Diyarbekir (1915-1916): Young Turk Mass Killings at the Provincial Level

25 March, 2009
Ungor Ugur Umit

During the First World War, the Young Turkish dictatorship deported and destroyed the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire. Estimates of the numbers of victims range from 800,000 to over 1,000,000. This case study explores the genocide as it developed in the southeastern Ottoman province Diyarbekir. It will provide an overview of the context, including the perpetrators, victims, and witnesses involved in the process, and focus on aspects of memory.

A. Context

The genocide of Ottoman Armenians developed out of the dynamic interplay of three alternate forces and processes: the profound political crisis affecting the Ottoman Empire, the Young Turk Revolution and the First World War.

On October 17, 1912, Serbia, Montenegro, Greece and Bulgaria declared war on the Ottoman Empire out of discontent with its rule and in the hope of possible territorial expansion. The Ottoman Army decisively lost the war and within months the Empire was heavily truncated for good. The defeat in the Balkan Wars (1912-13) plunged the Ottoman Empire into an existential political crisis. The total and permanent loss of the Balkan peninsula was a watershed that affected the very ontology of the Empire, and it is no exaggeration to say that the effect of the losses on Ottoman society was nothing short of apocalyptic. The loss of major Ottoman cities, enormous amounts of property, countless human lives, and honor was unbearable for a proud Ottoman elite who were dismayed at the helplessness of the Imperial Army. The shock of the war would have a severe and lasting impact on Ottoman society, culture and identity. From 1913 on, the hitherto universal Ottoman identity was no longer seen as feasible by hardliners in the political arena. The wars had not only accelerated the long-term shift of the empire’s demographic composition in favor of Muslims, their loss also bolstered the myth of the Christian “stab in the back”, part of a general discourse of non-Muslim treason and disloyalty. The deep suspicion cast on Christian loyalty to the Ottoman Empire would remain pertinent for years to come (Ginio, 2005).

A second event that contributed to the radicalization and brutalization of Turkish politics was the Young Turk Revolution of January 23, 1913. The Young Turk regime was never elected into power, but seized it through a violent coup d’état. It proceeded to install a single-party dictatorship by silencing or destroying all opposition and filling the ranks of the Ottoman state bureaucracy with loyal Young Turks. Moreover, the revolutionary regime had been born in the midst of a total war, a conjuncture that substantially reduced traditional constraints on state power and greatly heightened the potential and willingness of Young Turk leaders to deploy massive coercion in their bid to transform a multi-ethnic Ottoman society into a homogeneous Turkish Nation-State. The revolution in turn engendered profound fears of counter-revolution based on internal instability and external threats, a combination of factors which gave birth to a permanent state of emergency. Throughout their rule, the Young Turks attempted to ward off this permanent political crisis by using coercion and violence against parts of their own population. Furthermore, violence became a normal tool of statecraft for the regime since it never enjoyed widespread support among the population (Zürcher, 2000).

The Young Turk Party, the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), came to power in 1913, and a generation of Young Turk officers and politicians continued to rule Turkey arguably up to 1950. The regime that ruled from 1913 to 1918 has often been called a “triumvirate”, consisting of the Young Turk nationalists Mehmed Talaat (1874-1921), Ismail Enver (1881-1922), and Ahmed Cemal (1872-1922). There is some truth to this claim, Talaat became Minister of the Interior and later Grand Vizier, Enver was promoted to Minister of War, and Cemal became Minister of the Navy and later Viceroy of Syria. However, a more accurate and sophisticated account of the regime would be that the Young Turk Party consisted of an inner circle of about 50 men. This core was comprised of certain factions, dominated mostly by Talaat and Enver, and to a lesser extent by Cemal. Local party bosses called “Responsible Secretaries” or “Inspectors”, as well as Young Turk Provincial Governors wielded considerable, relatively autonomous, power. The doctors Bahaeddin Shakir (1874-1922) and Mehmed Nazim (1872-1926) were also influential and exercised power from behind the scenes. The party ideologue, the sociologist Mehmed Ziya Gökalp (1876-1924), was an intimate member of the inner circle and his nationalist ideas were highly influential in the shaping of CUP population politics. But the Young Turk dictatorship was not a perfectly harmonious Moloch. There was considerable rivalry and intrigue within the dictatorship, most notably between Enver and the army versus Talaat and the Interior Ministry. Bureaucrats at all levels competed to satisfy their superiors’ desires and invent solutions to lingering problems and questions. In addition to rivalry, ideology too was contested at times (Hanioglu, 2006).

