Robert Shenk and Sam Koktzoglou, editors, The Greek Genocide in American Naval War Diaries: Naval Commanders Report and Protest Death Marches and Massacres in Turkey’s Pontus Region, 1921-1922. New Orleans: The University of New Orleans Press. 2020. Pp. 404. Paper $24.95.

In May 1921, at the height of the Greco-Turkish war, a detachment of US Navy destroyers was sent to the ports of Turkey’s Black Sea coast, known to Greeks as Pontos. Their mission was to protect American property and citizens, meaning the American tobacco companies, mission schools, and Near East Relief (NER) workers present in the region, while observing strict neutrality in the conflict. The Pontos region was in turmoil. Though situated far from the frontline in western Anatolia, the Turkish nationalist forces embarked on a campaign of ethnic cleansing in which the local Rûm (Greek-Orthodox) population was deported en masse from the Black Sea littoral to the inland south. The pretext was military necessity; potentially disloyal Ottoman Christian subjects were to be removed in view of an enemy landing that never transpired despite the presence of Greek warships off the coast and the occasional bombardment of local ports. Rounded up by Turkish irregulars, Rûm civilians were either massacred en route or perished from hunger and exhaustion during marches, while army units engaged in a brutal counterinsurgency that was aimed at local Christian guerillas.

From their warships, the US naval commanders stationed in Samsun and, less frequently, in Trebizond could observe the smoke rising from burning villages nearby. Some details of what was happening inland reached them through conversations with local American businessmen and relief workers and were noted in the diaries kept by naval officers as well as in reports sent to their commander, Admiral Mark L. Bristol, the US High Commissioner in Constantinople. Supplemented by the testimonies of Greek survivors and the more well-known accounts of aid workers Mark Ward and Forrest Yowell, among others, these naval war diaries are cited by editors Shenk and Koktzoglou as evidence of Turkish nationalist leaders’ intent to carry out the crime nowadays known as genocide.

Their volume, The Greek Genocide in American Naval War Diaries, is a contribution to the literature documenting the suffering visited upon Ottoman Greeks during and after the Greco-Turkish War, notably the collection of American sources documenting the sacking of Smyrna in 1922 edited by Hatzidimitriou (2005). This is a body of literature that harks back to the wartime “black books” issued by both sides of the conflict. Appearing in English and French translations, these books or booklets documented or purported to document the massacres of Greek-Orthodox civilians (or, in the case of the Ankara government’s publications, Turkish Muslim civilians); they aimed to sway international opinion while the war raged but faded into political irrelevance after the Treaty of Lausanne.

Whereas the Asia Minor Catastrophe is well-known and documented, the wartime events further east occupy a more marginal position in the national Greek historiography on, and in the collective memory of, the Greco-Turkish war and even less so in international scholarship. Arguably, a gap remains in public knowledge regarding this part of the larger Ottoman Greek tragedy. Since the 1980s, activist descendants of the victimized Orthodox Christians of Pontos, the survivors of which were expelled to Greece as part of the bilateral “population exchange” agreement, and their supporters have sought to draw international attention to their suffering as a way of protesting their marginalization in Greek society as well as the justice denied them by successive Greek governments that favored smooth relations with Turkey over claims to compensation or prosecution of war crimes. Koktzoglou’s father lived through the ordeal and is cited as a witness to one of the massacres mentioned in the book (148-149). Shenk, a professor of English and a retired captain in the US Naval Reserve who has written on the American Black Sea fleet in an earlier publication (2012), is sympathetic to the Pontic Greek cause of genocide recognition.

