To what extent was the Armenian Genocide a result of Turkey’s entry into the First World War?
Between 1915 and 1923 over 1 million Armenians were systematically murdered by the ailing state mechanism of the Ottoman Empire. Although the majority of these deaths occurred between 1915 and 1917, protracted efforts on the part of Turkish authorities resulted in mass deportations and forced marches for five years after the conclusion of the First World War.
The Armenian genocide has a special significance in the historical study of mass murder. Firstly, the systematic destruction outlined above represents the first concrete example of genocide in modern world history. Furthermore, although almost a century has now passed, the modern state of Turkey continues to repudiate suggestions that the genocide even occurred. Thus, in terms of historical assessment, the Armenian genocide represents a unique and divisive source of historical investigation. In the terms of general historical study, numerous issues relating to the Armenian genocide have given rise to vehement and concerted debate. Foremost among these is the ability to accurately and comprehensively account for the causal factors that led to the genocide. In many respects, the determinations and conclusions one proffers on this subject are often subjected to historical and academic conjecture. Above all, divergence and diversity personify the underlying factors which led to the genocide undertaken against the Armenians and as a consequence the wider historical debate.
Given the above, the purpose of this work is to assess and examine the primary causal factors which can be utilised as a means of explaining the Armenian genocide. Although such causes are undoubtedly diverse, it is nonetheless possible to account for the Armenian genocide through reference to a number of central factors. Foremost among these is the First World War. Above all, the global conflict which tore apart the fabric of the European political order had a direct and unequivocal impact upon the development of increased self-determination in the old European empires. In addition, on a wider analytical level, it is possible to account for general trends which forge a direct link between the onset of genocide and the presence of war. Thus, in accounting for the Armenian genocide through reference to Turkeys entry into the First World War, it is possible to view this specific instance of genocide within the wider understanding of mass murder carried out by a centralised state mechanism.
As such, this work offers concurrence to the suggestion that Turkey’s entry into the First World War played a direct role in bringing about the Armenian genocide. This thesis will be propelled through reference to the suggestions made above, in particular the degree to which military catastrophe in the war itself led to the eventual disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. This disintegration played a pivotal role in the willingness of minority religious groups within the Empire to actively propel their hopes of self-determination or independence. As such, were it not for the onset of world war, it is doubtful whether the Armenian genocide would have occurred, especially at this specific time.
Nonetheless, although this work is formed on the thesis that Turkey’s entry into the First World War was pivotal in bringing about the Armenian genocide, it remains essential to account for alternative arguments and assertions. In particular, protracted historical debate has raged as to whether the Armenians themselves played a central role in provoking the response undertaken by the Turkish authorities, most notably the Young Turks. In many respects, such arguments can be linked with the war itself; however, alternative viewpoints argue that ideological motivations on the part of the perpetrators move away from the centrality of the war. Thus, in the interests of balance and academic objectivity it is vital that competing assumptions such as these are given full expression. Nevertheless, the presence of these arguments does nothing to fundamentally alter the thesis upon which this work is based.
It is first essential to highlight the intrinsic link between war and genocide. In the historiography of genocide, a plethora of historians have suggested an innate link between the presence of war and the occurrence of genocide. In assessing such assumptions, a degree of comparative assessment is clearly necessary. Indeed, comparative analysis placing the Armenian genocide within the broader context of historical investigation into occurrences of genocide does much to enhance and propel the thesis of this work.
Shaw suggests that that through comparative historical assessment it is possible to see a clear and innate link between war and genocide. The comparison undertaken utilises the examples of the Holocaust and Rwanda, in addition to that of Armenia. Naturally, the features of each genocide differ at many points, nonetheless, the presence of war acts as a unifying factor in all three. Shaw suggests that the onset of war has the capacity to lead to genocide because of the centralised state mechanisms which direct wider political and social processes in times of national crises. Naturally, underlying issues such as racial, ethnic or religious difference do often act as the foundation on which the propagation of genocide occurs. Nonetheless, the centrality of war in three leading examples of genocide in the twentieth century does much to enhance the suggested link between war and genocide.
Remaining with comparative assessment, it is of course essential to point out that certain instances of genocide have occurred without the presence of war. For example, Jones suggests that the widespread and devastating famine brought about in China as a result of Mao Te Sung’s Great Leap Forward can essentially be viewed as an act of genocide on the part of the Chinese state. Moreover, like in China, the Cambodian genocide between 1975 and 1979 took place in the absence of widespread military conflict. However, determinations such as this merely serve to exemplify the diversity which exists in the historical study of genocide. Thus, although it may be problematic to argue that the occurrence of war is a direct causal factor in all cases of genocide, it is certainly credible to suggest that war does act as a central causal factor in many instances of genocide. Indeed, both the Holocaust and Rwanda directly serve to support this assumption.
