The origins of the hostility toward Armenians lay in the increasingly precarious position in which the Ottoman Empire found itself in the last quarter of the 19th century. The loss of Ottoman dominion over the Balkans was ushered in by an era of European nationalism and an insistence on self-determination by many territories long held under Ottoman rule. The Armenians of the empire, who were long considered second-class citizens, had begun in the mid-1860s and early 1870s to ask for civil reforms and better treatment from their government. They pressed for an end to the usurpation of land, "the looting and murder in Armenian towns by Kurds and Circassians, improprieties during tax collection, criminal behavior by government officials and the refusal to accept Christians as witnesses in trial." These requests went unheeded by the central government. When a nascent form of nationalism spread among the Armenians of Anatolia, including demands for equal rights and a push for autonomy, the Ottoman leadership believed that the empire's Islamic character and even its very existence were threatened.
The combination of Russian military success in the Russo-Turkish War, 1877–1878, the clear weakening of the Ottoman Empire in various spheres including financial (from 1873, the Ottoman Empire suffered greatly from the Panic of 1873), territorial (mentioned above), and the hope among some Armenians that one day all of the Armenian territory might be ruled by Russia, led to a new restiveness among Armenians living inside the Ottoman Empire. The Armenians sent a delegation led by Mkrtich Khrimian to the 1878 Congress of Berlin to lobby the European powers to include proper safeguards for their kinsmen in the eventual peace agreement.
The Sultan, however, was not prepared to relinquish any power. Abdul Hamid believed that the woes of the Ottoman Empire stemmed from "the endless persecutions and hostilities of the Christian world." He perceived the Ottoman Armenians to be an extension of foreign hostility, a means by which Europe could "get at our most vital places and tear out our very guts." Turkish historian and Abdul Hamid's biographer Osman Nuri observed, "The mere mention of the word 'reform' irritated him [Abdul Hamid], inciting his criminal instincts." Upon hearing of the Armenian delegation's visit to Berlin in 1878, he bitterly remarked, "Such great impudence...Such great treachery toward religion and state...May they be cursed upon by God." While he admitted that some of their complaints were well-founded, he likened the Armenians to "hired female mourners [pleureuses] who simulate a pain they do not feel; they are an effeminate and cowardly people who hide behind the clothes of the great powers and raise an outcry for the smallest of causes."
The provisions for reforms in the Armenian provinces embodied in Article 61 of the Treaty of Berlin (1878) were ultimately not enforced and were followed instead by further repression. On January 2, 1881, collective notes sent by the European powers reminding the Sultan of the promises of reform failed to prod him into action. The eastern provinces of the Ottoman Empire were historically insecure; the Kurdish rebels attacked the inhabitants of towns and villages with impunity. In 1890-91, at a time when the empire was either too weak and disorganized or reluctant to halt them, Sultan Abdul Hamid gave semi-official status to the Kurdish bandits. Made up mainly of Kurdish tribes, but also of Turks, Yöruk, Arabs, Turkmens and Circassians, and armed by the state, they came to be called the Hamidiye Alaylari ("Hamidian Regiments"). The Hamidiye and Kurdish brigands were given free rein to attack Armenians, confiscating stores of grain, foodstuffs, and driving off livestock, and confident of escaping punishment as they were subjects of military courts only. In the face of such abuses and violence, the Armenians established revolutionary organizations, namely the Social Democrat Hunchakian Party (Hunchak; founded in Switzerland in 1887) and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (the ARF or Dashnaktsutiun, founded in 1890 in Tiflis). Clashes ensued and unrest occurred in 1892 at Merzifon and in 1893 at Tokat.
In 1894, the Sultan began to target the Armenian people in a precursor to the Hamidian massacres. This persecution strengthened nationalistic sentiment among Armenians. The first notable battle in the Armenian resistance took place in Sasun. Hunchak activists, such as Mihran Damadian, Hampartsoum Boyadjian, and Hrayr, encouraged resistance against double taxation and Ottoman persecution. The ARF armed the people of the region. The Armenians confronted the Ottoman army and Kurdish irregulars at Sasun, finally succumbing to superior numbers and to Turkish assurances of amnesty (which was never granted).
In response to the resistance at Sasun, the governor of Mush responded by inciting the local Muslims against the Armenians. Historian Patrick Balfour, 3rd Baron Kinross writes that massacres of this kind were often achieved by gathering Muslims in a local mosque and claiming that the Armenians had the aim of "striking at Islam." Sultan Abdul Hamid sent the Ottoman army into the area and also armed groups of Kurdish irregulars. The violence spread and affected most of the Armenian towns in the Ottoman Empire.
The Great Powers (Britain, France, Russia) forced Hamid to sign a new reform package designed to curtail the powers of the Hamidiye in October 1895 which, like the Berlin treaty, was never implemented. On October 1, 1895, two thousand Armenians assembled in Constantinople to petition for the implementation of the reforms, but Ottoman police units converged on the rally and violently broke it up. Upon receiving the reform package, the sultan is said to have remarked, "This business will end in blood."
