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The Hamidian Massacres, 1894-1897: Disinterring a Buried History

Les massacres hamidiens, 1894-1897: mettre au jour une histoire enterrée
Ronald Grigor Suny
p. 125-134


Dans sa postface, Ronald Suny tire un bilan historiographique en forme de conclusion des numéros 10 et 11 d’Études arméniennes contemporaines consacrés à la question des massacres de la période hamidienne.

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1Violence and even mass killing had long been part of the governing practices of successive governments in the Ottoman Empire and later in the Turkish Republic. Understandably social scientists, most particularly historians and anthropologists, have concentrated their investigations on the seeming ubiquity and normality of state violence, punctuated by extraordinary outbursts of killing on a massive scale by governments and ordinary people. The violence against the Kurds today, which in the minds of many in the academy and in the towns of eastern Anatolia, is often linked to the Genocide – as Kurds themselves put it, “the Turks had you for breakfast, and they will have us for lunch” – might be more precisely seen as closer to the systematic repression and the occasional use of military force during the Hamidian massacres than to the Armenian Genocide. The signal achievement among many others in these two volumes of articles is, in my opinion, the focus on the horrific events of the 1890s without embedding them ahistorically in a forecasting of the even greater catastrophe of 1915-1916, that is, the Armenian Genocide.

  • 1 I have borrowed this distinction from the work of David Hoffman on Stalinism.

2Analysts must refrain from collapsing all forms of mass violence into a single type, usually titled genocide, a term that regrettably is being stretched to cover quite distinct forms of crimes against humanity. For analytical purposes different forms of violence ought to be distinguished. My own take on the genocide question has been to limit that particular category to the one set out by the United Nations, that is, to acts “with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” While to the victims and to moral observers the effects of violence are similar no matter what the intentions or motivations of the perpetrators, for social scientists and historians distinctions among cases of mass killing are made in order to understand their causes. Exemplary violence – deployed to terrorize people into submission and obedience – for example, should be distinguished from excisionary or exterminationist violence, which aims to eliminate special kinds of people, in the case of genocide a designated ethno-national, religious, or “racial” group, a “people.”1 These are different types of violence from residual violence, “collateral damage,” caused by policies or actions intended for other purposes than the actual killing of people, as in state-induced famines. The Hamidian massacres of Armenians and Assyrians in the mid-1890s would be an example primarily of exemplary violence, while the Armenian Genocide is an example of excisionary, exterminationist violence. The Ukrainian Holodomor, catastrophic as the death from famine was, is in my reading an example of residual violence, massive death from ill-formed and vicious policies directed toward a different end than the elimination of a people or a given category of people.

3For the Hamidian regime, indeed for much of Ottoman history before and after the 1890s, the use of state violence and the deployment of military force, whether regular or irregular, was part of the governing regime. Occasionally the normal, everyday violence used to keep order, obtain revenues, fight crime or rebellion metastasized into much more systematic massacre and deportations. The Genocide itself was an extraordinary and singular example of a new regime of violence when exemplary violence gave way to excisionary violence, the state effort to eliminate whole peoples – in this case, Armenians and Assyrians – from the imperial territory – or at least to disperse them, Islamize them, marginalize them (“Let them live in the desert but nowhere else”) – in order to destroy them as a coherent and conscious people able to maintain a social, political, or even cultural existence.

  • 2 Owen Miller, “Rethinking the Violence in the Sasun Mountains (1893-1894),” Études arméniennes conte (...)

4Given the persistent Ottoman policy of using violence as a form of governance, it is understandable that historians have relied on a “continuity theory,” rather than a “rupture theory,” emphasizing the connections of the Hamidian massacres to the Genocide. Without doubt there are connections, continuities, and parallels between these two events. The perpetrators were state actors and their agents; the victims were Christian Armenians and Assyrians; the state disguised its involvement and denied its responsibilities; habits and practices of mass killing became routine and were thought to be justified; similar arguments about state security against treacherous, rebellious people were used; and both the Hamidian and Young Turk governments sought to “nationalize,” that is Islamize or even Turkify Anatolia as a secure base for the ruling people of the empire as they lost the imperial territories in the Balkans. Without effacing the different contexts and motivations between the Hamidian massacres and the Genocide, at the end of his essay on Sasun, Owen Miller summarizes the parallel processes in the two tragedies: “The underlying patterns of Ottoman centralization – the divide and rule tactics, the extraction of resources, corruption, impoverishment of communities, imprisonment of those who challenged the status quo, and terroristic violence – left hundreds dead in the mountains of Sasun in 1894. The same processes help to explain the subsequent violence in the 1890s and the Armenian Genocide twenty years later.”2

