Then Came the Chance the Turks Have Been Waiting For: To Get Rid of Christians Once and for All
In the late 1800s, Christians made up 20 percent of Turkey’s population. By the late 1920s, they were down to just 2 percent. New research reveals the scope of the genocide committed by three successive regimes.
In May 1919, six months after the end of World War I, a Greek Navy fleet made its way to the city of Izmir in western Anatolia, escorted by British warships. The preceding October, the Ottoman rulers had signed an armistice agreement in Moudros harbor on the Aegean island of Lemnos, an accord that clearly reflected the Allied victory. By its terms, the Ottomans ceded control over large chunks of their empire to Britain, France and Italy, which in turn gave the Greeks the go-ahead to take control of the western coast of Anatolia, an area that prior to the war was populated mainly by Greek Christians. After landing in Izmir, the Greek forces made their way into the country’s interior. At the height of their expansion, in August 1921, they reached the outskirts of Ankara, the capital city of General Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, leader of the Turkish national movement. From that point on, the forces under Atatürk’s command began to push the invaders back in the direction of the Aegean Sea, and on September 9, 1922, their victory was completed. The invading Greek army retreated to its ships and sailed back to Greece; Atatürk’s First Cavalry Division entered Izmir (Smyrna, to the Greeks) at a light canter, with swords drawn.
What happened in Izmir in the early days of the Turkish occupation boggles the imagination. The first day was characterized by mass plunder and rape, which only intensified when another Turkish division entered the city. An American naval officer, Lt. Commander H.E. Knauss, whose ship was anchored in the port at that time, recounted: “En route we passed many dead on streets.… The smaller shops were being looted. Invariably, the owner was lying dead.” In another place, he saw four people murdered in cold blood. Another eyewitness told about seeing many Christian men being executed. Others died when their houses were set on fire. One of the people killed was the Greek Bishop Chrysostomos. When the bishop came to shake the hand of the commander of the First Army, Nureddin Pasha, the latter spit on his outstretched hand and handed the bishop over to the mob. They chopped off his beard, gouged his eyes out and cut off his ears, nose and hands before they killed him. Afterward, his body was dragged through the streets.
But that was just the start of the nightmare for the two-thirds of Izmir residents who were Christians – a majority of them Greek and a minority Armenians. (Muslims made up the other third, with 30,000 Jews.) On September 10, Atatürk came to the city and evidently ordered Commander Nureddin to expel all the Christians from the city. The next day, Turkish soldiers surrounded the Armenian Quarter and launched a hunt for Christians. They pulled people out of their homes, looted their properties and raped the women. Many Armenian men were arrested, hauled away and shot.
Two days later, the city was set ablaze in a massive fire. Initially, several buildings in the Armenian Quarter were observed to be on fire, and crowds of refugees, mostly women and children, fled in a panic toward the seashore. By evening, “The entire waterfront seemed one solid mass of humanity and baggage of every description,” wrote Arthur Japy Hepburn, the local U.S. Navy squadron’s chief of staff, who was on a ship near the port at the time. An estimated 150,000 people crowded onto the quay as the mass of flames moved directly toward the waterline. Escape routes out of the area were blocked by the Turks, and the fire was advancing rapidly. Within minutes, it had reached the piers and they began to burn. Sailors from Allied ships that were anchored in the port succeeded in rescuing thousands of people who leapt into the sea or fled the shore in small boats. But thousands more Greeks and Armenians were either slaughtered by the Turks or perished in the great fire.
This was the beginning of the end of one of the worst and longest genocides in modern history. It is common to speak about the massacre of Armenians in 1915-1916, during World War I, as President Biden did in his statement on April 24, 2021, in which he announced U.S. recognition of the Armenian genocide. But the story of what happened in Turkey is much broader and deeper.
It goes deeper, because it covers not just what occurred during World War I, but a series of giant ethno-religious massacres that lasted from the 1890s through the 1920s and beyond. It is broader, because it was not only Armenians who were persecuted and killed. Along with hundreds of thousands of Armenians – the Armenians cite a figure of more than 1.5 million killed over the entire period – a similar number of Greeks and Assyrians (or adherents of the Assyrian or Syriac churches) were slaughtered. (Greek historians speak of more than a million Greeks who were murdered.)
By our estimate, over the course of the 30-year period, between 1.5 and 2.5 million Christians from the three religious groups were either murdered or intentionally starved to death, or allowed to die of disease, and millions more were expelled from Turkey and lost everything.
In addition, tens of thousands of Christians were forced to convert to Islam, and many thousands of Christian women and girls were raped, either by their Muslim neighbors or by members of the security forces. The Turks even opened markets where Christian girls were sold as sex slaves.
One of the people killed was a Greek bishop. The commander of the First Army handed him over to the mob. They chopped off his beard, gouged his eyes out and cut off his ears, nose and hands before they killed him.
These atrocities were committed by three very different, successive regimes: Sultan Abdülhamid II’s authoritarian-Islamist regime; the government of the Committee of Union and Progress (the Young Turks) during World War I, under the leadership of Talaat Pasha and Enver Pasha; and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s post-war secular nationalist regime.
The three regimes worked to eliminate the Christian minorities in Anatolia for similar reasons, including suspicion of their ties with external Christian enemies of the state, anger at the extra privileges granted to Christians in previous years, revenge for real or imagined massacres and expulsions of Muslims by Christians in the Balkans, as well as out of jealousy of the Christian minorities’ wealth and success. But the main reason was a lethal combination of religion and nationalism. Sultan Abdülhamid II may have had an imperialist worldview, but during his time, the budding Turkish national identity was already evident, hand in hand with a pan-Islamist outlook. In his attempt to undo the reforms of his predecessors, which aimed to accord full rights of citizenship and a degree of equality to religious minorities, Abdülhamid strove for the political unification of the Muslim peoples and worked to suppress the national aspirations and civil rights of the Christian minorities in his country. Since the Greeks already had a homeland – Greece obtained independence in 1830 – and the Assyrians had no real national movement to speak of, the sultan identified the Armenians as posing the greatest danger to the empire’s territorial integrity.
Indeed, in that period, an Armenian national movement arose that occasionally attacked soldiers, policemen, officials and collaborators. Between 1894 and 1896, approximately 200,000 Armenians and possibly more were massacred or persecuted to death by Abdülhamid’s regime. He believed that, as a result, the Armenians would not thereafter dare to “raise their heads” and threaten his regime and empire.
When the members of the Committee of Union and Progress seized power in the 1908 revolution, however, they discovered that Abdülhamid had failed in his mission, and that the Armenian national movement had survived. A Greek cultural revival was also identified. By Greeks we mean those who belonged to the Greek Orthodox church and identified themselves as being of Greek origin (mostly living in the Pontus and along Turkey’s Aegean coastline). Many of the ethnic Greeks also spoke Turkish as a first language and lacked strong ties to Greece. But the fear of an uprising by the large Greek communities came to the fore during the Balkan Wars that immediately preceded World War I. During and right after the war, the Young Turks’ governments brutally expelled tens of thousands of Greeks from the border region and from the Aegean coast. In addition, in a local conflagration in 1909, between 20,000 and 30,000 Armenians were slaughtered in the Adana region in southeastern Anatolia. The horrible massacre in Adana may not have been planned by the government, but the indifference it was met with around the world made it all the more clear to the leaders of the Committee of Union and Progress that the major powers would not lift a finger to save the Christian subjects of the Ottoman Empire.
A holy mission
When the world war broke out, in August 1914, the committee’s leaders realized this was the chance they’d been waiting for to get rid of the country’s Christians. Under their rule, a further shift had occurred among Turkey’s majority population, from a religious Islamic identity toward the Turkish national identity, and an attempt was made at “Turkifying” the Arabs and other non-Turkish Muslims (such as the Kurds and Circassians). However, religion was still perceived as a central component of Turkish identity. For example, there are many testimonies to the fact that Talaat Pasha, the main architect and overseer of the World War I genocide, was a devout Muslim who viewed the elimination of the Christians who rebelled against the rule of Islam as a holy mission, and many perpetrators of the massacres said they were motivated by the imperatives of Islam, as they saw it.
Over the course of 30 years, 1.5-2.5 million Christians from were killed, and millions more were expelled from Turkey and lost everything. Tens of thousands were forced to convert to Islam, and many thousands of Christian women and girls were raped.
The Ottoman Empire’s decision to enter the war on the side of Germany and Austria, despite having no clear interest at stake, arose in part from a desire to take advantage of the expulsion of Britain and France from the region to achieve a number of “improvements,” including wiping out what was perceived as a Christian threat to the empire’s integrity. Between the spring of 1915 and the summer of 1916, in an effort coordinated from Istanbul (Constantinople), most of Anatolia’s Armenians were banished to the Syrian-Iraqi desert. After most of the able-bodied males (17- to 50-year-olds) were systematically slaughtered, the convoys of women, children and the old were driven southeastward. Many Armenian young men were drafted into the army and sent to labor battalions where they were disarmed, and shot or worked to death. Many if not most of the women, children and elderly died in the death marches to the Syrian desert; many of those who did make it to the desert died there of starvation and thirst, or were killed by murderous gangs acting in the service of the government.
