Caucasians demonstrating in Turkey. Tsarists Russia killed hundreds of thousands of them in a thorough ethnic cleansing.
Genocide remains an extremely powerful word, universally seen as criminal and its perpetrators as vile offenders against humanity. People whose ancestors or relatives underwent genocide or its first cousin, ethnic cleansing, sometimes have a powerful sense of retribution. That sense can be an important factor in 2017, and may help in understanding some current events. This posting explores the subject through a sampling of some the forgotten genocidal events. In addition, I believe that remembrance is a kind of duty, lest we forget.
In researching the topic, I’ve found a great deal of material and extreme controversy. I intend to do more posting on the subject. As an example, the vast population loss of the native peoples of the Americas during the European conquests is sometimes considered the worst genocide in human history, part of a ferocious debate.
Genocide as a topic rouses very strong emotions and arguments. The examples listed here could have been greatly extended. Here are some other little known events I did not include which still have emotional and political resonance: the grim fate of the mountain tribespeople in Southeast Asia; the repression Tibet has experienced under Chinese rule; the Qing Dynasty genocide against the Zungars, which still resonates in Central Asia; the native peoples in the Amazon who face extinction along with their rainforests; the many millions of deaths in the Congo; or the millions of Germans ethnically cleansed following World War 2. There are more.
The United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines what it is. Genocide consists of acts intended to destroy in whole or in part a national, ethnical, racial or religious group. The Convention lists acts considered to be genocidal. These are killing members of a group, causing serious bodily or mental harm, the deliberate infliction of conditions of life calculated to bring about its partial or complete destruction, preventing births within the group or transferring children of the group to another group.
Some forgotten genocides with resonance in 2017:
The photo shows Circassians demonstrating in Turkey against the 2014 Sochi Olympics in Russia. It’s a forgotten genocide. Russia in the 1800s conquered large areas in the Caucasus region, much of that area inhabited by formidable Muslim peoples like the Circassians and the Chechens. The Russian army set about breaking the power of the Circassians with the proverbial fire and sword. After the Crimean War, the Russians moved 70,000 troops into the Circassian region and killed and drove into exile most Circassians. Walter Richmond estimates 600,000 lives lost. Circassians refugees founded substantial exile communities in a number of countries, and remain a viable group 150 years later. The issue over the Sochi Olympics is that the city and region was once in Circassia. The Circassian community in countries like Syria is sizable.
The Russian conquest of the Caucasus is less remote than it might seem. An 1864 genocide rebounding to a 2012 protest of Russia getting the winter Olympics is only one thread. Another thread is the Russians problem with the Chechens. The quite violent history of the 1800s Russian conquest is not widely known. There were decades of extreme violence, affecting Chechens and other. Muslims fought under the leadership of the remarkable Imam Shamyl , who led many years’ resistance (he was captured in 1859 but well-treated). The Chechens and other peoples were deported in World War 2 by the Soviets to east of the Urals, with heavy loss of life, only allowed to return in 1959. Muslims in the Caucasus do not forget this bitter history.
And readers will know of the Crimea. That’s another thread. The peninsula is named for the Krim Tatars, conquered by the Russians in the 1770s. The Tatars were also victims of Stalin’s persecutions of ethnicities, also being moved east of the Urals, with heavy loss of life, perhaps a hundred thousand. Some have returned since the fall of the USSR. They remain a small minority in Crimea, and are likely pawns in the political games now occurring between Ukraine and Russia. [It’s worth noting that the Tatars were nominally Ottoman subjects, and their economy was characterized by massive slave raids into Poland and Russia, over several centuries, the victims probably totaling in the millions—they were remnants of the Golden Horde, itself a remnant of the Mongol conquest in the 1200s).
The upshot of all this? Lasting hatred and deep suspicions of the Russians.
The Holocaust remains by far the best known genocide. The second best known is that of the Armenians in 1915. Actually lasting from 1915 to 1922, the total of lives lost is not known but common estimates are more than a million. Massacres of Armenians had occurred several times before. Anatolia—the heart of what is now Turkey—suffered prolonged fighting, chaos and huge loss of life in the First World War. The Ottomans entered the war on the German side. With considerable German help, the Ottomans fought the Russians in northeast Anatolia, and the British in Mesopotamia (they inflicted a sharp defeat on the British at Kut, in Iraq) and Palestine. Armenians and other Christians helped the advancing Russian armies—and, so say the Turks—slaughtering large numbers of Muslims. Other Christian groups were also subject to genocidal scale massacre, including Greeks and Assyrians. Today’s Turkish government denies the Armenian genocide. Instead they acknowledge huge loss of life, particularly Turkish lives. The last pogrom against Greeks in Turkey took place in Istanbul in 1956. In an increasingly authoritarian and fundamentalist Erdogan’s Turkey, pogroms or worse are quite possible.
