Fadıl Necmi; The Sublime Ottoman State: A History of the Ottoman Empire: Istanbul University Press
From Massacres to Rebellions - The Eastern Crisis of 1895
In isolation, the Sason Rising would be merely a particularly horrific case of intercommunal violence of the sort that was common in Eastern Anatolia toward the end of the 19th century. However, the uprising was not followed by a return to calm, but rather a wider uprising not only on the part of the Armenians but the Bulgarians too. The Sason rising had started when an Armenian village in the region was plundered, possibly by Kurdish tribesmen, and the Armenian population of the surrounding area protested this by refusing to pay taxes to the central government and with minor acts of violence toward local officials. The Ottoman government reacted harshly, sending soldiers, and provoking the Armenians into radical retaliation. Throughout the Sason district, Armenians who had been armed by the Dashnak Party and other revolutionary groups took up arms and banded together to fight the government forces. Some areas of the district held out for a month until they were finally subdued, and when reports of the massacre made their way to the international press, the outcry forced the governments of the Great Powers to send their own commission of enquiry to Eastern Anatolia.
Alone this was enough of a public relations nightmare for the Ottoman Government, but it would only pale in comparison to the events of 1894. Armenian Revolutionary Groups had been in contact with Bulgarian Nationalists since the 1880s, and in response to the events of Sason coordinated their efforts more closely. Observing the indignation seen even in countries thought friendly to the Ottoman Empire, both the Armenians and Bulgarians began to consider a change of tactics. Until this point, both had fought with the tactics of public opinion, appealing to Western powers to secure change within the Ottoman Empire, and they faced accusations that they entrapped the Ottomans into retaliation. H. F. B. Lynch, who journeyed throughout Armenia a few years after the events in question, described what he thought was the modus operandi of the revolutionaries: “The object of these men is to keep the Armenian cause alive by lighting a flame here and there and calling: Fire! The cry is taken up in the European press; and when people run to look there are sure to be some Turkish officials drawn into the trap and committing abominations.”
Though taking away agency for atrocities from the Ottoman perpetrators of atrocities, this nevertheless sheds some light on the Armenian use of Ottoman countermeasures as a tactic in their struggle for nationhood.
There has been limited study of the Dashnak archives, and it appears unclear as to whether a change from this type of provocateur tactics to those of seizing and holding territory was agreed upon beforehand by the Bulgarians and Armenians, or whether the Armenians simply observed Bulgarian success and emulated it. Regardless of how it was planned, the Vratsa Uprising of the 20th of April 1895 (a date certainly chosen for its significance) proved to be far more successful than the April uprising of 1876. Whereas before the Bulgarian Revolutionaries had hoped that the population would be inspired by their actions and rise up, now they had planned carefully in advance and had built up resistance cells in their targeted area. Ottoman garrisons were attacked, local commanders and officials were killed, and the rebels declared an independent Bulgaria. The Ottomans rushed troops to Sofia by railway to reinforce the beleaguered local forces, but rebels attacked the Sofia railway and forced the Ottomans to instead march troops by foot. Now the revolt spread, and soldiers were often ambushed while marching in columns. While the Ottomans remained in control of the larger cities and towns within Bulgaria, as well as areas of the countryside which were majority Muslim, their grip on the rest of the country was weakening by the middle of May.
The events in Bulgaria had not gone unnoticed elsewhere in the empire. In Van, Armenian revolutionaries followed a similar pattern to the Bulgarians and attacked Armenians who were seen as collaborators with the Ottoman government, going so far as to kill the pro-Ottoman Bishop Boghos Melikian of Van. In Zeytun the Armenians took up arms as well, seizing control of the town and killing and expelling the Muslim population of the town. Outside of the Bulgarian and Armenian examples, the Ottomans found themselves challenged by a renewed revolt in Herzegovina and Crete, where nationalists agitated once again for separation from the Ottoman Empire, and in the case of Crete, Enosis
or union with Greece. In just a few months, the Ottoman Empire had seen rebels take control of significant portions of the empire, and it would take some time for the authorities to assert control over these areas once again. Confronted with this mounting crisis and determined to restore control, Abdülhamid announced the partial mobilization of the Ottoman Army on the 2nd of June 1895. He also called upon local groups such as the Hamidiye
irregular cavalry to do as much as possible to defeat rebels, and many such groups took this as a license to attack and rob their peaceful neighbours as well as rebels.
Left to their own devices, the Ottoman Government might have been able to bring the revolutionaries to heel, albeit at a great cost to civilian lives and after some months of bloody fighting. As had been the case for other episodes of unrest it was not the military threat presented by the Sultan’s rebellious subjects that was the main challenge, but rather the reaction of the great powers to Ottoman attempts to quell these revolts. Already by the spring of 1895, stories of Ottoman atrocities, sometimes embellished but all too often true, were seen in newspapers across Europe. Abdülhamid was now nicknamed “Abdul the red”
or “Abdul the damned”
and was seen as the quintessential Eastern despot. Hook-nosed, hunched and with death whispering in his ear, Abdülhamid’s image as the great monster of the time in the minds of many in the West was solidified. With this image of the Ottomans circulating among the populations of the Great Powers, and with politicians and statesmen increasingly strong in their condemnation of the “Hamidian Massacres”, it seemed as if the conflict would escalate even further.
 – I do want to try and keep as balanced a view as I can here. The Armenian massacres and genocide of 1915 is a very touchy subject and has been on this very forum in the past. Recently the scholarly consensus has shifted toward acceptance of the events from 1915 as a genocide (even from scholars labelled as genocide deniers such as Edward J. Erickson), and this is a view I now hold. At the same time, I do think that some on the Armenian side of the debate tend to ignore the agency of Armenians within intercommunal conflicts in Anatolia and the suffering of Muslim populations. This of course does not excuse Turkish denial of the genocide or the massacres of Armenians, and I think that this is a debate that will no doubt continue to shift in the years and decades ahead. Anyway, this footnote is long enough as it is.
 – This happened in OTL as well. Van had a particularly high Armenian population and as such was not only protected from the first wave of massacres in the Hamidian massacres of OTL but was a focus of Armenian opposition to the Ottoman government until the genocide of 1915. Even then, however, the Armenians of Van went down fighting to some extent.
 – The Hamidiye were an irregular cavalry force designed to coopt the Kurdish tribesmen of Eastern Anatolia into defending the Ottoman State and serving as a Cossack-like force in the Ottoman army. They did not prove to be as effective a fighting force as the Cossacks though.