By Dr. Robert Zaller, Professor
The word “genocide,” describing the systematic physical or cultural destruction of a people, was coined in 1944 by a lawyer, Raphael Lemkin, to describe the ongoing extermination of European Jewry now called the Holocaust. The coinage stuck and has since then been used to describe massive attacks on population groups aimed at forcibly altering their practices and beliefs, displacing them from their accustomed homes or territories, and, in the most severe cases, killing or causing widespread deaths through murder, starvation, deportation, or other means.
Genocide as a concept was easier to grasp in the abstract than to identify concretely. Were a certain number of deaths or deportations necessary to qualify, and a certain level of intention? Could genocide be carried out on a purely cultural level, for example by forced religious conversion or compulsory “re-education”? How was it to be distinguished from another and similar term, ethnic cleansing, which suggested some of the same techniques but with intent to remove or destroy a territorially located community rather than a people as such? Finally, what degree of responsibility did it impose on the world community if and when recognized?
Lemkin himself recognized the mass atrocities that by upper estimates (1.5 million) virtually exterminated the Armenian population of Anatolia between 1915 and 1923 as a genocide, the only precursor to the Nazis he identified and one in fact cited early on by Hitler as a model for expunging inferior races. The designation has been debated ever since, and with President Biden’s formal recognition of it in April of this year, some thirty-three countries have now formally accepted it, along with Pope Francis. But the world community as a whole has not, and although the United Nations nominally accepted genocide as a crime against humanity in 1948 it has not so formally characterized any event since, and when its Commission on Human Rights declared the Ottoman and Turkish actions against Armenians a genocide in 1986, the full UN refused to endorse it. “Genocide” thus remains a term outside the enforceable legal vocabulary, even though charges against specific acts comprised within it may be made by judicial bodies such as the International Court of Justice. It is, in short, a political shorthand, and as such may be rejected by those accused of it with impunity. This is precisely the case with the modern Turkish state, which has not only rejected the idea of an Armenian genocide but, in Article 301 of its penal code, makes it an offense for any Turkish citizen to affirm it.
After a century, there is no room for debate. Apart from other massacres, between 800,000 and 1.2 million Armenian women, children, and infirm or elderly men were forcibly marched into the Syrian desert, robbed, beaten, raped, and killed along the way, and left to perish from exposure, starvation, and disease. Almost all died. Such was their condition that they often refused food, water, or other aid so as not to prolong their misery. This was widely observed and reported at the time, and indeed the term “crimes against humanity,” used as a principal charge against Nazi leaders during the Nuremberg trials and incorporated into the UN Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, was first employed by the Entente Powers of World War I to describe the Armenian death journey.
Ironically, however, the well-deserved appellation of genocide applied to the Armenian experience of World War I and its protracted aftermath—for hostilities and atrocities did not cease with the Armistice that ended the war in Europe—has in some respects concealed its true dimensions and the extent to which they were bound up with the formation of the modern Turkish state. This is a complex story, and one that needs to be told and faced above all by the Turkish people themselves. Without such an accounting, Turkey itself will never understand and accept its own history, and the obligations of conscience it imposes.
In saying this, I do not mean to suggest that Turkey is a unique specimen of iniquity. Nations are not easily birthed. Peoples have clashed since the beginning of human time, and more powerful ones have overcome weaker ones, sometimes assimilating and sometimes all but eliminating them. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum reminded us of this when he remarked recently on CNN that white European migrants to America, in nearly depopulating it of its native inhabitants, replaced a primitive culture of little value and capacity for growth with an advanced and superior one. (Santorum did lose his job as a CNN commentator.)
