Armenian Resistance to Genocide: An Attempt to Assess Circumstances and Outcomes

A resistance battalion led by Gen. Dro

Armenian Resistance to Genocide: An Attempt to Assess Circumstances and Outcomes


The centuries-long Ottoman rule over Armenia has been one of oppression and discrimination. Armenians were treated as second class citizens and were subjected to illicit taxation, discriminatory laws, and constant harassment and persecution. Armenian culture and civilization suffered significant setbacks, and Armenians, the brave mountaineers of the Armenian Plateau, with a long history of struggle for national freedom, were turned into subservient slaves who showed absolute compliance even when their belongings were looted, their villages ransacked, and their women and children were kidnapped and taken away.

This situation changed in the early 19th Century, as the liberal ideas of Europe began to reach Armenians. National awareness was on the rise, and the will to stand up for their basic rights was escalating. The first act of resistance against oppression occurred in 1862 in the mountainous region of Zeitun, where Zeituntsis refused to pay the discriminatory and illegal taxes the Kurdish chieftain demanded and took up arms against a 12,000-strong Turkish army that moved in to fortify the 6000 Kurdish irregulars. The unprecedented resistance, which ended successfully with the intervention of the French government, became an inspiration to all Armenians. The Armenian political Renaissance was underway. And let us not forget “Tsayn me hunchets Erzerumi Hayots Lerneren” (A Call Sounded from the Armenian Mountains of Erzerum), the first fedayee song, that encapsulates the prevailing mindsets and a romantic call for action against intolerable oppression.

Political parties were formed to fight for the betterment of the Armenian lot. Bands of revolutionary militants, gallant and selfless young men, the fedayees, went village to village to protect defenseless Armenians against the Turkish and Kurdish assaults. Pleas and supplications were sent to the Sublime Porte, the sultan, and the intervention of European governments was sought. The Ottoman government responded with increased persecutions. Crushing any form of resistance and brutal reprisals against the innocent population became a governmental policy. The widespread massacres of 1895-96 marked the culmination of it all resulting in an enormous destruction of life and property. Exceptions were most notably Zeitun and Van, where resistance warded off disaster.

Significantly, the incident that triggered this bloodshed was resistance in Sasun in the summer of 1894 spurred once again by refusal to pay the impoverishing high taxes the Kurdish chieftains and government tax collectors demanded. With the Hnchakists (Social Democrat Hnchakian Party) encouraging, arming, and leading them, the Sasuntsis organized fighting bands and repelled the Kurdish irregulars and the Turkish army. The resistance lasted about a month and was eventually crushed; the entire region was ransacked, and the population was massacred.

Protests, petitions, and memoranda by the European Powers to stop the carnage bore no results. In fact, the September 30, 1895 peaceful rally organized by the Hnchakists to march from the Kum Kapu quarter toward Bab Ali (the Sublime Porte) in order to present a petition was intercepted by the police and the outcome was a bloodbath in the streets of Constantinople and a large scale massacre that continued for days. The undelivered petition meanwhile pleaded the government to stop the political arrests and killings, to rehabilitate Sasun, to give Armenians the right to bear arms and serve in the police force and gendarmerie, and to reorganize the territories of the six Armenian vilayets according to historic, geographic, and ethnographic features. Responding to European intervention, Sultan Abdul Hamid II agreed to make some reforms, but the massacres were already underway in all of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman government had labeled the Sasun incident as an uprising with an intention of sedition, therewith justifying the ensuing massacres. Many scholars believe that these massacres mark the beginning of the Armenian Genocide.

Another example of a large scale demonstration and protest against the ongoing massacres was organized by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, ARF Dashnaktsutiun. That is the capture of the Ottoman Bank in August 26, 1896 by a handful of revolutionaries led by Armen Garo–after Babken Siuni’s fall at the outset–aiming to shock the Europeans and secure their intervention with the Sultan. The revolutionaries threatened to blow up the bank and the money vaults with a huge European capital in them, if their terms or demands, pretty much similar with those made by the Hnchakists almost a year ago, were not met. The outcome was more promises and a continued bloodshed.