As such, if one is to conclude that there is often an innate link between war and genocide, where is the applicable relevance in the case of the Armenian genocide? As suggested above, it is credible to suggest that Turkey’s entry into the First World War played a direct role in bringing about the Armenian genocide. Above all, prior to the onset of the war, the Ottoman Empire which had dominated the South East of Europe and the Middle East for centuries was beginning to show signs of severe dilapidation. The consistent suggestion made at the time as that the Empire was “the sick man of Europe”. This derogatory assumption denotes a wide array of problematic internal issues facing the Empire at the point where Europe descended into war. In particular, Kincross suggests that in the decades prior to 1914, the centralised Ottoman authority in Constantinople had been beset by a series of potential revolutionary movements in parts of the Empire where ethnic and religious minorities sought to propel agendas aimed at self-determination. Although historically the Empire had accepted the presence of religious and ethnic diversity within its borders, numerous attempts had been made to counter potential opposition to Ottoman rule through the direct intervention of the central state. As such, given the relatively weak position in which the Ottoman Empire was placed in 1914, combined with the increased willingness of minority groups to propel agendas of self-determination and independence, direct involvement in a long protracted European war would inevitably heighten existing tensions.
Kincross suggests that as the First World War progressed, the aging Ottoman Empire effectively began to crumble. Centralised political and social processes which had existed for centuries were no longer effective in maintaining control and direction over troublesome regions of the Empire. Moreover, in 1908, a revolution undertaken by the Young Turks had rocked the political foundations of the traditional Ottoman style of imperial governance. Given this, as the central Ottoman authority began to lose control over the internal processes in certain Ottoman lands, groups hoping to propel movements towards self-determination began to actively utilise Ottoman weaknesses brought about as a result of military calamity in the war. In the case of the Armenians, Hovannisian suggests that long standing hopes of independence from the Ottoman state essentially centred on the discriminatory laws applied to the Armenians, which prevented them from progressing through the political, social and administrative processes of the Empire. As such, Hovannisian argues that underlying wishes of independence on the part of the Armenians were present long before the onset of world war. Nonetheless, as the war began to affect the ability of the Ottoman Empire to control historically troublesome regions, revolutionary groups within these regions began to actively pursue revolutionary aims. In the case of the Armenians, direct revolutionary tendencies first began to emerge in the latter nineteenth century and systematically progressed over proceeding decades. By 1914, revolutionary vigour in the Armenian region was well established and inevitably sought to exploit Ottoman and Turkish weaknesses brought about as a result of involvement in the war.
As such, through reference to the above discussion it is clearly possible to see the degree to which Ottoman and Turkish weaknesses brought about as a result of entry into the war played a direct role fostering the necessary climate in which revolutionary tendencies in the Armenian population could be vented. Moreover, with regards to the Ottomans, and the Turkish authorities that largely replaced them following the war, Bloxham argues that military calamities in the war led to increased fear that the sanctity of the state itself was in question. The consequent responses undertaken by Turkish authorities against potential and real insurrection by the Armenians can be argued to be consistent with other instances of genocide. Indeed, in returning to comparative assessment, Valentino suggests that Nazi willingness to carry out the objectives of the ‘final solution’ intensified markedly as the war progressed. Thus, as the allies began to gradually defeat Germany militarily from mid 1943 onwards, the actions undertaken against the Jews increased both in scale and severity.
As such, through both comparative assessment and direct examination of the Armenian case, it is certainly credible to argue that there exists a clear link between the onset of war and occurrence of genocide. Numerous suggestions proffered above have pointed to the increased militancy and revolutionary actions of the part of the Armenians. Indeed, there is no doubt that the Armenians themselves directly sought to capitalise on the weaknesses faced by the Ottomans as a result of the war. This willingness to exploit Ottoman and Turkish weakness has been cited as a central factor in leading to the actions undertaken by Turkish authorities. In the general historiography of the Armenian genocide, numerous authorities have attempted to forge a link between the increased militancy of Armenian groups and the onset of widespread genocide. This outlook is usually termed the “provocation thesis” and centres on the assumption that Armenian opposition to the Ottomans and then the Turks, acted as the overarching factor in the occurrence of genocide. Thus, it is essential to the aims and objectives of this work that this issue is assessed in detail.
