Lost, not forgotten: Mass murder in Turkey
Posted: Monday, October 14, 2019 at 07:16 AM UT
Between 1894 and 1924, Turkish leaders, seeking to create a religiously and “racially” pure state as the Ottoman Empire unravelled, organized and implemented a plan of genocide against the Christian populations of Turkey. The genocide was carried out in stages by official forces as well as irregulars and civilians. It involved mass murder and rape, pillage, abduction and expulsion. In the course of the Republic of Turkey’s formation, around 2 million Armenian, Assyrians and Greeks were killed, their property and wealth expropriated, and their ancient cultural and material heritages largely destroyed.
The Thirty-Year Genocide is a landmark contribution to the study of these epochal events. Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi – both Israeli scholars – conclude that the destruction unleashed on the Christians of Turkey was centrally planned and indisputably constitutes genocide. They emphasize three additional arguments: anti-Christian massacres in the late nineteenth century were not isolated incidents, but the onset of a thirty-year process of genocide; three successive Turkish governments, which had different ideologies but were united in their genocidal aims, carried it out; and most significantly, Assyrians and Greeks were targeted equally to Armenians.
Morris is best known for his influential accounts of Arab-Jewish ethnic violence during the formation of the state of Israel; Ze’evi is a historian of the Ottoman period. Together they bring formidable expertise to the study of a period and region difficult to access for several reasons: its linguistic and cultural complexity, rapid political upheavels and transformations, and most pivotally, massive efforts by the Turkish state – which began during the killings and continue today – to deny the genocide. Over the course of a decade of research, the authors consulted the hundreds of thousands of documents produced by first-hand observers of the genocide, as well as the “the Ottoman-Turkish archives, which over the past century have been purged of directly incriminating evidence”, but which nonetheless corroborate the story “through a mass of indirectly supportive documentation”. The result is a richly textured and highly sensitive study.
Why did Turkey commit genocide against its Christian populations? In the period during which the catastrophe took place, Turkey went from being ruled by Abdülhamid II, the last Ottoman sultan, to the nationalist Committee of Union and Progress party to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the modern “secular” Turkish state. But the shift from Ottoman caliphate, with its dhimmi status – whereby religious minorities were subjugated but also given certain “protections” according to Islamic law – to an ethnically based nation state extended an “ideology of Muslim supremacy” across two political systems. “Christian subservience” was regarded as a “state of nature” by Turkish leaderships, and had been “the empire’s experience for centuries”. But the political logic of that systematic subservience had changed. During the Ottoman Empire, Christians were allowed to remain in their ancestral homelands in exchange for resources and services, even if they were frequently targeted by raids and abductions. In the changed ethnic context of the nation state, Turkish leaders embraced a plan to destroy Christian populations, fully expropriate their wealth and heritage, and found a homogenized state on top of their disappearance.
The authors do not see Islam as “a single dogma, worse than other religious dogmas”. Their concern is the historical reality of Islamic teaching and politics in Turkey. The genocide was both a nationalist project exercised through an opportunistic application of Islamic jihad and the culmination of Islamic hegemony that preceded the nation state. The “de-Christianization” of the Ottoman Empire and Turkish Republic was “a common political impulse”, and even the “ostensibly secularist National Struggle” of Kemal “frequently referred to Islam as the primary unifier of the nation”. Islam served as the “glue that bound together” the non-Turkish ethnic groups – Kurds, Circassians, Arabs and others – that participated in the genocide. Under Abdülhamid’s “policy of political Islam”, the creation of new military units that elevated the status of “restive Muslim tribes” allowed Kurds to “appropriate land held by Armenians for centuries”. The forced conversion of Christians involved humiliation and torture, and because the sincerity of conversions was frequently doubted, failed anyway to even protect those converted. Girls and women were sold into sexual slavery at Muslim-only auctions or distributed in Muslim villages.
Propaganda depicting Christians as enemies of the state and collaborators with foreign invaders was rampant. But in reality, these allegations were either grossly exaggerated or fabricated entirely. According to an Ottoman official forced to testify regarding horrifying massacres against Assyrians and Armenians in Diyarbakir: “Families who had been known for centuries for their loyalty to the state and services they rendered it, were killed, along with their children”.
Genocide reduced the Christian population of Turkey from 20 to 2 per cent, creating a base of emptied territory and stolen assets and industry. In the co-ordinated savagery of the genocide, individual and state gains moved towards the same goal. “Muslim civilians” were “personally involved, directly and indirectly, in the deportation and mass murder of Christians”, and “the whole death-dealing process was routinely accompanied by robbery and looting for personl gain by townspeople, villagers, and tribesmen”. The authors are especially vivid in conveying a sense of how innumerable acts of theft, under the mandate and management of governing authorities, amounted to a complete takeover of Christian economies. With the removal of Christians from towns in Turkey, swathes of industries and services disappeared overnight. But Muslims were guaranteed long-term ownership over the entire economy.
