Turkey’s Killing Fields

THE THIRTY-YEAR GENOCIDE: Turkey’s Destruction of Its Christian Minorities, 1894-1924 by Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi

May 28, 2021 (released May 28, 2021)
Source: The New York Times

By Bruce Clark

Using the word “genocide” to describe an episode of mass killing has consequences. If the
horrors are unfolding now, it invites other countries to intervene and punish the
perpetrators. If the unspeakable events are in the past, the word’s use can affect the way
they are discussed, by historians or ordinary people. Once the term “genocide” has been
established, it can seem tasteless or morally impossible to talk in much detail about the
context in which mass murder occurred. Any speculation about precise motives or
catalysts can sound like making excuses.

But one merit of "The Thirty-Year Genocide,” about the agonies suffered by Christian
subjects of the Ottoman Empire immediately before and after its collapse, is that the
authors overcome that problem. Their narrative offers a subtle diagnosis of why, at
particular moments over a span of three decades, Ottoman rulers and their successors
unleashed torrents of suffering.

The book examines three episodes: first, the massacre of perhaps 200,000 Ottoman
Armenians that took place between 1894 and 1896; then the much larger deportation and
slaughter of Armenians that began in 1915 and has been widely recognized as genocide;
and third, the destruction or deportation of the remaining Christians (mostly Greeks)
during and after the conflict of 1919-22, which Turks call their War of Independence. The
fate of Assyrian Christians, of whom 250,000 or more may have perished, is also
examined, in less detail.

The authors are distinguished Israeli historians. Benny Morris, a chronicler of the fighting
that attended Israel’s birth, has written bluntly about incidents in which Arabs were killed
or expelled. He also argues (contentiously) that it would have been better if the result had
been total separation between Jew and Arab. His co-author, Dror Ze’evi, is a fellow
professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

Each of their chosen episodes occurred at a particular historical moment. The first
unfolded in an Ottoman Empire that was at once modernizing and crumbling, while in
chronic rivalry with the Russians. The second took place when the Turks were at war with
three Christian powers (Britain, France and Russia) and were concerned about being
overrun from west and east. During the third, Greek expeditionary forces had occupied the
port of Izmir, with approval from their Western allies, and then marched inland.

An impressive chapter explains the buildup to the 1894-96 massacres. It describes the
strain imposed on rural Anatolia by newcomers fleeing Russia’s march through the
Caucasus, and the transformation of the Armenians from a religious minority into a
political community feared by the Ottomans.

This story is told with a feeling for shading and nuance. Yet there is a paradox about the
book. As diligent historians, Morris and Ze’evi acknowledge many differences between
the three phases of history they recount. (For example, different regimes were involved: in
the first case, the old guard of the empire; in the second, a shadowy clique of autocrats; in
the third, a secular republic.)

But their self-imposed mission is to emphasize continuity. As they argue, the Armenian
death marches of 1915-16 are by now well documented, and their status as a genocidal
crime, with one million or more victims, well established. By contrast, they feel, things
that happened at the beginning and end of their chosen 30 years need to be better known,
so that all the travails of the Ottoman Christians over that time can be seen as a single

Between 1894 and 1924, they write, between 1.5 million and 2.5 million Ottoman
Christians perished; greater accuracy is impossible. Whatever the shifts in regime, all these
killings were instigated by Muslim Turks who drew in other Muslims and invoked Islamic
solidarity. As a result the Christian share of Anatolia’s population fell from 20 percent to 2

Well, all those statements are accurate as far as they go, and they reflect one aspect of the
multiple tragedies that attended the region’s lurch toward modernity. Yet it remains
difficult to express the authors’ core case in a single true-or-false proposition. Are they
suggesting that Islam is intrinsically violent? No, they reject that view. Are they implying
that a 30-year plan was formulated and then implemented, albeit by different regimes? At
times, they hint at something like that. But their skill as historians holds them back from
saying anything so crude.

In one of their best passages, Morris and Ze’evi carefully discuss possible interpretations
of the 1915-16 blood bath, and offer comparisons with debates about Hitler’s Holocaust.
As they note, historians have disputed how far in advance the mass annihilation of Jews
was dreamed up. Regarding the Armenians, they say, there is no doubt that the death
marches that began in April 1915 were centrally coordinated. But there have been
reasonable arguments over how long in advance they were planned, and whether it was
always intended that most victims would die.

Sifting the evidence, Morris and Ze’evi conclude that the Ottoman inner circle began
planning deadly mass deportations soon after a Russian victory in January 1915. However,
Ottoman policy was also shaped and hardened by the battle of Van, in which Russians and
Armenians fought successfully, starting in April 1915. These conclusions rest on careful

But they are less confident about the fate of the Greek Orthodox subjects of the Ottoman
Empire from 1919 to 1922. They document many horrifying incidents but these do not add
up to a fluent story.

Morris and Ze’evi vigorously challenge the Turkish argument that after World War I
Greek separatism in the Black Sea region posed a danger to the emerging Turkish state
requiring deportation. The authors maintain that agitation for a state on the Black Sea was
never serious, and that Greeks in that region never offered much resistance to the Turkish
regime. Neither of those statements is completely accurate. Greek Orthodox guerrillas held
out in the Black Sea hinterland with tenacity.

What is more, by challenging the Turkish justification for the Black Sea deportations,
Morris and Ze’evi almost imply that if there had been a military threat in that region, the
marches and deportations might have been morally right. This leads to a wider point about
the book as a whole.

The reader is left wondering what the authors ultimately feel about the treatment of
civilians in situations of total war. Nothing in the United Nations conventions implies that
military expediency can justify the removal, whether by ethnic cleansing, killing or both,
of populations whose presence is inconvenient. But by weighing up arguments for and
against certain acts of expulsion, Morris and Ze’evi seem at times to be taking a less purist

There is no doubt that during the Ottoman collapse, millions of Christians died or suffered
because humanitarian principles were grossly violated. But they were not the only victims.
Consider the wars that drove most Muslims out of the Balkans, starting in the early 19th
century and arguably culminating in the genocidal acts suffered by some Bosnian Muslims
in 1995. Hundreds of thousands of Islam’s followers were killed and millions displaced,
often finding refuge in Turkey. If the era that gave birth to homogeneous post-Ottoman
states is to be told as a single narrative, it must surely look on both sides of the mirror.

Bruce Clark writes on religion and society for The Economist. He is the author of “Twice a Stranger,” a study of the Turkish-Greek population exchange.