Soon, massacres of Armenians broke out in Constantinople and then engulfed the rest of the Armenian-populated vilayets of Bitlis, Diyarbekir, Erzurum, Mamurel-ul-Aziz, Sivas, Trebizond and Van. Thousands were killed at the hands of their Muslim neighbors and government soldiers, and many more died during the cold winter of 1895–96. William Sachtleben, an American journalist who happened to be in Erzurum after the massacre there in 1895, recounted the grisly scene he came across in a lengthy letter to The Times:
What I myself saw this Friday afternoon [November 1] is forever engraven on my mind as the most horrible sight a man can see. I went with one of the cavasses [guards] of the English Legation, a soldier, my interpreter, and a photographer (Armenian) to the Gregorian [i.e., Armenian Apostolic] Cemetery ....Along the wall on the north, in a row 20 ft (6 m) wide and 150 ft (46 m) long, lay 321 dead bodies of the massacred Armenians. Many were fearfully mangled and mutilated. I saw one with his face completely smashed in with a blow of some heavy weapon after he was killed. I saw some with their own necks almost severed by a sword cut. One I saw whose whole chest had been skinned, his fore-arms were cut off, while the upper arm was skinned of flesh. I asked if the dogs had done this. "No, the Turks did it with their knives." A dozen bodies were half burned. All the corpses had been rifled of all their clothes except a cotton undergarment or two....To be killed in battle by brave men is one thing; to be butchered by cowardly armed soldiers in cold blood and utterly defenseless is another thing.
The French vice consul of Diyarbakır, Gustave Meyrier, recounted to Ambassador Paul Cambon stories of Armenian women and children being assaulted and killed and described the attackers "as cowardly as they were cruel. They refused to attack where people defended themselves and instead concentrated on defenseless districts." The worst atrocity took place in Urfa, where Ottoman troops burned the Armenian cathedral, in which 3,000 Armenians had taken refuge, and shot at anyone who tried to escape.
Abdul Hamid's private first secretary wrote in his memoirs about Abdul Hamid that he "decided to pursue a policy of severity and terror against the Armenians, and in order to succeed in this respect he elected the method of dealing them an economic blow... he ordered that they absolutely avoid negotiating or discussing anything with the Armenians and that they inflict upon them a decisive strike to settle scores."
The killings continued until 1897. In that last year, Sultan Hamid declared the Armenian Question closed. Many Armenian revolutionaries had either been killed or escaped to Russia. The Ottoman government closed Armenian societies and restricted Armenian political movements.
Some non-Armenian groups were also attacked during the massacres. The French diplomatic correspondence shows that the Hamidiye carried out massacres not only of Armenians but also of Assyrians living in Diyarbakir, Hasankeyf, Sivas and other parts of Anatolia.
Rev. H. N. Barnum, a missionary from America speaking on his account of the massacres in the July version of the Missionary Review titled "The Outlook in Eastern Turkey",
It is impossible to ascertain how many Armenians were killed, although the figures cited by historians have ranged from 80,000 to 300,000.
Therefore, third-party figures are deemed most reliable. The German pastor Johannes Lepsius meticulously collected data on the destruction and in his calculations, counted the deaths of 88,243 Armenians, the destitution of 546,000, the destruction of 2,493 villages, the residents of 456 of which were forcibly converted to Islam, and the desecration of 649 churches and monasteries, of which 328 were converted into mosques. He also estimated the additional deaths of 100,000 Armenians due to famine and disease totalling a number of approximately 200,000.
On the other hand, the ambassador of Britain estimated 100,000 were killed up until early December 1895. However, the period of massacres spread well into 1896. German foreign ministry operative and Turkologist Ernst Jäckh claimed that 200,000 Armenians were killed and 50,000 were expelled and a million pillaged and plundered. A similar figure is cited by the French diplomatic historian Pierre Renouvin who claimed that 250,000 Armenians died based on authenticated documents while serving his duty.
Besides Armenians, some 25,000 Assyrians lost their lives as well.
News of the Armenian massacres in the empire were widely reported in Europe and the United States and drew strong responses from foreign governments and humanitarian organizations alike.
The French ambassador described Turkey as "literally in flames," with "massacres everywhere" and all Christians being murdered "without distinction." A French vice consul declared that the Ottoman Empire was "gradually annihilating the Christian element" by "giving the Kurdish chieftains carte blanche to do whatever they please, to enrich themselves at the Christians' expense and to satisfy their men’s whims."
