Starting in the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire was undergoing an economic transition and European powers were meddling in the empire’s economic system. This factor gave rise to the Christian middle class at the expense of the traditional Muslim middle class. To counter this situation, Sultan Abdul Hamid II and later the Young Turks centralized the system, reorganized the Turkish middle class and paved the way for the extermination of Greeks and Armenians and the resettlement of Caucasian and Balkan Muslims on confiscated properties of these communities in Anatolia and the Armenian Highlands.
Two factors contributed to the rise of the Armenian middle class in the Ottoman Empire: first, the beginning of the Tanzimat Reforms era (1839-1876) which encouraged non-Muslims to open to European trade; second, the abolition of the Janissaries (Sultan’s elite slave soldiers) which benefited Armenian moneylenders.
With the start of the Tanzimat (Reform) period, the social dynamics of the Ottoman society changed as Muslims, despite being the numerous majority, feared they may lose power to non-Muslims who were becoming economically powerful. Moreover, Muslims viewed this new order replacing the old strict religious order as a pretext used by European powers to interfere in the empire’s domestic affairs and empower the Christians at their expense. As a result attacks on Christians intensified. However, Muslim merchants became more suspicious after the Young Turks took power (1908) and they saw an uncertain future in electoral politics as they believed that the parliamentary system would undermine Muslim supremacy. As a result, many middle-class Muslims gathered around religious people such as Ulema (Sunni religious scholars) and struck back in 1909 demanding the implementation of Sharia law throughout the empire and the prevention of secular measures from taking root in the Ottoman legal system.
Another factor was the abolition of the Janissaries. Heather Sharkey argues that the elimination of the Janissaries benefited Armenian bankers and moneylenders as they stepped in to replace Jewish bankers in service of the Ottoman state. Armenian workers benefitted, too. When Sultan Mahmud II crushed the Janissaries in 1826, he struck at the same time the Muslim artisans and guild members and expelled thousands of Muslim laborers from Constantinople to the Armenian Highlands. The Sultan then had Armenians brought in to replace them, engaging in a population swap that bred resentments between working-class Turks and Kurds, on the one hand, and Armenians, on the other. The abolition of the Janissaries weakened the position of the Ulamas and shifted the power in the Ottoman state. As such, non-Muslim elites increasingly mounted an economic challenge to Muslim interests and the social safety net that protected guilds. The urban poor ultimately ceased to exist with the destruction of Janissaries and policy of centralization.
The Muslim middle-class wanted to fight back and bring back the “old order” which was in its interest. Thus, the clash between the two orders took the form of ethno-religious struggle and further radicalized the Ottoman Muslims.
The Destruction of the “Old Order” and the Clash of Interests Along Ethno-Religious Lines
The trade agreements signed with European powers after 1838 and the capitalist integration of the Ottoman Empire put Ottoman Muslims at a disadvantage as Muslim traders were kept out of doing business in Europe due to their religious identity. Muslim rural, mercantile and artisan classes were marginalized as Ottoman Christians and Jews imported cheap European goods. As such the Muslim society in the Ottoman Empire was destabilized as tens of thousands lost their traditional jobs and positions in social mobility. Muslims were either unemployed or employed at the lowest rank with the lowest salaries. The Europeans take part of the blame as they engineered this social-economic structuring by starting projects in the empire and hiring cheap Muslim labor controlled by highly paid non-Muslim managers, thus further increasing the religious social-economic gap in the empire.
The initial stage of the class conflict was the hinterland, where economic actors and the politically connected elite clashed over land and commercial agriculture during the early 1800s due to the state’s efforts to centralize the empire. In Anatolia, the centralization efforts of the Ottoman state consolidated the conflict between the peasantry (mostly Armenian), the Muslim landlords (mostly Kurds), and non-Muslim merchants (mostly Greeks and Armenians).
