U.S. President Joe Biden erred when he declared that the mass killings of Armenians constituted genocide. The Armenian tragedy of World War I was not genocide. There was mass murder there. Indeed, millions were massacred, but it was directed against religious communities, not a specific nation.
The prevailing notion is that during the war, the Committee of Union and Progress government, known as the Young Turks, set out to destroy the Armenian people. But the annihilation of the Armenians was part of a broader and deeper process. Broader, because it included all the Christian communities in Turkish territory – the Greeks, the Armenians and the Assyrians – and deeper because it went on for 30 years.
The destruction of the Christian communities in the Ottoman Empire and in Turkey began some two decades before World War I, and continued for 10 years thereafter. The crimes were committed one after the other by three different regimes: During the 1890s, it was the autocratic government of Sultan Abdul Hamid II; during the intermediate period (1908-1918), it was the Committee of Union and Progress' government; and mass killings also took place at the start of the republican regime of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in the 1920s.
During each period, the authorities focused on a different community. In the 1890s the victims were Armenians and to a lesser degree, Assyrians; on the eve of World War I those violently expelled from the territories in question were primarily the Greeks along the Aegean coast and in the Thrace region; during the war itself the Armenians were again the primary target, although here and there Assyrians and Greeks were also harmed; and with the end of the war, when the Armenian survivors returned to the Turkish provinces, they were deported and massacred once again. During the 1920s, particularly after Greece invaded Izmir, the axe once again came down on the Greek Orthodox residents of Turkey, many of whom were slaughtered.
During these 30 years at least two million members of these communities were murdered with bullets, knives, bayonets and death marches of hundreds of kilometers. Between two million and three million others were deported or fled. Tens or even hundreds of thousands of women and children were kidnapped and forcibly integrated into Muslim families. Thousands of women were raped or forced to work in prostitution. At various stages some of the violence was perpetrated by civilians – villagers, tribesmen and gangs – alongside army and police forces.
The motives were varied. There were those who sought revenge on the Christians for the massacres of Muslims during the Balkan Wars in 1912-1913 (in which war crimes were indeed committed by both sides). There were those who suspected the Christians of treason and of selling out to the enemy. There were those who coveted Christians’ wealth and property, and others who simply who sought to satisfy their lust.
But from the thousands of documents that we have examined in archives in Turkey, the United States, Britain, France, Germany and other countries, it emerged that among the civilians who took part in the massacres – and to a great degree among the leaders as well – Turkey's nationalist motivation, which, like that of the Armenians and the Arabs, was primal, was perceived in a profound way as part of its religion. In the eyes of many, the Christians were national enemies because they were enemies of the true religion.
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Non-Muslims had lived in relative safety in the Ottoman Empire for hundreds of years, on condition that they accepted Muslim rule and the obligations this entailed. More than once renegade Christians and Jews chose to seek the protection of the sultan when they were being persecuted by Christian governments. Moreover, as we know, during the expulsion from Spain, the Ottoman Empire opened its gates to fleeing Jews and gave them asylum.
But aside from the fact that the massacre victims during the 30 years in question were Christians in general, and not just Armenians, there is much evidence that the motivations were religious. First and foremost is the fact that converting was often a way to save oneself from death. In many cases residents of a village or town were permitted to convert to Islam to avoid deportation, and sometimes they were required to do so. It didn’t always work. Sometimes the regime or local authorities refused to approve the conversions, and those who had accepted Islam were deported and murdered anyway, but there are many examples of conversion that saved people from death.
But the clearest proof that nationalism was not the primary motive is the persecution of the Assyrians. Unlike the Armenians, for example, the Assyrians had no clear nationalist aspirations at the time. They were a minority of only half a million people dwelling in the far reaches of Anatolia, which did not threaten Turkey. Nevertheless, during this period some 200,000 Assyrians were killed, while hundreds of thousands were uprooted and expelled.
Thus wrote Henry Morgenthau, the U.S. ambassador in Istanbul at the time, about Young Turks' leaders during the war: “Their passion for Turkifying the nation seemed to demand logically the extermination of all Christians – Greeks, Syrians [Assyrians] and Armenians. Much as they admired the Mohammedan conquerors of the 15th and 16th centuries, they stupidly believed that these great warriors had made one fatal mistake, for they had had it in their power completely to obliterate the Christian populations and had neglected to do so. This policy in their opinion was a fatal error of statesmanship and explained all the woes from which Turkey has suffered in modern times.”
At the start of the Great War, Turkish leaders called for a war of jihad against the Christians (even though Germany and Austro-Hungary were the Ottoman Empire’s allies). The call for jihad did not resonate with the world’s Muslims, such as those in Egypt and India. But within the empire it apparently had considerable success, both during the war and afterward. Many of those who participated in the massacres believed they were part of a holy war between the Islamic world and the Christian world.
Prof. (emeritus) Benny Morris taught in the Middle East Studies Department at Ben-Gurion University, and is author of several books, including “The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949." Prof. Dror Ze’evi teaches at Ben-Gurion University and has written books and articles on the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey. Together they wrote “The Thirty-Year Genocide: Turkey’s Destruction of its Christian Minorities 1894-1924” (2019; Harvard University Press).