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Who Were the Young Turks?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Young Turks were an incredibly diverse group of Turkish citizens who rebelled against Ottoman Sultan Abdülhamid II and his extremely authoritarian government in the early 20th century. They are often credited with laying the groundwork for the modernization of the Ottoman Empire, and they played a very important role in Turkish history. The association of the Young Turks with radical ideas and revolutionary change is so widespread that the term is often used in slang to refer to groups of youthful and politically active individuals who agitate for change.

The origins of the Young Turks lie in 1889, when an atmosphere of quiet dissent began to spread throughout the Ottoman Empire, among students and disaffected members of the military, primarily. After a brief period of constitutional government from 1876-1878, the Sultan suspended the Turkish Constitution, causing a great deal of unrest among many Ottoman citizens. The Young Turks began meeting in small cells to talk about the creation of a secular, constitutionally based government as an alternative to Turkey's existing monarchy, and the movement quickly spread until 1906, when they came out in the open and began to actively agitate for change.

Two years later, the Young Turk Revolution took place, restoring the Turkish Constitution and disenfranchising the Sultan. They instituted a number of reforms, some of which were extremely progressive. In 1913, a coup took place, displacing a number of “Old Turks” from power and firmly establishing the position of the “Three Pashas,” three men who ruled Turkey until the end of the First World War.

The Young Turk Revolution established a sense of Turkish nationalism and pride. Their reforms to the Turkish government and general opinion helped Turkey enter the 20th century, and set the stage for Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and his Republic of Turkey, which rose from the ashes of the dismantled Ottoman Empire after the First World War. The modern Turkish state would probably be a very different place if the Young Turks had not mustered the courage to act. a

While the Young Turks certainly set radical reforms in Turkey in motion, they also destroyed the Ottoman Empire with poor foreign policy decisions, starting with the disastrous choice to enter the First World War on the side of Germany. Historical evidence also shows that the Three Pashas were responsible for the mass murder and deportation of Armenians during the First World War which came to be known as the Armenian Genocide.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon248051 — On Feb 15, 2012

Anon228252 has his facts all mixed up and simply incorrect. Armenia was conquered by the Ottoman Empire 600 years before World War I. Yes, there was a time of peace edging toward post 17th century between the Armenians and Turks. The Anatolian plateau (modern day Turkey) was home to both Turkish and Armenian villages. However, the time of peace changed when the Young Turks took over the Ottoman government, firmly establishing the Young Turk rule in 1913.

Other than this, anon makes false accusations. There were, in fact, some Armenians who welcomed the Russians since they viewed the incoming Russians as possible liberators. However, the majority of the Armenian population stayed neutral and some percent opposed this and the Russian movements.

After all, there was still a sense of Armenian culture in Istanbul and some members of the legislature were ethnic Armenians. In addition, many Armenians were doing well economically. Why rebel against Turkey (the Ottoman Empire)? There was no reason to, since most Armenians were certain there was a chance the Communist Russia wouldn't liberate them.

Leaders before the Young Turks had sometimes ordered massacres of the Armenian, Greek, and Assyrian citizens of the Ottoman Empire. This number was relatively low and not as significant as the day the Armenian Genocide formally started. Now, the genocide necessarily was not some unplanned decision. Young Turk leaders discussed planning such an atrocity: the systematic extermination of all ethnic Armenians. There were some Turkish advisers who spoke out against this. These advisers' words did not stir the leaders and the orders were formed and given to Turkish commanders and their soldiers that stated to kill all Armenians. There was and still is evidence for these documents.

On April 24, 1915, the official start of the genocide, some 50 Armenian cultural leaders, poets, artists, priests, etc., were arrested, tortured and killed in Istanbul. Many Armenians, when receiving the news, did not believe this, since it was crazy to think a government would do this to its people. However, the worst came through as Armenian villages throughout the Anatolian plateau were destroyed, their inhabitants killed on the spot or deported to the Anabad desert in Syria. The bones of these people can still be found in the desert, more specifically mounds of these bones.