The replacement of the decentralized old feudal order with centralized statist regulations antagonized the nomadic Kurdish tribal leaders who profited from land income. As a result, they shifted their “business” by imposing additional taxes on Armenian peasants. Kurds forced Armenians to pay tax in return for either “defending” them or not attacking them. Armenian peasants were forced to provide food and shelter to pastoralist Kurds. Since the Ottoman state demanded tax too, Armenian peasants were paying twice. After 1890, when Sultan Abdul Hamid II created the Hamidiye regiment, the situation worsened as more Kurds wrested more tax from Armenians with impunity.
The situation was becoming unbearable for Armenian peasants of eastern Anatolia (also known as the Armenian Highlands) who complained bitterly about the Kurdish tribal chiefs who took their lands illegally and demanded unpaid labor and arbitrary taxes while Kurdish tribes raided and plundered. The Kurdish actions were seen as the revenge of the 1858 Land Reform Law, under which more Armenians in eastern Anatolia started buying back their lost lands and additional holdings often from Turks and Kurds who had fallen into debt. As many Armenians became debt-holders and moneylenders, many Muslims who couldn’t afford to pay back their debts lost their property. In 1871, the British consul in the Black Sea port of Trebizond reported that Anatolia was running into debt, meaning falling into the hands of Armenian debt holders. According to the report the Muslim peasantry in Anatolia was being squeezed by a compound of interest rates of between 24 and 60-percent charged by Armenian moneylenders, and as a result, in many cases they lost the ownership of their land to Armenians.
All these factors pushed Muslims of the empire to question the reforms and direct their revulsion towards the Christian subjects who were seen as “European instruments to control the empire.” The fact that they were Christians (Greeks and Armenians) or Jewish meant that the question of class became intertwined with religion and ethnicity. Muslims started holding Ottoman Christians accountable for the collapse of the old order and blamed them for these new regulations for undoing Muslim privileges. From an economic perspective, Muslim interests opposed the intrusion of European capital and the rise of non-Muslim classes.
It was not a coincidence that during this era Ottoman Muslim ruling elite began to emphasize the Muslim identity of the state; this was a direct reaction to the growing Christian bourgeoisie. There were popular calls for a return to a more stringent application of the Islamic law (Sharia) that was in favor of Muslim merchants and artisans. Thus a religious conflict with social and economic origins was forming on the horizon. Ottoman authorities were aware that there was a Muslim working-class frustration at economic inequality expressed in cultural and religious terms as the economically privileged communities had a “Western” cultural outlook. This argument was used by the conservative and reactionary forces to block any reform imposed by the central authorities.
As such, the authorities concerned with the growing economic influence of non-Muslim bourgeois had to favor the emergence of a strong Muslim middle class, aiming to “liberate” the empire from the non-Muslim elements who were accumulating money with the “aim” to come to power through the “reformation.” After 1909, the Young Turks shifted from their official amendatory policy and continued the policy of Abdul Hamid II of searching for political allies among the Muslim middle class while engaging in economic boycotts targeting mainly the Greek merchants to challenge their hegemonic presence in cosmopolitan cities such as Smyrna (Izmir) and Constantinople. After the Balkan wars, they accused the Greeks of disloyalty and decided to disrupt non-Muslim commercial interests, encouraging the rise of Muslim merchants in port cities.
However, silencing the Armenian middle class, which was being highly politicized, was not easy. Unlike the Greek middle class who was concentrated mainly in Constantinople, Smyrna and Trabzon, Armenian bourgeois was scattered all around the empire from the Capital to Cilicia, from Syria to the eastern frontiers of the empire. Moreover, missionaries played a crucial role in shaping the Armenian-educated middle class by introducing them to new ideas, innovations, and effective health care systems, something the Ottoman Muslims lacked.
The Missionaries and the Social Roots of Resentment Toward Armenians
The social history of the Ottoman Empire was transformed as a result of Christian missionary activities. Private and organized missionary activities in the Ottoman Empire date back to as early as the 16th century and intensified in the 18th century with the empire’s openness to Europe. These missionaries established schools, printing presses, hospitals, and other institutions which helped to form a well-educated Christian (mainly Armenian) middle class in the empire. The missionaries implemented programs that had a visible impact on Christians, who were becoming visibly healthier, not to mention wealthier and better educated than some of the Muslims. For these reasons, their activities were always looked at with suspicion by the authorities and Muslim religious figures.