Finally, and most importantly, the outbreak of the First World War was an unexpected but fatal development for the Ottoman Christian minorities. World War I was not an incidental event for the Ottoman Empire. Powerful cadres in the Young Turk Party’s radical nationalist wing consciously sought a belligerent route. Participation in the war was seen as a radical solution to many of the Empire’s problems (Akçam, 2001: 260-5). The regime forged an alliance with Germany and pulled the ill-prepared country into a devastating war. From the first day of the war, Young Turk dictatorial rule became more repressive towards domestic oppositional groups. Discordant behavior was dealt with systematically and ruthlessly. The war also released constraints on population policies, giving the regime a window of opportunity to launch large-scale programs of ethnic homogenization: the deportation of Armenians and Kurds (among others) coupled with the settlement of Turks served this purpose. As the war became more brutal on the eastern front and in the trenches of Gallipoli, the persecution was radicalized. Defeats triggered new waves of persecutions, especially in the eastern provinces. The blanket deportation orders of April 24, 1915 and May 23, 1915 signified a sharp intensification of the anti-Armenian measures, escalating in the summer of 1915 into genocidal destruction. The local effects of these national policies have been left largely unexplored, save for a few exceptions (Suakjian, 1981; Kaiser, 2001; Öktem, 2004).


B. Decision-Makers, Organizers and Actors

Diyarbekir was a relatively large Ottoman province (about 42,100 km2) locked in between the Euphrates in the west, the Tigris in the east, the Armenian highland in the north and the Mesopotamian desert in the south. The province boasted a formidable diversity of ethnic and religious groups, small and large, scattered and concentrated, urban and rural. Religious affiliation was a decisive feature of one’s identity within Ottoman society. For the bulk of the population it seems reasonable to contend that approximately one third was made up of Christians (mainly 120,000 Armenians and 60,000 Syriacs) and two-thirds Muslims (mainly 200,000 Kurds and 60,000 Turks) (Kevorkian Paboudjian, 1992: 59).

Deeply embedded within the social structure of Diyarbekir were overlapping and competing networks of rich, influential families of Muslim notables who had historically played the role of local power magnates in the city. These included, for example, the Cizrelizade and Ekinci families, who lived near the square. The very powerful Pirinççizâde dynasty lived near the Great Mosque, the Ocak family near the Melik Ahmed Mosque, whereas the chieftain of the Cizrelizade, Mustafa Bey, lived in a large mansion next to the Iskender Pasha Mosque. His neighbors were the powerful Yasinzade Sevki Bey of the Ekinci family on one side, and the Iskender Pasha family on the other. Several important Kurdish dynasties such as the Cemilpasazâde, Hevedan, Zazazade, as well as major chieftains from Hazro, Kulp and Lice had houses in the Ali Pasha neighborhood, and often commuted between their region of origin and the city. The Cemilpasazâde were particularly important pioneers of Kurdish nationalism. Competition within this class of urban landed notables coupled with relatively weak central State authority produced local conditions of corruption and volatile security.

In the spring of 1915, the anti-Armenian persecutions slowly but steadily intensified, Armenian newspapers were shut down, Armenian civil servants fired, Armenian elites intimidated and Armenian soldiers grouped into labor battalions. For this policy to be effective in the imperial peripheries, the Young Turk elite had to tighten its grip on the provinces. Therefore, on March 25, 1915, the governor of Diyarbekir was replaced by Dr. Mehmed Reshid (1873-1919), a radical anti-Christian nationalist (Kieser, 2002: 245-7). As soon as Reshid assumed his post, he drafted a militia from local elites headed by Young Turk loyalist Aziz Feyzi (1879-1933) from the Pirinççizâde family of notables. They embarked on a relentless campaign to find and punish “traitors” and “deserters”, a campaign sanctioned by Talaat. In practice this came down to a categorical persecution of Diyarbekir Armenians. By mid-April Reshid had incarcerated hundreds of Armenian notables, by mid-May this number had grown to about 1,500 and had come to encompass nearly the entire Armenian political, economic, religious, and cultural elite of Diyarbekir city.

On May 23, 1915, Talaat issued orders for the integral deportation of all Armenians to the Syrian desert. Dr. Reshid interpreted this order as a carte blanche and administered the coup de grace to the elite two days later. On Sunday May 25, 1915 Reshid had 807 notables including the Armenian bishop handcuffed and led through the city gates. On the shores of the Tigris the men were loaded onto large rafts under the pretext that they would be deported to Mosul. Militiamen accompanied the notables on the rafts as they sailed for one hour downstream to the home of the notorious Reman tribe. At this gorge, all rafts were moored to the left bank of the river and the Armenians were ordered to compose reassuring letters to their families, in which they were compelled to write that they were safely underway to Mosul. The men were then stripped of their clothes and valuables, massacred and dumped in the river by Reshid’s men. On May 30 the mass killing was repeated with the remaining 674 Armenian notables (Lepsius, 1919: 75-6).

