Over the past twenty years scholars have been uncovering documentary evidence regarding Turkey’s treatment of its Christian population since the 1890s. The Ottoman census of 1900 reveals there were four million Christians in the empire’s domains. The overwhelming majority were Greeks, Armenians, and Assyrians. Contemporary Turkey has about 100,000 Christian citizens. The total of Greeks has fallen to a few thousand.
The Turkish government insists the loss of its Christian populations was mainly due to civil conflicts of 1900-1923 generated by Pontian, Armenian, and Smyrna secessionists, and it also notes that another considerable number of Christians was lost as a result of voluntary and mutually forced migration that also involved Turks returning to Asia Minor. Other Christians were lost due to changing borders.
Two new books, however, establish that Turkish actions were not responses to particular circumstances but were part of a systematic and continuous effort to expel Christians in order to ‘purify’ the nation. The Thirty-Year Genocide: Turkey’s Destruction of its Christian Minorities (1894-1924), published by Harvard University Press, is written by two Israeli scholars, Benny Morris and Dror Ze’vi. The Greek Genocide, 1913-1923: New Perspectives, published by the Asian Minor and Hellenic Research Center, is edited by George N, Shirinian, an Armenian scholar with eleven contributors from seven nations. Both works draw on documents from various governments, including recently available Turkish records.
Although the focus of The Christian Genocide is 1894-1923, it also discusses Turkish actions against Greeks in the 1950s and 1960s. The authors observe that the Greek genocide was a constant process that often went village by village for years while the Armenian genocide often involved massive campaigns in a shorter time frame. They note that the rejection at the turn of the century of proposals to reorganize the Ottoman regime with equal rights for all made ethnic conflicts inevitable.
Greece’s role in this era was highly problematic. The Greek government in 1919 chose to send 23,000 troops to the coalition led by its World War I allies that sought to overthrow the new Soviet regime in Russia. Had those troops been deployed in the Pontus, the Turkish assault that was just getting into high gear would have been stymied. Military units organized by the Pontians, like those of the Armenians, were primarily responses to Turkish military actions.
The landing of Greek troops in Smyrna in 1921 was in accord with international agreements negotiated by liberal Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos. A future plebiscite was to determine if the Greek area of Asia Minor would be merged with Greece. When the monarchy regained control of the Greek government, however, it decided to use the Greek-dominated areas of Asia Minor as a base to assault the Turkish-dominated interior in hopes of establishing a neo-Byzantium. World powers refused support for the Greek offensive. Italy, among others, aided Turkey. The result was the Smyrna disaster of 1922.
Among the new perspectives offered in The Greek Genocide is an account of the attempts of Pope Benedict XV to protect Catholics and other Christians. Documents of the Catholic Church detail Turkish atrocities, including actions again Catholics. Pope Benedict eventually gave up trying to intervene as being a hopeless task. An essay titled American Emergency Relief to Greece documents aid by American organizations that saved hundreds of thousands of lives. The essay on the treatment of Greek prisoners is far grimmer. Although about 10,000 prisoners were officially exchanged, the fate of considerably more remains hidden in Turkish records. Personal testimonies from numerous sources indicate the death rate of these prisoners likely exceeded 90%. A similar percentage of Christian civilians died in what the Turks termed ‘work gangs’. Equally depressing is an essay on the massive Christian suicides generated by the unbearable conditions at hand.
The description of Turkish actions as ‘genocide’ may seem extreme as the Christian population was not totally exterminated. Scholars, however, use the UN definition that a governmental policy constitutes genocide if it seeks to systematically eliminate a defined group by whatever means necessary. This ethnic cleansing is capped by actions to prevent a population from recreating itself. An example is the refusal of the Turkish forces under the command of Kemal Ataturk to allow Christian males in Smyrna to be evacuated in 1922. Those who did not perish in jail, eventually were marched into the interior where they ‘disappeared’.
Understanding the history of Turkish ethnocentrism is useful in evaluating what ethical standards will guide future Turkish actions. Presently, Turkey has designs on Greek Thrace and Greek islands in the Aegean. It also thwarts the reunification of Cyprus.
The Turkish army has intervened in the Syrian civil war and uses Syrian refugees as bargaining chips in international relations. Turkey vigorously opposes the formation of a Kurdish state or even autonomous Kurdish entities in Iraq and Syria. Its own Kurds are defined as ‘mountain Turks’, a designation Kurds do not accept. Military force against them has been ongoing for decades.
Turkish military aircraft and ships violate the established boundaries of Greece and Cyprus daily. Such provocations can easily escalate into war. Although American priorities in the region are being affected, to date, the Democratic presidential hopefuls have said nothing about Turkey’s behavior in the Near East. More disturbing are comments by President Trump who recently called Recep Erdogan, “a very close friend who has done a great job as President of Turkey.’