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Mass Violence in the Late Ottoman Empire: A Discussion

An Interview with Selim Deringil
Discussion sur les violences de masse à la fin de l’Empire ottoman : entretien avec Selim Deringil
Selim Deringil, Boris Adjemian et Mikaël Nichanian
p. 95-104


Spécialiste de l’histoire culturelle et intellectuelle de l’Empire ottoman tardif, Selim Deringil revient sur l’historiographie de la période hamidienne, son contexte particulier et l’idéologie impériale ottomane de l’époque, très différents de ceux instaurés par le Comité Union et Progrès au moment du génocide, pour mieux souligner la difficulté, voire les risques, à comparer les deux événements.

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Notes de la rédaction

Selim Deringil has taught and written extensively on the history of the late Ottoman Empire. A specialist in cultural and intellectual history, he is currently involved in research on religious conversion and apostasy. He has published, among others, The Well-Protected Domains: Ideology and the Legitimation of Power in the Ottoman Empire 1876-1909 (London : I.B. Tauris, 1998, 2nd ed. 2011).

Texte intégral

Études arméniennes contemporaines – You have been one of the first historians in Turkey to speak unambiguously in your work about the massacres of Armenians during Sultan Abdülhamid’s reign. What place do they have in Turkish historiography? In collective memory? In public discourses (if there are any)? Especially if we compare the reception and/or the impact of these massacres with state violence during the 1915-1916 genocide?

Selim Deringil – The Armenian massacres of 1894-1897 are usually presented in the Turkish historiography as the first indications of the “seditious nature” (erbabı fesad) of the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire. There are volumes of edited Turkish documents published by the BOA dealing with various cases of Armenian revolutionary activity, or “troubles” (iğtişaşat). They feature in great detail in the memoirs of Nazım Paşa, the Minister of Police. In the collective memory there is very little of significance except as a prelude to the “uprisings” of 1915 which provided the justifications for the deportation law of May 1915. Recent TV soaps (Payitaht Abdülhamid) lionize Nazım Paşa, but the main focus is his so-called anti-imperialist persona.

  • 1 E. Gölbaşı, 2017.

EAC – Research pursued in the 1980s by Robert Melson and Vahakn Dadrian has clearly demonstrated the genesis of an official discourse of denial during Sultan Abdülhamid’s reign, which we find later in the denial of the Armenian genocide. In your work on Armenian converts, you have shown how the words chosen by the local and imperial authorities in the 1890s tended to euphemize conversions motivated by fear or threats, which were generally represented as resulting from a free choice. The work of Edip Gölbaşı, who has just published an article in the last issue of Études arméniennes contemporaines,1 walks the same path through a thorough analysis of the words used by the Ottoman administration to qualify the massacres committed against the Armenians during Abdülhamid’s reign. In Turkey, or in Turkish historiography for that period, is there a denial or a deliberate choice to ignore the massacres of 1895-1897? If so, how is this choice or ignorance related to the denial of genocide?

  • 2 S. Deringil, 1998.

Selim Deringil – The work of Dadrian and Melson, though pioneering in their time, is now somewhat outdated. I have already criticized Professor Dadrian’s view of what he refers to as a “culture of massacre” among the Turks.2 My own view is that we have to see the massacres of 1895-97 as a discrete period, not a prelude or a dress rehearsal of 1915. Abdulhamid, unlike the CUP, had no intention aimed at the wholesale destruction of the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire. Even if he wanted to, his hands were tied by foreign intervention. There is also an economic class issue here. Abdülhamid wanted to replace the power of the Armenian bourgeoisie and commercial capitalism, particularly in the “six provinces”, which he saw as dominated by the Armenians, with a Muslim (Turkish or Kurdish) middle class. The fight over land tenure and taxes which has been worked on by younger scholars such as Tolga Cora and Nadir Özbek have amply illustrated this point. There is a huge difference between a class based power struggle in peacetime and an opportunist policy of mass destruction occasioned and made feasible by the lack of any constraints made possible by war. The fact that small villages were targeted in the 1890s was the outcome of the widespread practice of double taxation (Kurdish ağas and the state) which was a continuous complaint on the part of the Armenian communities.) This was not limited to the 1890s but certainly intensified at this time. We have to bear in mind that the 1890s also saw an intensification of Armenian fedai activity as activists tried to organize villagers in self defence. Obviously the scale of repression on the part of the repressive apparatus such as the Hamidiye was far beyond anything the Armenian activists could organize.