Eventually, Russia did come to aid Armenian guerrilla fighters who established an independent Armenia from 1918-1921 (the Soviet Union took over afterward.) But by 1918, the damage had been done. About 1.5 million Armenians had been killed -- almost two thirds of the entire Armenian population dead.

This is not a historical debate. The vast majority of genocide scholars and historians recognize these the killings as genocide, the first of the 20th century. In fact, Raphael Kembkin, who invented the word genocide to describe the Holocaust, used the massacres of the Armenian people by the Ottomans as another perfect example of genocide. Over 22 major nations, France, Italy, Russia and many others recognize the Armenian Genocide.

Although the US as a whole doesn't recognize the genocide due to close ties with Turkey, 43 US states recognize it and the US government has confirmed that hundreds of thousands of Armenians were killed.

We are not waiting for Armenia to open its history books. We are waiting for Turkey to recognize the Armenian genocide. After, all hundreds of thousands of Greeks and Assyrians were killed too. Their denial to this day is clearly seen. It is wrong -- imagine Germany denying the Holocaust.

I do not blame modern day Turks for such atrocities. I blame their government and their education system and historians which deny an unquestionable fact: the Armenian genocide.

By anon228252 — On Nov 07, 2011

History clearly states that there was no evidence of genocide by the Turks.

Turks have lived peacefully with the Armenians for close to seven or eight hundred years. Why would they just decide to systematically kill Armenians? did the Ottomans, after living peacefully for 400, years just decide they will kill all Armenians?

Armenians sided with the upcoming communist Russians to kill the very hand that was looking after them and giving them the highest wages and conditions to live while the ottoman's own muslim countrymen were getting minimum wage.

First chance the Armenians got, they turned their back on the Ottomans and fought with the upcoming communists from Russia. That is the reason hundreds of thousands of innocent people perished while being transported away from the the war and conflict.

Books have been written by historians and political historians on real history and facts, not fictional invented history by the Armenians.

The world is still waiting for the Armenians to open up their history books for the world to see.

Why would christian European courts throw out the case numerous times if there was a genocide?

Armenians never talk about the hundreds of thousands of Turks and Azeris killed.

@CaithnessCC: if you want the real history of what went on between the Ottomans and the Armenians, you can easily find it on the web. Don't believe What you here from anybody until it has been proven as fact.

The young Turk movement was a very important one in history and it shows today with one of the longest great standing democracies.

The young Turks were not perfect. They made mistakes, like all revolutionaries, but what is important in the end is a stable Muslim country of democratic Turkey that is a role model and still forges stability in the region between Christians and Muslims.

By hanley79 — On Jun 22, 2011

@Hawthorne - Remember, the term "the Young Turks" has developed a modern meaning beyond just the literal historical group.

I'm sure that The Young Turks newscast guys were going for the modern slang meaning referring to people who incite revolution by agitation. In modern terms, "agitation" means to freely share opinions without being politically correct. "Revolution" would be for people to change the general opinion of the issues the show addresses for the better.

The Young Turks newscast is the winner of numerous awards over the last few years, including the Webby award that many web shows covet, so apparently their straightforward tactics are appealing to a very broad target audience. If their chosen name was that offensive, people wouldn't love them so much.

I personally believe that the name The Young Turks compliments what these people are trying to do. Their honest opinion policy is combined with a tendency to address the hottest news topics, which inevitably leads to drama and gets people talking about their show.

Not only that, but they talk about the topics the show addresses -- and I think that's exactly what TheNewTurks want, to stir up a revolution by getting people riled up.

By Hawthorne — On Jun 20, 2011

@SkittisH - I'm a long time watcher of the YoungTurks Youtube channel, too. I always knew that it stood for the historical group the Young Turks, but never really agreed with them going by that name.

Who picks a name that connects them to genocide? And revolution might be praised in history because really, revolution is why the United States of America is its own country, but there are two sides to every story.