The authors document, in painstaking detail and with constant reference to their key arguments, the centrally planned murder and deportation of Christians throughout Turkey. Even though “nationwide destruction was the goal all along”, the application of the genocide depended to some degree on the relevant population and region. It was also subject to complications including the presence of foreign observers (especially in western Turkey) and the immense practical difficulty of implementing mass murder on such a scale, which included the challenge of trying to conceal it. Armenian deportation was “a premeditated, calculated and pedantically implemented operation”, “initiated from the political center”. The Syrian Desert was “envisioned by the architects of genocide” as “a site of exile simultaneously within and without”, where tens of thousands of “Armenians who survived the massacres and marches … could be lost and forgotten”.
Alice Nazarian witnessed both the Assyrian and Armenian genocides. Her father Ashur Yousuf, one of the most prominent Assyrian intellectuals of his time, was hanged in Diyarbakir in 1915. Nazarian’s mother Arshaluys then embarked on an extraordinary life as a teacher and orphanage director, supporting not only her six children but also members of the decimated and deracinated Armenian community across the Middle East.
Bloodied, But Unbowed is Nazarian’s memoir. It was originally published in 1965 in Armenian; this outstanding new edition – the first in English, lucidly translated by Ishkhan Jinbashian – features several documents and letters that provide essential context to Nazarian’s personal recollections.
After Ashur Yousuf’s hanging, his family was left with an almost impossible task: “to endure and be patient, at the cost of horrific deaths, until the sea of hatred and brutality subsided”. Their “path to self-sufficiency” was “long and thorny to the extreme”, and began with Arshaluys selling her belongings in town to feed her children. She quickly developed remarkable capacities to navigate the nightmare around her, acting as a court representative for Armenian women facing “weeks of vicious interrogations and threats” after their sons are smuggled out of Turkey.
Even after the threat of organized violence dwindles, disasters persist. Arshaluys endures the deaths of five of her children and many other friends and relatives. Trauma and grief lead to nervous collapses, including that of the author. Yet an overarching sense of damnation is punctured by moments of joy. Nazarian movingly and convincingly shows how the will to live generates its own affirmations. Her account of falling in love with the son of her host family in Homs – with Arshaluys holding the key to her daughter’s happiness as she weighs the suitor up over the course of many agonizing months – has the delicacy and fragility of a fairy tale.
Bloodied, But Unbowed is unique and important historical document of the Armenian and Assyrian genocides. But what drives the narrative is Nazarian’s powerful evocation of love as a resource for survival. As her brother George lies dying in a hospital bed, he requests a hymn from the family and friends surrounding him. He is too ill to participate beyond the first verse, but “the hymn was sung to the end by the others”.
The different components of this edition interact gracefully, forming a rich picture of the Yousuf family while carefully curating glimpses of Assyrian life outside Nazarian’s narrative. A genealogy contains vignettes describing the lives, mainly in diaspora, of more than 200 descendants of Ashur and Ashaluys Yousuf. In illuminating the suffering and endurance of individual lives destroyed by the genocide, the book serves as a sensitizing complement to the scholarly history of Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi.
"History,” wrote David Lloyd George, “will always hold us culpable” for the annihilation of Turkey’s Christians. But both Turkey and the foreign powers that observed the genocide closely yet failed to stop it have been effectively exonerated. The genocide was a “success” for Turkey. Despite being on the losing side in the First World War, it emerged from its war of independence in 1923 with a homogenized population and a triumphant ideology, ultimately becoming an indispensable geopolitical actor. The ideology and state practices associated with the genocide continue to serve as the basis for repression and militarism within and beyond the country’s borders. By contrast, the three targeted nations suffered permanent damage, with Assyrians (who alone emerged without a state) in particular subject to further persecution and genocide, including most recently at the hands of ISIS. The continuing decline of Christianity in the Middle East, which the nation state accelerated through various forms of violence and oppression, also entails the loss of languages, cultures, ways of life – and finally, historical memory.
The great effort Turkey expends to deny the genocide on which it was founded is testament to the suppressed power of this historical tragedy in the present. There is an urgent need not only to keep writing about the genocide, but to understand the contemporary condition of the peoples it decimated. Beyond the region, the study of these events should form part of the attempt to prevent genocide from serving as a political model, and reinforce its status as the ultimate crime.