“What’s the Point?”

Commemorating the 90th Anniversary of the Burning of Smyrna

by Ronald Levitsky


Elie Wiesel’s story, Night, begins with a man named Moishe returning to the village from which he had been deported by the Nazis.  Moishe tells his Jewish neighbors of the mass murders he had witnessed.  “But people not only refused to believe his tales, they refused to listen.  Some even insinuated that he only wanted their pity, that he was imagining things.  Others flatly said that he had gone mad.”


In a sense, a teacher engaging in genocide education is like Moishe.  Children typically have a strong sense of justice.  How could something as horrible as genocide have occurred?  It seems beyond belief.  As one of my eighth graders name Charlie said after studying the Armenian, Greek, and Aramaean/Assyrian Genocide, “I didn’t know people could be that bad and do such horrible things.  Sure, there are bad leaders out there, but who could order hundreds of thousands of people to walk through a desert until they starve and die?  I mean, what’s the point of that?”


Charlie’s insightful comments pose an important question – why has a particular set of historical events taken place?  As a prelude to Dr. Hatzidimitriou’s remarks on the burning of Smyrna, let us consider some of the circumstances that led to this horrific event.


Four hundred years ago a world map would have looked quite different from today.  The Ottoman Empire encompassed the Anatolian Peninsula, the Black Sea regions, most of the Middle East, North Africa, and southeastern Europe to the gates of Vienna.  The Ottoman conquests were so successful that the majority of the empire’s population were Christians living in the Balkans.


Instead of integrating various ethnicities and religions into a single nation “with liberty and justice for all,” the Ottoman government separated its various communities into millets based on religion.  The original three were Jewish, Greek Orthodox, and Armenian-Apostolic.  Although given a great deal of autonomy, these millets were considered separate and unequal – second- class citizens paying higher taxes and receiving fewer rights and protections than Muslims.


Although restricted and mistreated, Christians were generally far better educated than their Muslim counterparts.  They also dominated industry and commerce, forming the backbone of the middle class.  As such, they resented being treated as inferiors, while, in turn, Muslims resented the success of their Christian neighbors.


From early nineteenth through the early twentieth centuries, independence movements erupted throughout the empire, such as Greece in the 1820’s and the Balkan Wars of 1912-13.  These led to recurring acts of violence by various ethnic groups, with government troops participating in massacres.   In desperation, Christians sought help outside the Empire, often relying on Russia and other European nations for protection.


These revolts also spurred a sense of nationalism.  For example, many Greeks within Greece and the Ottoman Empire came to believe in the “Megale” or “Great Idea”, the concept of creating a greater Greece that included all the areas of Greek settlement in Asia Minor and Eastern Thrace, with Constantinople as its capital.


In contrast, a growing number of Ottoman Turks advanced the idea of pan-Turkism, or a greater Turkey.   Non-Turkish Muslims, such as Kurds and Arabs, would be assimilated into the empire, while Christians would be excluded.   In 1911, an official in the Ottoman government declared that, “Greeks, Armenians and Jews who lived in Turkey were Turks in respect of citizenship but not of nationality…. They would remain a foreign body in the Turkish state.”   Once the genocide began, Christians were called aliens and “microbes.”


Defeated by Russia in 1878, the Ottoman Empire lost 2/5 of its territory and 1/5 of its population.  Later, as a result of the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913, it lost more than 60% of its European territory.  Over 400,000 Muslim refugees were forced to flee into the Anatolian Peninsula with accounts of massacres perpetrated on them by their Christian neighbors.  Many leaders of the new Ottoman government – the Committee of Union and Progress – came from families originating in that part of the empire now lost.


As the empire shrunk, for the first time the Christians became a minority of the population.  European nations were seen as plotting to finish off what was left of the empire, and Ottoman Christians were viewed as traitors giving assistance to the enemy.  This was especially true when World War I began, and the Turks suffered early defeats at the hands of the Russians.  The Ottoman government used Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks living near the Black Sea as scapegoats for these losses.


Professor Tessa Hofmann has noted how crucial was the perception that the loyalty of the Ottoman Empire’s Christian subjects could not be trusted.  In this she draws a parallel to the Holocaust.  “Because both the Christians under Ottoman rule and the Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe perished not for something they actually did or failed to do, but for who they were and how they were perceived by the perpetrators.”


According to Professor Taner Akcam, “A deep belief developed that it was impossible to live side-by-side with the empire’s remaining Christian population, or even worse, that the Ottoman Christians posed a threat to the empire’s very survival.”


Professor Akcam added that the Ottoman solution…“involved expelling non-Muslim, non-Turkish people from Anatolia, which resulted in the removal of two million people in all, essentially the region’s entire Christian population.  While Armenians as well as Assyrians were targeted by special measures aimed at annihilation, Greeks were also expelled.  In total, almost one-third of the Anatolian population was either relocated or killed.”


George Shirinian, Executive Director of the Zoryan Institute, notes that the destruction of the Anatolian and Pontian Greeks occurred in three stages.  Even before World War I began, Greeks were massacred and expelled from Eastern Thrace.  During the war the genocide continued, sometimes tempered by a concern that Greece would join the Allies or what it might do in retaliation to its Muslim minority population.  After the war, the Allies encouraged Greece to send its army into the Anatolian Peninsula to oppose the forces under Kemal Attaturk and to protect the Christian population.  After initial military successes, the Greek army, abandoned by the Allies and torn by internal dissension, was pushed back to the coast and Smyrna.


During the Greek-Turkish conflict of 1919-22, the bulk of the Pontian Greeks who lived along the Black Sea were deported to the interior.  Many were murdered outright.  One account, dealing with the town of Merzivan, asserted that, “Repeated tales of utmost cruelty were borne to us, such as the burning of churches with Greeks inside, the use of priests, with their robes soaked in kerosene, as torches….” Thousands more died from the “white death” of starvation, exposure to the cold, and disease.


Professor Hatzidimitriou will explore the final stage of the Greek Genocide, the destruction of Smyrna.  By 1923 when the genocide ended, in addition to one and one-half million Armenians and 365,000 Assyrians, over one million Greeks were murdered by the Ottoman Turks and the forces of Mustafa Kemal.


In closing, let us return to the question posed by Charlie, my former student.  “What’s the point of that?”


In February 1917, Germany’s Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire reported to his government, “I believe that as a result of all this the extermination policy has profoundly harmed the Turkish Empire.  For a long time the atrocities of the Armenian campaign will overshadow the Turkish reputation and provide poisonous weapons to those who deny Turkey the recognition as a civilized state and who demand the expulsion of the Turks from Europe.  Seen from a domestic view, the country had been significantly weakened by the peril and the ban of a physically strong, industrious and economical population, in particular, because the shortage in people is one of the major obstacles for a more rapid development of Turkey’s resources.”


In effect, by its genocidal policies, Turkey was committing economic suicide – or “economicide”.  How does a teacher make sense of a nation that not only murders three million of its own citizens, but also nearly destroys itself because of fear and hatred?


Perhaps the best way is to be like Moishe in Elie Weisel’s Night, who continued against all odds to bear witness, as we do here this afternoon, so that genocide may one day be considered but pages in a history book instead of a horrible reality that has continued, in different times and different places, to this very day.