Mehmet Polatel Lectures about the Relationship between the Hamidian Massacres and the Armenian Genocide
“Continuity, Escalation, and Local Actors: The Hamidian Massacres and the Armenian Genocide”
2019-2020 Center Junior Postdoctoral Research Fellow
April 13, 2020
Mehmet Polatel, the 2019-2020 Junior Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research, delivered an online lecture entitled “Continuity, Escalation, and Local Actors: The Hamidian Massacres and the Armenian Genocide.” In his lecture, which attracted over 150 viewers online, he discussed his investigation of the relationship between these two events, with a particular emphasis on what testimonies from the USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive have contributed to his research.
In the first part of his lecture, Dr. Polatel pointed out that when it comes to the Hamidian massacres of 1893-1897 and the 1915 Armenian genocide, the existing scholarship has been mostly limited to the debate about whether or not the Hamidian massacres were a prelude to the Armenian genocide. Arguing that the relationship between the two events deserves more attention, Dr. Polatel advocated for more focus on what was happening at the local level. In particular, he raised the following questions: Who were those directly involved in mass violence during these events? Which actors or groups profited from these events? How did enormous property transfers that accompanied the massacres affect later developments? What were the elements of public debates at the local level in these two periods? Were there overlaps between the locations of massacres?
To attempt to answer these questions, Dr. Polatel has focused his research on the Ottoman East, a region marred by mass violence during both of these events. One reason he chose to focus on this region is because of the extent of the local population’s participation in the genocide. Dr. Polatel has been building upon his data set about local actors involved in property seizures during the Hamidian massacres that he collected for his doctoral research as he has worked on collecting data about local actors involved in the Armenian genocide. In addition, he has been combing through the testimonies in the USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive to examine survivors’ experiences of and perspectives on these two events and to get a more rounded picture of local dynamics and personal relationships.
In his comparative investigation of property seizures and mass violence during the Hamidian massacres and the Armenian genocide, Dr. Polatel has discovered that there are a considerable number of local actors whose personal or family history is linked to both of these events. He emphasized that socio-economic status and competition over resources after the Hamidian massacres factored into conditioning local participation in the Armenian genocide.
In the second part of his lecture, Dr. Polatel turned to his findings in the USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive (VHA) and the way testimonies contributed to his research and understanding of the relationship between the Hamidian massacres and the Armenian genocide. After reflecting on benefits and challenges of working with oral history testimonies, Dr. Polatel expressed that he gained a number of important insights from studying VHA testimonies. Most significantly, he discovered that the Hamidian massacres were an important event in the narratives of many survivors and that many survivors referred to them as an important temporal marker in their personal histories. To illustrate his point, Dr. Polatel referred to Haroutune Aivazian, an Armenian genocide survivor named after his maternal grandfather who was killed in one of the Hamidian massacres. In addition to being a temporal marker in survivors’ narratives, survivor testimonies reveal that the Hamidian massacres generally affected the lives and livelihoods of many survivors before the Armenian genocide. Dr. Polatel pointed out that a number of survivors reported their families becoming impoverished and losing their land during the Hamidian massacres. In addition, he noted that survivor testimonies confirm that some of those who seized Armenian properties during the Hamidian massacres were the same people in charge of deportations and massacres during the Armenian genocide. Survivor testimonies additionally suggest that some Armenian children were spared from the violence in order to be used as unpaid laborers to work the lands seized from Armenian families.
In the third part of his lecture, Dr. Polatel focused his attention on two specific cases that demonstrate the value of Visual History Archive testimonies for his project. The first case is related to the events that took place in the village of Tadem in Harput. While Dr. Polatel had some fragmentary information about local actors involved in a massacre in this village during the Hamidian period, three survivor testimonies in the VHA provided him with additional insights concerning not only this history, but also the events in this village during the Armenian genocide. In particular, he discovered that members of the same family were involved in both property seizure in this village during the Hamidian massacres and the coordination and implementation of genocidal actions in the village in 1915. Dr. Polatel argued that this case demonstrates the relationship between the Hamidian massacres and the Armenian genocide, and the importance of material motives in shaping the actions of local actors. Similarly, the second case relates to the district of Çarsancak in Harput, which was marked by a large-scale land dispute and was dominated by a single family who controlled Armenian lands there. Dr. Polatel pointed out that the VHA testimonies not only show how this land dispute affected the lives of Armenian families in the district, but also that the members of that same family were involved in the coordination and implementation of the massacres in the region during the Armenian genocide.
Dr. Polatel concluded his lecture by reiterating the purpose of his research and the importance of survivor testimonies for gaining additional insights into the relationship between the Hamidian massacres and the Armenian genocide on the local level.
Dr. Polatel’s lecture was followed by a long and varied discussion. The questions raised by viewers included whether Dr. Polatel was able to connect families of perpetrators involved in the Hamidian massacres and the Armenian genocide to present-day families, governments officials, and oligarchs in Turkey; whether the 1890s settlement of nomadic tribal groups also served as a motivating factor in the Hamidian massacres; questions about Arslan Bey’s role in Çarsancak and his connection to the republican government after the Armenian genocide; the extent to which the VHA testimonies shed light on the social and economic life of both Armenians and non-Armenians; how Dr. Polatel’s sources, approaches, and outcomes of his research inform our knowledge about other genocidal events that span longer periods, among many other topics.
Summary by Badema Pitic
In this talk, Mehmet Polatel (2019-2020 Center Junior Postdoctoral Research Fellow) explores the relationship between the Hamidian Massacres and the Armenian Genocide by tracing people and groups who were directly involved in both of these episodes as perpetrators and usurpers.