FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

The Christian Genocide During the Ottoman Empire Sounds a Dark Warning for the Future

Israeli historian Benny Morris doesn’t do things by half. The footnotes of his new book on the 30-year genocide of Christians by their Turkish rulers, cowritten with his colleague Dror Zeevi, take up more than a fifth of the 640-page work. “It was nine years, a long haul,” he admitted to me this week, with an audible sigh over the phone. And he talks about the involvement of Ataturk in the later stages of the genocide of around 2.5 million Christians of the Ottoman empire; how “religions do drive people to excessive violence” – he has in mind the Turks, Isis, the Crusades – and even condemns the Arabs for their inability to criticise themselves.

The mere title of the Morris-Zeevi book, The Thirty-Year Genocide: Turkey’s Destruction of Its Christian Minorities 1894-1924, is going to have the Turks enraged, from Erdogan down. The Armenians and other Christians will dispute his apparent claim that he has only just discovered that their slaughter lasted for 30 years – others have talked of the Armenian genocide of 1915 bookended by the late 19th-century massacres in Turkey and the post-1915 killing of surviving Armenians and Greeks, Assyrians and others. And the Arab world will challenge his view that the holocaust (my word) of Christians was more motivated by Islam than Turkish nationalism.

Having written about the genocide of the Armenians for 35 years, I have doubts that the actual call for “jihad” in the Turkish Ottoman empire unleashed at the start of the First World War was as ferocious as Morris makes it out to be. Muftis were indeed told they were in a holy war against Christians – but not against German Christians, Austro-Hungarian Christians, neutral Christians or allies of the Central Powers (Bulgaria, for example). Many Muslim worshippers, sitting on the carpets of mosque floors, must have shaken their heads in puzzlement at these caveats. Well, one way was to notice the German officers training the Ottoman army, the German diplomats and businessmen who witnessed the genocide of the Armenians with their own eyes, and wrote home about it. Hitler asked his generals who now remembered the Armenians just before invading Poland in 1939.

But again and again, I was brought up short by the sheer, terrible, shocking accounts of violence in Morris’s and Zeevi’s work. “Strident religiosity” moved through the Muslim lands, write the authors.

The date: 1895. The place: Severek. The witness: Armenian survivor Abraham Hartunian. “The first attack was on our pastor [Mardiros Bozyakalian]. The blow of an axe decapitated him. His blood, spurting in all directions, spattered the walls and ceiling with red. Then I was in the midst of the butchers. One of them drew his dagger … Three blows fell on my head. My blood began to flow like a fountain … The attackers [were] sure that I was dead … Then they slaughtered the other men in the room, took the prettier women with them for rape …”

Now it is July 1915. The place: Merzifon. The witness: missionary JK Marsden. “They were in groups of four with their arms tied behind them and their deportation began with perhaps 100 … in a batch … they were taken about 12 miles across the plains, stripped of their clothing and, in front of a ditch previously prepared, were compelled to kneel down while a group of villagers with knives and axes quickly disposed of them. For a week, this was repeated until 1,230 of the leading Armenian men had been disposed of.”

In January 1920, YMCA secretary CFH Crathern was in Marash. The wife of an Armenian pastor had reached his hospital. “She was bleeding … from three bullet and three dagger or knife wounds while a child of 18 months had been taken from her breast and slain with a knife, and an older girl killed with an axe. To add to the sorrow of it, this woman was pregnant and had a miscarriage as soon as she reached the hospital.” The woman died the following day.

I have repeated above only a few of the less bloody episodes from the 30 years. I will spare readers the chopped off fingers, the thousands of raped girls, the priests beheaded or burned on crucifixes.

In the final annihilation of the Armenians, an American missionary spoke of “minds obsessed with Muslim fanaticism seven times heated”. Turks, he wrote, had “become drunk with blood and rapine, and plunder and power, and he will be a different man from what he was before the atrocities”. Benny Morris thinks it was more to do with a mixture of modern nationalism and the decline of “Islamic polity”.

I discussed all this with him. Is it possible for a people to be so inured to cruelty that they changed, that their acts of sadism could alter their humanity? Religions drive people to excessive violence, he said again, and then repeated this as “excessive sadism”. Morris agreed that the Romans were cruel, but they were pagans. “In terms of religion, the Romans were amateurs. Abrahamic religions drive people to excess.” Jews had avoided this. Palestinians will disagree.

There is certainly a frightening geographical scope to the killings. Many thousands of horrors were perpetrated in Mosul, Raqqa, Manbij and Deir ez-Zor, names grimly familiar from the Isis torments of 2014 onwards.

Why, one keeps asking, didn’t the Christians leave after 1924? But of course, they had been urged to return to settle in Cilicia and in Mesopotamia and Syria by the French and British – who left; and thus the Christian descendants waited for the next generational bloodletting.

The Turks were not the only killers, and Kurds also killed the Christians for the Turks, as Ukrainians killed the Jews for the Nazi Germans. At one point in Morris’s text, a group of Circassians plait a rope 25 yards long from the hair of young women they have killed, and send it as a present to their commander.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk gets pretty well trashed in this volume. “There are accounts of him saying in 1922 that, ‘Our aim is to get rid of the Christians’ – he said this in a number of conversations,” Morris contends. “He gave orders, and men in his later government were responsible.” But if this 30-year history of blood was fuelled by “Muslim fanaticism”, there are “good Turks” in the book. In the first massacres, government officials arrested Essad Bey, an “honest, impartial and tolerant” judge who tried to help the Christians. There is a heroic Turkish doctor who throws out his sick Turkish soldiers from a hospital and replaces them with Armenian refugees. Missionary Tacy Atkinson hoped to meet the doctor one day “in the Kingdom of Heaven”.  There are others. It’s true that the Greek Christians have fewer historians than the Armenians. Tens of thousands of Greeks were transported to Greece in return for an equal number of Muslims – official agreements kept the massacres a trifle smaller – but Morris and Zeevi give too little attention to the awe in which the Nazis held Ataturk’s people.