5Yet as Talat would point out, the Young Turks were much more ambitious and determined than Abdülhamid to “solve” the “Armenian Question, much more thorough and ruthless than the Red Sultan to eliminate Armenians as much as possible. The regime’s ambitions and achievements were so unique, so radical, so extreme that a new word would eventually be coined to describe this new form of excisionary violence against a designated ethnic, religious, racial group. That term was “genocide.”

  • 3 See Oded Steinberg, “The Confirmation of the Worst Fears: James Bryce, British Diplomacy and the Ar (...)

6The continuity theory has a long pedigree, and in his essay on James Bryce, Oded Steinberg relates that the dedicated liberal parliamentarian was convinced that massacres were not simply singular acts of repression but in Abdülhamid’s empire had become a long-term policy of extermination of Christians.3 As early as his 1889 parliamentary speech, Bryce told the House, “[…] The whole policy of the Turkish Government would make one believe that they were following out the principle laid down by a Turkish Prime Minister some years ago, when he said that the way to get rid of the Armenian question was to get rid of the Armenians.” Later, during the Hamidian massacres, Bryce chided the Conservative government: “But how can we remain silent when we see a Christian nation deliberately exterminated under our own eyes, and when we remember that England is primarily responsible for the maintenance of the Ottoman Empire and for the placing of the Eastern Christians under the protection of the Treaty of Berlin instead of the Treaty of San Stefano?” (January 6, 1895). Six months later, he emphasized, “The massacres of Sasun were only an instance on the larger scale of the oppressions and cruelties which had been going on in the interior for many years, and which would end, if Europe did not interfere, in the total extermination of an ancient and progressive race which had clung to its Christianity for fifteen centuries […]” (June 5, 1895). And he encouraged the aging William Gladstone to use his authority to propose the same view (August 7, 1895). “The horrible massacre at Sasun, which was absolutely unprovoked, is only the culmination of a series of outrages and oppressions. It was not an accident but the result of a deliberate purpose to exterminate the best part of the Armenian nation.” To drive the point home, he singled out the sultan’s program of forming Cossack-like Hamidiye regiments of armed Kurds to patrol the Armenian lands: “The wolves have been armed against the sheep.”

7There were certainly not only exemplary but also excisionary aspects to the Hamidian massacres, which included removal and murder of village populations, but these excisions were not carried out systematically as they would be in the Genocide. Abdülhamid encouraged and permitted officers and ordinary people to rise against the Armenians and was happy to reduce the Armenian presence in Anatolia. But I would argue that his modernizing program contained within it a conservative restorationist agenda that sought order above all. His personal paranoia reflected his own and more broadly social anxieties about unregulated change, the loss of status of Muslims domestically and the empire itself internationally, and the special position within and outside Ottoman lands of a people, the Armenians, whose talents he and others recognized and resented. Armenians had to be controlled, taught a lesson, reduced in influence and numbers, but not erased from the multicultural mosaic of the empire. Abdülhamid was an empire preserver, not an ethnonational nation maker like Kemal Atatürk.

8The Young Turks, who first emerged as a revolutionary opposition to the Hamidian regime, ironically continued Abdülhamid’s vision of imperial preservation but carried it further and to a more extreme conclusion. After initially resurrecting the constitutionalism, inclusion, and egalitarianism of the pre-Hamidian Tanzimat period, they abandoned the path to a more liberal multinational empire and gravitated toward a Muslim-Turkish dominated empire. After the January 1913 coup, Talat and Enver realized their “nationalizing” aspirations, which included the expulsion of Aegean Greeks in 1914 and the mass deportation and massacre of Armenians and Assyrians in 1915-1916.