By opting for the term genocide in the volume’s title and argument, the editors partially remove the events in the Pontos region from the narrower history of the Greco-Turkish war, placing them instead in the larger context of the twentieth century’s great crimes against humanity. The persecutions of the Pontos Rûm in 1921-1922 share many of the same characteristics of the better known Armenian genocide of 1915-1916, such as the compulsory drafting of Christian men into labor battalions where in many cases they perished, the wholesale deportation of women and children under appalling conditions, as well as the mass executions of community leaders that were sometimes carried out by the same Turkish officials and Muslim irregulars who had been involved in the deportations and mass killings of Armenian Christians six years earlier. As a result, it is doubtless easier to make the case for a Greek genocide in the Pontos than in the southern Marmara region, where the Greek regular army, its local allies, and the Turkish nationalist forces engaged in mutual war crimes against unarmed civilians, as witnessed by Toynbee (1922) and studied by Gingeras (2009). However, making the case for genocide is not as unproblematic as the editors of the volume presume. Their own understanding of the concept of genocide, as outlined in a footnote in their general introduction, is informed by Raphael Lemkin’s 1945 proposal on an international treaty, in which the crime of genocide is tentatively defined as “a conspiracy to exterminate national, religious or racial groups,” the overt acts of which “may consist of attacks against life, liberty or property of members of such groups” (note 5, 70-71). Specifically, differences exist between the broader definitions found in Lemkin’s various proposals and drafts and the narrower definition adopted by the United Nations, which, for example, does not include attacks on liberty and property among the criteria. In fact, the definition that is commonly used in genocide scholarship and in international law is the legal one enshrined in Article 2 of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide of 1948. This definition relies on the perpetrator’s intention to “destroy, in whole or in part,” a certain national, ethnical, or religious group “as such.” The difficulty lies is proving beyond a doubt that leading Young Turks intended to exterminate a particular community “as such,” as opposed to carrying out a policy that simply resulted in mass death without this having been the policy’s specific intent. While the case can be made more easily with regard to the Armenians in 1915, where incriminating evidence survives in the form of wartime leader Talaat Pasha’s telegrams with instructions for removal and, heavily implied, elimination of Armenians as well as with the Assyrian Christians who were swept along in the massacres, though not explicitly targeted in the Young Turkish leadership’s orders, the evidence is more ambiguous in regards to the Ottoman Greeks.

Regarding the Ottoman Greeks as a whole, different circumstances must be considered: Greek-Orthodox communities on the Aegean littoral were subjected to a campaign of government-incited terror as early as the summer and early fall of 1914. These campaigns took place, however, in the context of ongoing negotiations of a partial population exchange with Greece, which had a substantial Muslim minority because of the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913. The anti-Greek persecutions were halted when the Ottoman Empire entered the Great War on the side of the Central Powers late in 1914 as Germany did not want to provoke Greece into joining the Entente. Greece’s entry into the war in 1917, the armistice in 1918, and renewed hostilities in 1919-1922 changed the preconditions for this policy, which in 1915 had spared Ottoman Greeks from the fate of other Ottoman Christians. While these calculations changed according to the fortunes of war, the likelihood of a future settlement with Greece—one that would entail an exchange of the two countries’ respective minorities—arguably made the Ottoman Greek community a more useful bargaining chip in peace negotiations than the stateless Armenian and Assyrian minorities, which no foreign state was willing to trade. Cynically and seemingly paradoxically, the Ottoman Greeks may have been more valuable alive than annihilated in the eyes of leading Young Turkish genocidaires, though the distinctions between different categories of Christians mattered little to local cutthroats who were carrying out orders for deportation or simply seizing the initiative on their own.

Unfortunately, the editors do not discuss such interpretative problems or engage with the scholarship on either the Armenian genocide and its spill-over effects (e.g., Üngör 2011, 2017) or the multifaceted controversies surrounding the notion of the Greek genocide in Greece and elsewhere (Sjöberg 2016). The interpretation of the Asia Minor Catastrophe and the tragedy of the Greek-Orthodox communities in Pontos as extermination on par with the Armenian genocide has been fiercely contested, not only by Turkish officialdom, as would be expected, but also by parts of the Greek academic and political establishment (e.g., Nikos Filis and Angelos Elefantis, as cited in Sjöberg 2016, 81-117). In fact, the academic and political establishment in Greece that opposes recognition stands in contrast to Greek activists who seek to have the genocide recognized, the latter being associated with rightwing nationalism in the context of Greece’s ongoing culture wars. It is important to note that, oftentimes, neither the activists’ interpretations nor those of their critics in Greece are based on scholarly inquiry, but on ideological biases and domestic political concerns. Their interpretations also show a lack of familiarity with international genocide scholarship. As such, objections have also been raised by international genocide scholars, who call for a more substantial analysis and documentation of events. Thus, while the case for interpreting events in Pontos and elsewhere as part of a larger genocide targeting the Rûm community “as such” may still be made, it is difficult to pin down the Turkish nationalist leaders’ intentions regarding the Ottoman Greeks without access to Turkish archives that would shed light on their intent. While the editors of the volume take the existence of the Greek genocide for granted and cite reports of American naval officers as evidence, unfortunately these reports are seldom first-hand witness accounts and do not reveal much about the Ankara leaders’ intentions.