In comparative studies of genocide much as been made of the distinction between the actions of the perpetrators and those of the victims. In the case of the Holocaust, Dadrian suggests that ideological motivations on the part of the Nazis played a central role in the onset of genocide, as opposed to the overt actions of Jewish communities in Germany and Eastern Europe. However, in the case of the Armenian genocide, the widespread assumption proffered is that it was the actions and activities of the victims that led to the onset and further propagation of genocide. This interpretation rose to prominence in the 1970s and 1980s, as increased studies were undertaken into the Armenian genocide. Above all, the general theme of the provocation thesis argues that the Turkish authorities could in no way accept the possibility of the secession of Armenian lands, primarily because of the central importance of these lands for the emerging state of Turkey. As such, the provocation thesis essentially views the emerging conflict between central Turkish authorities and the Armenians as nationally based opposition founded on differences in religion. Indeed, much as been made of the religious issue and the degree to which the prevailing Christianity among the Armenians propelled the vigour of Turkish Muslim authorities to undertake acts of genocide. As hinted, the issues relating to religious difference are only useful when utilised as foundations on which overt enmity could be manifest on the part of the Turks.
In furtherance of the above, Melson suggests that the central assumption of the provocation thesis suggests that the Armenian genocide essentially occurred because the threat posed by the Armenians was intolerable for both Ottoman and Turkish authorities. The Eastern provinces of the Ottoman Empire constituted the central areas where Armenian opposition grew steadily from the latter nineteenth century onwards. However, although these areas were of paramount importance for the Ottomans, they were central to the proposed homeland of the future state of Turkey. Therefore, on the basis of the provocation thesis, it may in certain respects be tenuously possible argue that provocation on the part of the Armenians left Turkish authorities with little option but to engage in overt and deliberate attack against the Armenian population.
The implicit suggestion contained within the provocation thesis is that geographical differences made the Armenian case different to that of other indigenous and national groups in the Ottoman Empire. As suggested earlier, in the years prior to the onset of the First World War increased nationalism became a consistent feature within Ottoman lands. As such, various national groups such as Greeks, Arabs, Romanians and Serbs all sought to propel aims of self-determination, autonomous independence or complete cessation. Naturally, these nationalist movements represented a clear and determined threat to both the Ottomans and the Turks. However, in offering a fair measure of concurrence with the provocation thesis, Bloxham argues that nationalistic tendencies within the Armenian population posed a far greater risk. The central reason for this increased risk was suggested above as being the geographical necessity of Armenian lands, particularly for the emerging state of Turkey. Moreover, the fact that only Armenians were subject to deliberate state practices of mass murder would seem to provide verification to this assumption. However, even if one does offer credence to this assumption and the tenets of the provocation thesis in general, it nonetheless remains possible to draw a direct link between provocation on the part of the Armenians and the development Turkey’s involvement in the First World War.
In forging a link between the provocative tendencies of the Armenians, the occurrence of genocide and the wider connotations of the First World War, the issue of geography is once again essential. Above all, the geographical location of the Armenian lands posed a serious dilemma to the Young Turks. In addition to the fact that these lands may in future constitute a central part of the Turkish state, the borders with Russia was perhaps the most serious issue. Above all, the onset of the First World War led to the possibility of high levels of military conflict between the Ottoman and Russian empires. Lewy suggests that if a Russian attack on the Ottoman Empire was to occur, it was likely that it would come through the border area which separated the Armenians from the Southern reaches of the Russian Empire. Thus, the prevailing concern among Turkish authorities was the possibility of an alliance between Russia and Armenian nationalist forces. Lewy argues that this fear led directly to the mass deportations which began in late 1915 and continued unabated for over two years. Therefore, on the basis of this assessment, it is clearly possible to see how the wider connotations and impact of the First World War acted as a direct factor in the consequent application of genocide by Turkish authorities.
As such, the above discussions highlight the degree to which the provocation thesis can be directly applied in relation to the analytical objectives of this work. Firstly, Turkish entry into the war meant that the ailing structures of the Ottoman Empire came under sustained pressure. Thus, as a result of this pressure nationalist groups like the Armenians felt themselves in a stronger position to propel their nationalist agendas. Furthermore, it is also clearly possible to argue that the possibility of a Russian/Armenian alliance propelled the necessity for the Turks to actively address the Armenian question. Nonetheless, although the provocation thesis has a plethora of explanatory benefits, it is still necessary to account for divergent points of view on this issue.