A more pertinent example for our purposes is postwar Germany. The German state was not born in genocide but descended into it during World War II, to be reconstructed afterward by the allies who defeated it. Germans could not at least openly deny the reality of what they had done, and were forced to accept the governments and constitutions prescribed for them. German war crimes were massively documented, and what became illegal under German law was not accepting the reality of the Holocaust but denying it. In short, Germany was forced to accept a moral and political accounting before it would be readmitted into the community of nations. The results, as I have argued in previous articles, have been in significant respects unhappy, especially for Greece. But there might have been no Germany at all in the sense of a nation directing its own affairs had Germany not accepted its wartime guilt. At the end of World War II, U.S. Treasury Secretary, Henry Morgenthau Jr. persuaded Franklin Roosevelt to deindustrialize postwar Germany, leaving it permanently subject to its neighbors and possibly partitioned. It had been Morgenthau’s father, Henry Sr., who as Woodrow Wilson’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire had most graphically documented the Armenian genocide in his The Murder of a Nation, and at the founding of the League of Nations in 1919, he had been influential in the eventual dismemberment of the Porte. Had Germany had not acknowledged its crimes, its fate might perhaps have been similar. But modern Turkey, emerging from the ruins of the Ottoman state, escaped any similar admission of its sins, and in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne was held legally harmless from prosecution or complaint. A hundred years later, it still refuses to make its confession, poisoning relations throughout the region and protracting conflict within it as well as in the Turkish body politic itself.
It is in this context that we must consider the full spectrum of genocides that accompanied the birth of modern Turkey. When they are taken in sum, the number of fatalities would appear to be between two and three million, with the latter figure the more likely one. Beyond this would be the number of survivors forcibly resettled, deported, exchanged, or disappeared as refugees into neighboring countries. This figure can only be guessed at, and will probably never be known. Finally, there is the profound inheritance of historical trauma that remains active—sometimes violently so—to the present day, particularly among the large Kurdish population of southeastern Turkey. The genocides on which Turkey was founded are not simply events a hundred years old. They are alive and ongoing in their effects today, and will not cease until they are acknowledged and, as far as possible, atoned for.
The second largest of these genocides is the Greek or (as it is sometimes called) the Pontic one. It is second by number, the estimate in lives lost being between 300,000 and 900,000, with the larger number held closer to the accurate one by most scholars. If, then, the minimum Armenian and the maximum Greek estimates are the correct ones, Greek losses would be equivalent to Armenian ones.
Needless to say, numbers on such a scale make comparison trivial. But there is a sense in which the Greek genocide was a vastly larger event.
Greek settlement in Western Asia or, as it was formerly called, Asia Minor, dates back to the middle of the second millennium B.C.E. The Greek cities along the present-day Turkish coast produced some of the greatest figures of antiquity, including Thales, Heraclitus, and Homer. They were part of a wider Hellenized world that, from the fourth century C.E. on, was as the cultural and economic center of the Roman and Byzantine empires for hundreds of years the core of Western civilization. For all this time, Greek was the principal spoken language of what is now Turkey. The Turkic conquest of this region at the end of the thirteenth century only gradually altered its complexion. Asia Minor remained a historic crossroads of cultures, and its Ottoman rulers both acknowledged and adapted to this fact by giving the many ethnic and religious communities they governed internal autonomy. In Anatolia, as Asia Minor’s westernmost peninsula was known, Greek communities settled over the entirety of the coasts, and were thus the centers of its commerce.
The Ottoman system of self-administration—the millet—began to fall apart as the empire itself declined, with the Greek Revolution of 1821 being an early episode. The Armenians attracted particular attention because of the long Caucasian war (1817-1864) between Russia and the Porte, which involved the Armenian population directly. By the mid-nineteenth century it was being persecuted, and by its last decade subject to slaughter. The wholesale genocide that began in 1915 was thus the culmination of a long chain of events.
In the case of Greece, the precipitating factor was the two Balkan Wars that immediately preceded World War I. These wars cost the Ottomans almost the whole of what remained of their possessions in southeastern Europe, as well as in North Africa They faced not only an irreversible loss of territory but of population. With Greece as the major state adjoining the Ottomans in the eastern Mediterranean, pressure was put on the Greeks of Asia Minor. The result was an agreed-upon population exchange in which Greeks there would be relocated in Greece, and Balkan Muslims replace them in Anatolia.
This proposal—a radical and all-but unprecedented one—was preempted by the outbreak of World War I, which found Greece and the Ottomans on opposite sides, with Greece joining the Allied cause and the Ottomans Imperial Germany. A final and critically complicating factor was the Young Turk movement of 1908, which began not as an effort to replace the Ottoman Empire but to revive it. With the further collapse of the empire in the Balkan Wars and the pressure placed especially on Asia Minor by Britain and Russia, the Young Turks were transformed into a nationalist movement determined to create a new state in Anatolia that would assure its Turkic character.
