Ottoman Ethnic Cleansing in WWI

We are currently in the 100 year anniversary of the First World War, a conflict mostly ignored here in the United States education system. This is a shame, because it had a profound effect on shaping the world of today. Hopefully, the sheer number of centenary articles will enlighten many.

Today I will go into more detail on the multiple ethnic cleanings perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire 100 years ago. Yes, I said multiple. The Armenian disaster has has a tendency to dominate the others that occurred. Those silenced will be heard today.

People seem to act like WWI “just started”, without realizing the political, social, economic, and imperial pressures that made it inevitable. These are too numerous to go into here, but a note of acknowledgement needs to be given to Edward VII of England, who delayed war for 10 years. History has been unkind to him, but politically he was a genius. Playing on the fact that he was related to almost every monarch on the continent, whenever there was a political crisis brewing in Europe, he would invite the principal players to his fun estate in France. Rivers of booze, excellent food, and plenty of prostitutes ensured that everyone returned to their respective capitals in a very good mood, and compromises were made. His very strait laced son George V destroyed this balance, and the early years of his reign equaled war in Europe.

Most history books exclude the fact that there were two wars in the Balkans before 1914, the correctly named First Balkan War (October 1912 – May 1913) and the unsurprising named Second Balkan War (June 1913 – August 1913). WWI started a year later.

The Ottoman Empire, struggling under the dual burdens of fundamentalism and bureaucracy, had been shedding parts of itself for some time. Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro, and Serbia has already freed themselves, but large ethnic minorities still lived under Turkish rule. The First Balkan War freed these minorities, and threw the Ottomans out of Europe. The Second Balkan War was the victors fighting among themselves, with Turkey trying to take advantage.

Three months and eight days after WWI started, Turkey joined the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary on November 11, 1914. (Four years later the war would end on the same day). Hostile actions by the Allies and former ties to German made this happen. However, Turkey was an agrarian nation fighting against the mightiest industrial powers on earth. It had no hope of true victory.

On April 25, 1915 Allied forces landed at Gallipoli in an attempt to capture Istanbul. Turkish armies were fighting a seesaw conflict with the Russian Empire, which had long seen itself as the guardian of all Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman lands. The Arab subjects of the Turks were also revolting, later helped by Thomas Lawrence, who would become to history Lawrence of Arabia.

Previous defeats in the Balkan Wars and conflicts with Russia had forced hundreds of thousands of refugees to flood into the Empire, and many were settled in the lands of minorities. The Turkish leadership became frightened of their remaining minorities, and decided to do something about them, once and for all.

The events are officially to have started on April 24, 1915, when 250 Armenian community leaders were arrested in Istanbul and later executed, the day before the Allied landing. However, several months earlier Armenian combat units had been disarmed and turned into labor battalions, and the Armenian/Assyrian city of Van was already under siege by an attacking Turkish army.

In July 1915 the massacres of the Assyrians started. In some areas entire populations were killed in a variety of means. In others, the men were killed while the women and children fled towards Mosul (in modern Iraq) or even to Iran. In some small areas the populations were deported. The struggling columns were often attacked, with robbery, murder, and rape common.

For the Greeks, many had been forced to serve in the army before the war started as labor troops and were sent hundreds of miles away to work on projects that killed hundreds of thousands through starvation, ill-treatment, or massacres. Once the war started, Greek populations were forcibly deported from coastal areas and sent to the interior, where again looting, rape and murder occurred.

As can be seen, in each case the men were usually either murdered or forced into labor, while the women and children were deported to concentration camps or murdered.

The massacres had the unintended effect of turning untold thousands against the Ottoman Empire. Everywhere Armenian, Assyrian, and Greek populations armed themselves and fought back. There was no mercy for captured Ottoman troops. Many joined the Allies or were assisted by nations horrified by the attacks. To their credit, thousands of individual people helped the victims, hiding them at the risk of their own lives or taking them in later. Arab, Iranian, Christian, and even Turkish citizens did all they could to help, many losing their lives as well. Neutral nations sent aid and help to the refugees.

Even after defeat, the Ottomans continued to attack these minorities, until forced to stop by the Allies and revolution in their own country ended the Ottoman Empire.

Perhaps 3 million people died in this ethnic cleansing. The word “Genocide” was coined in WWII to describe what had happened to these people. Many of the survivors found new homes in the nations that emerged from the old empire, or found new lives far away. Some trials of the killers were held, but many escaped before hand, often to die later at the hands of their former victims.

The modern Turkish government does not hold itself responsible for what happened, stating that those were the actions of a former government. International recognition of the massacres is very mixed, with many organizations simply consigning the events to history.

Massacres and forced deportations are all too common in history. Many of the countries who accuse Turkey ignore their own same actions, again stating that was “in the past.” It is almost nonexistent for the victors to ever try their own for genocide, nor when it does happen to punish their own as harshly as they would have done foreigners.

None of this posturing does any good for the victims. They are still dead, and the lives of their surviving loved ones shattered as they try to rebuild.

As I said before, hatred of the Other is the worst crime we perpetrate on our own species. The second greatest is Indifference, ignoring those who are not in our “In Group”. We have a long way to go before we get past this foolishness.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s