The vengeful plot against the Sultan’s life on July 21, 1905, by the ARF was another example of Armenian determination to resist the Turkish policies of annihilation. The plot was conceived by Kristapor Mikaelian, one of the founders of Dashnaktsutiun, who lost his life while testing the bomb that was intended to blow up the carriage with Sultan Hamid in it. His comrades did not give up and the plot was materialized almost a year later while Sasun had become a stage for government’s extreme measures to punish Armenians. The plot failed, Sultan Abdul Hamid escaped death, but the incident made headlines, the European media once again talked about the Red Sultan and the plight of Armenians.

As a manifestation of utter resistance, the ARF joined the Turkish opposition that aimed at toppling the government and breaking the Sultan’s absolute power. Dashnaktsutiun supported the July 1908 constitutional revolution led by the union of opposition factions, the Ittihad ve Terragi Party (the Young Turks). A few months later, however, in April of 1909, incited by the Muslim religious leaders and under the indifferent eyes of the police and the army, the Turkish mob began to attack Armenians in Adana. The carnage of loot, rape and murder soon spread onto the towns and villages of Cilicia. Armenians having gained the right to bear arms after the Young Turk Revolution put up an armed self defense in a few places including Adana, Hajin, Sis, Zeitun, and Dort Yol. The bloodshed stopped only after the Turkish army chose to intervene.

Although total extermination, or genocidal intent, to use modern terminology, was not a part of the government policy yet, the path chosen was certainly one leading to the annihilation of a nation. The ground was being prepared for the Young Turk ultranationalists, the triumvirate of Enver, Talaat, and Jemal, who took over the government in a coup in January 1913, to finish up the job in 1915.

The task was not an easy one. Armenians were more or less organized, and even had representatives in the parliament to protest the mistreatment and injustices that were ongoing in the empire. The plan of annihilation could not be executed without first neutralizing all likely resistance. The global war gave the opportunity to isolate the empire, to cut off intervention by the British, the French, and the Russians, the enemies of the Ottoman Empire who had entered war as Germany’s ally.

To preempt possible armed resistance, the government promulgated the law of general conscription, and almost all Armenian men aged 20-45 then 18-52 were drafted into the army. The next stage was the disarming of the populace, which was conducted using the cruelest methods, incarcerating and killing those who did not have a weapon to turn in, looting houses and desecrating churches in the pretext of searching for hidden weapons. Collected weapons were then photographed and sent to the capital as evidence of Armenian treason. The arrest, exile, and execution of Armenian civic, political, and religious leadership was the last blow aimed at beheading the Armenian people. It is only in this context that one can fathom the scope of resistance to massacres and deportation in 1915.

During the months of April to August 1915, Armenians from all over the empire, and not only the battle zones as the denialists claim, were ordered to leave their homes and belongings behind and move. In this process, the male deportees were the first to be liquidated, executed or shot. Very soon, the caravans consisted only of women, children and elderly men, prey to frequent attacks of bandits, Muslim villagers, and even the gendarmes accompanying them. Was resistance a possible option? Not collectively! Never structured or organized a priori, but spontaneously or on individual level.

Eyewitness accounts, memoirs, and reports speak of those who refused to obey orders, stayed behind and defended to the last breath their house and belongings against the Muslim refugees from Thrace or Bulgaria sent by the government to settle in Armenian houses. These accounts also tell us of young women who plunged to their death from the cliffs or drowned themselves in the Euphrates River. That was their way to resist the evil intentions of the perpetrators. Young survivors of Genocide remember their mothers teaching them the Armenian alphabet tracing it on the desert sand, reading them the Bible, and encouraging them to keep their spirit up, despite hunger and thirst, despite the misery and death around them. These children were taught not to forget their Armenian ancestry, remember the great Tragedy, and uphold their national identity. These survivors have transmitted their memory to the next generation. Armenians know that remembering is a tool to resist the Genocide. Remembrance is a form of resistance that outlasted Genocide.