The result was a double-barreled assault on ethnic minorities in what would become modern Turkey. This swiftly assumed a genocidal character as Ottoman policy, embarked on ethnic cleansing, devolved swiftly into one of extermination. Once one minority had been targeted others took alarm, and, seeing their villages destroyed, attempted what resistance they could. This was then utilized, first by the Ottomans and then by the Turkish nationalists increasingly replacing them, as a pretext for more systematic mass murder and lethal deportation. Such tactics were barely concealed, as indeed they could scarcely be given the numbers of victims involved, but they were increasingly given justification not as security measures but as a program of ethnic, religious, and racial purgation. What had once been one of the most diverse populations in any corner of the globe, living beside each other for centuries and even millennia, was now to become as far as possible a “Turkic” republic, ostensibly secular but in fact de-Christianized and de-Judaized as quickly as possible.
If the Armenians were the first to be targeted for slaughter—partly because they were being persecuted already, partly because they were a poor and vulnerable population, largely concentrated in the hinterlands, and partly because they had no nation-state of their own to defend their interests—the Greeks would soon join them. By early 1915, barely months after mass deportations and massacres of the Armenians had begun in earnest, Greeks, particularly in the Black Sea region of Pontos where the disastrous failure of a Turkish military campaign against Russia was blamed on their subversion, experienced similar attacks; over time, an estimated 300,000 to 360,000 Pontic Greeks would die. In October of that year, Ismail Enver, the minister of war and effectively the ruler of the Ottoman state, declared the destruction of Greek communities across the country, including historic and cultural sites, to be its official policy, to be carried out by massacre, deportation, and forced labor. Another Ottoman official charged with this task, Rafet Bey, would state bluntly that “We must finish off the Greeks as we did with the Armenians . . . today I sent squads to the interior to kill off every Greek on sight.” The Chancellor of Turkey’s wartime ally Germany, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, would soon after affirm that “Whatever was done to the Armenians is being done to the Greeks.”
The Ottoman Empire surrendered to the Allies on October 30, 2018. They soon set about its final dismemberment. Greece, too, had territorial ambitions in Anatolia, partly in pursuit of the Megali Idea of a reconstituted Greek political presence in Asia Minor and partly to secure what remained of its Greek population, particularly around Smyrna. Britain supported Greek ambitions, primarily to advance its own interests through the use of its army. Meanwhile, genocidal activities continued across much of Anatolia, particularly after the recognition of an independent Armenia on its soil by the League of Nations. It was followed by the Treaty of Sèvres (1920), by which Anatolia was to be divided into Allied spheres, with a figurehead sultanate on much reduced territory. This confirmed the worst fears of Turkish nationalists, now led by Mustafa Kemal (the later self-styled Kemal Ataturk), who determined to eliminate the last vestiges of Ottoman administration and create a unified state across the whole of Anatolia. Nominally, this state was to be a secular one. But the Turks, and Kemal in particular, were determined to destroy the last vestiges of Judeo-Christian civilization in Anatolia, including the new Armenia they had no intention of tolerating. Their immediate opponents, then, were those against whom genocide had been pursued for years now past: Armenians and Greeks.
At first, the ragtag Turkish army could do little but retreat against Greek forces, which pushed as far as Ankara. But the Greeks failed to win a decisive victory, and, with their supply lines stretched, they gradually fell back. Finally, they were compelled to evacuate Smyrna, which was burned to the accompaniment of an extensive massacre. The “Great Catastrophe,” as it is called, marked the effective end of a community and a culture that had given the world some of its greatest achievements and most glorious monuments. The Treaty of Lausanne (1923), which replaced that of Sèvres, recognized the new Turkish state on the whole of Anatolia, proclaimed an amnesty that absolved it of all atrocities, and completed the population exchange between Greece and Anatolia contemplated in 1913-14. An estimated one million Greeks were resettled in Greece, a burden for which it received no aid.
Lausanne closed the book on what some have called a ten, some a thirty, and some even a hundred-year genocide if one takes it back to the Greek War of Independence and the first persecution of the Armenians. It enabled the Turks to write the establishment of their state as a heroic struggle against imperial powers spearheading an occupation of the Islamic world. According to this story, Turkey remains the champion and protector of Islam to this day, thus entitling it not only to regional hegemony but recognition as a major power. Needless to say, this version of events has been challenged by other Islamic states—Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran. But it remains the founding myth on which Turkish nationalism and identity rests, and nations do not easily give up their creation stories, even when they rest on the blood of millions.