After the elimination of the Armenian elite of Diyarbekir, Reshid quickly expanded the violence to genocidal proportions. Having massacred the bulk of the male elite, the rest of the Diyarbekir Armenians were now targeted categorically. On June 1, 1915 he had his militia evacuate the Armenian men and women of the Armenian neighborhood Xançepek and escort them to the Diyarbekir plain through the city gates. The people were gathered and a proclamation was read out loud, offering the Armenians their lives in exchange for conversion to Islam. Although the decision was not unanimous, most of the victims refused, whereupon they were stripped of their clothes and belongings. The militia and local Kurdish villagers then massacred them with rifles, axes, swords, and daggers. Many women were raped, some were sold as slaves to the highest bidders. The corpses were either thrown in wells or trenches, or left on the plain to rot. By the autumn of 1915, the Armenian population of Diyarbekir city had effectively been destroyed (Noel, 1919: 11).

The countryside of Diyarbekir was dotted with hundreds of Armenian villages, ranging from tiny hamlets to the equivalent of small towns. The southeastern Tur Abdin district consisted of dozens of Syriac villages that were generally larger and more densely populated. After the elimination of the urban Armenians, Reshid quickly, ruthlessly, and purposefully extended the violence to genocidal proportions, targeting the rest of the Diyarbekir Armenians categorically. His militias, headed by Aziz Feyzi, oversaw the genocide by applying regular systematic procedures to the countryside. Typically, a village would be surrounded by the militia and Kurdish tribesmen, either some hours after dark or at daybreak. The village would be invaded and rid of its residual male population within a day, generally by massacre outside the village. After the militia had finished the men, they would return to the village, where the terrified women and children would be assembled together in houses. The women were often raped before being deported or left to die of hunger and in misery. The deportation process effectively wiped out the Armenian presence in the countryside of Diyarbekir (Üngör, 2006).


C. Victims

The victims were all Ottoman Christians selected for their ethnic and religious identity, which signifies the categorical nature of the persecution. Although men were systematically murdered and women and children deported, locally even the latter might still be killed. An important question to ask regarding the scope of victims is: to what extent was the genocide purely “Armenian”?

In the summer of 1915, Talaat proclaimed several national decrees defining the categories of those to be persecuted and deported. At first he excluded the Armenian converts to Islam from deportation to the south. Most converts were not persecuted anymore and, provided they kept silent, were allowed to continue living in their homes. Two weeks later Talaat reincorporated the converts into the deportation program. His order stipulated that “some Armenians are converting collectively or individually just to remain in their home towns,” and that “this type of conversion should never be lent credence to.” Talaat contended that “whenever these type of people perceive threats to their interests they will convert as a means of deception” (Üngör, 2008c). On August 4, 1915 Talaat excluded the Armenian Catholics from deportation to Der ez-Zor, and on 15 August the Protestant Armenians were excluded from deportation too. Besides these official directions, the general methodology of the genocide consisted in killing the men and deporting those women and children who were not absorbed into Muslim households. This means that, in general, Armenian women were not to be subjected to the immediate on-the-spot killing that the men were. Finally, a specific order excluding the Jacobite Syriacs from deportation was issued for those provinces with Syriac communities.

The notion that the Young Turk genocide targeted only the Armenians contradicts the broad diversity of non-Armenian Christian victims. The precise nature of Reshid’s local implementation of Talaat’s national instructions revolves around his disregard for those instructions, which limited the categories of victims to Armenians. The evidence supports the argument that Reshid amplified the anti-Armenian persecution into an anti-Christian persecution. The southeastern parts of Diyarbekir province, including Mardin city, where large concentrations of non-Armenian Christians (Syriacs) lived, became the theater of this expanded destruction process (Gaunt, 2006: 181-272).

The treatment of the Christians of Mardin, the majority of whom were Syriacs, mirrored that of Diyarbekir’s Armenian notables. On June 10, 1915, a first convoy, just over 400 Christians of all denominations, left Mardin to be marched off to Diyarbekir. Three hours later, the convoy was halted at a village where the death sentence was read out loud. Here too, conversion to Islam would avert death. Those who refused conversion were given one hour to prepare for their deaths. The great majority of the convoy refused, whereupon the militia took batches of 100 men, lead them away to nearby caves and had them all murdered and burnt. Firing squads massacred the rest of the convoy. When the work was finished, the perpetrators rode to Diyarbekir and reported their accomplishment to Governor Reshid. This method was repeated on June 14, when the rest of the notables were murdered in similar ways.

