James Robins

A nation born in blood

Terrified of their republic disintegrating, Turks have not hesitated to massacre any minorities perceived to be traitors or fifth columnists

Turkey greets you with a chilly blue eye, a flared eyebrow, a cliff-like cheekbone. The face of the republic’s founder glares imperious from almost every office wall, shopkeeper’s kiosk and airport terminal.

Turkish citizens regard Mustafa Kemal reverentially: the nation’s first president, courageous leader of the 1919–1922 war of independence, deliverer from the great powers’ imperial cleaver. An impenetrable cultish mythos envelops him. Even for Istanbul’s young cosmopolitans, any word against Kemal spurs a visceral reaction.Recep Erdogan, the current president, whose politics are anathema to Kemalist ideology, still has to invoke him for the purposes of propaganda. To an American intelligence officer who met the man in the fraught summer of 1921, however, Kemal was a  ‘clever, ugly customer,’ with the look of ‘a very superior waiter’.

It’s little wonder that an American would view Kemal in such a way. His nationalist movement was waging a quasi-guerrilla insurgency against the victors of the first world war, who sought to carve up the moribund, defeated Ottoman empire. In the process, Kemal completed what his predecessors had already begun: the definitive slaughter and removal of the empire’s remaining Christian population: Pontic and Ionian Greeks, Assyrians and, of course, Armenians.

In their expansive and detailed new volume The Thirty-Year Genocide the historians Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi depart from well-established accounts of the Armenian genocide which often consign earlier and later frenzies of slaying to introductions and conclusions. They roll three crimes into one. First, the Hamidian Terror (1894–96) under the sclerotic rule of Sultan Abdülhamid II. Secondly, the obliteration carried out by the formerly liberal Committee of Union and Progress (1914–18). And finally, the Kemalist ‘cleansing’ campaigns during and after the war of independence (1919–24).

Morris and Ze’evi document each period well, if often gruellingly.

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