As to organized armed resistance, its possibility was crushed at the outset. Henry Morgenthau writes, ìBefore Armenia could be slaughtered, Armenia must be made defenseless.î Despite this uncompromising process, armed resistance occurred in a number of places where geographic situation, availability of some arms and ammunitions, and the presence of able-bodied men capable of fighting permitted. To cite a few examples, let us begin with Zeitun.

In late March 1915, the unrestrained assaults against Armenians of Zeitun began. 25 youth protested the treatment, fought back and took to the hills. The local army with the help of a battalion of 5000 soldiers from Aleppo attacked, captured, and killed the fighters and drove the Armenian population of Zeitun out on a death march. The date was April 8, marking the first in the process of deportation of the entire Armenian population of the empire and the first futile attempt to resist the government’s plans of extermination.

The next armed struggle occurred in Van, with the besieging army shooting the first bullet on April 20. News of massacres in the surrounding villages and deportations from Zeitun and other Cilician towns and villages were reaching Van. Armenians were preparing to defend the city.  They were able to procure some arms and ammunition, organize strongholds, and fight back. With the Hnchakist leaders already arrested and killed and Dashnakist leaders, Ishkhan and Vramian, perfidiously murdered, Aram Manukian of Dashnaktsutiun took charge of the defense of Van which lasted about four weeks before the Russian army entered the city and the Turks fled. This brave stand-up was a feat of gallantry without a hope for outside help. In fact, the Russian army had no intention to capture Van, and it was only by the persuasion of the leaders of Armenian volunteer army, Dro, Hamazasp, Keri, and Vardan, that Russians agreed to move in. As a result of this armed resistance, some 30,000 people were saved. The city enjoyed a few weeks of semi-independence, rebuilding and revitalization until the sudden withdrawal of the Russian army followed by the perilous exodus of the Armenian population toward Eastern Armenia. The Van self-defense, to be sure, was labeled as an uprising and offered as the cause for the government’s decision to drive all the Armenian population out. Dr. Ussher, an American missionary stationed in Van, among other eyewitnesses and researchers, states, however, that the incident of Van was clearly an act of self-defense.

The resistance of Shabin Garahisar occurred in the beginning of June 1915. Armenians took refuge in the famous fortress overlooking the town and put up a hopeless armed defense with less than 200 fighters against the Turkish army. The resistance lasted till June 28 and was crushed by debilitating hunger, thirst, and diseases, and diminishing ammunition. The Turks climbed up the mountain and slaughtered all the 5000 men, women, and children. Aram Haygaz, one of very few survivors of the massacre, writes in the preface of his book dedicated to that heroic battle, ìThere are many glorious defeats in our history, and that of Garahisar was one of them. Glory to the defeated!î

Mshetsi leaders rejected the government’s order of deportation and the Armenian bishop’s assurance that the convoy will be safe guarded. They decided to defend the city of Mush in which the survivors from the massacres of surrounding villages going on since late May had also taken refuge. Armed men were able to withhold until the end of June. Actually, because of the presence of ARF leaders, Ruben, Koms, and Koriun, the government had not been able to thoroughly implement the disarmament of the region of Mush and Sasun. In any case, as the supplies ran out and the army attacks were intensified, the city was surrendered and carnage and looting ensued. Of 60,000 inhabitants of the region very few survived. Alma Johansson, a Swedish missionary working in the German orphanage for Armenian children in Mush remembers how the Turks and Kurds set the orphanage on fire and shot those children who tried to escape. Then it was the turn to subdue Sasun with 50.000 population and only 600 fighters and not enough arms and ammunition. The major thrust of the Turkish army began on July 19. Sasuntsis put up a self-defense in Andok. This stronghold too fell on August 5 and the entire population was put to sword.