With these factors in mind, we can better appreciate the Turkey of today, and particularly its adamant resistance to any suggestion of genocide by its founding fathers. Most of us ourselves do not care to be reminded of the fact that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, and the controversy over the 1619 Project indicates that the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow is still very much a sore one. But we do not—most of us—deny the historical facts as they stand, including as well the fate of Native Americans, and though their effects still challenge us, we are certainly the better for facing them.
The case of Germany is once again instructive for us in this regard. The Germans, having been forced to accept sole responsibility for World War I by the Treaty of Versailles, were not eager to assume blame for World War II and the Holocaust, nor did they do so easily or uniformly, and the recrudescence of neo-Nazism in their midst today shows that culpability is always a work in progress. But their official contrition, and the deeds including reparation that matched it, did more than qualify them for readmission into the family of nations. It also in a certain sense liberated them. The Merkel government has just formally declared the early twentieth-century killing of some 75,000 Indigenous Herrero and Nama tribespeople by German colonizers in what is now Namibia a genocide. Germany had previously taken what it called “moral responsibility” for this event, one of the more notorious in European colonial history. That phrase, if anything, was an insult. Stepping up to genocide puts the matter where it has long been regarded, and where it belongs. The Germans did need, certainly, to offer profoundest apology to those whom Hitler had conquered, and to survivors of the Holocaust. But to reach back to an episode nearly forgotten except by colonial historians—and the descendants of the affected tribes—suggests a more comprehensive reflection by the Germans on their history. (The tribes, incidentally, have rejected the German statement as addressed to the Namibian government rather than to themselves.)
In contrast, Turkey’s refusal to accept responsibility for its own genocidal conduct, and for the precedent it established for the worst genocide in history, leaves it a moral pariah. Yes, it is still a member of NATO, and was at least at one time seriously considered for membership in the European Union. But it is in an important sense a nation without allies or the possibility of having them, and its relations with others is transactional at best. It is at daggers drawn with Greece and present-day Armenia, and nearly half a century into its illegal occupation of northern Cyprus. It is in an on-again, off-again war with its large Kurdish population, and has been fighting Kurdish forces in Syria. After a brief romance with Israel at the beginning of the Erdogan era it is hostile to that power too, and its Jewish population has long since left. It has never been truly secular democratic. Its twin poles are militarism and intolerance, and it has never been genuinely embraced by the Arab world or any other part of the Islamic community. It is alone with the myth it has built itself on, and whose foundation rests on a lie.
If there is one other nation in the world that Turkey seems to resemble, it is China. Like Turkey, China is a country that has built itself on one population element, the Han, which it has favored at the expense of all others, and the suppression of some—Tibetans, Uighurs—that meets present-day definitions of genocide. Like Turkey, it has no allies, and its aggressive intentions toward shared sea territory with others in its region—Japan, Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines—leaves it in a perpetual state of tension with its neighbors. Like Turkey, it lays claim to an island near its shores that has no wish to be part of it. Above all, its modern state rests on a great and unacknowledged crime, the vast, deadly, and unacknowledged persecution known as the Cultural Revolution.
China, of course, embodies a great and ancient civilization as well, and it has many cultural resources to draw on if and when it wishes to turn in a more liberal direction. Turkey is a state only a hundred years old. It can tell a story about itself that is not without honor, as a nation born of its refusal to be partitioned by foreign powers. But it cannot tell such a story without acknowledging the terrible circumstances of that birth. You can run with a lie. But you can only rest with the truth.
Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi. The Thirty-Year Genocide: Turkey’s Destruction of Its Christian Minorities,
1894-1924. Harvard University Press, 2019.
George M. Shirinian. Genocide in the Ottoman Empire: Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks, 1913-1923.
Bergahn Books, 2017.
Vasileios Meichanetsidis. “The Genocide of the Greeks of the Ottoman Empire, 1913-1923: A Comprehensive Overview.” Genocide Studies International 9, 1 (2015): 104-73.