This history gets very complicated. When the Ottoman empire fragmented, the British and French intended to occupy parts of it (France got Lebanon and Syria, the British got Iraq, Jordan, and Palestine), allowing chunks to the Italians and to the Greeks. The Greeks invaded, and took over a big chunk of Anatolia, but the Greek army was nearly destroyed by the formidable Mustafa Kemal (aka Ataturk). The ancient Greek population in Anatolia (including the Black Sea coast, the “Pontic Greeks”) was subject to ethnic cleansing and genocidal acts, with hundreds of thousands of lives taken. Greece and Turkey exchanged large numbers of people in the 1920s. The Assyrian population also suffered horribly, in what is called the Seyfo, losing perhaps three hundred thousand lives. This history burdens the relationships between Greece, Turkey and Armenia, and makes issues like Cyprus bitter.Right wing commentators have used the genocides to claim a Muslim genocide against Christians (I am not providing links to rightwing sites).
There are a number of not well-known events that, if not genocide in the sense of deliberately attempting to annihilate a people, are still awful and should be remembered. Perhaps the most awful was the vast famine in 1959-60 that accompanied Mao’s Great Leap Forward. Estimates of the lives lost range from 19 to more than more than 40 million —both figures exceed the number of lives lost in the First World War.
Other events have generated their own names. The Soviets deliberately inflicted starvation on Ukraine in 1932-33. Estimates of lives lost in the Holodomor, as it has been named, range from around 2 million to more than 10 million. The intent was to destroy the Kulaks as a class, but they (prosperous farmers) were only a fraction of the Ukrainian population. The relationship between Ukraine and Russia has been a bitter one for centuries and remains full of the potential for extreme violence. There have also been denials that any such event took place. Ukraine has had an awful century, with heavy fighting and vast population loss in World War 2 (it was also occupied by the Germans in World War 1, and saw heavy fighting in the Revolution.
European Roma peoples were subject to genocide. In the Porajmos, as it has come to be called, more than a hundred thousand lives were lost, perhaps many more. The Roma peoples (commonly often called Gypsies) are secretive and estimates of their numbers are no more than guesses, but there are substantial populations in countries like Hungary and Romania. In the past, the Roma have suffered extreme racism, regulation, and have often had children taken away. I think they are likely targets of ethnic cleansing in the near-term future.
Most people will be familiar with the Nazi genocide against the Jews. Less known are other examples of genocide in that war. The Romanians, German allies in that war, invaded Russia alongside the Germans. They occupied areas around Odessa and conducted their own genocide against Jews, killing several hundred thousand in Bessarabia. [Perhaps justly, most of the Romanian army was destroyed at Stalingrad]. A second occurred in the puppet state in Croatia, set up by Croatian fascists, under the Ustashe movement headed by Ante Pavelic. They killed Serbs, Gypsies, Jews and others, perhaps more than three hundred thousand. This is part of the grotesque roots of the gory Balkan Wars that accompanied the breakup of Yugoslavia, which included genocidal acts directed against Muslims. The potential for violence remains high.
In 1937, Haitians living in the Dominican Republican were the victims of the Parsley Massacre costing perhaps 20,000 lives. The name comes from people being asked to pronounce perejil, and if they had a Haitian accent they were killed. This event was conducted by Rafael Trujillo. Some hundreds of thousands of people in the DR have Haitian roots, and are reportedly routinely subject to discrimination, such as not being able to get a birth certificate and therefore not able to get a passport, a national ID card or hold some jobs. A near-term ethnic cleansing of Dominican Haitians seems possible.
One of the likely genocides in the near future is of the Rohingya people in Myanmar. About a million of these people inhabit Rakhine state. They are a Muslim people in a Buddhist country. Some Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh, but Bangladesh is poor, faces severe stresses of its own and is not welcoming these refugees. Myanmar does not consider the Rohingya citizens, and claims they are refugees from Bangladesh. These people are not welcome anywhere and already experience very grim conditions. Imposed starvation on a mass scale seems to me to be most likely.
