As promised, I’m going to spend this week’s blog post weighing in on “When Turkey Destroyed It’s Christians“, an infuriating article written by two academics, Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi, and published by the Wall Street Journal this past May…
In 1915, the Young Turk government that was losing World War I for the Ottoman Empire embarked on a program of genocide against its Armenian minority. Outside of Turkey you won’t find anyone who disputes that, and you certainly won’t find anyone to dispute that here. The Armenian Genocide happened, full stop. Bludgeoning the Turks with this fact until they admit it is a fair thing to do.
That’s not what this Wall Street Journal article does. It attempts something much more sweeping and sinister. With the US-Turkish relationship more fraught than it has been since at least the 1970s, we should be trying to understand Turkey better. Instead, the two authors offer us a highly prejudiced and incomplete essay damning Turkey in irresponsibly sweeping terms over its history with its Christian minority. The Wall Street Journal has given these arguments credibility they do not deserve by publishing them. The article, and the book it is based on, argues that across four decades and three completely different governments, the loss of territory on three continents, and the immolation of a 600 year old empire, the Turks engaged in a conscious multi-decade program of anti-Christian genocide that is directly comparable to the Final Solution cooked up by the Nazis. The authors actually say that in the closing paragraph of their article. By doing so they manage to cheapen the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide, and commit a pretty horrific slur against the Turkish people. To my mind it’s quite similar to saying that the pre-Nazi Weimar German government of the 1920s and 1930s and the post World War II West German government are just as guilty of Genocide as the Nazis are, implying that there is something naturally evil about the Turks. These authors seem to be motivated by exactly the same sorts of blind nationalist disrespect for history that Armenian Genocide deniers are. The lead “historian” on this is Benny Morris, an Israeli scholar who distinguished himself in his youth by pointing out that the foundation of Israel involved more ethnic cleansing of Arabs than is usually admitted. He has spent his career since writing about why ethnic cleansing to found the Israeli state was actually a good thing. He’s a figure associated with justifying the political projects of his own country, and not an expert on this era. Dror Ze-evi, the second author, does appear to be an Ottomanist, but he’s either not a good one, or he knows he’s being dishonest.
If you’re familiar with the history, you’re already aware of how deeply insulting it is to tar Ataturk and the Ottoman sultans with the crimes of the Young Turk Genocidaires, but let’s run through this a bit. It takes a lot for me to defend the late Ottoman Sultans, but the outright Nazi comparison does the trick. The fundamental historical point that the WSJ article never mentions is that across the 19th century, the Ottoman empire was losing territory. As they lost territory, their central lands in Anatolia filled up with ethnically cleansed Muslims from across Europe. If you walk through central Athens, you will find multiple former mosques or burnt out relics of them. Well over 100,000 Turks were kicked out of Greek territory after Greece’s independence in 1830. There are churches in Istanbul today, but there are no mosques in Athens. The Russians repeatedly invaded Ottoman territory, usually forced back more by pressure from the other European powers rather than Ottoman strength. Serbian, Romanian and Bulgarian independence happened in stages of mixed sovereignty and self determination. As these territories became more self-governed, atrocities against Muslims, some of whom had been there for 600 years, became more frequent. To its eternal shame the Ottomans engaged in atrocities as well. Interestingly the WSJ article does not mention the Bulgarian massacres, which were some of the worst anti-Christian massacres carried out by the Ottoman government. This is because mentioning those atrocities would require acknowledging the other side of the story, decaying Ottoman control in Europe and the accompanying ethnic cleansing of Muslims. It’s kind of hard to write a hit piece alleging one-sided Turkish ethnic cleansing if you mention actions that were carried out by Muslim populations that no longer exist. The late Ottoman sultanate was a brutal, vicious, failure, losing miserably and committing great atrocities. But were they Nazis? No. Were they even as bad as the Russians, Belgians and Americans of the time? No. They just failed where the Russians, Belgians and Americans succeeded, so their atrocities are harder to wave away.
The Young Turk government that took power from the Sultan in 1908 initially included a lot of propaganda about a new understanding between Turks and minorities. Some of its leaders may even have believed that propaganda. Under the pressures of losing World War I, they carried out a genocide against the Armenians in 1915. Nothing to defend here. Though I would argue that the writers of the WSJ article ARE defending the Young Turks, by pretending that their horrific actions were part of some over-arching Turkish plot, not their own unique responsibility.
It’s the last bit of the WSJ article argument that is truly outrageous. After the Ottomans lost World War One, the victorious allies, chiefly Britain, offered a whole bunch of Turkish territory to Greece. This left out the inconvenient fact that the Turks still held that territory at the end of hostilities with the allies. The Greeks invaded, sweeping across Anatolia, carrying out all manner of atrocities against local Turks as they went. The Turks under Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish republic, rallied and pushed them out, committing atrocities against local Greeks as they went. At the end of the war, after the invading Greeks had been pushed out, a population transfer was agreed. 1.5 million Christians were moved to Greece, and Half a million Muslims were moved to Turkey. This imbalance is explained by the fact that as Greece expanded throughout the 19th century, they had ethnically cleansed all Muslims as they went, while the Ottomans didn’t get started on systematically extirpating Christians until 1915. The Population transfer was a horrible thing, and not something that the international community would accept today. At the time however, it was seen as an appropriate solution. What’s important to remember here, is that unlike the situation with the Armenians, the Greek government was equally at fault for what happened to the Greeks of Anatolia, if not vastly more culpable than the Turkish government. The WSJ article doesn’t mention any of this detail at all. It simply slots the end of Greek presence in Anatolia into its fairy tale of Turkish evil.
History is important. Harvard, the WSJ, and these “scholars” may not think so, but I do. The Wall Street Journal’s brand may be fading in the Murdoch era, but it still matters. People reflexively believe things that are printed there. Because I lived in Turkey for 6 years, multiple people have reached out to me to talk about this article. I see it pop up on twitter all the time, especially in light of the recent non-existent anti-Kurdish genocide in Northern Syria. Turkish history is not a topic that many in the US have really dived into. If the WSJ says something about it, it will believed. Many Americans now believe that the Turks had a four decade, concerted, out of nowhere plot to murder all of its Christians. That’s not true. The fact that this article exists is an example of the “Plot against Turkey” I talk about in today’s video.
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Video Transcript after the jump…