In the Armenian Highlands, Armenians’ exposure to missionary schools placed them ahead of Muslims in male and female literacy, while their knowledge of hygiene and access to medical care enabled their children to evade illness at much higher rates than Kurds. According to the Russian consul, before WWI about half of the Kurdish babies in the villages used to die at birth because of lack of medical assistance, while another 30-percent of Kurdish infants used to die before the age of three from endemic diseases such as smallpox, scarlet fever, typhoid or bites of snakes and insects. Armenians, by contrast, were surviving childhood illnesses. An awareness of these discrepancies in well-being may have contributed to anti-Armenian resentment.
Moreover, Armenians were being exposed to new political ideas about liberty, socialism and freedom that concerned authorities. To counter this phenomenon, Sultan Abdul Hamid II made it a priority to establish public schools in the Anatolian provinces. He envisioned creating a Muslim middle class to replace the well-educated Christians and to provide the Ottoman state with an ethnoreligious reliable social base. By the time he was overthrown in 1909 by the Young Turks—a secular nationalist middle-class movement whose members ironically owed their social rise and education to the overthrown Sultan—the Sultan’s goal of fostering the Muslim professional middle class had become a success. Moreover, Abdul Hamid II, motivated by his Pan-Islamist ideology, favored the widespread Nakshbendi network of Sufi order, which built religious unity and had strong mobilization potential, a pro-state approach, and an anti-Christian stand, among the Muslims, especially the Kurds. With public support, Nakshbendis opened schools in tribal areas, encouraged the Muslim children to attend mosques and an educated Muslim generation loyal to the state.
By educating the Muslims in bordering areas, the state’s main aim was to secure the loyalty of the Muslims. It is interesting that starting in 1889, the Ottoman state opened tribal schools in sensitive provinces on the border, intending to buy the loyalty from the upcoming generation elites by turning them into middle-ranking bureaucrats. To secure the loyalty of border tribes and encourage tribal leaders to send their children to these schools, Abdul Hamid II bestowed imperial medals and sent robes of honor to tribal chiefs to secure their loyalty to the empire.
When Abdul Hamid II was overthrown in 1908, the Muslim middle class was already organized: a secular nationalist Turkish middle class composed of military officers and bureaucrats and a religious-oriented middle class in the bordering areas of the empire. These two classes added with the Muslim refugees from the Balkans later formed the backbone of the modern Turkish middle class established on the ashes of Armenian bourgeois and its capital.
The Class War, the Road to the Genocide and the Emergence of Modern Turkish Bourgeoisie
The 1908 Young Turk revolution was a bourgeois revolution against a reactionary state. Despite the fact that this divided the Turkish middle class between the “secular nationalist” camp (often backed by the military) and conservatives (often backed by religious scholars), their enmity towards the non-Muslim middle class and determination to destroy it were unifying factors that played a crucial role during the Genocide.
For the conservative Muslims, this new era of post-1908 constitutional order threatened their traditional relationship with the Armenians. Technology also played a role since Armenians introduced innovations to agriculture such as steam plows, steam thrashers and reaping machines. All these advancements worsened the livelihood of Muslim farmers. The Muslim peasantry, fearing its economic future and often suspicious of the 1908 revolution, tried to support a counter-revolutionary movement in 1909 by attacking Armenians and accusing them of supporting the 1908 revolution. One of the major massacres took place in Adana, the economic center of Cilicia. Back then, on April 25, 1909, the New York Times published an article titled “Armenian Wealth Caused Massacres,” arguing that some 60,000 Muslim farmers who came to depend on seasonal work near Adana, were among the agitators of the massacre. Although the Young Turk government suppressed the counter-revolutionary movement, it intentionally failed to intervene and watched the burning of the center of the Armenian middle class in Cilicia.