EAC – In your work, the radicalization of nationalism after 1908-1913 seems to have deeper roots, going back at least to the second half of the 19th century, with the will to create a Turkish homo novus, a national homogeneity in a restored empire around a purified Islam, which you describe as a process of “Ottomanization”. This assertion of an “imagined community” based on a dual –Turkish and Muslim– identity, is it not similar to, or even directly related to the evolution followed after 1908 by the Unionists? Does this mean that the rise of nationalism, which led, among other things, to the genocide of 1915, is a continuation of the policies implemented during the reign of Abdülhamid?

Selim Deringil – In this question there seems to be a misunderstanding or omission of some of the views I have defended in my work. In Conversion and Apostasy in the Late Ottoman Empire, I defend the view that I see the Tanzimat period (roughly 1808-1878) as a discrete period when the Ottoman state tried to instil the idea of the Rule of Law and extended an invitation (sincere I believe) to its non Muslim subjects to take part in the Tanzimat project. The homo novus that you are talking about takes the stage at a much later stage, with the coming to power of the CUP. What Abdülhamid did was to take the rationalizing, modernizing, penetrating aspects of the Tanzimat, but leave out the more humanistic enlightened side. Therefore I do not think that the genocide is a logical outgrowth of the Hamidian period. To argue that would be to indulge in tunnel vision and the benefit of hindsight. The Young Turks were indeed revolutionary in many respects, as were the Dashnak, and let us not forget their close collaboration with the CUP, which is often conveniently forgotten.

EAC – You recall what the Sultan Abdülhamid told the British Ambassador Sir Philip Currie in 1897: “The Armenian Question is finally closed”. At the time, indeed, the conversions, mass starvation and exile of survivors had aggravated the demographic changes caused by the massacres in Eastern Anatolia. How would you define the differences between mass violence in 1895 and 1915? Between the imperial ideology of the sultan in the 1890s and the ideology of the nation-state during and after WWI promoted by the CUP and next by the Kemalists? Are similar mechanisms at work in 1895 and in 1915? and to what extent?

Selim Deringil – I believe I have answered this question above. But let me state again, Abdülhamid policies have to be distinguished from those of the CUP and later the Kemalists. Turkish history is unfortunately very suitable ground for falling into the trap of teleology. Yes, the Republic of Turkey did end up as a successful, more or less homogenized, nation state, but at a huge cost in human suffering, and not only the Armenians; let us not forget the historic irony of the fate of the Kurds, who had inflicted upon them much the same agonies that they had helped inflict on the Armenians. The geography that the Kurdish nationalists claim as their own today, more or less overlaps with what was referred to as “Western Armenia” by the Armenian nationalists.

EAC – Could you tell us more about the specificities of mass violence in 1895? Beyond the ideological differences with the Unionists in 1915, to what extent the violence experienced by the victims could be considered different in the Hamidian period? Also regarding the perpetrators and their acts, what differences can be seen on the ground between these two major cases of mass violence?

Selim Deringil – Again, I have to come back to the specific conditions of the time. In the 1890s there are plenty of eye witnesses on the ground, missionaries, consuls, travellers etc. In 1915 the CUP was operating in wartime and using wartime conditions as cover (the standard denialist argument of “Armenian uprisings”).

