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 Armenian Reform Issue as a Prelude to Impending Genocide

 In the continuum of the era of Armenian massacres spanning the regimes of Hamit and the Young Turks, there is discernible a pattern of centrally directed organization. Whereas a palace camarilla was involved in the former case, in the latter a conspiratorial clique holding sway in the upper echelons of the CUP stands out. In both cases, the organizers had managed to gain the upper hand in control of the state's key apparatuses. The steady deterioration of the plight of the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire and the intensification of the attendant Turkish-Armenian conflict coincide with the onset of a new policy of Turkish nationalism this CUP regime adopted. Pursuant to this policy, the CUP initiated a series of steps. To expand its base and acquire new resources, Mehmet Talaat, the CUP's party boss and frequent interior minister, established new party cells and clubs throughout the length and breadth of the empire. Additionally, it acquired substantial power by co-opting a significant number of army officers, many of who actually enrolled in the ranks of the CUP as active party members. In the meantime, the CUP's Central Committee, a kind of politburo, underwent a major structural change. After increasing the number of its members from seven to twelve, the top party leaders allowed three men to forge and inexorably carry out a new policy on nationalities, whereby the empire would be purged of its non-Muslim elements by way of supplanting multiethnic Ottomanism with exclusionary Turkism. Most significant, these three men—the MDs Behaeddin Sakir and Mehmet Nazim, and party ideologue, Ziya Gokalp—within a few years, namely, during World War I, would prove the principal architects of the Armenian Genocide.

 A new crisis in the Balkan Peninsula, one involving the explosion of war in a brewing conflict with Christian subjects on that peninsula, brought matters to a head. Responding to two ghastly massacres the Ottoman rulers had perpetrated in Macedonia in the summer of 1912, the Greeks, Serbs, and Bulgarians, former Ottoman subjects, set aside their disputes on Macedonia and jointly declared war. Within weeks the Ottoman armies were roundly defeated, and Ottoman dominion in the Balkans came to a devastating end as tens of thousands of destitute Muslims fled and took refuge in all corners of Constantinople, then the capital of the empire. It was under these bleak circumstances that the various leadership groups of the Armenian community decided to resuscitate once more the languishing Armenian reform issue. Delegations were sent to the European capitals; their pleas served to mobilize Great Powers to pressure Turkey for the adoption of a new reform scheme. Following arduous and exacting negotiations, the CUP leadership felt impelled to sign a new reform accord on February 8, 1914, which for the first time stipulated European supervision and control of the accord's implementation.

 Having gained total control of the machinery of the Ottoman state through a second coup d'etat on January 23, 1913, the CUP leaders in no time became monolithic dictatorial masters of the empire after having purged virtually all opposition groups. Vested with this enormous power, they set out to implement their plan of coercive Turkification, with the Armenians becoming the prime target. The CUP prepared themselves for this task and waited for a suitable opportunity, which eventually came with the outbreak of World War I.

 The enormity of the crime of genocide accents the importance of contextualizing that crime. War in this sense provides a unique context in which opportunism and exculpatory self-righteousness dynamically converge to motivate and even embolden the arch perpetrators. While the optimal vulnerability of the targeted victim group is the source of the opportunity, the perils of defeat implicit in any war are often used as a rationale, if not justification, for resorting to draconian measures against such a group, which almost invariably is denounced as "the internal foe" by these perpetrators. This is the general framework within which the World War I Armenian Genocide must be understood.


Several major military defeats the Ottoman armies suffered in the winter and spring of 1915, including those of Sarikamis and Dilman, were conveniently attributed to the military role of Armenian volunteer units enrolled in the enemy Russian Caucasus Army; three units were comprised, in part, of soldiers who were former Ottoman citizens. The April 1915 Van uprising, which the Armenians mounted to resist the impending massacre of that province's Armenian population, further provided the needed ammunition to declare the Armenians an internal foe. The stage was set to embark on the plan of wholesale extermination.

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