The region of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Iran contains not just Shia and Shi’ite Muslims, but a number of other ethnic and religious groups. Any of the smaller groups may find themselves the subject of ethnic cleansing or even genocide. These include These include the Yazidis (under threat of genocide by the Islamic State), the Druze, the Alawis, the Zoroastrians, Bahais and others. Candidates for ethnic cleansing include these groups, but also Hindus in Pakistan, for example. Syria’s leader Bashir al-Assad is Alawite.
I’ll end here by noting some other overlooked genocidal events, which have less overall resonance than the others I’ve noted here, but still resonate today.
–Prior to the First World War, the Germans had overseas colonies in Togo, Cameroon, Southwest Africa (now, Namibia), Tanganyika (now, Tanzania), New Guinea and some Pacific islands. In 1904-08, the German colonial authorities in Namibia nearly destroyed the Herero and Namaqua people, killing many and driving a large number into the desert, with estimates of 30,000 to 100,000 lives lost. The motive was land and to quell resistance. In recent years many scholars have connected this colonial genocide with German actions in the world wars. German admission of guilt is a current issue. Reparations are possible. The descendants of some of the German colonists are still there, and tensions seem to be rising [the territory was conquered by South African troops and was for decades administered by South Africa].
—East Timor was a remnant of the Portuguese empire. It was occupied by Indonesia in 1975 and until 1999, and the Timorese were harshly treated . There was some armed resistance, and the Indonesian army sought to break resistance by harsh measures some claim to be genocidal, with sizable casualties. East Timor is now independent. Indonesia took over former Dutch New Guinea, and the territory has been treated as a resource colony. Treatment of the native population seems to often be brutal. This is a potential genocidal situation over both ethnicity (the native peoples are similar to the Australian aboriginal people) and religion (many New Guineans are Christian, and Indonesia is heavily Muslim). Older readers may recall the mass killings of ethnic Chinese in Indonesia in 1965-66, taking maybe a million lives.
—In Guatemala, the Mayan peoples have long been subject to repression. This has approached genocide. In 1981-84 large numbers were killed by the army, well over 100,000. The army was in part repressing a guerilla movement. This is a staggering total for a small nation that does not have a large population. Tensions and racism remain.
–Iraq has had a miserable several decades with huge casualties in the Iran-Iraq war, the American war, and savage repression during the Saddam Hussain regime. Saddam struck at the Kurds in the Al-Anfal operation in 1988, with perhaps 100,000 lives lost. The Iraqi Kurds are unlikely to ever trust another Iraqi government, and want an independent Kurdish nation. The some 20 million Kurds are spread across Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. An independent Kurdish nation would be opposed by all four nations. There seems to be a dangerous prospect here of ethnic cleansing of Kurds.
Walter Richmond. “Circassia. A Small Nation Lost to the Great Game.” In A. L. Hinton et al, Hidden Genocides, Rutgers UP 2013. 109-125. And Richmond’s book, The Circassian Genocide. Rutgers UP 2013,.
The Forgotten Genocides Project at Rutgers has interesting material (including sources).
–Lawrence Davidson. Cultural Genocide. Rutgers UP, 2012.
–David Gaunt. “The Complexity of the Assyrian Genocide.” Genocide Studies Int’l, V. 9 #1, 2015.
–Vasileos Melchansidis. “The Genocide of the Greeks of the Ottoman Empire 1913-1923. A Comprehensive Overview.” Genocide Studies Int’l, Vol. 9, #1, 2015. (This may sound suspect, but it appears in a peer-reviewed journal, which I accessed through Project Muse at Johns Hopkins).
–Mohamed Adhiken. Anatomy of a South African Genocide. Ohio UP, 2011. (Concerns the San peoples in Southern Africa).
–Gerard Russell. Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms. Basic Books 2015.
–Alexander Hinton. Hidden Genocides. Rutgers UP, 2013. (Collection of essays).
–A. Dirk Moses. “Does the Holocaust Reveal or Conceal Other Genocides?” in Hinton, 21-51.
–Hannibal Travis. “How Scholars Unremembered the Assyrian and Greek Genocides.” in Hinton 170-92.
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