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Last Updated: 04/03/2009
Some Similarities Between the Armenian Genocide, 1915-1923, and the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda

The twentieth century witnessed systematic, state-sponsored killings of specific ethnic, nationalist, or religious groups across continents and cultures. Much can be learned from the individual ideologies of hate and insecurity that led to each genocide, but as Habyarimana argues, they also share significant similarities. Ultimately, genocide is not a problem that belongs to specific times and places, but a problem for all mankind. We all have a responsibility to understand what has happened, and build a future where such atrocities are an impossibility.

In 1915, thousands of Armenians who lived in the Ottoman Empire were deported and murdered in killings organized by the then Turkish government. In the same century, the whole world experienced not only the Holocaust but also the Rwandan genocide, organized by Juvenal Habyarimana’s government against the minority Rwandan Tutsis in 1994.

As Stephan Astourian (1990) puts it, however different genocides may be, the nexus of psycho – cultural and socio – political processes from which they result is strikingly similar. Like this author stresses it, it has always been difficult to explain and or understand why some states resort to mass-killing and other methods "with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group within the same state."

Even though Astourian states that only a deep analysis of the ideologies that prevailed in the periods when these atrocities happened can help interpret them, Robert Melson (1996) argues that partial explanations that can be provided by different researchers will not bring back to life innocent people who were killed, nor undo the cruelty of killers. For survivors particularly, adds Melson, doing this kind of study will at least help these people who have been struck forever by the terrible knowledge of these events to deal with their own memories and to become “an affirming flame”, and if possible, to serve as warnings of possible human crimes and disasters that should be prevented.

The history of the Ottoman Empire divided the population into different classes. Astourian (1990) says that according to the Islamic law in this Empire, non-Muslim monotheistic believers, including the Armenians, were considered as belonging to the "Peoples of the Book." He adds that they were, therefore, granted the status of protected non-Muslim subjects of a Muslim state, or the second – class citizens. This status was followed by many restrictions, such as prohibition against carrying arms, riding horses or camels, etc, but mostly exaggerated taxes and unpaid labour for their masters Muslims. By polarizing people like that, Ottoman Emperors, especially Sultan Abdulhamit II (1876-1909), expected to manipulate diverse ethnic groups against one another to maintain power over all of them.

For one reason, Turkism, a radical rejection of Ottomanism, excluded the Armenians not just from state power, which had always been the case, but also from society at large: Armenians were neither Turkic racially, nor Muslim religiously, and they had no share in the Turkish tradition. From a Pan-Turkism, irredentist viewpoint, the location of most Ottoman Armenians in eastern Anatolia was considered as a barrier between Turkey and the Turkic groups living in the Russian Empire, from today's Azerbaijan to Central Asia. The elimination of this barrier played no small part in the execution of the Armenian genocide.

After 1911, Ottoman Armenians were identified with liberalism, both politically, because of their collaboration with the liberal movement, and economically, because of their involvement in international trade. For the Young Turks who led the Ottoman Empire at that time, it was the period of revolution, and this revolution was based on nationalism which had no place for liberal ideologies. Thus, for discriminatory Unionist policies the exclusion of Armenians was a way of legitimizing their revolution by offering Turkish traders the lion's share of the market and forming a racially and culturally homogeneous nation.

Another strong point in the Turkish genocide ideology is the level of impunity for those who progressively participated in these massacres. Astourian (op cit) discusses that the fact that the state led by the Committee of Union and Progress failed to punish those who took part in daily extortions and acts of violence against some of its own citizens (Ottoman Armenians) and that itself promoted civil violence against them gives the social and psychological foundation of the behaviour of Turks and Kurdish peoples during the genocide: Armenians were fair game. To clarify this idea, the same author adds that “any decrease in the perceived likelihood of retribution tends to increase the likelihood and magnitude of civil violence.” He concludes that for Armenians, there could be no decrease, for there was no retribution at all. With this underlying ideology, the unforgettable human animosity was just waiting for the beginning of the World War I to start putting into practice the long planned genocide against unprotected innocent Armenians.

After the three months under which the Rwandan genocide officially took place, the whole world could not define what had taken away lives of more than 800,000 people. Gerald Caplan (2005) says that this small country in the heart of Africa was dominated by Tutsis until 1960. He adds that in the colonial era, under German (1897-1916) and Belgian (1916-1959) rule, Roman Catholic missionaries, inspired by the overtly racist theories of the 19th century Europe, arbitrary and baselessly concocted a bizarre ideology of ethnic cleavage and racial rankings that attributed superior qualities to the country’s Tutsi minority.  In schools led by Roman Catholic missionaries, only sons of Tutsis were allowed as colonizers defined them as created for administration. But this was the “divide and rule” colonial system like in most of African colonized nations.