The destruction of Adana was the final alarm to the Armenian middle class. However, what Armenians failed to foresee was the threat of the influx of Muslim refugees to their territory. Already in 1859, the Ottoman state established a “General Administrative Commission for Migrants” in order to resettle the Muslim refugees in the empire through a planned centralized policy. Caucasian and later Balkan refugees (after the 1912-1913 Balkan wars) became the participants in Ottoman efforts to establish greater control over the most difficult political territory in the empire. These refugees (200,000 from North Caucasus and around 400,000 from the Balkans) showed complete loyalty to the Ottoman state and were resettled in Christian regions, often guided by hatred towards Christians, which played a major role in massacres of the Ottoman Christians and looting of their properties in the 1890s. According to Turkish nationalist intellectual Halide Edip, “the vast number of Balkan Turks, refugees who poured into Constantinople and Anatolia with their lurid and sinister tales of martyrdom and suffering at the hands of Balkan Christians…aroused a curious sympathy for everything that was Turkish in those days.”
What many historians, who had addressed the issue of Balkan refugees, had failed to mention is that in the Balkans, the situation was completely different from Anatolia, where the land ownership was held mostly by Muslims, who controlled large estates cultivated by Christian peasants. The Muslim landowners suddenly realized they were overthrown by their Christian peasants; hence, as they resettled in Anatolia they viewed Christian Armenian peasants as a threat and felt that they ought to take vengeance for their suffering in the Balkans. The Muslim refugees from the Balkans who flooded to Anatolia brought with them ethnoreligious tensions and rekindled old ones. It is worth mentioning that the Balkan peasants provided a strong base for Slavic nationalism. Thus, Armenian peasants were seen as a continuation or extension of “evil Christians” and “rebellious peasants.”
According to Halil Karaveli, after the Balkan wars, Turks had a fear of “physical extinction.” Many CUP leaders were also of Balkan origin, among them, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Displaced from their towns of origin, they concluded that there was no future left for them in a multi-ethnic Ottoman state and that they must create a homogenous Turkish entity. The CUP government was alarmed that with the advancement of the Russian troops, Armenians would rise up and carve the economically significant fertile land of eastern Anatolia and annex it to the Russian Empire. The CUP engaged in what it saw as a struggle for Turkish ethnic survival and made preparations to carve out a safe haven by destroying the non-Turkish Christian element of the empire. Interestingly, Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels saw this scenario coming, as they had predicted that as Ottomans would not be able to hold in the Balkans they were bound to end up in Asia Minor and Armenia as their last stronghold.
Thus, for the CUP government as Muslim refugees poured into Anatolia, the concept of removing particular communities to ensure a more desirable ethnic profile took on another justification: the property of the deported could be redistributed to incoming deprived Muslim refugee communities, one of the initial rationales behind the first deportations of the Armenians beginning in 1915. On January 6, 1916, Talaat Pasha, the Interior Minister of the Ottoman Empire, decreed: “The movable property left by the Armenians should be conserved for long-term preservation, and for the sake of an increase of Muslim businesses in our country, companies need to be established strictly made up of Muslims.” Following the decree, private Armenian schools became Ottoman Turkish schools, and school supplies were distributed to the Turkish Muslim population. Abraham Harutiunian, a priest living in Zeitun, notes in his memoirs that the school in Zeitun was confiscated by the government and that “the Armenians no longer had any right to education, and the campus was now filled with hundreds of Turkish children.”