The Young Turks Movement not only toppled a form of government that ha worked in Turkey for centuries, it also installed the Three Pashas who were ultimately in charge of the genocide or "ethnic cleansing" of not only Armenians, but also Kurds.

In my humble opinion, a fun and free-thinking online news show shouldn't compare itself to something that would sanction killing people who are different. The YoungTurks Youtube shows are particularly pro-gay rights -- what do you think the original Young Turks would have done to gays?

By SkittisH — On Jun 19, 2011

@gimbell - Oh hey, you're right. I've watched TheYoungTurks on Youtube for ages now -- I especially love when they take a stupid commercial and analyze it, pointing out that it doesn't even make sense.

As far as whether the actual Young Turks were doing the right thing to "agitate for change", I think the way that that is phrased says it all.

They didn't peacefully protest on a corner somewhere -- they agitated, attacked, and outright overruled the current ruling party, believing in their cause as improving over an old system that had worn out its welcome.

Yes, it was violent and unpleasant, and no, not everything they did would be considered socially or morally acceptable to us now. For better or for worse, though, they brought about a revolution -- and sometimes revolution is the only way that history moves forward.

By seHiro — On Jun 16, 2011

@Acracadabra - History really is full of bloodshed and violence and suffering, isn't it? Things like the Young Turks' agitation for social change just serve to remind me of why I get angry whenever people exaggerate and call things like American politics "barbaric".

Please -- real barbarism wasn't about talking at each other in suits, it was about slaughtering each other. It was also an awful time that I would dearly love to see ending soon.

Unfortunately, it seems to be human nature to resist things different from ourselves, and mankind still hasn't realized as a whole yet that our differences are smaller than we think. Nobody will live together peacefully unless literally everybody stops trying to make anyone else believe what they think is right, and I just don't think that's possible.

By gimbell — On Jun 14, 2011

Aha, so this is what The Young Turks Youtube channel is named after! I always wondered about their name.

I figured perhaps they were actually Turkish, but they don't really have accents in particular in their videos...and they don't seem particularly Turkish, either. I was justifiably confused until I found this WiseGEEK article, which made me check The Young Turks Channel's description better.

The Young Turks Youtube channel is the chosen place for the group The Young Turks to post mini news broadcasts about a variety of topics that are of social interest to viewers.

They try to focus on stuff that people really care about, and according to their channel description, the revolution part of their work is in being honest and having a genuine conversation with viewers.

I've watched some of their videos, and they're really good -- no wonder they've won awards for years now.

By appleBlossom — On Jun 14, 2011

@CaithnessCC, one of the risks with progress is that it is unpredictable. I too find it hard to understand how a group like the Young Turks can sanction such atrocius acts, but I can only imagine they had reasons--however wrong and misguided those reasons were.

By Acracadabra — On Jun 14, 2011

@CaithnessCC - As a history major and a person with Armenian roots, I feel quite strongly about this subject.

The thing to remember with those who want social change is that is doesn't always mean everyone in the culture will be welcomed into the new regime. Politics can be ugly indeed.

Actually the genocide occurred in two waves. The first was between 1915-18, when Armenians were killed, tortured or deported, basically sent out into the deserts of Syria to die. Their money and properrty was taken by the government.

The second round took place from 1920-23, albeit by a different political group. All in all around one and a half million people died, though nobody can know the exact figure.

It's shocking to me that this kind of thing just keeps on happening in the world. I really wish people could live together more peacefully.

By CaithnessCC — On Jun 14, 2011

Thanks for writing an informative and insightful article, I knew very little about the reasons for the fall of the Ottoman empire, and nothing about the Armenian genocide.

I started doing some research on this because I'm taking a class where we study popular culture through song lyrics. Rod Stewart's Young Turks song was allocated to me, and so here I am.

What I don't understand is why a group of people like the Young Turks, who make such a stand, and take political and personal risks to create equality, can then sanction such an atrocity.

Sorry to say this but they sound more like thugs and vandals than social reformists.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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