After the elimination of the notables, the remaining Christians were sent to their deaths. These were mainly women, children, and the elderly, although many men were still alive as well. On July 2, a convoy of 600 men was taken away and they were slaughtered just outside the city walls. Their families were targeted next. From late June to late October several convoys comprising hundreds of women and children were lead away and destroyed. For example, on 10 August, a convoy of 600 women and children was taken through the Mardin plain further south. Some had already died of exhaustion and sunstroke when the convoy was halted in a nearby district. After Kurdish tribesmen had finished selecting women and children they fancied, the remaining victims were massacred with axes and swords. A small batch of survivors was able to flee and hide in the desert caves. Within a month or two, the Christian population of Mardin city had been effectively eliminated (Ternon, 2002).

These processes of national directives versus local implementations illustrate how the scope of victims could be adjusted by local officials. When the persecution gained genocidal momentum, between May 20 and 30, 1915, it is likely that Talaat wired Reshid some euphemistic order to “act ruthlessly” but he certainly did not grant Reshid carte blanche to eliminate all Christians. Reshid interpreted the order as a license to kill all Armenians and Syriacs living under his jurisdiction. It becomes clear that in the massive process of destruction (1915-16) not all the perpetrators were Turks and not all the victims were Armenians. Certain Kurdish chieftains became involved in the mass violence, whereas Syriac Christians were subjected to mass murder as well.


D. Witnesses

The Armenian Genocide was witnessed by large numbers of perpetrators, victims, and bystanders, Armenian deportees, German consuls, Syriac priests, American missionaries, Kurdish chieftains and others. A selection of quotes gives a good overview of how these men and women witnessed the genocidal process. One of the first eye witnesses of the mass killings was the American missionary Floyd Smith, who reported the arrival of survivors of massacres as follows (Barton, 1998: 92):

May 21, 1915, there came to our compound in Diyarbekir from the village of Karabash, three hours to the east, three or four wounded and the following day (May 22) over a score of wounded Armenian and Syrian women and children. They, the villagers, told of a night attack by the Kurds three days previous and that the next morning the government had sent gendarmes who refused to allow anyone to come to Diyarbekir. Some managed to get away and finally all who could walk or be carried came on the dates mentioned. The wounds were practically all infected and I have classified them as follows: […] Wounds made by heavy cutting instruments, probably axes. […] Two children about seven and nine years and one woman; attempted decapitations. Deep incised wounds of the nape of the neck (just below the skull), 5-8 inches long and of a depth equal to the thickness of the muscles of this region.

Dozens of German officials witnessed the carnage in Diyarbekir. The murder of Armenian notables was reported by Walter Holstein, the German Vice-Consul of Mosul. Holstein had found out that the Armenian men who had been lead away on rafts had been “entirely slaughtered” (“sämtlich abgeschlachtet”). The consul had personally witnessed their corpses floating downstream: “For several days, corpses and human limbs have been floating down the river here”. As reports of massacres continued to pour in, Holstein wrote bitter telegrams to his colleagues in Istanbul (Gust, 2005: 198):

The governor of Diyarbekir, Reshid Bey, is raging among the Christians of his province like an insane bloodhound; recently, in Mardin too he had seven hundred Christians (mostly Armenians) including the Armenian bishop gathered during a night by gendarmerie specially dispatched from Diyarbekir, and had them slaughtered like muttons (wie Hammel abschlachten lassen) nearby the city. Reshid Bey is continuing his bloody work among the innocents, the number of which, the district governor assured me, now surpasses two thousand. If the government does not immediately take quite vigorous measures against Reshid Bey, the common Muslim population of this local province will launch similar massacres against Christians. The situation from this point of view is becoming more threatening every day. Reshid Bey should immediately be recalled which would document that the government does not condone his infamous acts so that a general uproar here can be allayed.

Survivors witnessed the genocide from a different perspective. Aghavni Kassabian, daughter of a noted Armenian merchant, was deported with her family:

Turkish gendarmes came to our house in the morning and told us that we were going to be put on a deportation march. We were given little time to gather a few things that we could pack on a donkey. We gathered silverware, some clothes, two rugs, a Bible, soap, some family photographs. We packed as much food and water as we could, but we expected to be able to buy food when we needed more. We hid some jewels on our bodies, and each had an allotment of money. […] By noon we joined a long line of Armenians and were marched down the streets to the Citadel Gardens, where we met up with thousands of Armenians. Some had donkeys, some had ox-drawn carts, and most were on foot carrying packs and small children and infants. The gendarmes began cracking the whip and we began to move in a big mass toward the New Gate from where I could see a long snakish line of Armenians moving around the city walls going south. We were marched out past the Citadel and around the black city walls wavering in the heat. By the end of the day, we were sleeping on the ground somewhere on the flat, hard plateau. The tributaries of the Tigris cut ravines into the limestone ridges, and in their flanks were occasional huts built out of the rock, where Kurds lived. There was nothing but dry ground and sky and limestone ridges. Nothing.