The confiscations that completed the Genocide provided the “dowry” for the capitalist foundation of the new state of Turkey. With the end of the World War, the Christian bourgeoisie was no longer in command of the Ottoman economy. Eighty percent of the factories in 1913, which had been owned by non-Muslims, were now confiscated and given to Muslims (mainly influential Turkish families). The Young Turks were determined to carry on the project of creating a Muslim Turkish middle class that Abdul Hamid had begun earlier. In the mind of Young Turks, capitalism and the creation of a capitalist class were intertwined with the fate of the newly formed homogenous state. Thus their party, which was based on the idea of the survival of the Turkish state, was dependent on a “national capitalism.” They succeeded in launching a program of social and political engineering to create a bourgeois that could survive even after the dissolution of their party. Thus, the emerging strong Turkish bourgeoisie class was ensuring the continuity of the nationalist ideology of the Young Turks. Between 1913 and 1914 Young Turks called on Muslims to boycott Armenian and Greek stores, and by the start of the war, they offered the opportunity to evict the Christian bourgeoisie and redistribute its wealth to a Muslim Turkish bourgeoisie. It was a successful class war. It was this class war that cleared the way for the emergence of modern Turkey; a state with a “national economy” controlled by “national bourgeoisie.”
There is no question that the capitalist economy of the new state of Turkey was founded on the plunder of the Ottoman Armenians. The Turkish case stands as a perfect illustration of Karl Marx’s words that “capital is born covered in blood and dirt.” The savings of the Ottoman Christians, as well as their trading companies, craft shops, agricultural properties and industries, were expropriated by the state and handed over to trustworthy Muslim middle-class individuals who were going to form the bulk of the Turkish bourgeoisie in the Republican era.
The value of the lost Armenian property counts in the billions. There are clear examples illustrating this fact; for example, Turkey is the world’s leading producer of hazelnuts, controlling 75 percent of global production. Before the Genocide, hazelnut production was largely an Armenian business, and according to Ottoman statistics, more than half of the 100 or so hazelnut producers in the empire were Armenians. The same was for the cotton industry: Turkey today is the seventh global cotton producer in the world. Before the Genocide, Cilicia was the center of the cotton industry in the empire.
The Republicans fought hard to retake Cilicia from the French, knowing its economic significance for the future of the Republic. In 1923, when Mustafa Kemal visited Adana he gave a speech saying, “Armenians don’t have the least right to this fertile land. This land belongs to the Turks and is going to remain eternity. These lands are the profound and fundamental essence of Turkey.”
On June 11, 1986, the laws concerning “abandoned” properties during the Armenian Genocide were abrogated, which ended 73 years of effectiveness. Throughout the Republican period, these regulations continued to provide a legal basis for the confiscated Armenian properties that were not yet redistributed to the Turks. Though the laws were abolished in 1986, the Turkish “General Directorate of Land Registry and Cadastre” issued an order on June 29, 2001 which effectively transferred all the leftover “abandoned” properties to the government. The order also forbade the disclosure of any information regarding the title or the documentation of the properties. As a result, the Armenian and Greek owners or their heirs could not make claims to the property since it was now securely sanctioned under Turkish law and had become property of the Turkish Republic.
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Cem Emrence, Remapping the Ottoman Middle East; Modernity, Imperial Bureaucracy and Islam, London: I.B. Tauris, 2016.
Halil Karaveli, Why Turkey is Authoritarian, From Ataturk to Erdogan, London: Pluto Press, 2018.
Heather J. Sharkey, A History of Muslims, Christians and Jews in the Middle East, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2017.
Heather J. Sharkey, “American Missionaries in Ottoman Lands: Foundational Encounters”, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, University of Pennsylvania, 2010, pp. 1-16.
Kevork K. Baghdjian, The Confiscation of Armenian properties by the Turkish Government Said to be Abandoned, Antelias: Printing House of the Armenian Catholicosate of Cilicia, 2010.
Laura Robsen, States of Separation: Transfer, Partition, and the Making of the Modern Middle East, California: University of California Press, 2017.
Prof. Ugur Ungor on Property Confiscation during Armenian Genocide (April 30, 2012), YouTube, published on May 12, 2012
Taha Parla and Andrew Davison, Corporatist Ideology in Kemalist Turkey: Progress Or Order? New York: Syracuse University Press, 2004.
Ugur Ungor and Mehmet Polatel, Confiscation and Destruction: The Young Turk Seizure of Armenian Property, UK; Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.
Ussama Makdisi, Artillery of Heaven; American Missionaries and the Failed Conversation of the Middle East, USA: Cornell University Press, 2008.