  • 4 See Vazken K. Davidian, “Image of an Atrocity: Ivan (Hovhanness) Aivazovsky’s Massacre of the Armen (...)
  • 5 See Ali Sipahi, “Narrative Construction in the 1895 Massacres in Harput: The Coming and Disappearan (...)
  • 6 Jelle Verheij, “‘The Year of the Firman’: The 1895 Massacres in Hizan and Şirvan (Bitlis Vilayet),”(...)
  • 7 Ibid., p. 152-153.

9While the essays in these volumes range from art history – Vazken Davidian’s revealing investigation of Ivan Aivazovskii’s political paintings4 – to international affairs – the complicity of the Germans and the protests of James Bryce – the most ground-breaking research and findings fall into two categories: the reconstruction of hidden histories uncovered in local studies and the exposures of fraud and deliberate deception in the deconstruction of the narratives of the time. What emerges from the local studies is the variety of acts of violence carried out in different locations and the diversity of causes of the violence. Owen Miller shows that in the initial massacres in Sasun in 1894 that began the cycle of devastation and mass death, armed attacks by the regular army ordered by the Sultan precipitated the killings and the destruction of communities. In Harput, as Ali Sipahi and Deborah Mayersen demonstrate, the violence came from outside the city, from attacks by armed Kurds from ungoverned Dersim.5 Local authorities attempted for a time to protect the city but ultimately failed and were seen to permit acts of destruction. The Sivas massacres were a case of an urban riot, a pogrom, initiated by Muslims fearful that Armenians were gaining advantages and power from the European-imposed reforms. In earlier local studies of Diyarbakır, Jelle Verheij showed that “the anti-Armenian violence, as far as could be ascertained, emanated primarily from a local level, actively supported by the local Ottoman authorities, with the central state mainly occupying a mitigating role. In fact, the actions of the local Muslims bore the characteristics of a protest against the central state. The 1895 events in Diyarbekir, thus seemed to be more of a Muslim revolt than an Armenian one, challenging the authority of the Sultan in the city and region.”6 In his current study he finds, “The main perpetrators in the districts of Hizan and Şirvan were neither government forces nor local Muslim villagers, but (semi-) nomadic Kurdish tribes that summered in the region. These tribes were already harassing the civilian population before 1895, which fits in with a pattern in the eastern provinces more generally. Particularly after the institution of the Hamidiye, tribal Kurds everywhere felt more confident to behave as they wanted, bolstered by the aura of government sanction to their actions. That stated, though, the violence of 1895 was truly extraordinary, with tribes acting simultaneously, even in the same place.”7 Contrary to what has long been commonly believed, the Hamidiye regiments were not involved in the massacres in Sasun or Diyarbakır.

  • 8 Ibid., p. 154.

10The picture emerging is one of separate points of violence initiated or breaking out in different times at different places. Coordination from the center appears to be absent, but what links the various massacres is, first, the generalized fear of change that the anticipated reforms would bring, change that would disadvantage Muslims and give privileges, perhaps autonomy, to Armenians. A second common thread tying the cases together is the permissiveness, even encouragement and participation in many cases, of state authorities and military in the violence against Armenians and Assyrians. As Verheij puts it, the “Armenians were the (imaginary) enemy of both” the government and the actual perpetrators of the violence.8 The “Bloody Sultan” is a phantom figure in many of these studies, but the permissive atmosphere in which killing was possible was generated from above and understood below.

  • 9 See Edip Gölbaşı, “The Official Conceptualization of the anti-Armenian Riots of 1895-1897: Bureaucr (...)