On the fifth day of the deportation, Aghavni’s mother had gone delirious and died of exhaustion. On the sixth day, all of their possessions were gone, either depleted or stolen by gendarmes. One night, she was raped by a gendarme. Hunger, thirst, murder, and exhaustion had dramatically reduced the number of deportees by the time her convoy had reached the desert. Aghavni herself survived and escaped to the United States (Balakian, 1997: 218).

In a personal discussion with a fellow Young Turk some time before the end of the war, Dr. Mehmed Reshid gave his opinion about the events. When he was asked how he, as a doctor, had the heart to cause the deaths of so many people, Reshid answered (Güngör, 1953: 2444-5):

Being a doctor could not cause me to forget my nationality! Reshid is a doctor. But he was born as a Turk. […] Either the Armenians were to eliminate the Turks, or the Turks were to eliminate the Armenians. I did not hesitate a moment when I was confronted with this dilemma. My Turkishness prevailed over my profession. I figured, instead of them wiping us out, we’ll wipe them out. […] On the question how I, as a doctor, could have murdered, I can answer as follows: the Armenians had become hazardous microbes in the body of this country. Well, isn’t it a doctor’s duty to kill microbes?

On the question whether he feared “historical responsibility”, Reshid answered, “Let other nations write about me whatever history they want, I couldn’t care less” (Bleda, 1979: 59).


E. Memories

The Young Turk regime dealt with this legacy of genocide through a mix of silence and denial. After 1915, Armenians and Syriacs were either deeply traumatized survivors living in wretched refugee camps or terrified individuals keeping a low profile in ruined villages. The Young Turk regime was resurrected after 1923 and continued their policies of effacing physical traces of Armenian existence: churches were defaced and buildings rid of their Armenian engravings. Although the Armenians were gone, in a sense they were still deemed too visible. In Diyarbekir city, a landmark event that marked the decay of Armenian existence was the collapse of the church, Surp Giragos. In the 1960s the roof collapsed into the deserted building and in subsequent decades the structure was stripped of its assets and neglected until it was utterly dilapidated. Another important stage was the razing of the local Armenian cemeteries. One of the men who was mainly responsible for the destruction of the Armenians, Aziz Feyzi, assisted the erasure of one of the city’s last vanishing Armenian landmarks two decades after the genocide. Armenian cemeteries were either willfully neglected, simply flattened, or used as paving stones for floors or roads. Destruction of the community was immediately followed by the destruction of their memory.

Some survivors kept their memories alive, writing and publishing memoirs. Scholarly research on their memory did not take off until later generations. The killing and displacement brought by Young Turk rule created an archipelago of nuggets of memory spread across the world. But well before survivors could formulate narratives about what had happened, a master narrative was being constructed by the perpetrators. The Young Turk dictatorship suppressed all information on the 1915 genocide. The 1931 Press Law served as a catch-all for any texts the regime considered as dissent. When the regime caught wind of the memoirs of Karabet Tapikyan, subtitled What we saw during the deportation from Sivas to Aleppo (1924), the book was prohibited from entering Turkey for “containing very harmful writings”. Marie Sarrafian Banker, a graduate of the Izmir American College, had published her memoirs in 1936: My Beloved Armenia: a thrilling testimony. Her book too was prohibited from entering the country; all existing copies were ordered confiscated and destroyed for containing “harmful texts”. When Armen Anoosh, an Armenian survivor living in Aleppo, published his memoirs entitled, The History of a Ruined City: Urfa, the volume was denied entry and existing copies that had found their way into the country were ordered confiscated (Üngör, 2008b).

The destruction of memory went hand in hand with the construction of memory. The Young Turk dictatorship laid the foundations of a hegemonic canon of official history that has lasted and persisted up to today. This mythistory comprises an enormous number of books and articles and still constitutes the backbone of the Turkish national narrative. The History of Diyarbekir is a book published by a Young Turk propagandist, Bedri Günkut, in 1937. The author’s historical portrayal of the Young Turk era of violence is most striking. In a region in which more than 100,000 Armenians were killed, this author pioneered the denial of the genocide: “In the Great War, this region was saved from Russian invasions and Armenian massacres and arson” (Günkut, 1937: 144-5). The narrative then took a turn towards disinformation as Günkut argued that Armenians had “committed bloodcurdling atrocious acts in Lice and Silvan”, where they had purportedly “monstrously dismembered young Turkish patriots” (Günkut, 1937: 144-5). In this remarkable reversal of the historical account, all violence in Diyarbekir had been committed by Armenians against Turks. Misrepresentation could only be called so if there is a body of knowledge to counteract it. Whatever counter-narratives were being produced in Syria in Armenian, Kurdish, or Arabic, the regime did not allow them to compete for consumption by the population of Diyarbekir. Especially when it came to the violence, the dictatorship established a hegemony of memory over politics and debates about the past. (Üngör, 2008b)