One headline in a September 1895 article by the New York Times ran "Armenian Holocaust," while the Catholic World declared, "Not all the perfume of Arabia can wash the hand of Turkey clean enough to be suffered any longer to hold the reins of power over one inch of Christian territory." The rest of the American press called for action to help the Armenians and to remove, "if not by political action than by resort to the knife... the fever spot of the Turkish Empire." King Leopold II of Belgium told British Prime Minister Salisbury that he was prepared to send his Congolese Force Publique to "invade and occupy" Armenia. The massacres were an important item on the agenda of the United States President Grover Cleveland, and in his presidential platform for 1896, Republican candidate William McKinley listed the saving of the Armenians as one of his top priorities in foreign policy. Americans in the Ottoman Empire, such as George Washburn, then-president of the Constantinople-based Robert College, pressured their government to take concrete action. In December 1900, the USS Kentucky called at the port of Smyrna, where its captain, "Red Bill" Kirkland, delivered the following warning, somewhat softened by his translator, to its governor: "If these massacres continue I'll be swuzzled if I won't someday forget my order… and find some pretext to hammer a few Turkish towns… I'd keel-haul every blithering mother's son of a Turk that wears hair." Americans on the mainland, such as Julia Ward Howe, David Josiah Brewer, and John D. Rockefeller, donated and raised large amounts of money and organized relief aid that was channeled to the Armenians via the newly established American Red Cross. Other humanitarian groups and the Red Cross helped by sending aid to the remaining survivors who were dying of disease and hunger.
At the height of the massacres, in 1896, Abdul Hamid tried to limit the flow of information coming out of Turkey (Harper's Weekly was banned by Ottoman censors for its extensive coverage of the massacres) and counteract the negative press by enlisting the help of sympathetic Western activists and journalists. The Zionist leader Theodor Herzl responded ecstatically to Abdul Hamid's personal request to harness "Jewish power" in order to undermine the widespread sympathy felt for Armenians in Europe. Through his contacts, favorable impressions of the empire were published in a number of European newspapers and magazines, while Herzl himself attempted unsuccessfully to mediate between the Sultan and Armenian party activists in France, Britain, Austria and elsewhere. Herzl acknowledged that the arrangement with the Abdul Hamid was temporary and his services were in exchange for bringing about a more favorable Ottoman attitude toward Zionism. "Under no circumstances," he wrote, "are the Armenians to learn that we want to use them in order to erect a Jewish state." Herzl's currying the Sultan's favor did not go without protest. Bernard Lazare published an open letter critical of Herzl and resigned from the Zionist Committee in 1899. The one fellow leader Herzl sought to enlist, Max Nordau, replied with a one-word telegram 'No'. In retrospect Herzl's realpolitik publicity for the Turks can be seen as a contest for rescue between victims of genocide.
Despite the great public sympathy that was felt for the Armenians in Europe, none of the European powers took concrete action to alleviate their plight. Frustrated with their indifference and failure to take action, Armenians from the ARF seized the European-managed Ottoman Bank on August 26, 1896 in order to bring the massacres to their full attention. Though their demands were rejected and new massacres broke out in Constantinople, the act was lauded by the European and American press, which vilified Hamid and painted him as the "great assassin" and "bloody Sultan." The Great Powers vowed to take action and enforce new reforms, although these never came into fruition due to conflicting political and economic interests.
After George Hepworth, a preeminent journalist of the late 19th century, traveled through Ottoman Armenia in 1897, he wrote Through Armenia on Horseback, which discusses the causes and effects of the recent massacres. In one chapter Hepworth describes the disparity between the reality of the Massacre in Bitlis and the official reports that were sent to the Porte. After retelling the Turkish version of events, which places the blame solely on the Armenians of Bitlis, Hepworth writes:
…That is the account of the affair which was sent to Yildiz, and that story contains all that the Sultan has any means of knowing about it. It is a most remarkable story, and the discrepancies are as thick as leaves in Valambrosa. On the face of it, it cannot be true, and before a jury it would hardly have any weight as evidence. It is extremely important, however, because it is probably a fair representation of the occurrences of the last few years. That it is a misrepresentation, so much so that it can fairly be called fabrication, becomes clear when you look at it a second time... and yet it is from an official document which the future historian will read when he wishes to compile the facts concerning those massacres.
Official Ottoman sources downplayed or misrepresented the death toll numbers. The attempt of deliberately misrepresenting the numbers were noted by British Ambassador Phillip Currie in a letter to Prime Minister Lord Salisbury:
The Sultan lately sent to me, in common with my colleagues, an urgent message inviting the six Representatives to visit the military and municipal hospitals in order to see for themselves the number of Turkish soldiers and civilians who had been wounded during the recent disturbances.
I accordingly requested Surgeon Tomlinson, of Her Majesty's ship "Imogene," to make the round of the hospitals in company with Mr. Blech, of Her Majesty's Embassy...
The hospital authorities made attempts to pass off wounded Christians as Mussulmans. Thus, the 112 in the Stamboul [Istanbul] prison were represented as being Turks, and it was only discovered by accident that 109 were Christians.
Some scholars, such as the Soviet historians Mkrtich G. Nersisyan, Ruben Sahakyan, and John Kirakosyan, and Yehuda Bauer subscribe to the view that the mass killings of 1894–96 were the first phase of the Armenian Genocide. Most scholars, however, limit this definition strictly to the years 1915–23.