FROM 1894 TO 1924, A STAGGERED CAMPAIGN OF GENOCIDE TARGETED NOT JUST THE REGION’S ARMENIANS BUT ITS GREEK AND ASSYRIAN COMMUNITIES AS WELL.
Between 1894 and 1924, the number of Christians in Asia Minor fell from some 3-4 million to just tens of thousands—from 20% of the area’s population to under 2%. Turkey has long attributed this decline to wars and the general chaos of the period, which claimed many Muslim lives as well. But the descendants of Turkey’s Christians, many of them dispersed around the world since the 1920s, maintain that the Turks murdered about half of their forebears and expelled the rest.
The Christians are correct. Our research verifies their claims: Turkey’s Armenian, Greek and Assyrian (or Syriac) communities disappeared as a result of a staggered campaign of genocide beginning in 1894, perpetrated against them by their Muslim neighbors. By 1924, the Christian communities of Turkey and its adjacent territories had been destroyed.
Over the past decade, we have sifted through the Turkish, U.S., British and French archives, as well as some Greek materials and the papers of the German and Austro-Hungarian foreign ministries. This research has made it possible to document a strikingly consistent pattern of ethno-religious atrocity over three decades, perpetrated by the Turkish government, army, police and populace.
The concentrated slaughter of Turkey’s Armenians in 1915-16, commonly known as the Armenian genocide, is well documented and acknowledged (outside of Turkey, which still bitterly objects to the charge). But the Armenian genocide was only a part, albeit the centerpiece, of a larger span of elimination that lasted some 30 years. Our work provides the first detailed description and analysis of the 1894-96 massacres and the destruction of the region’s Greek and remaining Armenian communities in 1919-24 by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish republic.
The bloodshed was importantly fueled throughout by religious animus. Muslim Turks—aided by fellow Muslims, including Kurds, Circassians, Chechens and Arabs—murdered about two million Christians in bouts of slaughter immediately before, during and after World War I. These massacres were organized by three successive governments, those of the Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II, the Young Turks and, finally, Atatürk. These governments also expelled between 1.5 and 2 million Christians, mostly to Greece.
The U.N.’s Genocide Convention defines it as a series of acts committed “with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.” Such acts include killing, causing bodily or mental harm, inflicting conditions calculated to bring about physical destruction, imposing measures intended to prevent births and “forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” The events of 1894-1924 meet this test.
The official Turkish position denies any intent or policy of systematic elimination. Just last month, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wrote to the Armenian patriarch of Turkey to “offer my sincere condolences” to the grandchildren of “the Ottoman Armenians who lost their lives under [the] harsh conditions of the First World War” and to urge him “to avoid helping those who seek to create hatred, grudge and hostility by distorting our common history.”
The slaughter that we describe and analyze doesn’t conform to any narrative attributing the deaths to the “exigencies of war.” One particularly horrific aspect alongside each bout of killing was the mass rape of tens of thousands of Christian women and their forced conversion—together with their children and thousands of children whose parents had been murdered—to Islam. Indeed, so pervasive was the sexual violence and kidnapping that many of today’s Turks, whether they know it or not, can trace at least part of their ancestry to these abducted Christians.
The tragedy began during 1894-96, when Sultan Abdulhamid II unleashed a series of massacres against the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian minority, fearing that they threatened the integrity of his realm. Some 200,000 people, almost all Armenians, were killed; many thousands of Turkish villagers, townspeople, officials, policemen and soldiers took part, as well as Kurdish tribesmen. At each site, alongside the pillage and murder, many thousands of Armenian women were raped or abducted. Some would eventually be killed; many more were forced into Muslim households and converted, serving for the rest of their lives as wives, concubines or servants.
In January 1896, in the southern Turkish town of Palu, an American missionary reported that the Turks “continue to carry off girls and women, keeping them a few days and then returning them with their lives blasted.” His meaning was made clear in an August 1896 report by another missionary in Mardin: “We saw girls not a few who returned from the hands of their captors weeping bitterly, shrieking and crying: ‘We are defiled! No one will take us in marriage.’”
Turkey and Germany were allies in World War I, but on July 7, 1915, the German ambassador in Constantinople, Baron Hans von Wangenheim, reported that deportation columns of Armenians from the eastern city of Erzurum were being ambushed by Kurdish bands, with “the men and children…butchered and the women carried away.” On July 27, a German engineer on the Baghdad railway reported that a Turkish sergeant “abducted 18 women and girls and sold them to Arabs and Kurds for 2-3 Mejidiehs,” a coin that was a fifth of a Turkish pound.
During the war, slave markets emerged in Aleppo, Damascus and several Anatolian towns in which Armenian girls who had been corralled by Turkish troops were sold for a pittance. Officials of the Ottoman Interior Ministry seem to have encouraged abduction and conversion. In December 1915, a telegram from the ministry decreed it “necessary for young Armenian girls to be married with Muslims.”
During 1919-22, amid a war against invading Greek forces in western Anatolia, Turkish nationalist forces commanded by Atatürk mounted a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Turkish Greek communities, concentrated along the Black Sea and the Aegean coast. Claiming that Ottoman Greeks were assisting the invading Greek army, the Turks took the opportunity to murder hundreds of thousands of them, as well as expelling more than a million Ottoman Greeks to Greece.
After the defeat of the Greek army, many thousands (and possibly tens of thousands) of the Greek and Armenian inhabitants of Smyrna (now known as Izmir) were murdered. The American consul general in the town, George Horton, reported that one of the “outstanding features of the Smyrna horror” was the “wholesale violation of women and girls.” In 1924, the British Foreign Office assessed that “not less than 80,000 Christians, half of them Armenians, and probably more” were still being detained in Turkish houses, “many of them in slavery.”
In all, we found that tens of thousands of Christian women suffered rape, abduction and forced conversion during this period, along with the mass murder and expulsion of their husbands, sons and fathers.
The German people and government have long acknowledged the genocidal horrors of the Third Reich, made financial reparations, expressed profound remorse and worked to abjure racism. But every Turkish government since 1924—together with most of the Turkish people—has continued to deny the painful history we have uncovered.
—Dr. Morris is a professor emeritus of Middle Eastern studies at Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, at which Dr. Ze’evi is a professor of Middle Eastern studies. This essay is adapted from their new book, “The Thirty-Year Genocide: Turkey’s Destruction of Its Christian Minorities, 1894-1924,” published by Harvard University Press.