All in all, the traces of past violence were repressed and ousted from public memory. The massive disruption of the first decades of the twentieth century was disposed of through silence, amnesia, and repression, instead of reflection, discussion, processing, and memorialization. The striking aspect of this process was that the violence that was repressed was not only that in which Young Turks had been perpetrators, but also that in which they had been victims. A whole century of Muslim victimization in the Caucasus and in the Balkans, in particular during the twin Balkan Wars, was dismissed and forgotten in favor of ‘looking towards the future’ and amicable inter-state relations with neighboring countries. Ottoman minorities who were targeted in this victimization, such as Armenians, Kurds, Syriacs, and Arabs, did not have a chance of healing their wounds or memorializing their losses. The new memory of the Nation did not permit cracks, nuances, shades, subtleties, or any difference for that matter.

The most powerful symbol of the multifaceted silences imposed on the mass violence of the Young Turk era must be the strongly fortified citadel in the northeastern corner of Diyarbekir city. Many urbanites and neighboring peasants revere this ancient redoubt as one of the most important historical monuments of their country. The stronghold – what remains of it – stands on a small elevation overlooking a meander in the Tigris river. It is impressive if only because of its position: both the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic built their state apparatus in the compound to instill a long-lasting deference. Anyone who comes here, enticed by one or another historical narrative, is at least vaguely familiar with Diyarbekir’s record of violence and assumes history to be dormant within these dark, crumbling walls. The compound sheltered the governorship, the provincial court, and most notably the infamous Diyarbekir prison. The latter building might be considered as the single landmark of mass violence in Diyarbekir: in it, Diyarbekir’s Armenian elites were tortured and murdered in 1915, before being led off to certain death in May 1915. Up to the year 2000 it housed the security forces of the Turkish war machine including gendarmerie intelligence operatives and special counter-guerrilla militias. This account of Diyarbekir’s central prison reflects the city’s century of silent violence. In the summer of 2007, the area had been cleared of security forces and was being converted by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism into an open-air Atatürk Museum.


F. General and Legal Interpretations of the Facts

On November 5, 1918, Dr. Reshid was arrested in Istanbul and placed in a maximum-security prison, along with other Young Turks suspected of having participated in the persecution of the Armenians. The charges brought against Reshid by the special tribunal consisted of crimes such as mass murder and other “tyranny”. Awaiting his trial in prison, Reshid, vexed by kidney stones, gradually lost touch with reality and became a nervous wreck. His growing isolation reinforced his paranoia of Armenian and British conspiracies. He kept a diary and wrote his memoirs in response to the public disclosures on his governorship of Diyarbekir. Reshid escaped on his way to the bathhouse on January 25, 1919 and went into hiding at a Young Turk sympathizer’s house. The ensuing odyssey of hiding and running away from the police bolstered his frustration with clandestine life. Underfed, bitter and desperate, he shot himself in the mouth on the verge of arrest on February 6, 1919. As a result, legal proceedings against Dr. Reshid never took place, but judging from other cases, chances were strong he would have been convicted and possibly executed (Kieser, 2002).

The categorical nature of the mass killings in Diyarbekir in 1915-16 qualify them as genocidal. After March 1915, considerations of guilt or innocence no longer mattered in the persecution of Ottoman Armenians. After May, neither did loyalty: as a governor, Reshid ultimately did not distinguish between loyal or disloyal Armenians and Syriacs. Then again, the inclusion and exclusion of certain religious denominations clearly signify categorical thinking in the persecution and deportation process. With the stroke of a pen, entire categories of peoples could be included in the machinery of deportation. Whereas the fate of men was quickly decided and settled through murder, women and children were subject to a more prolonged process of suffering through deportation. Exposure, hunger, thirst, rape, disease and occasionally murder thinned the deportation convoys to the verge of near absolute destruction.

