Review of The Genocide of the Ottoman Greeks

Elaine Thomopoulos, PhD

Hofmann, Tessa, Matthias Bjørnlund, and Vasileios Meichanetsidis (editors), The Genocide of the Ottoman Greeks: Studies on the State-Sponsored Campaign of Extermination of the Christians of Asia Minor 1912-1922 and Its Aftermath: History, Law, Memory (New York & Athens: Aristide D. Caratzas, Publishing, 2011).


After looking through the photographs in The Genocide of the Ottoman Greeks, images of the genocide kept swimming in my head. I shook my head to clear it, but the images remained, bringing tears to my eyes. A photograph, taken in 1920 by N. Rigopoulos in Nazili (Aylin), shows stone-faced Turkish troops standing in a semi-circle around a decapitated Greek woman who is hanging from her feet. I counted more than two dozen men, some in the background, looking toward the camera.


Questions arose in my mind: How did this happen? What circumstances led to the persecution and death of this woman and a million other Greek Orthodox Christians of the Ottoman Empire? How can genocide be prevented?


Nineteen scholars from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and countries explore these questions and others in this 508-page scholarly publication. The contributors do an excellent job of documenting, analyzing, and interpreting the genocide of the Greeks who were victims of the Ottoman Young Turks and their successors, the Kemalist Nationalists, from 1912-1922.


This volume is the first of its kind to tackle the genocide of the Ottoman Greeks in such depth. As the editors point out, one reason that this topic has not been well-researched is that Greece has wanted to maintain good relations with Turkey. The Greek state chose to use “catastrophe,” rather than “genocide,” to define the horrific experiences of the Greeks who lived in the Ottoman Empire, the remnant of which became the modern state of Turkey. Another difficulty has been the Turkish denial of the genocide and their reluctance to make available their archives or encourage research.


Tessa Hofmann, a genocide scholar from the Institute for Eastern European Studies at the Freie Universität Berlin, puts forth the definition of genocide as adopted in 1948 by the United Nation’s Convention on the Prevention of the Crime of Genocide: “[T]he intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group” (107). The book’s contributors give ample examples of the various acts of genocide as well as the circumstances leading up to the genocide.


In the Introduction, the editors refute the argument that the Greek genocide was a mere consequence of Greek military actions during the Balkan Wars (1912-1913) and/or the Greek military intervention in Asia Minor (1919-1922). They emphasize that neither the irredentist Megale Idea (Great Idea) nor the military actions justified the massacres and deportations to which Ottoman Greeks were exposed in increasing number since 1912. They continue, “Nor do they fully explain the historical and political context of such crimes, which were directed not just against one particular ethnic group, but against all indigenous Christians and beyond” (7). The editors point out various episodes of ethnic cleansing that had taken place prior to the war years, including indications that the genocidal intents of Turkish nationalists had already emerged during 1909-1911.


Psychologist and internationally known genocide scholar Israel W. Charny, in a thought-provoking prologue, “The Integrity and Courage to Recognize All the Victims of a Genocide,” sets the stage for the rest of the book. Using examples from his own experiences, he writes in an easy-to-read style. In the 1960s, Charny realized that although he had been working in a first-class psychiatric hospital, he had “literally received no training whatsoever in understanding human cruelty, evil, destructive aggression, and worse the homicidal readiness of people to destroy masses of other human beings.” He makes a strong point that genocidal destruction is a serious potential of every people, and that “we are not going to get very far for our common humanity on this planet by dividing simply and naively into victims and perpetrators” (24). He applauds the courage to name other people as victims of genocide alongside one’s own, e.g., Jews acknowledging the non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust. He gives examples of scholars who have not always agreed about this principle. Charny also thoroughly discusses genocide deniers, noting that that denial has been identified by many scholars of genocide as “the last stage of genocide.”


