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How Far Did the Armenian Genocide Extend? A New Book Examines that Question.

August 8, 2019 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Tags: TurkeyArmeniaMiddle EastOttoman EmpireKurds

How Far Did the Armenian Genocide Extend? A New Book Examines that Question.

In The Thirty-Year Genocide: Turkey’s Destruction of Its Christian Minorities, 1894–1924, Morris and Ze'evi make a compelling case that Turkey carried out a gruesome genocide on its Armenian population, but are unpersuasive in arguing that it was extended to all Christians living within the boundaries of the Ottoman Empire and then what became modern Turkey.

Morris and Ze’evi offer report after report from missionaries, diplomats and even Turkish officials of atrocities that foreshadowed the Holocaust and followed a common pattern in town after town and village after village. Initially, Muslims boycotted Armenian shops and businesses. Then Armenian leaders were arrested and killed. Then Armenians were forcibly removed from their villages, forced to vacate their homes and sell their possessions at rock bottom prices. They were then packed into cattle cars, and/or forced to march inland into Anatolia—a distance of hundreds of miles with nothing but the rags on their backs. They were robbed of all their remaining possessions. They were unable to obtain more than scraps of food and were ravaged by disease. They were forced into pits, killed in large groups and buried in unmarked mass graves. Some were beheaded. Others had limbs or ears chopped off, or their eyes gouged out. They were attacked all along their forced marches by Turkish, Kurdish and other predators, including numerous criminals that the government had freed. Men over the age of fifteen were singled out for labor camps, where most of them perished. More generally, as in the massacres of the 1890s, but only more so and with a degree of better organization, the Turks and their Muslim accessories killed males, raped females, and kidnapped women and children, branding them and forcing many to convert—even killing some who converted on the grounds that their conversion was not “sincere.”

Meanwhile, the government engaged in a massive cover up. It expelled missionaries and others who provided eyewitness reports of the massacres. It did its utmost to prevent Western diplomats and officials from visiting eastern Anatolia. It formally denied that any such organized massacres were taking place, instead pointing to the “fog of war” that led to the “unfortunate” death of many Christians. It ordered its officials to bury all corpses so that there would be no evidence of mass murders. Finally, it challenged the scale of the massacres, arguing that the numbers being reported were grossly exaggerated.

The Armenians fought back. They ambushed gendarmes, killed Muslim neighbors, and, when they had arms and ammunition, fought back against Turks and Kurds alike. They too committed atrocities. Being both outgunned and outnumbered, however, their resistance proved futile, and only led to more Turkish and Kurdish atrocities inflicted not only on the Armenian fighters, but on the aged, the weak and the young.

THE ALLIED victory in World War I, which initially resulted in the partition of Turkey and occupation by French, British and Italian forces, brought a temporary end to the massacres. Indeed, Turkey was forced to accept the repatriation of tens of thousands of Armenians and other Christians who had escaped to Syria and present-day Iraq. In addition, the Western victors, especially the British, successfully recovered thousands of women and children who had been taken into Muslim homes and forcibly converted.

Under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal, however, the Turks slowly but surely regained much of Asia Minor as first the Italians, then the British and finally the French withdrew their forces. As the Western armies withdrew, the effort to rid Turkey of Christians once and for all moved into high gear. The Armenians remained the primary target, especially as they were seen to be allied to the fledgling Armenian republic on Turkey’s northern border.

Kemal, who is considered the father of modern secular Turkey, nevertheless, like his predecessors, sought to Islamize Turkey once and for all by expelling all Christians, regardless of denomination. Armenians no longer were the only victims of Turkish iniquities, however. Greek Orthodox Christians, who in prior years generally had avoided much of the brutality meted out to the Armenians, now began to suffer a similar fate, especially when Greek forces occupied Smyrna (now Izmir), parts of the Turkish coastline, and when Greek Christians attempted to create the so-called Republic of Pontus along the southern shore of the Black Sea. The smaller Assyrian Christian community had neither Western backing, nor particularly nationalist aspirations, yet it too suffered from Turkish and Kurdish atrocities in the immediate aftermath of the Great War.

Kemal launched what Christian missionaries still living and working in Turkey called a “white massacre,” whose objective was to “impoverish and dishearten the survivors of the wartime genocide by boycotting their businesses in the towns and preventing them from farming in the countryside.” Like the Ottomans and the CUP, Kemal attempted to dismiss all claims of violence or discrimination against the Christian minorities. Yet, again like his predecessors, Kemal was not averse to the large-scale murder of the Christian minorities, especially as it was the most effective way to spur mass migration out of Turkey. That some Armenians did commit outrages of their own only encouraged Kemal, as it had his predecessors, to accelerate his efforts to rid the country of them. Similarly, massacres perpetrated by invading Greek forces, and by some Greek Christians who either joined or supported them, likewise spurred Kemal to deport them as quickly as he possibly could.

