople had ceased to exist.
Ottoman army units decimated the deportees in a series of massacres along the route towards the Syrian desert, the official destination for the victims. Some Armenian women and children were spared, that is those who were considered to be at least temporarily useful as sex-slaves or other cheap labor in army industries, as shepherds, and the like. Those deportees who reached the Syrian Desert mostly perished in extermination camps. The authorities systematically exposed these victims to starvation, dehydration, and a series of contagious diseases like typhus. Those who survived these dangers were killed in a series of major massacres in the summer of 1916. After these massacres, the Ottoman authorities reduced the extent of the anti-Armenian program and slowly finished off the last remnants.
Alongside the Armenians, Ottoman provincial authorities targeted the Assyrian communities in areas around Diarbekir, Mardin, and Siirt. Either simultaneously or shortly after the massacre of the local Armenians, Assyrian communities were eliminated in the same way. However, there is evidence that these atrocities were not necessarily in harmony with the central government’s wishes. A number of communities were spared although they had offered armed resistance against being massacred. Moreover, the central government saw to it that the confiscation policy was executed in a different manner than in the case of the Armenians.
The next ethnic group to be targeted were the Kurds. Some Kurdish tribes and peasants had willingly joined the Ottoman troops in the slaughter of the Armenians. Others, like Kurds in Dersim, had resisted and organized the escape of Armenians to the Russian lines. In response to this, the Ottoman army ordered the deportation of Dersim Kurds to western provinces. The deportation of the Dersim Kurds was, however, not an exception. Soon, whole tribal confederations like the Hayderanli were deported towards the central plateau of Asia Minor. This deportation was not motivated by the fear of the advancing Russian army. The reason was the Ottoman government’s goal to assimilate these Kurdish Muslims into the Turkish population. Therefore, the Ottoman Ministry of the Interior decreed that tribal and religious leaders had to be separated from their followers. The latter were to be distributed in small numbers among exclusively Turkish villages. Kurds had to cease to identify themselves as Kurds. The authorities also sought to overcome religious differences like the adherence of many Kurds to brands of Shiism. Local authorities had to supply precise data on available Armenian property and the capacity of given districts to ‘absorb’ Kurds. Thus, the Ottoman Ministry of the Interior used those administrative units that had been used to organize the destruction of the Armenians for the assimilation of the Kurds. While Kurds were not, as a rule, massacred, a major part of the deportees perished from want of food and diseases as they often had to pass the same locations were Armenians had been exterminated shortly before.
The deportation of the Kurds marked the beginning of the second phase of the demographic reorganization of the Ottoman Empire. A number of other and smaller groups were included into the assimilation program as well, such as the deportation of Druzes from the Hauran towards Asia Minor. Jewish inhabitants of Zakho were targted like Iranian Shiites in Mesopotamia. The assimilation of individuals was, however, only one part of the restructuring. Besides the ‘turkification’ of human beings, whole regions or critical localities were targeted as a second major aspect of the government’s program. Therefore, whole districts were designated as a ‘turkification region.’ Consequently, Ottoman officials did not allow Kurdish deportees arriving from the eastern borders areas in the province of Diarbekir and districts of Husnu Mansour and Ourfa to remain there as Muslims from the Balkans had been earmarked as settlers for these regions. Following the same logic, the central authorities criticized Djemal Pasha for his lack of success with the turkification of Jerusalem. Evidently, this important town deserved the special attention of the Ottoman demographic planners.
The Muslims who were sent eastward were refugees and immigrants newly arrived from the Balkans. Due to their Slavic background, the Ottoman government regarded their religious affiliation as insufficient to merit settlement in the western provinces, comparably close to their places of origin. Enough emptied villages would have been available for these immigrants as the authorities had already deported all Greek villages in the Marmara area and along the Aegean littoral. Throughout 1915 and 1916 Greek villagers were deported inland and distributed in the same manner as the Kurdish deportees among Turkish villages. None of these villages was to be close to a railway line. The government intended to isolate the deportees and prevent any meaningful Greek community life. In 1917, the anti-Greek campaign was fully extended to villages along the Black Sea coast. Death-marching in snow storms and massacres demonstrated that the increasingly deteriorating military situation of the empire warranted a more aggressive campaign than before.
All deportations were planned, ordered, and coordinated by the Ottoman Ministry of the Interior’s ‘Directorate for the Settlement of Tribes and Immigrants’ at Constantinople. At times, however, the directorate’s officials joined those of the ministry’s ‘Directorate for Public Security’ on the spot in the provinces when the situation demanded. Thus, a relatively small number of high ranking administrators oversaw and engineered the deportations and extermination of virtually millions of Ottoman citizens. Most of them must be regarded as experts in crimes against humanity. In the course of their careers they repeatedly committed atrocities against the various groups targeted by the Ottoman government and after World War I, the governments of the Turkish Republic.
The experiences of Greeks, Armenians, Kurds, and Balkan Muslims, as well as a many other smaller groups, cannot be separated from each other as their treatment on the part of the Ottoman government was enacted according to a single scheme. The extermination of the Ottoman Armenians in 1915-1916 provided the economic basis for a full-scale ethnic re-structuring of the Ottoman provinces. This paper—based on original documentation from the Ottoman Ministry of the Interior, U.S. and European consular, diplomatic, and private archives and memoirs—will give an account of the Ottoman government’s programs of social engineering through deportation and genocide as far as the various ethnic groups of the Ottoman Empire are concerned. It will become apparent that an understanding of the Armenian Genocide and the Ottoman government’s goals connected with it depend on a broader approach.

© 1998-2001
August 2001