The 73-page article, “Cumulative Genocide: the Massacres and Deportation of the Greek Population of the Ottoman Empire (1912 -1923),” by Tessa Hofmann outlines the history of the destruction of the Christian Greeks of Asia Minor. Hofmann uses a variety of primary sources, including eyewitness reports and government documents, to make a compelling argument that the Greeks were indeed victims of genocide. “Cumulative Genocide,” she says, describes the Greek genocide. The Armenian genocide was concentrated during the period of the spring of 1915 to the autumn of 1916. The Greek genocide took place in a cumulative matter: (1) 1912/13 in East Thrace; (2) 1913-15 in Ionia (West Anatolia), Marmara Coast; (3) 1916-1917 in Pontus; and (4) 1919-1922 nationwide. A chart that compares the Greek, Armenian, and Syriac genocides presents crucial information in a clear and succinct manner. In the chart, she gives the number of Greeks who were victims of genocide at one million. She says that some recent Greek historians present a total of 1.4 or 1.5 million victims of “massacres, deportation, compulsory labor, or flight under extreme weather conditions for the decade 1912-1922” (104).


She explains that since they were excluded from the military and at most times of higher and decision-making ranks in the civil service, Ottoman non-Muslims, and in particular Armenians and Greeks, had to limit themselves to trade, commerce, and entrepreneurship. Their visible wealth and simultaneous legal inferiority made them vulnerable minorities. Hofmann notes: “This vulnerability increased, when Muslim suspicion of Christian disloyalty added to social envy and traditional religious antipathy” (39).


In “The Persecutions in Thrace and Ionia in 1914 and the First Attempt at an Exchange of Minorities between Greece and Turkey,” John Mourelos writes about the persecution of Greeks in Thrace and Ionia, which he believes was aimed at making this area a purely Muslim province, necessary for the protection of Constantinople. He outlines the deliberations regarding the abortive attempt in 1914 for a voluntary exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey, concluding that most likely the attempt of the exchange on the part of the Ottoman government was to cover-up the persecution of the Greeks.


Archival historian Matthias Bjørnlund, in “Danish Sources of the Destruction of the Ottoman Greeks, 1914-1916,” reports on the research he has done using documents of Danish diplomats, missionaries, and relief workers, neutral observers of the persecution of the Christians. He outlines the Turkification policies of CUP (“Young Turks”), which included economic boycotts, death marches, forced assimilation, confiscation of property, deportation, and massacres. The aim was to get rid of non-Muslim “foreign” elements, as the Danish observers recognized. Bjørnlund quotes diplomat Carl Ellis Wandel in an August 1915 report, “In my earlier reports, it has already been stated how the Young Turk Government, with the aim of strengthening its position internally, lately has made xenophobia and hatred toward Christians a leading principle in it policy […] The aim of this policy is to force foreigners and Christians to leave the country by making their existence in Turkey unbearable, thereby at the same time satisfying the fanaticism that has become an asset for the government…”(164).


In “The Role of Teşkilât-ı Mahsusa (Special Organization) in the Genocide of 1915,” Racho Donef traces the development and organization of the Special Organization and condemns its role in the genocide of Christians. He describes it as an organization of “soldiers, gendarmes, thugs, murderers, thieves and adventurers, as well as ideologues” (187). The Special Organization was established in August 1914, although they operated even earlier “in some clandestine capacity.” Donef brings evidence showing that the Special Organization massacred Ottoman Christians of Asia Minor. Unfortunately, as Donef has pointed out, some of the leaders of the Special Organization who committed genocide against the Christian people of the Ottoman Empire have been treated as heroes by Turkey. They have been lauded for their roles in the Caucasus and in the Arab lands, without any mention of the massacres of Christians in Asia Minor.


An excellent treatment of the destruction of Smyrna is presented by Nikolaos Hlamides in “The Smyrna Holocaust: the Final Phase of the Greek Genocide.” Using previously unpublished British diplomatic reports and eyewitness testimonies by Western and Turkish observers, he discusses the 1922 destruction of Smyrna in the context of the Ottoman Empire’s state orchestrated 1914 -23 genocidal campaigns against its Christians. Especially valuable are the photographs from the author’s personal collection. Photographs not only add to the historical record, but speak to us viscerally and can be stronger than words.