What these unearthed naval diaries clearly demonstrate, however, is the awkward sense of impotence felt by some commanders of the American destroyers who knew about the unfolding atrocities ashore but were under strict orders not to intervene. In fact, despite widespread condemnation in the United States of earlier Armenian massacres, no appetite existed for military involvement in Pontos. After the withdrawal of the last US ambassador to the Porte in 1917 and prior to the restoration of full diplomatic ties in 1927, the High Commissioner representing the US government in Turkey was the notorious Admiral Bristol, a man who sought to rival Britain and to secure US commercial interests in the Near East by pandering to Turkish nationalists. To accomplish this, Bristol, to whom the US naval commanders answered, suppressed reports about the treatment of Ottoman Christians that, in the eyes of public opinion, could have damaged his diplomatic efforts. Interestingly, however, the editors highlight at least one occasion when a naval officer, Commander Arthur L. Bristol, succeeded in shaming Admiral Bristol (no relation) into formally protesting Ankara in view of an impending mass deportation of Greek-Orthodox women and children in Samsun, when Commander Bristol’s missive of July 18, 1921, led the reluctant High Commissioner to contact the nationalist government directly. As a result, the ordered deportation of Samsun’s surviving Rûm population was called off probably because Turkish leaders did not want to publicly embarrass a useful ally in the United States (38, 185-189). This incident, though a rare exception, illustrates the conflicting attitudes of Americans in Turkey at the time regarding the unfolding disaster. The incident also illustrates the temporarily benign consequences that individual initiatives of US officers willing to defy orders not to intervene could have on suffering civilians.

In the end, it was the attitude of Admiral Mark Bristol that prevailed. With the ethnic cleansing of Anatolia’s Christians a fait accompli, American observers would sing praises of the new republic of Turkey. Among the observers were former aid workers, missionaries, and educators who hoped to salvage something of their humanitarian and educational legacy by remaining in Turkey and adjusting to the new situation (Kieser 2010, 2023; Sjöberg 2022). Back home, in the US Senate, there existed a stubborn resistance to ratifying the Treaty of Lausanne which blocked US recognition of the Turkish republic and left American citizens, institutions, and property in Turkey dangerously exposed. These Americans knew that, if they were to be accepted by the government in Ankara, they would have to work with Mark Bristol and his fellow cynics in the State Department to convince the US Senate to ratify the treaty. To accomplish this task, they had to alter the public’s perceptions of Turkish nationalists—perceptions that had been shaped by the knowledge of their crimes. Thus, within a few years of the events described in this volume, the public discourse on Turkish atrocities and suffering Christians was replaced by a discourse that emphasized the virtues of the Kemalist regime’s social reforms and presented as a clean break with the repressive Ottoman past. Well-intentioned as some of the Americans may have been, their activism on behalf of the Kemalists’ vision of a modern nation-state meant that they turned a blind eye to the repressive nature of that vision, glossing over the victimization of Armenians and other minorities as an inevitable and perhaps necessary sacrifice for the greater good of Turkey’s modernization. As such, The Greek Genocide in American Naval War Diaries is a valuable contribution to the literature on these American attitudes toward the emerging Kemalist Turkey, shedding additional light on the grim reality that was masked by Bristol’s realpolitik.

Erik Sjöberg
University of Gothenburg
July 27, 2023

Erik Sjöberg is a senior lecturer and associate professor of history at the University of Gothenburg. His research interests include historical culture, uses of history and memories of mass violence, but also the flow of ideas about modernity and cosmopolitanism in both national and transnational contexts. He is the author of The Making of the Greek Genocide: Contested Memories of the Ottoman Greek Catastrophe (Berghahn, 2016) and Internationalism and the New Turkey: American Peace Education in the Kemalist Republic, 1923-1933 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022).

Works Cited

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Hatzidimitriou, Constantine G., Editor. 2005. American Accounts Documenting the Destruction of Smyrna by the Kemalist Turkish Forces, September 1922. New Rochelle, NY: Aristide D. Caratzas.

Kieser, Hans-Lukas. 2010. Nearest East: American Millennialism and Mission to the Middle East . Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Kieser, Hans-Lukas. 2023. When Democracy Died: The Middle East’s Enduring Peace of Lausanne. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Shenk, Robert. 2012. America’s Black Sea Fleet: The U.S. Navy Amidst War and Revolution. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press.

Sjöberg, Erik. 2016. The Making of the Greek Genocide: Contested Memories of the Ottoman Greek Catastrophe. New York and Oxford: Berghahn.

Sjöberg, Erik. 2022. Internationalism and the New Turkey: American Peace Education in the Kemalist Republic, 1923-1933. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan.

Toynbee, Arnold. 1922. The Western Question in Greece and Turkey: A Study in the Contact of Civilisations. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Üngör, Uğur Ümit. 2011. The Making of Modern Turkey: Nation and State in Eastern Anatolia, 1913-1950. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Üngör, Uğur Ümit. 2017. “How Armenian was the 1915 Genocide?” In Let Them Not Return: Sayfo––The Genocide against the Assyrian, Syriac and Chaldean Christians in the Ottoman Empire, edited by David Gaunt, Naures Atto, and Soner O. Barthoma, pp. 33–53. New York and Oxford: Berghahn.