Part of The Forgotten Crimes Series
In the late 19th century, the once-mighty Ottoman Empire was a mere shell of its former shelf, breaking at its seams. Nationalism and call for self-determination among its diverse subjects and the ambitions of Russia threatened to undo its very existence. Sultan Abdul Hamid II had preceded over the decaying empire, seeing the loss of most of the Balkans following a devastating defeat at the hands of Russia and overseeing various rebellions pop up within its very heartland. Wanting to undo the Empire’s decline and always paranoid of losing power, he brutally began to crackdown on dissent and by the end of his reign, in his attempt to curtail separatism, initiated one of the most condemning atrocities of the 19th century – the destruction of his own Christian subjects, chiefly Armenians. The Hamidian massacres would result in a death toll of over 300,000 and the destitution of a further half a million people.
The recent success of Russia over the Ottomans in 1878 emboldened the Armenians who long had been discriminated against within the Empire. They began calls for equal rights and greater autonomy of their homeland. But when an Armenian delegation went to the Congress of Berlin to appeal these demands to the European Powers, the paranoid Sultan viewed this a sign of Armenian conspiring with Russia. The Sultan feared the possibility of a successful Armenian uprising and secession of the Eastern provinces, which risked cutting the Empire in half and exposing the heartlands.
What soon followed was the wholesale looting, murder and violence against Armenians across the Empire as the Sultan’s government incited and armed the local Kurds against their Armenian neighbors. Joined by Turkish soldiers, they were given free rein as the government began purging.
The massacres were indiscriminate, particularly with the Ottoman regular forces observing no distinction between the victims’ age or sex and often performed such acts in the most sadistic fashion. American journalist, William Sachtleben, writing for The Times, recounted a scene of a recent killing in these grisly words:
Along the wall on the north… lay 321 dead bodies of the massacred Armenians. Many were fearfully mangled and mutilated. I saw one with his face completely smashed in with a blow of some heavy weapon after he was killed. I saw some with their own necks almost severed by a sword cut. One I saw whose whole chest had been skinned, his fore-arms were cut off, while the upper arm was skinned of flesh. I asked if the dogs had done this. “No, the Turks did it with their knives.” A dozen bodies were half burned. All the corpses had been rifled of all their clothes except a cotton undergarment or two….To be killed in battle by brave men is one thing; to be butchered by cowardly armed soldiers in cold blood and utterly defenseless is another.
Despite the best attempts of the Sultan to censor information, news of the massacres eventually broke out outside the Empire. Following strong international condemnation, the Sultan declared the end to the “Armenian Question” and the killings died down by 1897. The New York Times described the attempted genocide as a “Holocaust”, the first usage of the term. The Hamidan massacres were certainly a precedent for what was to follow in the decades ahead as ultra-nationalism slowly crept its roots across Europe and the Old Order crumbled.