After some years, “soon many Hutu came to agree that the two ethnic groups, distinguished mostly by vocation in prior centuries, were indeed fundamentally dissimilar in nature and irreconcilable in practice (Caplan, op cit, 93). This author adds that later on Tutsis came to be demonized as a foreign invading power with no entitlements in Rwanda.

After independence, the new powerful Hutu leaders will continue the same discriminative ideology. Despite the fact that, as Caplan puts it, considerable intermarriage took place between the two groups that after all shared a common language, religion, geography and, often as not, appearance, the first President of the Republic of Rwanda, Gregoire Kayibanda, as mentioned by the Rwanda Military Academy (2007), surprisingly analyses the Rwandan society as two nations in a single state, two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy, who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings as if they were dwellers of different zones, or inhabitants of different planets.

In 1973, Juvenal Habyarimana, the second President whose ideology is deeply analysed by Philip Verwimp (1999), comes to power after a coup. Feeling that the first Republic failed to implement the Hutu Revolution initiated in 1959, this new leader’s ideology is made clear by Verwimp.

According to Habyarimana’s vision of an agricultural country, interprets Verwimp, the real value of manual labour has been neglected. He adds that those not performing agricultural work (Tutsi were believed not agriculturalists), the ‘non-peasants,’ are harmful to society, only the Hutu peasant, the one tilling the land, is productive and good for society. Indeed, this analyst warns that when dictatorial political power is legitimized with a peasant ideology, genocide becomes a political option (and indeed almost a necessity) because a peasant society does not tolerate the existence of non-peasants, in the same way as a communist society does not tolerate the existence of a capitalist class. The latter group is labelled “enemies of the revolution.”

Thus, similarly to the Young Turks who considered Armenians as not fitting for the new developmental direction of the country, Juvenal Habyarimana said: “In order to attack the development problems efficiently and to overcome the forces of evil, we have to rise, march and act as one person and the results shall be spectacular.” (Verwimp, 1999). As for the Armenian fate, Tutsis are killed for many years since 1959, 1960, 1961, etc, culminating to the shooting of Habyarimana’s plane on 6th April 1994 that marked the formal beginning of deliberate, organized and well planned mass killings of Rwandan innocent Tutsis with the aim of living none to tell the story (Allison DesForges, 1999).

To conclude, in the cases of Armenian and Rwandan genocides that were dealt with in this article, both the Ottoman Empire Sultans and Hutu governments in Rwanda manipulated various ethnic groups against one another for the sake of maintaining their power over all of them. Moreover, the two cases historical backgrounds laid a genocide ideology by favouring one ethnic group and considering the other group of the population as enemies of revolution, unfavourable to established paths towards development, thus meant to be eliminated in order to save the country from what they saw as internal enemies. The following two quotes from speeches given by two leaders from both sides illustrate more:

To do whatever is possible to do away with this danger [the Armenians] is a requirement for national security. To take this road may mean to go against the laws of the nation and of humanity. I am ready to pay the consequences [of this evil action] with my life. Whether I realize my goal or not, there will be many who will vilify me. I know that, but, in the very distant future, there will appear also those who will understand that I sacrificed myself in the service of my country.

Speech by Dr. Bahaeddin Sakir (strong member of the CUP) in Astourian (op cit)

We are expected to defend ourselves. The only way to go about it is to paralyse the Tutsi. How? They must be killed.

(Speech by Prefet or Governor Andre Nkeramugaba, a strong member of the Habyarimana’s government, in Rwanda Military Academy, 2007)


Astourian, S. (1990). The Armenian Genocide: An Interpretation. Society for the History of Education retrieved 07/01/2009 from

Caplan, G. in University for Peace. (2005). The Role of the Media in the Rwandan Genocide, Short Readings. San Jose, CR: University for Peace.

Melson, R. (1996). Revolution and Genocide: On the Origins of the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust. USA: University of Chicago Press. Retrieved 5/1/2009 from

Rwanda Military Academy (2007). NUR Second Ingando. Ruhengeri, Rwanda, RMA.

University for Peace (2005). The Role of the Media in the Rwandan Genocide: Short Readings. San Jose, C.R.: University for Peace, pp. 91 – 114.

Verwimp, P. (1999). Development Ideology, the Peasantry and Genocide: Rwanda represented in Habyarimana’s speeches. Retrieved 30/11/2008 from

Des Forges, A. (1999). Live None to Tell the Story. Paris: International Federation of Human Rights.

Jean Bosco HABYARIMANA is an MA Candidate in Peace Education at the United Nations Mandated University for Peace