The photographs include the previously mentioned photograph of the beheaded Greek woman hanging by her feet, as well as two others showing massacred Greeks. Especially touching are the photos of the refugee children in Anatolia and Constantinople. Their eyes tell a sad story. Images of rescue include: a Japanese commercial vehicle picking up Greeks (it has been reported to have emptied its cargo to make place for the refugees), a couple of photos of American sailors from the USS Litchfield rescuing refugees, British sailors transferring Greek women and children to safety, Greek refugees boarding a British naval ship, Greek men taking refuge aboard an Allied ship, and two Greek refugee girls, one holding a doll, aboard the USS Denebola. Several photographs give witness to the devastating Smyrna fire. One depicts a floating corpse. Others include the destruction and rubble left behind in the Armenian, Greek, and European sections of Smyrna.


Matthew Steward in “The Immediate Context of the Smyrna Catastrophe: the Peace Treaties and the Aftermath of the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1922” surveys the events that led up to Smyrna, including the Sèvres and Lausanne treaties (1920, 1923), the Great Powers’ diplomacy and duplicity, and the Greek military incursion into Turkey during the 1919-1922 Greco-Turkish war. He says that the latter reinvigorated the national effort in Turkey. Steward says Greece came into Turkey in 1919 because of worry that Italy might gain regional control. He does not explore another reason presented by Hofmann that it was because of the persecution of the Greeks.


He uses eyewitness accounts to report on the Greek troops’ mistreatment of Turks, including the burning of Turkish villages as the army retreated in 1922. I would have liked to have had even more information about what transpired. Is there reliable research about how many Turkish citizens were victims and how many villages were burned?


Stewart outlines the stages of the war, with the Turkish army entering Smyrna on September 9, 1922 during the last stage. Of the fire, he says, “It would seem impossible to refute the evidence that the Turks deliberately staged the fire. If the Turks did not literally light the first spark, they almost certainly helped fuel the nascent blaze. Multiple witnesses report seeing Turks moving about with cans of fuel, soaking structures in the Greek and Armenian quarters.” He adds, “The Turks robbed, assaulted, brutalized, and murdered men, women and children alike. Women were raped and abducted as the spoils of war” (259).


In “The American Near East Relief (NER) and the Megale Katastrophe in 1922,” Harry J. Psomiades thoughtfully analyzes the role the NER had in rescuing thousands of refugees. He also lists other relief agencies that helped the refugees. He comes to this conclusion: “By taking the initiative in providing timely human assistance and saving many lives, the relief agencies unwittingly relieved the reluctant Allied powers of their responsibility toward the refugees …” (275). He goes even further by stating that Allied and American reluctance to come to their aid, along with the successful work of the relief agencies, encouraged the Turkish nationals to expedite their plan for “ethnic cleansing” by minimizing the risk of international intervention. Yet, he notes, “One shudders to think what would have happened if American philanthropy and foreign relief agencies had not provided timely humanitarian assistance” (275).


In 1922, another relief agency, The International Red Cross (IRC) was asked by the Allied powers to conduct an investigation after it was brought to their attention that a great number of Ottoman Greeks were being deported from Pontus to the Anatolian interior. Stavros T. Stavridis, in “International Red Cross: A Mission to Nowhere,” advances the premise that that the European Powers and the United States used the IRC to avoid the responsibilities of protecting the Ottoman Christians from Turkish violence, remaining “passive and indifferent.” He says that the investigation, “because of Allied and Turkish procrastination, inaction, or outright obstruction,” got nowhere. He, like Psomiades, faults the Allies for not taking the initiative. He says it is conceivable that if the Great Powers were prepared to apply military force or threaten the use of force, the actions of the Turks may have been more restrained.


Steven Leonard Jacobs contributes an extremely valuable article, “Genocide of Others: Raphael Lemkin, the Genocide of the Greeks, the Holocaust, and the Present Moment.” Jacobs begins by presenting a brief biography about Raphael Lemkin, a Jew born in a Polish village in Czarist Russia [Belarus of today] who became the moving force behind the United Nation’s Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948.


Lemkin began a book, History of Genocide, but never completed it prior to his death in 1959. Jacobs added a lot to the discussion by including excerpts of Lemkin’s draft chapter about the Greeks of Asia Minor. These excerpts and an analysis by Jacobs illustrate that Lemkin was well-aware of the genocide of the Greeks. The excerpts include a historical perspective dating to the siege of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1453. It includes the forcible recruiting of Christian children into the regiment of the Janissaries [devşirme], where they were converted into “Musulmans,” as well as the destruction of Smyrna and its Christian inhabitants.