11Agents of the Palace appear more clearly in the fascinating studies of narrative creation by Edip Gölbaşı and Ali Sipahi, whose findings are later collaborated in other essays. Gölbaşı begins by undermining the infamous “provocation theory,” which blamed the killings on the Armenians, turning victims into perpetrators and perpetrators into outraged, offended innocents.9 In his classic analysis of how historians from William H. Langer on employed this dubious theory, Robert Melson pioneered the exploration of historiographical narratives that condemned those who resisted oppression and defended the right of government to use its power against civilians. Gölbaşı goes further to show that the provocation theory originated at the time of the Hamidian massacres as a deliberative invention of the authorities. In what he calls “Ottoman linguistic camouflage,” Ottoman Turkish texts described the events as “disturbances,” “turmoil,” “chaos,” and “turbulence,” emphasizing spontaneous emotional responses to provocation, thus shifting the blame for violence to the actual victims. Consciousness, rationality, and planning were downgraded, and the naturalness of the response was highlighted. The passive voice was extensively used: fires broke out rather than being set. At the same time, the active voice was used to describe the actions of the Armenians, who were said to commit seditious acts and cause turmoil. The documents also shifted the guilt for the killings from the authorities to the “ignorant” and “savage” Kurds. While the officials sympathized with the emotional reaction of the ordinary Muslim folk, they claimed that they opposed the vigilante actions of the crowds. However, certain people were regularly seen as “threatening,” “unreliable,” “deviant,” “subversive,” or “troublemakers.”

12A major author of the “provocation theory” was the devious Zeki Paşa, who claimed that “Armenian intriguers (Ermeni erbab-ı mefsedeti) […] seduced and incited the entire Armenian community with the hope of realizing the idea of autonomy and provoking foreign intervention; [they] dared to attack mosques, public areas, and, in some localities, government houses,” causing “disorders” (şuriş). Muslims were rightfully outraged by the Armenians and took action as their anger erupted in a riot. One might call this the “teapot theory” of the massacres: the fire was set by the Armenians, and at a certain point the teapot boiled over (geleyan). The truth might be expressed more accurately in another metaphor, this one featuring a stew in which all kinds of disparate ingredients are included. What might have ended up as a proper meal instead turned disastrous. The cook turned up the heat and then stood back, occasionally stirring the pot, and watched as the stew boiled over.

13The “provocation theory” blames Armenian revolutionaries for the killing, and indeed there were radical activists in some places who helped to create tensions between Christians and Muslims. But, Gölbaşı concludes, there are no examples that the revolutionaries provoked violence. Rather they attempted to avoid violence, and, as Sipahi points out, massacres were more likely to occur where there were no revolutionaries than in places (like Van) where Armenian activists were more numerous. Very telling were the disproportionate number of Armenians killed, 20 to 40 times higher than the number of Muslims killed. Officials attributed this imbalance to the cowardliness of the Armenians and their inability to use guns properly in contrast to the “courage and might of the Muslims.”

  • 10 See Ali Sipahi’s article, cited above.

14Sipahi’s case study of the narrative construction of the massacres in Harput demonstrates that the narratives before, during, and after the events were significantly different. Before the massacres, most people did not expect such bloodletting to occur in a city distinguished by its mixed population. During the events the invasion of Kurdish tribesmen was seen as the primary reason for the killing, and there is no mention of Armenian provocation, which only after the massacres became the principal official explanation of the events. Yet in the post-massacre narratives the Kurds disappeared.10 Urban notables and government officials, who themselves “overlooked, supported, instigated, or even organized the massacres in different places,” chose after the fact to trivialize the catalytic effect of Kurdish invaders or local tribesmen.

  • 11 See Stefan Ihrig, “Germany and the 1890s Armenian massacres: Questions of Morality in Foreign Polic (...)

15While Armenians were being killed in the hundreds and thousands, the world watched. Three distinct reactions followed: the outrage of Christians and humanitarians at the appalling, deliberate acts against ordinary, largely defenseless people; a Realpolitik response that the states of Europe were not responsible for protecting subjects of another empire; and a strange amalgam of realism and morality that posited the civilizing mission of Europeans, particularly Germans, as justification for ignoring the plight of the Ottoman Christians and for supporting the Ottomans. Realism, rather than humanitarian intervention, won out, and there was no crusade against the crescent, as Stefan Ihrig illustrates.11 Instead of empathy, indifference would reign. Closely allied to realism was the hybrid position based on the superiority of some – Turks and Germans – and the inferiority of others – in this case, the Armenians that perversely justified mass murder. “Expressions of [German] sympathy for the Armenians,” wrote the liberal pastor Friedrich Naumann, would be “the direct cause of death.”