Ataturk himself cared little for Islam: he smoked and womanised, and was a nationalist before he was a Muslim. The Nazis admired his “Turkified” non-minority republic. When he died, the front page of Volkischer Beobachter was fringed in black.

The authors briefly compare the Jewish Holocaust and the Armenian genocide – I prefer the terms Jewish Holocaust and Armenian Holocaust – and there are some already published parallels. Armenians might be spared if they would convert to Islam or marry Muslim men. Jews could not save their lives by converting. The Turkish massacres were more sadistic. I rather think the German-inspired slaughter could be just as bad in the Second World War: witness the head-chopping at the Jasenovac camp on the Croatian-Bosnian border. Persecution of the Jews under the Nazis lasted at most 12 years, but persecution of Christians in Ottoman territories 30 years.

German civilians played little role in the Jewish Holocaust. Turkish civilians played a far greater role. If 2.5 million Christians is the correct figure for those murdered in the 30 years – Morris warned me that it cannot be accurately tallied, and I’m sure he’s right – at least six million Jews were killed in the 1939-1945 period, and so it took the Nazis five times as few years to slaughter more than twice as many human beings. The Turks simply didn’t have the industrial tools to kill more Christians more quickly, because these mechanics were unavailable at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. But working on this basis, how many people will be killed in the future – and how quickly – with new technology?

 

More articles by:

Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared. 

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
February 17, 2020
Sheldon Richman
Anti-BDS Laws Violate Our Freedom
John Horning
NEPA is Our National Defense System

Evelyn Leopold
How the UN’s Middle East Peace Plan Was Trounced by Its Own Members
Stephen Cooper
“Just Mercy” and Justice Don’t Exist in Alabama
Patrick Cockburn
Sinn Fein’s Victory is Ireland’s ‘Brexit Moment’ When Left-Out Voters Turn on the Elite
Ralph Nader
“Democratic Socialism” – Bring it on Corporate Socialists!
Phillip Doe
Every Day’s a Holiday for the Oil Business in Colorado
Binoy Kampmark
Fashion Fetishism, Surgical Masks and Coronavirus
Cesar Chelala
The Democrats’ New Chapter
Robert Koehler
The Wall: Separating Democracy From Voters
Peter Cohen
Time to Retire the “He Can’t Beat Trump” Trope
Sr. Kathleen Erickson
Lessons From Ministering on the Border
Alvaro Huerta
Another Five Lessons for Democrats to Defeat Trump in 2020
Wim Laven
Donald Trump’s Plan for America: Make it Ignorant
Christopher Brauchli
You Tube’s Trump Predicament
Steve Klinger
Trump Shoots Romney at Prayer Breakfast; GOP Shrugs
Elliot Sperber
Ode to the City Bus 
James Haught
Megachurch Mess
Weekend Edition
February 14, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
Mayor Mike, Worse Than Mayor Pete
Bruce E. Levine
“Sublime Madness”: Anarchists, Psychiatric Survivors, Emma Goldman & Harriet Tubman
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Leader of the Pack
Jennifer Matsui
The Doomsday Cuckoo Clock
Paul Street
Things Said in Confidence to 4000 Close Friends This Week
Jonathan Cook
Even With Corbyn Gone, Antisemitism Threats Will Keep Destroying the UK Labour Party
Thomas Klikauer
Cambridge Analytica: a Salesgirl’s Report
Joseph Natoli
Vichy Democrats vs. the Master Voice
David Rosen
Sanders vs. the Establishment Democrats: McGovern All Over Again?
Louis Proyect
Marx, Lincoln and Project 1619
Robert Hunziker
Amazon Onslaught
Russell Mokhiber
NPR and the Escalating Attack on Single-Payer Health Care
Ramzy Baroud
Breaking with Washington: Arabs and Muslims Must Take a United Stance for Palestine
Mike Miller
Race and Class: Overcoming the Divides
Michael Brennan
Timeline: How the DNC Manipulated 2016 Presidential Race 
Jacob G. Hornberger
U. S. Lies and Deaths in Afghanistan
Rev. William Alberts
Trump Served Up Projection at the National Prayer Breakfast
Nick Pemberton
The Overwhelming Sex Appeal Of Bernie Sanders
David Swanson
Why This Election Is Different
Dan Bacher
Western States Petroleum Association Tops CA Lobbying Expenses with $8.8 Million Spent in 2019
Christopher Ketcham
The Medium Warps the Message Straight to Our Extinction
Erik Molvar
Trump’s Gutting of NEPA Will Cut the Public Out of Public Lands Decisions
William Kaufman
Tulsi Gabbard: A Political Postmortem
Colin Todhunter
Menace on the Menu in Post-EU Britain
Gregory Elich
Mnangagwa’s Neoliberal Assault on the Zimbabwean People
Ron Jacobs
The Lies of Industry and the Liars Who Sell Them
Binoy Kampmark
Subverting the Blacklist: Kirk Douglas’s Modest Contribution
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail