Turkey’s thirty-year genocide

The Thirty-Year Genocide: Turkey's Destruction of Its Christian Minorities, 1894-1924
by Benny Morris and Dror Ze'evi
, 2019, 672 pp

Most students of history are aware of the Armenian Genocide, in which huge numbers of Armenian Christians were slaughtered by Ottoman Turk forces during World War I.  

In recent years, the Israeli historians Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi sought to follow in the path of many others in investigating what happened during this period.  

Morris and Ze’evi came to believe that what we call the Armenian Genocide constitutes just one awful chapter within a ‘Thirty-Year Genocide’ which destroyed Turkey’s Christian community, and their 2019 book advances this argument.  


In the late 19th century, the population of modern-day Turkey was around 20 percent Christian. Three decades later, that was down to two percent. During the intervening period, between 1.5 and 2.5 million Christians were killed, with many others fleeing or being deported.  

Beginning in 1894, Armenians were targeted in a series of attacks, which set the stage for future and larger-scale atrocities. After the war ended, a new period of hostilities commenced in which the Turkish nationalists renewed their assault on the remaining Christians.  

“The destruction of the Christian communities was the result of deliberate government policy and the will of the country’s Muslim inhabitants,” Morris and Ze’evi argue. “The murders, expulsions, and conversions were ordered by officials and carried out by other officials, soldiers, gendarmes, policemen and, often, tribesmen and the civilian inhabitants of towns and villages. All of this occurred with the active participation of Muslim clerics and the encouragement of the Turkish press.”  

Rather than looking at this as the elimination of one group (the Armenians), the authors focus on the killing and exiling of the vast majority of the Greek Christian population as well as the Assyrians (groups belonging to a variety of Eastern churches, including the Chaldean Catholic Church).  

The enormity of the charge against the Ottoman and Turkish leadership is unquestionable, but the evidence which the authors provide is both compelling and heart-breaking. 

Long before the killing began, Europeans powers were concerned about the treatment of Christians in the decaying Ottoman Empire. 

As the Empire lost its European colonies and was driven back into Asia, anti-Christian animosity grew, as did the intensity of the persecution meted out to Christians by Kurdish tribes and others in the religiously-mixed areas of Eastern Anatolia.  

In 1894, under the sultanate of Abdülhamid II, the first explosion of mass violence resulted in at least 100,000 Armenians being killed in a series of coordinated atrocities directed by Ottoman state officials.  

What happened between 1894 and 1896 was a dress rehearsal for what was to come - although it was almost exclusively directed against Armenians, with other Christians being spared for the time being.  

Christian clergy and churches were especially targeted, and tens of thousands of Armenians were forced to convert to Islam on pain of death. 

As would become a pattern throughout the following decades, Armenian women were raped en masse and many were abducted as slaves.  

The half-hearted protestations of foreign governments aside, the fact that such a blow had been inflicted without any real consequences gave encouragement to those who dreamed of an empire without Christians. 

The reformist Young Turks who came to power in 1908 shared their predecessors’ hatred of Christians, and as the American ambassador in Constantinople Henry Morgenthau later noted, the Ottomans’ entry into the war in 1914 finally gave them the opportunity to start eliminating Armenians. 

Thus began the deportations, where vast columns of Armenian men, women and children were separated and forced to begin death marches into the desert, while being subjected to frequent attack or summary execution along the way.  

The book’s 506 pages are intensely difficult to read because of the seemingly endless series of abuses which the authors have catalogued across a wide geographic area.  

Elsewhere, Greeks were driven out or killed. As with the Armenians, paranoid Turks pointed to the risk that they would ally with the country’s enemies in a time of war.  

However, the slaughter or deportation of almost half a million Assyrian Christians - a thinly dispersed group with no separatist leanings - is definitive proof that the goal of the Turkish leadership was the annihilation of all Christians.  

The killing and deportation of Christians continued after the war under the direction of the Turkish nationalists led by the founder of the modern Turkish state, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. 

Atatürk is often thought to be a secularist, but as the authors show, he too used the language of holy war while directing atrocities against Christians.  

Though not directly implicated in the main genocide of the war years, the attitude of the ‘Father of all Turks’ would become that of the nation as a whole: “Whatever has befallen the non-Muslim elements living in our country is the result of the policies of separatism they pursued in a savage manner, when they allowed themselves to be made tools of foreign intrigues and abused their privileges.”  

Being Jewish, the authors are well-placed to assess the similarities between this genocide and that carried out by the Nazis. The reluctance of Turkish society to acknowledge these crimes - in sharp contrast to the experience of modern Germany - could be traced back to the active involvement which countless Turkish civilians had in the killings. 

Turkish ongoing genocide denial and the blaming of victims which Atatürk engaged in can also explain further acts of aggression against the tiny Christian minority since the 1920s.  

There are many other lessons which this chilling work can teach us.  

The history of the ‘Thirty-Year Genocide’ shows how low-level anti-Christian persecution can be dramatically escalated to the point where it poses an existential threat.  

It demonstrates the urgent need for what Pope Francis calls the “ecumenism of blood.” A group making up 20% of the population could have resisted more effectively had they worked together, and had other Christians not overlooked the anti-Armenian outrages which were the first salvo in a broader war.  

Politically, Ottoman Turkey’s genocidal policies are a rebuke to those who make a false equivalence between the opposing sides in WW1 (British forces succeeded in recovering around half of the kidnapped women and orphans from Turkish homes after the war), while the greater suffering of the Armenians compared to the Greeks suggests that the existence of a national homeland is of paramount importance to persecuted people in need of support - as Professor Yoram Hazony suggests, there may indeed be a moral virtue associated with nationalism.  

The greatest lesson of all is given by the authors, who note that “Thirty-Year Genocide can be seen as the most dramatic and significant chapter in the de-Christianization of the Middle East during the past two centuries,” a process which “is today nearing completion, as is the de-Christianization, demographically speaking, of Syria, Iraq and Palestine.”   

This too has passed without serious comment, and the fact that it has taken two Jewish academics to draw attention to the planned destruction of Turkey’s Christian communities a century ago is telling.  

"Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?" Adolf Hitler is said to have asked, as he plotted the extermination of another tribe, the one which has produced these two outstanding historians. 

In today’s world, who, we might ask, speaks of the persecution which Christians endure, particularly in the region which is the cradle of the Faith?  

Benny Morris and Dror Ze'evi have shown where this persecution can lead, and it is time to take the threat seriously.


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