Greeks and Armenians have often had connected experiences over the centuries. They lived as neighbors since pre-Roman times, Armenians were a prominent minority in the majority Greek Byzantine Empire, and both were subjects of the Ottoman Empire.

But they also shared the most tragic of experiences: genocide. In 2014, the Greek Parliament passed law 4285/2014, which outlawed the denial of not only the Holocaust, but also the Greek (1913-1922) and Armenian Genocides (1915-1922) in the Ottoman Empire. This law not only presents a strong stance against genocide deniers, but also shows the solidarity of the Greeks and Armenians in the face of lack of recognition and continued Turkish denial.

The Genocides

As World War I began, the Ottoman Empire was already on its last legs. Using the war as a pretext, the Ottoman government under the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) massacred Christian minorities. They announced that Ottoman Christians had been colluding with the enemy. While there were some cases of this, hardly the entire Christian population was in cahoots with the Entente powers. And certainly no standard of international law would have allowed the Ottomans to justify the murder of millions on such a pretext.

Armenian Refugees in Syria
Armenian Refugees in Syria, c. 1915-1918

The brunt of their violence was against Armenians living inside the empire’s borders. On April 24, 1915, the Ottomans rounded up leading Armenians in Istanbul and deported them eastward. In the following months, thousands of Armenians were slaughtered while others were forced from their homes and sent off to the Syrian Desert. Few actually made it. As Henry Morgenthau, Sr., the American Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire at the time stated, “The Turkish policy was that of extermination under the guise of deportation.” Roughly 1.5 million Armenians, 75% of those living in the Ottoman Empire at the start of WWI, were killed during the genocide.

While during the war the focus of the CUP government was against the Armenians, they had also carried out deportations and massacres of other Christian communities, including Assyrians and Greeks. But unlike the systematic continuous massacres of the Armenians, the Ottoman policy against the Greeks varied with politics. Greece’s political position and the pressure of Germany, the Ottomans’ ally, dictated this. Llyod George, the British Prime Minister, stated before the House of Commons that “. . . tens of thousands of [Greek] men, women and children were expelled and dying [in the Ottoman Empire]. It was clearly a deliberate extermination.”

Victims of Turkish Massacres in Smyrna 1922
Victims of Turkish Massacres in Smyrna, 1922

Violence against the Greeks only continued after the Ottoman defeat at the end of WWI. Supported by the other Entente powers, Greece invaded western Turkey after WWI, claiming the area around Smyrna (today’s Izmir). The Turkish nationalists under Mustafa Kemal (later Atatürk) fought the Greek army, giving the war an ideological dimension as a fight for their nation. After the Battle of Dumlupınar (1922), the Greek army was completely in shambles. The Turkish army pushed on and took Smyrna, massacring the Greeks and Armenians in the city and burning a large part of the city in what became known as the Great Fire of Smyrna. The exact numbers of Greeks that were killed are widely debated, but the numbers were without a doubt staggering. In the Pontus region on the Black Sea Coast, only about half of the pre-war 750,000 Greek inhabitants still lived.

With the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, Turkey was mostly devoid of its Armenian and Greek populations. Most of the Armenians had been killed, and the Greeks that hadn’t been killed were sent over to Greece in the population exchange between the two countries. Some Greeks and Armenians still resided in Turkey, most in understandable fear, but Turkey had effectively removed two peoples that had lived in Anatolia for centuries (since at least the 5th century BC), in fact for much longer that the Turks themselves (who only first settled parts of Anatolia in the late 11th century AD).

Widely Unrecognized

Millions of Ottoman Christians had been unjustly killed in the 20th century’s first genocide. But instead of the outpouring of support that Holocaust victims received at the end of WWII, the tragedy of the Armenians and Greeks (and other Christian minorities) were not even acknowledged. The fledgling Armenia was too battered by the genocide and was annexed by the Soviet Union after a few years. Greece had to handle not only their military defeat, but also the million plus Greek refugees that they received through the Treaty of Lausanne. The effects of the genocides were clearly visible in both countries.

Eyewitness reports, including those of impartial witnesses such as Morgenthau, and the abandoned properties and bleached bones were clear: genocide had taken place. But the minimal recognition that came didn’t cause any retribution against Turkey. Genocide had happened, the world knew it, and there were no consequences. It was this that led Adolf Hitler on the eve of World War II and the Holocaust to note, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

Genocide in the Middle East - Hannibal Travis
Law Professor Hannibal Travis has written on genocide in the Ottoman Empire and the legal framework of genocide.

Today, the figures are not much better. The European Parliament and the Council of Europe have recognized the Armenian Genocide, and Turkey’s denial of the Armenian Genocide is one of its biggest stumbling blocks to entering the European Union. But only 28 countries (about 1/8th of the world) recognize the Armenian Genocide. The promise of recognizing the Armenian genocide is perhaps one of the most broken campaign promises in the United States (President Obama was 0 for 8 Remembrance Days, including on the centennial of the genocide, despite his pre-election promise and the urging of congressmen each April 24th). Only Armenia has recognized the Greek Genocide.

Lessons for the Future

The Greek and Armenian sufferings during the 1910s and 1920s should not just be a spark of solidarity for them. It should be a call to solidarity for all people to stand together in the face of genocide.

Already in the 21st century the world has allowed genocide to occur with little consequence. The American government condemned ethnic hostilities in Darfur as genocide, and although there is debate about whether the massacres constitute genocide, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the longtime Sudanese president, has roamed free. The International Criminal Court has indicted him, but he still maintained impunity, even being invited to a meeting in Saudi Arabia with President Trump.

In another example, the plight of Christians in Iraq and Syria has often been overlooked in the face of the Islamic State’s myriad tyrannies. But when the crimes are tallied, the Islamic State’s genocide against Christian minorities must feature prominently.

The failure of international law to denounce and hold accountable the perpetrators of genocide is an utter failure of the system. When the law does not hold criminals accountable, the further perpetration of those actions is the likely outcome. International law’s authority either needs to be strengthened or it falls to us the people to fill in the cracks by outright recognizing and condemning genocide wherever it may appear.

If we allow genocides such as those against the Armenians and Greeks to go unacknowledged, we send a message to the world. The absolute denouncement of Nazi actions during the Holocaust cannot be the exception but the rule. Law 4285/2014 should not be the anomaly that condemns genocide and shows Armenian-Greek solidarity. Who today remembers the Armenians and the Greeks? We all should, for if we don’t, history will only repeat itself.