EAC – The issue of the responsibility of Sultan Abdülhamid II in the massacres committed between 1894 and 1897 has long been debated by historians. In a way, while the controversies over 1915 focused on the qualification of the events as genocide, the debate over the massacres qualified as “Hamidian” was about the degree of involvement and responsibility of the Sultan. What is your interpretation of this debate? How can you explain that the Sultan, famous for being utterly careful, could have ordered or allowed massacres, while a military intervention of the Powers could not be entirely ruled out as a direct consequence of these massacres? To what extent could the demands of the Armenian community of Istanbul (especially in 1890) be perceived by the Sultan as crimes of lèse-majesté?

  • 3 See S. Deringil, 2009.

Selim Deringil – I have written on this issue.3 In that article I state quite clearly that although the evidence pointing at Abdülhamid is circumstantial it is nonetheless substantial. As the question points out, Abdülhamid was an extremely cautious character and did not want to run the risk of foreign intervention (as in fact happened in 1914). However, on the issue of mass conversion during the massacres, it is highly unlikely that these could have taken place without the (at least) tacit approval and encouragement of the sultan. Although the mass conversion of entire villages were discouraged, individual conversions were accepted. Yet here again the border between “individual” and mass conversion is unclear. If an extended family of say 25 people converted was this individual or mass conversion? The occupation of the Ottoman Bank in 1896 and the Kumkapı demonstrations were indeed seen as cases of lèse-majesté there is little doubt about that, and there is ample eye witness evidence of the distribution of clubs and other weapons to the mob by the security forces. This could not have happened without his (Abdülhamid) knowledge. What has not been researched is the extent to which individual officials, such as the Minister of Police Nazım Paşa, were directly ordered to do this or if they exceeded their orders to contain the situation. It must not be forgotten either that in the case of the Kumkapı demonstration of 1895 some of the Armenian demonstrators were armed. We must also remember the difference in the style of the Dashnak or Hnchak revolutionary acts. The Dashnak tended towards spectacular feats such as the raid on the Banque Ottomane, whereas the Hnchak (who organized the Kumkapı demonstration) were more inclined to work towards mass mobilization and mass demos. Both sought and received foreign support. In 1915 the Armenians were left pretty much on their own. When the Dashnak appealed to the Allies in 1915 to send arms for a rising in the Iskenderun region leading to a landing by the Allies, their appeal fell on deaf ears.

EAC – Since you conducted research on all those connected topics such as the ideology of Sultan Abdülhamid’s rule, the massacres of 1895-1896 as well as Ottoman Macedonia, how do you explain the Sultan’s different attitude towards the Armenian and Macedonian reformist or revolutionary groups and the contrast in the way he dealt with these issues in the two provinces, all the more significant since the Macedonian committees were apparently more influential during this period and the activity of Armenian parties in Anatolia still was in its limbo? Conversely, while Armenians were only a relatively small demographic part of the empire, and Ottoman Armenia or the “Six Vilayets” was not of great economic value, where did the obsession of the Sultan specifically about the Armenian issue come from?

  • 4 M.A. Reynolds, 2011.

Selim Deringil – Again, I have to refer to my own work. Even if the loss of the Balkan provinces were traumatic, it cannot be compared to what Abdülhamid saw as the potential loss of Anatolia, “the crucible of the Ottoman state”. He is reputed to have said something like, “the loss of Rumeli cut off our hands, but the Armenians [in Anatolia] want to rip out our very guts!” I do not know enough about the Macedonian case to be able to comment on that. However the “six vilayets” did have great economic value, they were important sources of taxation revenues and also had great strategic value as the buffer between Ottoman territories, Russia and Iran. Reynolds in his book, “Shattering Empires” has masterfully illustrated how the Armenians found themselves caught in this maelstrom.4

EAC – Did this widening gap in Anatolia between Christians and Muslims affect only Anatolia or other provinces of the empire (Macedonia, Syria...) as well? Where did it come from? Did the extreme violence of the 1890s have specific causes to be researched in Anatolia and, within Anatolia, specific to relations between Armenians and Muslims, which could be distinguished from relations between Greeks in Asia Minor and Muslims? To put the question differently, can we compare (or not) the massacres of 1860 in Syria, the massacres of 1878 in Bulgaria or the massacres of 1894-1897? Another connected question is about the forms of mass violence in Anatolia. How can we explain the manifestations of such extreme mass violence which also seemed to aim at humiliating the victim?