Akcam suggests that the provocation thesis lacks prescriptive applicability in the case of the Armenian genocide because it woefully overestimates the role played by Armenian nationalism. Conversely, the provocation thesis pays little if any attention to the issue of Turkish nationalism. Akcam suggests that the Turkish revolution in 1908 directly led to a wholesale reassessment of the nationalist mentality of Muslims living in Turkish regions. As such, the mentality changed from that of the pan-Muslim identification exemplified by the Ottomans, to that of an overt identity on the basis of Turkish nationalism. This viewpoint therefore asserts that the Turks themselves propelled the genocide against the Armenians because of a willingness to enhance their own nationalist agenda rather than preventing the development of the Armenian nationalist cause. In many respects, the wider contours of this assumption reduce the significance of Turkey’s entry into the First World War as being a central factor behind the genocide, primarily because innate Turkish discrimination against the Armenians had little correlation with the war itself. Akcam suggests that the war may have exacerbated nationalist tendencies in Turkey; however, the underlying factors which led to the genocide undertaken against the Armenians were present long before the outbreak of war in 1914.
Nonetheless, even though the above discussions attempt in some measure of dismiss the centrality of the war, the thesis of this work remains determined that the onset of war and Turkey’s involvement led directly to the subsequent genocide undertaken against the Armenians. Suggestions of Turkish enmity directed at the Armenians on the basis of the better education and wealth of the latter may have some credence, however, although these underlying issues are important as explanatory factors, the primacy of the war and its impact remains undiminished. It is, of course, essential to bear in mind the role played by ideological assumptions on the part of the Young Turks. In particular, Dadrian suggests that a consistent feature of genocides is ideological discrimination placed upon the victims by the perpetrators. In relation to Turkish assumptions with regards to the Armenians, there is credence to the suggestion that ideological preconceptions did play a role in fostering the necessary enmity to commit genocide; however, such preconceptions always remained based on the assumption of Turkish nationalism, as opposed to the social Darwinism of the holocaust.
Above all, this work has aimed to highlight the fact that Turkish entry into the First World War acted as a central factor in the Armenian genocide. This thesis has been propelled through the application of a number of arguments. In particular, the pressure placed upon both Turkey and the Ottoman Empire by the onset of war allowed existing nationalist tendencies among minority groups to increase markedly. Indeed, this was certainly the outcome in relation to the Armenians. Furthermore, Turkish fears over a possible alliance between Russia and the Armenians were pivotal in the process which led to the first mass deportations. It was these deportations which led to the consequent genocide, thus, the link between war, deportation and genocide is not only credible but directly supportable through reference to historical events. In some respects the provocation thesis distances itself from the centrality of the war in bringing about genocide against the Armenians. Nonetheless, if one is to concur with the suggestion that overt Armenian nationalism provoked the Turks to undertake the actions they did, it is unquestionable that the virility of this nationalism grew exponentially as a result of the onset and wider connotations of the war.
Finally, it is vital to reassert the necessity of placing the Armenian genocide within the broader historical study of genocide in general. Naturally, cases of genocide in the absence of war can be found. However, many of these do not conform to the standard definitions one would apply to genocide, in particular the mass famines in Ukraine during the 1920s, or during Mao’s Great Leap Forward. Ultimately, the link between war and genocide has been effectively established on a number of occasions and through direct reference to specific case study examples. Thus, the conclusion of this work remains that the Armenian genocide came about as a direct result of Turkish entry into the First World War. Underlying issues were present long before 1914; nonetheless, it is questionable whether in the absence of war, the same horrific outcomes would have occurred.
Adalian, Rouben. Armenian Genocide: resource guide. New York: Routledge, 1988.
Adalian, Rouben. ‘The Armenian Genocide: context and legacy’, Social Education, 55 (2), pp. 99-104.
Akcam, Taner. From Empire to Republic: Turkish nationalism and the Armenian genocide. New York: Z Books, 2004.
Akcam, Taner. A Shameful Act: the Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility. New York: Henry Holt, 2007.
Bloxham, Donald. The Great Game of Genocide: imperialism, nationalism and the destruction of the Ottoman Armenians. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Bloxham, Donald. ‘Rethinking the Armenian Genocide’, History Today (2005) 55 (6), pp. 28-30.
Dadrian, Vahakn N. ‘Patterns of Twentieth Century Genocides: the Armenian, Jewish, and Rwandan Cases. Journal of Genocide Research (2004) 6 (4), pp. 487-522.
