Among the countless instances of violence observed during the First World War, the extermination of the Armenians constitutes the bloodiest episode that affected the civilian population: around 1.5 million people lost their lives in 1915-1916—victims of the Young Turk regime (Cf. infra, “The Consequences of Mass Violence”). The context of war—with Turkey on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary—created propitious conditions for a massive outburst of violence and allowed for the legitimization of measures that were inconceivable in times of peace. Between April and September of 1915, the 3000-year-old Armenian land—the Armenian provinces of the East and of Asia Minor—were methodically emptied of their population—wiped off the map—in the space of a few months.
The Young Turk Committee was strongly influenced by a Europe racked by extreme nationalist movements but still dominated by liberal governments. It was the first nationalist party to rise to power that would conceptualize and execute a program of extermination against a segment of its population which had previously, as a social body, been excluded as an “internal enemy.” This destruction was carried out as a necessary condition of the formation of the Turkish Nation-State.
For decades, this crime has not been the object of any study acknowledging it as such, but has, in response, engendered a vast literature of accounts almost exclusively published in Armenian. This corpus of works shows the individual and collective experience of the victims, but has remained inexorably confined to the Armenian world. The material only took shape with the bringing to light of the contents of the archives of Germany, Austria-Hungary (States allied with Turkey), and the United States (a neutral country), as well as the instructional records prepared after the Mudros Armistice, which put an end to the war with the Ottoman Empire.
Official documents, laws of deportation and confiscation of “abandoned properties”, statistics, examinations of high-ranking officers, orders by coded telegram, and martial court archives from the years 1915-1916 constitute an invaluable collection for the documentation of the extermination procedures. We nevertheless remain dependent upon the memoirs of some high-ranking cadres of the Young Turk party (Committee of Union and Progress—CUP) and its paramilitary wing, the Special Organization, in charge of the execution of the extermination program, in order to understand the decision-making process. Only a few documents emanating from the central Young Turk committee and its armed wing are known to this day.
The escalation of nationalist movements and the mass violence associated with them, which affected other groups (Syrian Christians, Jacobites, Chaldeans, etc.), and which included Kurds as well, will be treated in other chronological indexes.
Although the subsciption of the Young Turks to Social Darwinism (the theory of the application to humans of the survival-of-the-fittest in the animal world) had convinced them that the construction of the Turkish nation would be realized through the elimination of the Armenians, the central Young Turk Committee had envisaged leaving certain groups of Armenians alive so that they could better integrate them into their program to turkify Asia Minor. Young children, particularly girls, along with younger and older women were destined to reinforce the Turkish nation upon a ritual of integration into the dominant group, which subscribed to the religion of Islam. According to the expression of one Young Turk official, young Armenian girls that had a certain level of education were to help accelerate the modernization of the family and of Turkish society. An inventory of many accounts demonstrates that the nationalist Young Turk ideology was more about a discrimination against the collective identity of a group than a rejection of individual biology as was later practiced by the Nazi regime.
Another aspect of the Young Turk project concerns the usurpation of the individual and collective property of Ottoman Armenians accompanying the attempts to form a Turkish middle-class of businessmen, practically inexistent before. This program, named Millî İktisat (“National Economy”), theorized by the regime ideologist Ziya Gökalp, included the socio-economic element of crime, which is at the same time an instrument of justification and incitement. It appeared that this practice mostly benefited the Young Turk elite and the State-party, but also was to assist all sectors of society, particularly those engaged in the Young Turk movement, without significantly parting from the extremist ideology of its leadership. The lure of income had undoubtedly contributed to the radicalization of men who, in other circumstances, would never have participated in such acts.
An inventory of those especially accountable in this program of extermination—civilian and military officials or local notables—allows us to confirm that those most heavily implicated in acts of mass violence were often marginalized groups, including minorities from the Caucasus, particularly Circassians and Chechens, along with nomadic Kurdish tribes (and less often settled villagers). The nine members of the Central Committee, and particularly the Minister of the Interior, Mehmed Talat, and the Minister of War, İsmail Enver, along with Dr. Ahmed Nazım and Bahaeddin Şakir, were the chief instigators of the extermination of the Armenian population. They were condemned to death in abstentia in 1919 by the military tribunal in Istanbul.