A Culture of Impunity and anti-Armenian Violence at the Turn of the Twentieth Century


Edip Gölbaşı

Simon Fraser University


The Ottoman imperial capital, Istanbul, and more than thirty-five towns in the empire’s Anatolian provinces saw major outbreaks of anti-Armenian violence between September 1895 and March 1897. Widely known as “the Hamidian massacres,” these catastrophic events claimed the lives of thousands of Ottoman Armenians during the reign of Abdülhamid II (r. 1876-1909). In spite of their immense historico-political significance, these episodes of extreme violence have inexplicably remained understudied to date. This paper is based on the first comprehensive study of the origins, dynamics, scope, and nature of this violence. Based on extensive archival research, my study clearly demonstrates that, contrary to widely held beliefs, the anti-Armenian riots of 1895-1897 were not orchestrated, instigated, or even sanctioned by the Ottoman government. However, as this paper argues, the policy makers in Istanbul and local government officials at all levels created the immediate conditions that enabled, facilitated, and sustained the outbreaks of violence. Above all, the anti-Armenian outlook and measures of the Hamidian regime not only contributed to the emergence of a violent sociopolitical climate in the empire’s Armenian-populated provinces, but it also created a permissive context for violence by cultivating a pervasive culture of impunity which rested on the assumption of state and non-state actors that violence against Armenians would go unchecked and unpunished. Also, during the initial stages of the riots, the central and local government authorities’ handling of the situation reinforced the widespread popular conviction that the government itself encouraged and permitted violence. The lack of accountability for these crimes subsequently perpetuated this underlying sense of justification for anti-Armenian violence at the turn of the twentieth century. In this connection, this paper will also reflect upon possibilities of a non-teleological interpretation of the pogroms of the 1890s and the genocidal violence committed against Ottoman Armenians during the First World War.