Sam Koktzoglou and Erik Sjöberg: A Rebuttal and Response of The Greek Genocide in American Naval War Diaries: Naval Commanders Report and Protest Death Marches and Massacres in Turkey’s Pontus Region, 1921-1922.


Response to the review of the book: The Greek Genocide in American Naval War Diaries: Naval Commanders Report and Protest Death Marches and Massacres in Turkey’s Pontus Region, 1921-1922. Robert Shenk and Sam Koktzoglou, editors. New Orleans: The University of New Orleans Press. 2020.

by Sam Koktzoglou

I recently came across the review by Erik Sjöberg of The Greek Genocide in American Naval War Diaries: Naval Commanders Report and Protest Death Marches and Massacres in Turkey’s Pontus Region, 1921-1922 that was published in Ergon: Greek/American and Diaspora Arts and Letters on July 27, 2023. This was a book that I co-edited with the late Robert Shenk.

In his book, The Making of the Greek Genocide: Contested Memories of the Ottoman Greek Catastrophe (Berghahn 2016), the reviewer has expressed ambivalence on the Greek Genocide, a position I respect.

However, the references in his review of our book to the historical context subsequent to 1914, although useful, only serve to obscure the main reasons that led to the Greek, Armenian, and Assyrian genocides. As Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi show in The Thirty-Year Genocide: Turkey’s Destruction of Its Christian Minorities, 1894–1924 (Harvard University Press 2019), the goal of the Young Turks and Turkish nationalists subsequent to the Balkan Wars and WWI was to homogenize and Turkify Asia Minor by ridding it of its Christian minorities (497, 499, and 501). Therefore, I will only respond to the reviewer’s main comments in order to be as brief as possible.

The reviewer’s comment that Dr. Robert Shenk, my co-author, was sympathetic to the Pontic Greek cause of genocide recognition is unfair at best. This undermines Dr. Shenk’s scholarship and impartiality as it relates to our book. Dr. Shenk had written two chapters about the Greek experience in Asia Minor in his 2012 book, America’s Black Sea Fleet: The U.S. Navy Amidst War & Revolution, 1919-1923 (Naval Institution Press 2012), that was published a year before we met and many years prior to our collaboration. Unfortunately, Dr. Shenk passed away in 2021, and he cannot defend his contribution to the book.

Another of the reviewer’s comments claims that there are international scholars who call for greater scholarly analysis and documentation. I am not aware of any other credible international scholar who has published a book calling for additional documentation. On the contrary, I refer the reviewer to the International Association of Genocide Scholars’ (IAGS) resolution of December 16, 2007, that was overwhelmingly passed (by 83% of its members) and which states that the Ottoman and Turkish Nationalist campaigns between 1914 and 1923 against all the Christian minorities of the Empire, including the Pontian and Anatolian Greeks, constituted a genocide.

Regarding the reviewer’s reference of the United Nations (UN) definition of genocide versus the definition by Rafael Lemkin, who coined the term, I see no problem since the acts perpetrated against the Greek minority meet most of the criteria of the UN’s definition including that of “intent.”

As to his claim that the naval war diaries we refer to do not provide any evidence of intent to exterminate the Greek minority, I refer him to the multiple instances reported in our book when not only the American Commanders, but the American tobacco businessmen, Near East Relief (NER) workers, and other foreigners stated clearly that there was a definite policy/plan for the extermination of the Greek inhabitants (32, 88, 183, 218, 227, 234, 260, 282, 358, 359). Indeed, one of the synonyms of the words “policy/plan” according to the Merriam-Webster Thesaurus is “intention.” Additionally, on pages 260 and 358 of our book one will find the word “intent” explicitly used by Captain William Leahy and NER Director Forrest Yowell. The NER workers and American tobacco business staff were first-hand witnesses of the events they reported. They were essentially the only foreigners who were allowed to travel in the interior of Turkey and who had seen the suffering as well as the thousands of dead bodies of Greek women and children along the routes of deportation.

Another very important fact in our book, which the reviewer fails to consider, is that the policy/plan to exterminate the Greeks originated from a central authority. We report on a number of instances, for example, when the American Commanders protested the deportation of women and children, but the local Mutasariff (Turkish nationalist official) replied that he had received orders from Angora and had no choice but to execute them (246, 247, 248). This clearly indicates that the decision of the Turkish nationalist leaders for the fatal deportations of the Greek women and children originated in Angora and not locally. In both the Armenian and Greek cases, the perpetrators chose mass deportations because deportations facilitated the denial of genocide. The diaries are replete of references to deportations.