Hundreds of thousands of Greek Christians whose families had lived in western Anatolia for centuries if not millennia—well before the Turks arrived there—were hounded out of their homes and sent on forced marches inland unless they could manage to emigrate, primarily to Greece. Indeed, about a million Greek Christians found their way into Greece, especially when, in an annex to the Treaty of Lausanne, Greece and Turkey reached a population exchange agreement in 1923. By 1924, thirty years after the Ottomans had launched their first set of major massacres of Armenians, Anatolia had been emptied of its Christians.

It was not the last of what the authors term “pogroms,” however. Another took place in 1955, when the Turks expelled thousands of residents who held Greek passports. Constantinople, now dubbed Istanbul, was once a major Greek city. Now, it has but 2,000 Greek residents.

THERE CAN be little doubt that Turkish governments, whether Ottoman or nationalist, successfully pursued a policy of ethnic cleansing and were consistently guilty of tolerating, indeed instigating, organizing and often perpetrating crimes against humanity—that is, against individuals, as that term was employed at the Nuremberg trials of leading Nazi war criminals. Whether Morris and Ze’evi are correct in pronouncing the actions of the Ottomans, the Young Turks and Kemal as genocide is, however, a more complicated matter. Genocide is a highly charged term, and, as applied by the Polish-born Cambridge scholar Raphäel Lemkin to the destruction of European Jewry, refers to crimes specifically targeted at groups, rather than individuals per se. The term is now at times employed as a political sledgehammer by rival ethnic or religious groups.

On the one hand, institutions such as the Council of Europe and the European Parliament have determined that what happened in Turkey between 1915 and 1924 was indeed a genocide. In addition, the European Court of Human Rights has gone so far as to rule that “Turkey could not criminalize references to the Armenian killings as ‘genocide.’” In 2011, the French National Assembly and the Senate went even further, passing legislation to penalize denial of the Armenian Genocide. (For its part, the U.S. Congress, unlike the French Parliament, has been unable to pass a resolution on the Armenian genocide. The furthest such a resolution has progressed is through the House Foreign Affairs Committee, never to reach the floor of the House.)

On the other hand, if “genocide” is meant as the deliberate extermination of a particular group—ethnic, religious or racial—as Lemkin defined it, then the evidence that Morris and Ze’evi present does not necessarily justify the application of that term to what was inflicted upon Christians living within the boundaries of the Ottoman Empire and then what became modern Turkey.

To begin with, there does not appear to have been a deliberate government policy literally to exterminate Christians, as was the case with the Nazi Final Solution, or for that matter, the 1994 Hutu slaughter of Rwanda’s Tutsis. However ruthless they might have been, the Young Turks’ policy and actual practice initially provided for Christians to live in Muslim towns as long they constituted a minority of five percent or less. In addition, while some Armenians and other Christians who converted to Islam were murdered on the grounds that their conversions were insincere, the vast majority of converts, who were overwhelmingly women and children, were integrated into their Muslim families. The government in Constantinople actually convicted and hanged a number of officers who committed the most egregious crimes against Armenians. While this was certainly not common practice, the fact that some officers were tried at all, and then convicted and executed, clearly differentiates Turkish behavior from that of the Nazis, who rewarded those who went the extra mile to kill Jews.

Morris and Ze’evi appear to downplay the fact that, on numerous occasions, Armenians and Greeks both committed their own crimes against Turks and Kurds when they had the opportunity to do so. While they do not gloss over them, Morris and Ze’evi tend to go into far less gruesome detail in discussing these atrocities, mostly providing general statements rather than relating detailed eyewitness accounts, as they do when discussing the sanguinary acts committed by Turks and their allies. Many of these accounts were supplied by Christian missionaries, whose testimony the authors consistently accept at face value, but which may well have reflected a natural bias against a powerful rival religion. On the other hand, the authors invariably dismiss Turkish assertions of Christian atrocities as exaggerations. And they discount the views and reports of officials who concurred with those reports, such as Mark Bristol, the U.S. High Commissioner in Turkey from 1919–1927 as simply being anti-Greek or pro-Turkish. Needless to say, Christian reprisals against Muslims prompted a severe backlash; yet even then government policy under both the cup and Kemal was to cleanse Anatolia of Christians but not necessarily do so by exterminating them.