Selim Deringil – The cases of mass violence mentioned here are all very different. In the case of Bulgaria in 1878, it is often forgotten that it was the Bulgarian komitaji who first started the massacre of Muslim villages which led to the unleashing of Çerkez irregulars in mass reprisals which were then immortalized by Gladstone as the “Bulgarian Horrors”. (Gladstone actually could not have cared less about the Armenians and only used them as political capital at home.) Not that one legitimizes the other. In the case of Syria, the civil war that broke out in Lebanon in 1860 was a civil war between two equally determined opponents, the Druzes and the Christians (Maronite and Greek Catholic in the case of Zahle). It was only after the defeat of the Christians that the Maronites were seen as the victims, largely as the result of French support. The case of the massacres of Christians and the destruction of the Christian quarter in Damascus in 1860 resembles much more what happened to the Armenians of Anatolia. In the case of violence against Greeks, it must be remembered that after 1833 there was a Greek Kingdom. The Armenian revolutionaries had no such state to fall back on. Russian support was ambivalent. Often the Tsars were every bit as repressive against the Armenians as Abdülhamid.

EAC – However the fact that the Tsars did not massacre the Armenians makes a huge difference between their policy and Abdülhamid’s behaviour. Beyond state policies, there are countless testimonies about an active participation of the people, especially among Turkish and Kurdish populations, to the Armenian massacres. Therefore the issue is also about the perceptions by Anatolian Muslims of a state policy against the Armenians, justifying individual and collective participation in the violence. What were the motivations, ideological and/or material? The fact is that similar behaviours were observed also in 1915. How can historians explain the existence of such a violence in the Ottoman society while they have to refute cultural and ahistorical interpretations?

Selim Deringil – The Tsar did close down the Armenian Patriarchate for a brief time, Abdülhamid would never have dared to do this. Yes, we do have indications that some of the local actors that participated in the massacres felt that they were acting with the blessing of the sultan. There is also the aspect of material gain, widespread looting and pillage accompanied the massacres. Nonetheless, we also have the mission of Şakir Paşa who was sent out to the six provinces after the massacres to carry out some sort of damage control, particularly with a view to pre-empt foreign intervention.

EAC – What was the position of the Young Turks when confronted with the massacres of 1894-1897, at a time when they were caught up between opposite aspirations, between a natural tendency to blame the Sultan’s policy and their strong original choice to defend Ottoman Muslims’ rights against Europeans’ encroachments, also sometimes to promote equality among the diverse nations of the empire? More generally, do we know how the massacres of the years 1894-1897 were perceived among the other peoples of the empire and what political conclusions did they draw from them?

  • 5 Edhem Eldem, “Epilogue”, in H. Alloul et al., 2018, p. 265.

Selim Deringil – It is known that the Young Turks considered what had happened in the 1890s as crime and they promised the Armenian revolutionaries (many of whom had helped bring down Abdülhamid) that the perpetrators would be tried. In fact this initiative petered out. It must be remembered that the Dashnak failed attempt to assassinate Abdülhamid was feted by the Young Turk poet Tevfik Fikret in his famous poem where he bemoans “O glorious hunter, you did not set your trap in vain; You fired […] but alas, you missed!”5

EAC – Regarding this specific issue, is it possible to talk here about the ‘Young Turks’ as a whole (including Unionist leaders)? Then, how could we explain the mass violence perpetrated against the Armenians in Adana in 1909 and during the genocide?

Selim Deringil – There is evidence that at least some of the Young Turk leadership were embarrassed by what happened in Adana in 1909. It must be remembered that they endorsed the sending of a committed of enquiry which included notable Armenian figures such as Zabel Yessayan. Also it must be recalled that after the Adana massacres of 1909 a number of Muslims were hanged for taking part in the massacres even if this was largely a symbolic gesture.