The reviewer’s argument that the Greek case lacks similar evidence to the Armenian case is not consistent. He readily interprets Talat Pasha’s telegrams for removal of the Armenians as implying intent to commit genocide, and rightly so. However, he characterizes the multiple statements of the American Commanders, American businessmen, and NER workers regarding the Turkish nationalist policy/plan to exterminate the Greeks as ambiguous. I hope the reviewer does not expect that the Young Turks or the Turkish nationalists would have put their intention to commit genocide in writing. The reviewer has overlooked multiple references in the War Diaries regarding the strict censorship of all correspondence entering or leaving Turkish ports and the presence of Turkish censors. This, together with restricting most foreigners from traveling in the interior of Anatolia, clearly indicates intent to obscure their genocidal actions from the world.

It does not occur often that a book opens the documentary record for the first time and provides a window to the world from an impartial source. Our book does just that regarding the genocide of the Greeks in Asia Minor at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Lastly, I would like to refer the reviewer to three scholarly books that corroborate our book’s claim of a Greek Genocide: The Genocide of the Ottoman Greeks (Melissa 2011); Genocide in The Ottoman Empire (Berghahn 2017);and The Thirty-Year Genocide (Harvard 2019).

In closing, our book, The Greek Genocide in American Naval War Diaries, proves that the memories of the Greek refugees from Asia Minor agree with the historical record and provides compelling evidence in support of the Greek Genocide.

Sam Koktzoglou

Co-author, The Greek Genocide in American Naval War Diaries: Naval Commanders Report and Protest Death Marches and Massacres in Turkey’s Pontus Region, 1921-1922.


Response to Sam Koktzoglou

by Erik Sjöberg

I respect Sam Koktzoglou’s wish to defend the legacy of the late Dr. Robert Shenk. However, I do not quite understand why my reference to his co-author as being sympathetic to the Pontic Greek cause of genocide recognition is construed as unfair, as this appears inconsistent with the author’s claim that their book “provides compelling evidence in support of the Greek Genocide.”

The author refers me to the IAGS’s resolution that was passed in 2007 by 83% of its members. However, this vote was taken by an online vote of an organization with an open-door policy toward activists, which is not the same as a scholarly peer review process. As he claims familiarity with my book, The Making of the Greek Genocide: Contested Memories of the Ottoman Greek Catastrophe, he may recall that I discuss the controversy surrounding that resolution at some length (189-199). Fundamentally, it was a disagreement between those attacking a perceived hierarchy of suffering favoring Armenian victimhood over that of other Ottoman Christians and those who felt that genocide scholarship was being jeopardized by memory politics. This also pertains to the scholarly process of evaluating different categories of sources. Specifically, the testimonies of foreign observers are important primary sources but do not reveal as much about the perpetrators’ intentions toward the Anatolian Greeks as does an analysis of the Ottoman Turkish sources; here I refer the author to the works cited in my review of the volume and to Taner Akçam’s (a critic of the IAGS’ resolution) The Young Turks’ Crime Against Humanity: The Armenian Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing in the Ottoman Empire (Princeton University Press 2012, 63-123). There is no doubt that these actions were war crimes, even crimes against humanity, or that they occurred in the context of a policy to rid Anatolia of its Christian minorities.

There were, however, different means of achieving this end that need to be considered in a scholarly analysis. This brings us to the difference between policies of ethnic cleansing (the forced removal of a population from a territory) and genocidal policies (reflecting an intent to destroy, in whole or in part, an ethnic, national, racial, or religious group “as such”). The bar of proving genocidal intent is set high, as demonstrated by the ongoing deliberations of the International Court of Justice in the case of South Africa versus Israel regarding the latter state’s warfare in Gaza or the verdicts of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, which recognized the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre as genocide but not the overall campaign of ethnic cleansing that was carried out against non-Serbs in the 1992-1995 Bosnian war. Judges and scholars alike may be criticized for their analytical detachment when evaluating whether the charge of genocide applies or not. This may appear insensitive to the victims’ demands for justice, but that is their task. Arguably, a narrow focus on proving “genocide” helps neither victims nor international criminal justice, and it risks obscuring rather than clarifying past historical events. This is not genocide denial. Rather, it is a plea for the careful evaluation of evidence for and against a certain interpretation, lest charges of genocide prove to be unfounded at the risk of discrediting one’s moral case.

Erik Sjöberg

University of Gothenburg

February 15, 2024