16In Germany many bought into the provocation thesis, blamed the Armenians for the disorders or the Great Powers for fanning the flames of chaos. Newspapers engaged in “atrocities pornography,” exploiting the horrors for commercial purposes. In much of the German press Armenians were seen as a race apart, the “Jews of the Orient,” not as fellow Christians. A singular but powerful voice, that of Johannes Lepsius, bucked the realist and racist tides and advocated, unsuccessfully, for meaningful intervention. He was met by a backlash of Armenophobic and racist responses. Since Armenians were seen as “just the same as the European Jews,” for some who used “the typically racial Anti-Semitic building blocks,” Ihrig argues, “this alone sufficed as justification for murder.” Even Pastor Naumann disparaged Armenians as bloodsucking Orientals, while identifying the fate of the Turks with that of the Germans. While Great Britain equivocated, the German Empire positioned itself as the staunchest defender of the Ottomans and Abdülhamid’s regime. In the decades leading up to World War I the Armenian Question and the fate of the Ottoman Empire became major pivots around which the Great Powers formed two hostile alliances.

17When one considers the effects of the Hamidian massacres along with their causes a dismal picture emerges. The government decided to permit, even encourage, lawlessness, targeting some of the most productive of the empire’s subjects. Those who had long exploited the peasantry, lived off the rents of those who produced agricultural goods, those who drove the productive into debt and extracted lands from those who worked it were given free rein to terrorize the Armenians and Assyrians. Tens of thousands of Christians pragmatically converted to Islam; other tens of thousands (among them my mother’s mother’s family from Diarbakir [Dikranagert]) emigrated. The government’s intentions to modernize its empire in fact encouraged backwardness. The ruined churches, the burnt out homes, the decaying medreses all testified to a policy that made the country poorer, less educated and less productive. Such policies would be repeated on a grander scale in 1915-1916, and again in the repressions of Armenians, Greeks, and Kurds in the Kemalist period. And even today, in the Turkey of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a program of authoritarian homogenization, aimed primarily at millions of Kurds, drives a country of great potential backwards into a dark future.

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1 I have borrowed this distinction from the work of David Hoffman on Stalinism.

2 Owen Miller, “Rethinking the Violence in the Sasun Mountains (1893-1894),” Études arméniennes contemporaines, no. 10, 2017/2, p. 97-123 (p. 118).

3 See Oded Steinberg, “The Confirmation of the Worst Fears: James Bryce, British Diplomacy and the Armenian Massacres of 1894-1896,” p. 15-39, in the present volume.

4 See Vazken K. Davidian, “Image of an Atrocity: Ivan (Hovhanness) Aivazovsky’s Massacre of the Armenians in Trebizond 1895,” in the present volume, p. 40-73.

5 See Ali Sipahi, “Narrative Construction in the 1895 Massacres in Harput: The Coming and Disappearance of the Kurds,” Études arméniennes contemporaines, no. 10, 2017/2, p. 63-95, and, in the same issue, Deborah Mayersen, “The 1895-1896 Armenian Massacres in Harput: Eyewitness Accounts,” p. 161-183.

6 Jelle Verheij, “‘The Year of the Firman’: The 1895 Massacres in Hizan and Şirvan (Bitlis Vilayet),” Études arméniennes contemporaines, no. 10, 2017/2, p. 125-159 (p. 127).

7 Ibid., p. 152-153.

8 Ibid., p. 154.

9 See Edip Gölbaşı, “The Official Conceptualization of the anti-Armenian Riots of 1895-1897: Bureaucratic Terminology, Official Ottoman Narrative, and Discourses of Revolutionary Provocation,” Études arméniennes contemporaines, no. 10, 2017/2, p. 33-62.

10 See Ali Sipahi’s article, cited above.

11 See Stefan Ihrig, “Germany and the 1890s Armenian massacres: Questions of Morality in Foreign Policy,” in the present volume, p. 75-92.

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Ronald Grigor Suny, « The Hamidian Massacres, 1894-1897: Disinterring a Buried History », Études arméniennes contemporaines, 11 | 2018, 125-134.

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Ronald Grigor Suny, « The Hamidian Massacres, 1894-1897: Disinterring a Buried History », Études arméniennes contemporaines [En ligne], 11 | 2018, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2018, consulté le 13 novembre 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/eac.1847

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Ronald Grigor Suny

The University of Michigan

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