When the war ended, the few refugees who survived thought they would be able to return to their homes, under the victorious Allies’ patronage, but their hopes were disappointed. In 1919, General Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, an Ottoman war hero, had begun to organize the forces of the Ottoman Army that had crumbled, and to fight back against the foreigners that had occupied his land, primarily against the French who took over southeastern Anatolia and the Greeks who invaded the Aegean coastal region. It is true that Atatürk’s worldview was Turkish nationalist and secular (in the French sense of the word, in which the state does not take any position on questions of religion). But, for him, too, religion – as a component of culture and history – was an integral part of Turkish identity. And like many military officers of that period, he also believed that the Christians were a fifth column in the country that was serving, or could potentially serve, the enemy, and had to be gotten rid of at all costs. He explicitly said as much to Western officials whom he met with in Izmir days after its conquest.
Thus, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk deliberately continued the policy of his predecessors. The Armenian refugees who returned after the war to the area now under French control (the Cilicia region, in southern Anatolia) were expelled again, and many of them were killed in order to encourage others to flee. But now it was mainly the Greeks’ turn to suffer massacre and expulsion. From 1920 to 1922, the Turks resumed the death marches, this time from the large Greek communities along the Black Sea (the Pontus), which had hardly any connection to the Greek invasion in the Aegean Sea.
Since Syria was now ruled by the French, and the Greeks could not be deported to the Syrian desert, as was done with the Armenians during the war, the expulsions were carried out to arid, mountainous regions in Turkey’s interior, with the Greeks often made to march endlessly in circles until many died. Others, mainly in the western region, were expelled to Greece, with many of those who remained ultimately perishing in the great fire in Izmir. With the signing of a population-exchange agreement, by which the remaining 189,000 Greek Orthodox were resettled in Greece, and 355,000 Muslims were transferred from Greek territory to Turkey, this period of mass expulsions came to an end.
According to most estimates, during the final quarter of the 19th century, Greeks comprised 20 percent of the population within the borders of present-day Turkey. By the end of the 1920s, they comprised just 2 percent of the population. Many of those who remained in Turkey were residents of Istanbul who were not massacred or expelled due to the large presence there of journalists and international observers. Our research concludes with the period right after the founding of the Turkish Republic, in 1923, but the acts of ethnic cleansing and expulsion of Christians continued beyond that time, particularly during two rounds of anti-Greek pogroms in Istanbul, in 1955 and 1966.
Intimate and personal
A comparison between some aspects of the genocide of Christians in Turkey and the Jewish Holocaust is unavoidable. The Holocaust of the Jews was unprecedented – the vast numbers of people murdered in a short time, the mechanical, industrialized way in which this was accomplished. But in other ways, the slaughter of the Christians in Turkey, that night without end, even surpasses the Shoah. First, because despite its appalling scope, the Holocaust lasted five years (or seven, if you start counting from Kristallnacht, in November 1938), and was carried out by a single regime. The killing of the Christians in Turkey continued, off and on, for 30 years, and was carried out by three entirely different regimes. Second, despite some exceptions, the Holocaust involved murder that was mechanical and devoid of feeling. Instances of sadism were relatively rare, and in most cases, the victims were murdered like bugs that had to be squashed. The murder of the Christians in Turkey, however, was intimate and personal. The killers frequently knew their victims, as they often came from the same villages and towns or adjacent clans.
One key difference between the two genocides was the participation in the murder, rape and looting of masses of Turkish citizens, while the Holocaust was carried out mainly by the German security forces and appended forces from the occupied countries. (Most Germans did not participate at all in the acts of killing, and some claimed they were unaware of what exactly was happening.) In the Turkish case, while there were some Muslims, and even some military officers and governors, who courageously took action to save Christians and hide them, for the most part, the population took an active part in the violence, sometimes murdering Christians with knives, axes, rocks and metal bars, and often accompanying the killing with sadistic torture. Untold numbers took part in the looting.
Many aspects of the Turkish Christian tragedy have yet to be studied in depth. We hope that our research has contributed something to an understanding of its scope.
“The Thirty-Year Genocide,” by Dror Ze’evi and Benny Morris, was published in English by Harvard University Press in 2019. A Hebrew edition was published last month by Am Oved/Sifriyat Ofakim.