He tells of the awful acts committed by the Ottomans throughout the centuries, but does not let the Greeks off the hook. He says, “While the persecution of the Greeks by the Turks in this century are the result of government intention and planning, those of the former centuries were in part due to the attitude of the Greeks themselves” (302). He looks at the role of the church and the Phanariotes, educated Greeks who in the 17th century became part of the Ottoman government and the political and economic establishment. He says, “From 1453 until 1821, therefore, the highly placed Greeks are just as guilty of oppressing their brothers, as were the Turks, because they lent themselves to be the instruments” (302).


Jacobs, like Charny, cautions against the trap of “rank-ordering one people’s suffering in contrast to another’s.” He looks up to Lemkin as a role model since he “worked on behalf of all victims.”


In lecture by Savvas Koktzoglou about the Greek Genocide, the question of reparations came up. Several people in the audience, including some lawyers, said that it wasn’t possible. That’s not what Alfred de Zayas – expert on international law and consultant at the United Nations – thinks. In “The Ottoman Genocide of the Greeks and of the Other Christian Minorities in Light of the Genocide Convention,” he presents the carefully researched and provocative argument that the present Turkish state remains liable for the crimes committed by the Ottoman Empire. He believes that the Genocide Convention of 1948 can be applied retroactively because it is declarative of pre-existing international law.


He says, “The International community must take appropriate measures to ensure adequate reparation to the victims and refrain from giving recognition to the consequences of genocide and crimes against humanity including the wrongful acquisition of land and of the personal property of the murdered victims.”


De Zayas concludes that it would be “highly desirable if Turkey would issue an apology to the Greek, Armenian, and Assyrian/Aramaean peoples who were victims not only of discrimination and persecution, but also of genocide, perpetrated both by the Ottoman Empire and by the new Turkish State” (340). As of the date of this review, June 7, 2015, Turkey still denies the genocide.
Ronald Levitsky, in “Teaching the Greek Genocide,” discusses resources, as well as methods, that can be used to teach about the causes and history of genocide. Levitsky describes a teaching unit he created with members of Xeniteas, The Pontian Greek Society of Chicago, for middle and high school students. In its newer edition, it is now on the Internet. He says that genocide education is the first step in developing those who speak out against genocide. He, like Psomiades and Stavridis, stresses that we can’t be indifferent to genocide. He says, “If the world had acted against this injustice in 1914, not only might the Greek Genocide have been avoided — along with those of the Armenians and Syriacs — but also there might have been no future genocide, and instead of students reading this anthology as terrible fact, it might only have been a work of the darkest fiction” (349).


In “Remembering the Genocide and the ‘Unforgettable Homelands:’ the Erection of Commemorative Monuments in Greece by the Refugees of Asia Minor,” Michel Bruneau and Kiriakos Papoulidis give a thorough description and analysis of 65 monuments. Erected in Greece since the 1960s, they serve as remembrances of “unforgettable homelands.” Bruneau and Papoulidis state they embody “the duty to pass down to the third and fourth generations the memory of the massacres suffered, the genocide perpetrated, the lives and heroism of the victims who died” (352). The authors delineate sub-groups from amongst the refugees: Pontian, Ionians or Micrasiates, Cappadocians, and Thracians. The Pontians have built the most monuments, 58%, even though they are not the largest sub-group. Most of the monuments commemorate the specific sub-groups, although there are several that commemorate the refugees as a whole.


The authors describe the themes of the monuments, how they were constructed and financed, as well as what commemorative programs take place at the monuments. They have done a commendable job in conducting the survey and analyzing the results, as well as describing the monuments in detail. However, only two photographs of the monuments appear. More photographs would have helped the monuments come to life. Hopefully the authors will publish the photographs in the future.


In “The Eastern Question: Genocide in Support of Nationality,” Akis Kalaitzidis and Donald Wallace theorize that transition systems, systems moving from multi-ethnicity to unitary nation states, are more likely to experience genocide and that is what happened after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. In the Ottoman Empire’s transition into a nation-state, ethno-religious identity became the key reorganizing principle. This led to the expulsion and extermination of non-Turkish populations. They say, “The Greeks, the Armenians, and the Syriacs, as well as other non-Muslims, were targeted for destruction because of ethnic differences, religious differences, (alleged) wealth, and international reasons” (374).