Scholars of genocide have argued that local dynamics can influence the course and intensity of the genocidal process. Local political or social elites can expedite and intensify, or delay and resist genocidal destruction steered from above. The Ottoman province Diyarbekir has served as a platform for exemplifying the anti-Armenian policies at the local level, leading us to discover the dynamics that center and periphery played in the events of the period. Most of the deportations were micromanaged by Talaat, others by his subordinates. One would need to take a much closer look at Talaat’s specific role and the nature of the power he exercised with respect to the persecution of the Ottoman Armenians, which reached full genocidal proportions by the summer of 1915. Even with the extant primary documentation on the secretive nature of the bureaucratically organized destruction of the Armenians, one cannot help but seek to unearth the “true” intentions of the tens of thousands of telegraphic orders he issued, some of which are deceptive enough to fool the historian. Even so, all such inconsistencies notwithstanding, the sheer magnitude of the campaign leaves not a shred of doubt about the hostile intention of the policy. Talaat’s micro-managing qualities and sharp intelligence, coupled with calculating tact and extraordinary talent for political self-preservation, need more research. Every other step in the radicalization of existing measures was spurred by him, and Reshid’s appointment was a vitalizing force underlying the existing program for mass destruction, not a palliative (Bloxham, 2005: 86).

It is inconceivable to attempt to understand the persecutions without highlighting the dynamics between national policy and local agency. For this reason, Interior Minister Talaat’s relationship with Governor Dr. Mehmed Reshid became a central question in this case study. It is an example of the evolution of CUP policy against proclaimed “internal enemies”, notably the Armenians. When the persecution gained genocidal momentum, between May 20 and 30, 1915, it is likely that Talaat wired the doctor-governor one or another euphemistic orders to “act ruthlessly”. However, he certainly did not grant Reshid carte blanche to eliminate all Christians, considering future reprimands. The radically anti-Christian Ottoman patriot and Muslim nationalist Dr. Reshid interpreted the order as a license to kill all Armenians and Syriacs living under his jurisdiction. It is telling that of all the Ottoman governors involved in the violence, none were rebuked for their cruelty and excesses like Reshid was – even if the persecutions were more or less paralleled in different provinces. Therefore, Talaat’s telegraphic reprehensions unveil a secret in the definition of the scope of the persecutions. His reproof “do not destroy the other Christians” could be read as “do destroy the Armenians”, and reveals Talaat’s tacit approval of Reshid’s anti-Armenian actions. Naturally, Talaat formulated his argument without compromising himself in a written order.

At the local level too, revenge, fear of victimization and competition between elites all played important roles. Dr. Mehmed Reshid, portrayed as a sadistic monster in contemporary sources, was born in the Caucasus but his family had to flee the onslaught of the Russian Army in the 1860s. Vengeance may well have been a motivating factor in his perception of the world. Circassian families like his, whose parents’ generation had been massacred and expelled, had intimate knowledge of Armenian nationalist activism in the Caucasus and were as traumatized as the Balkan Muslims. The same would have been true for the three dozen Circassian militiamen that Reshid had employed. When the war broke out and the Russian Army seemed to be effortlessly conquering its way towards Diyarbekir, it was hardly difficult to fit this into their apocalyptic fear that “the Russians are coming”, and most importantly, that their Armenian neighbors were Russian spies. Competition between urban elites was another factor that contributed to the intensity of the violence. Before the war, the main families in Diyarbekir, mainly Christians and Muslims, were engaged in a fierce struggle for political and economic power. Such a structural factor could easily be abused by the CUP dictatorship for their own ends: collaborate with us and you will be duly rewarded. The Pirinççizâde family in particular emerged victorious from this competition by volunteering in the militias, being more ruthless in their competitive efforts, and collaborating with the campaign the CUP regime deemed most salient, the murder of their Armenian neighbors. (Üngör, 2008a)


G. Bibliography


AKÇAM, Taner, 2001, Insan Haklari ve Ermeni Sorunu: Ittihat ve Terakki’den Kurtulus Savasi’na [Human Rights and the Armenian Question: From Ittihat ve Terakki to the War of Liberation], Istanbul: Imge.

BALAKIAN, Peter, 1997, Black Dog of Fate: A Memoir, New York: BasicBooks.

BARTON, James (ed.), 1998, Statements of American Missionaries on the Destruction of Christian Communities in Ottoman Turkey, 1915-1917, Ann Arbor, Michigan: Gomidas Institute.

BLEDA, Mithat Sükrü, 1979, Imparatorlugun Çöküsü [The Collapse of the Empire], Istanbul: Remzi.

BLOXHAM, Donald, 2005, The Great Game of Genocide: Imperialism, Nationalism, and the Destruction of the Ottoman Armenians, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

GAUNT, David, 2006, Massacres, Resistance, Protectors: Muslim-Christian Relations in Eastern Anatolia during World War I, Piscatway, NJ: Gorgias Press.