Gellately, Robert and Kiernan, Ben. The Spectre of Genocide: mass murder in historical perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Jones, Adam. Genocide: a comprehensive introduction. London: Taylor & Francis, 2010.
Kincross, Lord. The Ottoman Centuries: the rise and fall of the Turkish Empire. London: Morrow, 1979.
Lewy, Guenter. The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey: a disputed genocide. New York: Routledge.
Hovannisian, Richard, G. The Armenian Genocide: history, politics and ethics. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1992.
Hovannisian, Richard, G. The Armenian Genocide in Perspective. New York: Transaction, 1987.
Melson, Robert. ‘Revolutionary Genocide: on the causes of the Armenian genocide of 1915 and the Holocaust’, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, (1989) 4 (2), pp. 161-174.
Melson, Robert. Revolution and Genocide: on the origins of the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
Palmer, Alan Warwick. The Decline and Fall of the Ottoman Empire. New York: M. Evans, 1992.
Shaw, Martin. War and Genocide: organised killing in modern society. London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2003.
Valentino, Benjamin, A. Final Solutions: mass killing and genocide in the twentieth century. New York: Cornell University Press, 2004.
 Accurately providing figures in genocide is a most troublesome task. In the case of the Armenian genocide, estimates vary from 1 to 1.5 million deaths.
 Richard G. Hovannisian. The Armenian Genocide in Perspective (New York: Transaction, 1987), p. 8.
 Taner Akcam. A Shameful Act: the Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility (New York: Henry Holt, 2007), p. 19.
 Guenter Lewy. The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey: a disputed genocide (New York: Routledge), p. 35.
 The Young Turks represented a group of nationalists formed from a diverse demographic. Members thus included nationalists, pluralists, and secularists. The primary aim of the Young Turks was to reform the ailing Ottoman Empire along European lines and firmly establish the primacy of Turkey.
 Robert Gellately and Ben Kiernan. The Spectre of Genocide: mass murder in historical perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 41.
 Martin Shaw. War and Genocide: organised killing in modern society (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2003), p. 14.
 Ibid, 7.
 Adam Jones. Genocide: a comprehensive introduction (London: Taylor & Francis, 2010), p. 98.
 Alan Warwick Palmer. The Decline and Fall of the Ottoman Empire (New York: M. Evans, 1992), p. 143.
 Lord Kincross. The Ottoman Centuries: the rise and fall of the Turkish Empire (London: Morrow, 1979), p. 165.
 Ibid, 170.
 Richard G. Hovannisian. The Armenian Genocide: history, politics and ethics (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1992), P. 53.
 Ibid, 67.
 Donald Bloxham. ‘Rethinking the Armenian Genocide’, History Today (2005) 55 (6), p. 29.
 Benjamin A. Valentino. Final Solutions: mass killing and genocide in the twentieth century (New York: Cornell University Press, 2004), p. 103.
 Donald Bloxham. The Great Game of Genocide: imperialism, nationalism and the destruction of the Ottoman Armenians (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 93.
 Vahakn N. Dadrian. ‘Patterns of Twentieth Century Genocides: the Armenian, Jewish, and Rwandan Cases. Journal of Genocide Research (2004) 6 (4), p. 496.
 Ibid, 492.
 Rouben Adalian. Armenian Genocide: resource guide (New York: Routledge, 1988), p. 13.
 Taner Akcam. From Empire to Republic: Turkish nationalism and the Armenian genocide (New York: Z Books, 2004), p. 56.
 Robert Melson. ‘Revolutionary Genocide: on the causes of the Armenian genocide of 1915 and the Holocaust’, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, (1989) 4 (2), p. 164.
 Ibid, 166-167.
 Alan Warwick Palmer. The Decline and Fall of the Ottoman Empire (New York: M. Evans, 1992), p. 119.
 Donald Bloxham. The Great Game of Genocide: imperialism, nationalism and the destruction of the Ottoman Armenians (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 126.
 Guenter Lewy. The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey: a disputed genocide (New York: Routledge), p. 77.
 Ibid, 79.
 Taner Akcam. From Empire to Republic: Turkish nationalism and the Armenian genocide (New York: Z Books, 2004), p. 28.
 Ibid, 33.
 Ibid, 35-37.
 Ibid, 31.
 Vahakn N. Dadrian. ‘Patterns of Twentieth Century Genocides: the Armenian, Jewish, and Rwandan Cases. Journal of Genocide Research (2004) 6 (4), p. 499.
 Ibid, 503.