In “Achieving Ever-Greater Precision in Attestation and Attribution of Genocide Photographs,” Abraham Der Krikorian and Eugene L. Taylor examine photographs representing genocide and laboriously trace the attestation (accuracy of what the photograph represents) and attribution (identification of a photograph with a person, place and time). The authors have done an excellent job researching each of the photographs discussed, using information gleaned from newspapers, magazines, memoirs, documents, and other photographs. As an example of incorrect identification, they cite a 19th century painting of a pyramid of skulls by Russian artist Vasily V. Vereshchagin. On several occasions, it has been wrongly identified as a photograph of victims of the Armenian genocide.


The inclusion of 15 visuals at the end of this chapter makes this article particularly strong. However, it could have been improved if the images were placed closer to the text describing them. It was difficult to read the text and then go forward several pages to locate each image. Even though this well-written and meticulously researched article is the last in a series of 16 articles (including the introduction), the book doesn’t stop there.


The last 74 pages include a wealth of material that in itself would be worth the price of the book. The only thing missing is resumes of each of the authors (the editors have been described at the beginning of the book). “The Chronology of Major Events” makes it easy to absorb the history at a glance.” The “Glossary of Terms” does more than define. For example, “Balkan Wars” devotes a whole page to a description of the Wars, including the number who died during the wars. “Cappadocia” doesn’t just tell where it is located, but gives a history of the region.


The “Select Bibliography” shows the care the editors have taken to enable readers to find additional sources about the genocide and related issues. It includes those written in English, French, German, and Greek. It lists books and dissertations; reports and articles from contemporary press; films; state and other archival sources; and photographic archives. An “Index” as well as a “Map of Anatolia and Eastern Thrace” (with a listing of some cities or towns with Greek Christian Populations before the Genocide) completes this outstanding contribution to genocide studies.


It would be impossible to include everything that the reviewer would have liked to see in this book, but I will give a few suggestions about what might be pursued in a revision or subsequent book. One thing missing is research regarding the Turks who helped Greeks. I only found a couple of examples. One is of Turks who did not follow a Teşkilât-ı Mahsusa leader’s orders and were killed; another is of a group of 70 notables from Samsun who signed a petition to prevent the deportation of Greeks. Several children or grandchildren of genocide survivors have told me stories of how Turks rescued their parents or grandparents. More research, either through the exploration of oral histories or the written record, should be done about this aspect of the Greek Genocide.


Psomiades mentions Asa Jennings, a remarkable American who rescued hundreds of thousands of refugees who had been stranded at Smyrna after the fire, evacuating them in Greek vessels flying the U.S. flag. He then went on to rescue hundreds of thousands more in other parts of Turkey. I would have liked to see more written about people like Jennings and the American doctor, Esther Lovejoy, who is mentioned by Hofmann. These heroes, who gave unselfishly to save others, counter the bleak narrative of man’s inhumanity to man.


Jacobs uses this quote from Lemkin: “[H]istory proves that the Turkish people were quite capable of living peacefully side by side with Greeks until the government tried to excite them by all means in its power to plunder and massacre.” I recently spoke to a man whose grandparents were victims of the Pontian genocide. He told me that photographs of alleged atrocities committed by Greek troops were widely distributed (303).


How did government, community, and religious leaders turn the Ottoman Muslims against the Ottoman Christians? What policies were instituted to signify that the Christians were inferior or to be feared? How was propaganda spread using print and broadcast media, literature, music, or books? Devoting a whole chapter or a whole book to this topic would shed further light on how the public was swayed by evil leaders.


It has been difficult for me to read this book about the genocide of the Ottoman Greeks. It describes the horrors of humanity. Yet, it is necessary that genocide be acknowledged.


“Never again,” we say. One way to prevent genocide is to be aware of it, to investigate it, and to teach people about it. This book has done an excellent job in accomplishing these objectives. Through new research and insight it has shed light on this dark but never to be forgotten period of history.
Reviewed by Elaine Thomopoulos copyright 2023


Reprinted with permission from Ἀνάλεκτα Ἀνθρωπιστικών Ἐπιστημῶν, τόμ. 2 (2023), σελ. 401-408