GÜNKUT, Bedri, 1937, Diyarbekir Tarihi [History of Diyarbekir], Diyarbakir, Diyarbekir Halkevi

GUST, Wolfgang, 2005, Der Völkermord an den Armeniern 1915/16: Dokumente aus dem Politischen Archiv des deutschen Auswärtigen Amts [The Genocide of the Armenians 1915/16: Documents of the Political Archive of the German Foreign Office], Springe: Zu Klampen.

KEVORKIAN, Raymond and PABOUDJIAN, Paul B., 1992, Les Arméniens dans l’Empire ottoman à la veille du génocide, Paris: Editions d’Art et d’Histoire.

LEPSIUS, Johannes, 1919, Der Todesgang des Armenischen Volkes: Bericht über das Schicksal des Armenischen Volkes in der Türkei während des Weltkrieges [The Death March of the Armenian People: Message about the Fate of the Armenian People in Turkey During the World War], Potsdam: Tempelverlag.

NOEL, Edward W.C., 1919, Diary of Major E. Noel on Special Duty in Kurdistan, Basra: n.p.

SUAKJIAN, Kevork Yeghia, 1981, Genocide in Trebizond: A Case Study of Armeno-Turkish Relations during the First World War, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.


GINIO, Eyal, 2005, “Mobilizing the Ottoman Nation during the Balkan Wars (1912–1913): Awakening from the Ottoman Dream”, War in History, 12: 156-177.

GÜNGÖR, Salâhattin, 1953, “Bir Canli Tarih Konusuyor,” [A Living History Speaks] in Resimli Tarih Mecmuasi, 4:43: 2444-5.

ÖKTEM, Kerem, 2004, “Incorporating the time and space of the ethnic ‘other’: nationalism and space in Southeast Turkey in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries”, Nations and Nationalism, 10: 559-578.

TERNON, Yves, 2002, Mardin 1915: Anatomie pathologique d’une destruction. Special issue of the Revue d’Histoire Arménienne Contemporaine, 4: 1-415.

ÜNGÖR, Ugur Ümit, 2008a, “Seeing like a Nation-State: Young Turk Social Engineering in Eastern Turkey, 1913-1950”, Journal of Genocide Research, 10: 15-39.

ÜNGÖR, Ugur Ümit, 2008b, “Organizing Oblivion in the Aftermath of Mass Violence”, The Armenian Weekly, 74: 23-27.

Book Chapters

HANIOGLU, M. Sükrü, “Turkism and the Young Turks, 1889-1908”, in KIESER, Hans-Lukas (ed.), 2006, Turkey Beyond Nationalism: Towards Post-Nationalist Identities, London: I.B. Tauris, pp.3-19.

KAISER, Hilmar, “‘A Scene from the Inferno: The Armenians of Erzerum and the Genocide, 1915-1916”, in KIESER, Hans-Lukas and SCHALLER, Dominik J. (eds.), 2001, Der Völkermord an den Armeniern und die Shoah: The Armenian Genocide and the Shoah, Zürich: Chronos, pp.129-186.

KIESER, Hans-Lukas, “Dr. Mehmed Reshid (1873-1919): A Political Doctor”, in KIESER, Hans-Lukas and SCHALLER, Dominik J. (eds.), 2002, Der Völkermord an den Armeniern und die Shoah: The Armenian Genocide and the Shoah, Zürich: Chronos, pp.245-280.

ÜNGÖR, Ugur Ümit, “Stratégies de survie au cours du génocide des arméniens,” in: SÉMELIN, Jacques, ANDRIEU, Claire, and GENSBURGER, Sarah (eds.), 2008c, La résistance aux génocides: De la pluralité des actes de sauvetage [Resistance against genocides: on the plurality of acts of rescue]. Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, pp.221-32.

ÜNGÖR, Ugur Ümit, “Center and periphery in the Armenian Genocide: The case of Diyarbekir province”, in KIESER, Hans-Lukas and PLOZZA, Elmar (eds.), 2006, Der Völkermord an den Armeniern, die Türkei und Europa: The Armenian Genocide, Turkey and Europe. Zürich: Chronos, pp.71-88.

ZÜRCHER, Erik-Jan, “Young Turks, Ottoman Muslims and Turkish Nationalists: Identity Politics 1908-1938”, in KARPAT, Kemal H. (ed.), 2000, Ottoman Past and Today’s Turkey, Leiden: Brill, pp.150-179.

Keywords: Armenian Genocide, Diyarbekir, Syriacs, Dr. Mehmed Reshid

Cite this item

Ungor Ugur Umit, Diyarbekir (1915-1916): Young Turk Mass Killings at the Provincial Level, Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence, [online], published on: 25 March, 2009, accessed 27/04/2020,, ISSN 1961-9898
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