To crush the resistance of Urfa Armenians in late August became possible only with the help of an 11,000 army battalion fighting against a handful of young Armenian men and women led by Mkrtich Yotneghbarian and Mariam Chilingarian. Fahri Pasha, the head of the Turkish army is quoted as saying ìWhat we would have done if in these difficult times we had a few Urfas to deal with.î The slaughtering of the 35,000 Armenian inhabitants began, and the few survivors were driven out to the camps of death. Karen Jeppe, the Danish missionary in Urfa, witnessed the massacres and tried to help rescue the survivors. Her memoirs are testimonies of unheard of atrocities against Armenians.

The self-defense of the Armenian population of Musa Dagh was a successful operation which resulted in saving 4000 Armenian lives. Musa Dagh Armenians decided not to obey the government’s decree of deportation. On July 31, they climbed up the mountain carrying food, arms and ammunition and fought for seven weeks before they were rescued by a French warship that saw their signals calling for help. There will be more discussion on Musa Dagh later in the program.

The Musa Dagh resistance is typical of all instances of Armenian resistance to the Genocide of 1915 as it involved the participation of not only the fighting men, but also the women carrying food and ammunition to the fighters, caring for the wounded, and even making bullets, as well as children who risked their lives to run from a bunker to another to dispatch orders and bring news to the headquarter. We all know about Franz Werfel’s world renowned novel, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh eternalizing this great example of resistance to injustice. We know who deep was its impact on post-Genocide Armenian struggle for justice. Do we know that the Jewish resistance in the Warsaw ghetto was inspired by that novel?

Instances of resistance to the Genocide of 1915 in impossible circumstances were daring undertakings defying the notion of ìsheep to the slaughterhouse.î As Jelal Bey of Aleppo who objected the deportation orders said. ìIt is the natural right of a human being to live….The Armenians will defend themselves.î

Except for Van and Musa Dagh, where the intervention of the Allied armies, the Russian and the French, played a decisive role in saving the population, the outcome of all instances of self-defense was total destruction and annihilation of the population. That was the award of men, women, and children who dared to resist against this formidably inhuman crime of man against man.

The Armenian armed resistance, this natural right of human beings to defend themselves, gave further ammunition to Turkish maladroit justifications for the genocide of Armenians, for their crime against humanity. But at the same time, these valorous acts of self-defense, from the one in Zeitun in 1862 to that in Musa Dagh in 1915 have become sources of inspiration for generations of Armenians to be proud of their heritage and selflessly engage in always unequal battle for the long overdue justice to prevail.

Auron, Yair. The Banality of Indifference, 2000.
Dadrian, Vahakn N. The History of the Armenian Genocide, 1995
Hovannisian, Richard G., ed. The Armenian People, vol. II, 1997.
Morgenthau, Henry. The Murder of a Nation, 2nd ed. 1982.
Nalbandian, Louise. The Armenian Revolutionary Movement, 1963
Peroomian, Rubina. Hay Tahd 10 and 11, 2002, 1994.
Peroomian, Rubina. ìArmenian Resistance, 1915-1916,î in Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest, 2009.
Walker, Christopher J. Armenia, The Survival of a Nation, 1980.

This paper was presented at the California State University Northridge Conference on ìResistances to the Armenian Genocide,î on April 6, 2013, organized by the Armenian Studies Program. This presentation, first in the program, intended to introduce the concept of resistance to genocide and provide a brief survey of the history of resistance to the Armenian Genocide, with some examples, thus, a backdrop for the ensuing presentations.


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  2. Robert said:

    Very interesting article and a persuasive impetus for staying organized and ready should enemies of the Armenian people again try violence against us. We must always stay vigilant!

  3. MGL said:

    Good history refreshing. Thanks Rubina! This must to be in every history book, not only Armenians books.

  4. Xander said:

    I learned about the armenian genocide through System of a Down. Its terrible that it isn’t taught about when the Holocaust is such common knowledge. I was given weeks to learn about Nazi Germany but i had to seek this information out.