EAC – If we try to study the driving forces behind the repetition of collective violence in its most extreme forms, we may also raise the question of the consequences of the impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators and bystanders. What can we say of the perpetrators of the 1890s massacres, who sometimes twenty years later gave a hand in the genocidal process? The question arises especially for those, officers, administrators or others who benefited from the massacres and looting perpetrated in the 1890s, either by acquiring wealth or by obtaining a promotion in the administration. What were the consequences of impunity on the repetition of mass violence in the late Ottoman period?

Selim Deringil – On the issue of impunity this is a serious problem that merits further study. No doubt that the perpetrators of the mass violence of the 1890s in Anatolia did get off lightly. Enis Paşa who was the Vali of Diyarbekir during the massacres got no more than a scolding. On the other hand Abdullah Paşa, who was seen even by the British as incorruptible, was sent to head the commission of enquiry in Diyarbakır to look into the issue of abducted Armenian women and children. He very clearly pointed to the guilt of leading Turkish and Kurdish notables as perpetrators of mass violence, but this led to nothing more than temporary exile or a light reprimand. Again the Armenian genocide of 1915 stands out as a different case. The confiscated properties in 1915 were indeed distributed later to regime loyalists. Yet this does not justify alluding to a “culture of massacre “ among all “Turks”. Unfortunately massacre and other forms of mass violence are not the monopoly of any one of the peoples in the Balkans and the Middle East.

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As to the central question that seems to be coming up in this interview i.e what impact did the massacres of the 1890s have on 1915, I am afraid there is no easy answer. No doubt many of the actors and perpetrators during the genocide were acting on the basis of “unfinished business”. However I want to make my own position perfectly clear. I do not claim in any way that what happened in the 1890s should be “normalized”. Far be it from my intention to scale down the importance and severity of the Hamidian massacres. I think that I have already contributed to this position in all my previous work.

Alloul Houssine, Eldem Edhem and Smaele Henk de (eds.), To Kill a Sultan. A Transnational History of the Attempt on Abdülhamid II (1905), London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

Deringil Selim, “In Search of a Way Forward. A response to Ronald Grigor Suny”, Armenian Forum, no. 2, Summer 1998.

Deringil Selim, “‘The Armenian Question Is Finally Closed’: Mass Conversions of Armenians in Anatolia during the Hamidian Massacres of 1895-1897”, Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol. 51, no. 2 (Apr., 2009), p. 344-371.

Gölbaşi Edip, “The Official Conceptualization of the anti-Armenian Riots of 1895-1897: Bureaucratic Terminology, Official Ottoman Narrative, and Discourses of Revolutionary Provocation”, in Boris Adjemian and Mikaël Nichanian (eds.), The Massacres of the Hamidian Period (I): Global Narratives and Local Approaches, special issue of Études arméniennes contemporaines, no. 10, 2017/2, p. 33-62.

Reynolds Michael A., Shattering Empires: The Clash and Collapse of the Ottoman and Russian Empires, 1908-1918, Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

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1 E. Gölbaşı, 2017.

2 S. Deringil, 1998.

3 See S. Deringil, 2009.

4 M.A. Reynolds, 2011.

5 Edhem Eldem, “Epilogue”, in H. Alloul et al., 2018, p. 265.

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Selim Deringil, Boris Adjemian et Mikaël Nichanian, « Mass Violence in the Late Ottoman Empire: A Discussion », Études arméniennes contemporaines, 11 | 2018, 95-104.

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Selim Deringil, Boris Adjemian et Mikaël Nichanian, « Mass Violence in the Late Ottoman Empire: A Discussion », Études arméniennes contemporaines [En ligne], 11 | 2018, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2018, consulté le 13 novembre 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/eac.1803

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Selim Deringil

American University in Beirut

Boris Adjemian

Bibliothèque Nubar, IMAf

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Mikaël Nichanian

Bibliothèque nationale de France

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