The Fate of the Armenians

Review of The Thirty Year Genocide, by Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi

This remarkable book by two eminent Israeli historians recalls the massacre of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire by the Turks during the First World War and places it in the wider context of how the Turks treated their ethnic minorities. The authors remark that, between 1894 and 1924, they had cleared Asia Minor of four million Christians (Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians) and that there were three waves of cleansing — under the successive regimes of the Sultan, the Young Turks and Kemal Atatürk. In response to fake news that Armenians were slaughtering Muslims across the Empire, the Urfa massacre of December 1895 took the lives of half the town’s Armenian population of 20,000 people. “Jews and donkeys” were employed to remove the dead.

Hard-pressed by the British and Rus- sians during the First World War, the Turks regarded the Armenians as a fifth column, yet even before the outbreak of war, the Greeks in the Dardanelles were being expelled. The authors believe the systematic killings in 1915 were “a crystallised policy of empire-wide killing and death by attrition” — neither by chance nor accident. The Armenians were a disease “that deserved and necessitated extirpation”.

Morris and Ze’evi discovered that Turkish archives had been purged of revelatory documents before they were opened during the 1980s. There had been a cover-up of paper trails. Terrible massacres were transformed into the apologia of “improper treatment”. Yet the reports of foreign diplomats — some distinctly unsympathetic to the Armenians — could not be censored. This included the reports of German and Austro- Hungarian diplomats — allies of Turkey. They used exactly the same language as their British and French counterparts to describe the horror of it all to their superiors in Berlin and Vienna.

Following the taking of Smyrna (Izmir) by Atatürk in September 1922, the Greek and Armenian quarters were destroyed by fire, Jewish and Christian cemeteries desecrated. The remaining 4,500 Assyrians were subjected to persecution. Jihad was invoked and the authors believe that Muslim law was often cited to justify actions. A British naval officer wondered whether all this could have taken place without the full knowledge of the Turkish authorities.

The authors compare and contrast the killings with the murder of Jews during the Shoah — for example, conversion to Christianity in Nazi Germany did not bring salvation, yet, decades earlier, conversion to Islam in the Ottoman Empire lifted the sentence of death. While the Turks killed a fraction of those exterminated by the Nazis, it was the nature of such killings that shocked — girls gang-raped, Christian clerics crucified. Morris and Ze’evi write: “In terms of the behaviour of the perpetrators, on the level of individual actions, the Turkish massacre of the Christians was far more sadistic than the Nazi murder of the Jews.”

A warning from history, perhaps, that this incisive work transmits to us in these dark days of political turmoil.

Jewish Chronicle 1 September 2019

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