'Native Christians Massacred': The Ottoman Genocide of the Assyrians During World War I

Genocide Studies and Prevention, Vol. 1, No. 3, p. 327, December 2006

2 Pages Posted: 8 Dec 2006 Last revised: 21 Mar 2012

See all articles by Hannibal Travis

Hannibal Travis

Florida International University College of Law


The Ottoman Empire's widespread persecution of Assyrian civilians during World War I constituted a form of genocide, the present-day term for an attempt to destroy a national, ethnic, or religious group, in whole or in part. Although there were no extermination camps on the scale of Auschwitz, the genocide of the Assyrians resembled the Holocaust of Jews, Slavs, Roma people, leftists, homosexuals, and other minorities under Nazi occupation during World War II because Ottoman soldiers and their Kurdish and Persian militia allies subjected hundreds of thousands of Assyrians to a deliberate and systematic campaign of massacre, torture, abduction, deportation, impoverishment, and cultural and ethnic destruction. According to the American ambassador to Constantinople from 1913 to 1916, Henry I. Morgenthau, widely regarded as a principal source of information on the Armenian genocide: "The story which I have told about the Armenians I could also tell with certain modifications about the Greeks and the Syrians," as Assyrians were often known to the West. He added that the Ottoman Empire "decided to apply the same methods [of "wholesale massacre"] on a larger scale not only to the Greeks but to the Armenians, Syrians, Nestorians [i.e., Assyrians], and others of its subject peoples." In 1918, according to the Los Angeles Times, Ambassador Morgenthau confirmed that the Ottoman Empire had "massacred fully 2,000,000 men, women, and children┬┐Greeks, Assyrians, Armenians; fully 1,500,000 Armenians."

This article will argue that the hesitation to recognize the Assyrian genocide is unjustified, for the evidence is overwhelming that Turks and their Kurdish allies massacred hundreds of thousands of Assyrians in order to exterminate the Christian population; raped and enslaved thousands of Assyrian women in a systematic fashion; and deported the Assyrians en masse from their ancestral lands under conditions that led to famine and widespread death. Established principles of international law outlawed this war of extermination against Ottoman Christian civilians before it was embarked upon, and ample evidence of genocidal intent has surfaced in the form of admissions by Ottoman officials. Nevertheless, the international community has been hesitant to recognize the Assyrian experience as an instance of genocide. The more rapid legal recognition of the Armenian genocide is attributable to the larger numbers of Armenian victims and survivors, the dispersion and political voicelessness of the Assyrian people, and more copious evidence of an intention on the part of the Ottomans to wipe out the Armenians.

In conclusion, I will contend that the legal and historical recognition of the Assyrian genocide at the hands of the Ottomans is vital to focus the world's attention on the Assyrian remnant in Iraq. That remnant has been scattered by more than a century of massacre, discrimination, and religious persecution into non-viable communities that are still waiting for their homelands and human rights to be restored. U.S. officials have documented an "ethnic-cleansing campaign" against Assyrians in present-day Iraq, with "systematic attacks" against Assyrian civilians, bombings of Assyrian churches, and the driving of most Assyrians out of Iraq. Genocide and ethnic cleansing give rise to legally enforceable claims for reparation and restoration of property and the value of lives lost. But because their genocide has rarely been recognized, the Assyrians driven from their homes over the past century have received relatively little by way of compensation or assistance with rebuilding. This article calls upon the international community to focus its efforts on the security and resettlement of the Assyrian people.

Keywords: Genocide, Iraq, Turkey, Armenian, Assyrian, Chaldean, Kurd, Kurdish, Iran, Persia, Religion, Torture, Asylum, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Nestorian, Syria, Syrian, Syriac, Armenia, Greece, Greek, international, reparations

JEL Classification: H56, K33, N45, N42, F22

Suggested Citation

Travis, Hannibal, 'Native Christians Massacred': The Ottoman Genocide of the Assyrians During World War I. Genocide Studies and Prevention, Vol. 1, No. 3, p. 327, December 2006, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=950428

Hannibal Travis (Contact Author)

Florida International University College of Law ( email )

11200 SW 8th St.
RDB Hall 1097
Miami, FL 33199
United States

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