“The Murderous Tyranny of the Turks”
Category: History
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Arnold Joseph Toynbee CH FBA was an English historian, a philosopher of history, an author of numerous books and a research professor of international history at the London School of Economics and King's College London. “The Murderous Tyranny of the Turks” is a 1917 book analysing the influence of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War.

“The Murderous Tyranny of the Turks”

Arnold J. Toynbee

“The Murderous Tyranny of the Turks”

“Let the Turks now carry away their abuses in the only possible manner, namely, by carrying away themselves. Their Zaptiehs and their Mudirs, their Bimbashis and their Yuzbashis, their Kaimakams and their Pashas, one and all, bag and baggage, shall I hope clear out from the province they have desolated and profaned.”


“A near future will, it is to be hoped, blot out the scandal that such heathendom should ever have established itself on European soil. What has this Turkish Empire done in three entire centuries? It has done nothing but destroy.”



No one who has studied the history of the Near East for the last five centuries will be surprised that the Allied Powers have declared their purpose to put an end to the rule of the Turk in Europe, and still less will he dissent from their determination to deliver the Christian population of what is called the Turkish Empire, whether in Asia or in Europe, from a Government which during those five centuries has done nothing but oppress them. These changes are indeed long overdue. They ought to have come more than a century ago, because it had then already become manifest that the Turk was hopelessly unfit to govern, with any approach to justice, subject races of a different religion. The Turk has never been of any use for any purpose except fighting. He cannot administer, though in his earlier days he had the sense to employ intelligent Christian administrators. He cannot secure justice. As a governing power, he has always shown himself incapable, corrupt and cruel. He has always destroyed; he has never created.

Those whom we call the Turks are not a nation at all in the proper sense of the word. The Ottoman Turks were a small conquering tribe from Central Asia, ruled during the first two centuries of their conquests by a succession of singularly able and unscrupulous Sultans, who subjugated the Christian populations of Asia Minor and South-Eastern Europe, compelling part of these populations to embrace Mohammedanism, and supporting their own power by seizing the children of the rest, forcibly converting them to Islam, and making out of them an efficient standing army, the Janizaries, by whose valour and discipline the Turkish wars of conquest were carried on from early in the fifteenth down into the nineteenth century. As a famous English historian wrote, the Turks are nothing but a robber band, encamped in the countries they have desolated. As Edmund Burke wrote, the Turks are savages, with whom no civilised Christian nation ought to form any alliance.

Turkish rule ought to be ended in Europe, because, even in that small part of it which the Sultan still holds, it is an alien power, which has in that region been, and is now, oppressing or massacring, slaughtering or driving from their homes, the Christian population of Greek or Bulgarian stock. It ought to be turned out of the western coast regions of Asia Minor for a like reason. The people there are largely, perhaps mostly, Greek-speaking Christians. So ought it to be turned out of Constantinople, a city of incomparable commercial and political importance, with the guardianship of which it is unfit to be trusted. So ought it to be turned out of Armenia and Cilicia, and Syria, where within the last two years it has been destroying its Christian subjects, the most peaceful and industrious and intelligent part of the population.

If a Turkish Sultanate is to be left in being at all, it may, with least injury to the world, be suffered to exist in Central and Northern Asia Minor, where the population is mainly Mussulman, and there are comparatively few Christians — and those only in the cities — to suffer from its misgovernment. Even there one would be sorry for its subjects, Mussulman as well as Christian, but a weak Turkish State, such as it would then be, could not venture on the crimes of which it has been guilty when it was comparatively strong.

That the faults of Turkish government are incurable, has been most clearly shown by the fact that the Young Turkish gang who gained power when they had deposed Abd-ul-Hamid, have surpassed even that monster of cruelty in their slaughter of the unoffending Armenians. The “Committee of Union and Progress” began by promising equal rights to all races and faiths. This was “Union.” It proceeded forthwith not only to expel the Greek-speaking inhabitants of Western Asia Minor, and to exterminate the Armenians, but to attempt to Turkify the Albanians (Muslims as well as Christians) and to proscribe their language. This is what “Union” has in fact meant. What “Progress” has meant in the hands of ruffians like Enver and Talaat, Prussianised Muslims worse than the old Turkish pashas, we have all seen within the last three years. The Muslim peasant of Asia Minor is an honest, kindly fellow when not roused by fanaticism, but the Turk, as a Governing Power, is irreclaimable, and the Allied Powers would have been false to all the principles of Right and Humanity for which they are fighting if they had not proclaimed that no Turkish Government shall hereafter be permitted to tyrannize over subjects of another faith.


The Aims of the Allies

President Wilson, in his note to all the belligerent governments, called upon both parties to state in the full light of day the aims they have set themselves in prosecuting the War. The Allied Nations, in their joint response made public on January 11th, 1917, explain that they find no difficulty in meeting this request, and make good their words by stating a series of definite conditions. Among them are: —

The liberation of the peoples who now lie beneath the murderous tyranny of the Turks; and

The expulsion from Europe of the Ottoman Empire, which has proved itself so radically alien to Western Civilisation.

The plan of the Allies for the settlement of Turkey is thus communicated to the world without reserve, and it is worth examining what it involves, and why it is right.

The Subject Peoples of Turkey

Who are the peoples in Turkey whom the Allies are determined to liberate? The Ottoman Empire contains somewhat more than 20,000,000 inhabitants, and of these only about 8,000,000 — less than 40 per cent. of the whole — are Turks. There are 7,000,000 Arabs; there are 2,000,000 Armenians (or, rather, there were, before the atrocities of 1915); the Greeks, too, number little short of 2,000,000, and there are probably the same number of non-Turkish mountaineers — Kurds, Nestorians, Druses, Maronites and so on. The non-Turkish peoples thus amount to more than 60 per cent. of the population of Turkey. They were all of them settled in the country before the Turks arrived — the Turks conquered Asia Minor about the time the Normans conquered England, while several of the conquered races have lived there from time immemorial — and all these races have been at their lowest ebb since and so long as they have been under Turkish Government.

The Greeks were leaders of civilisation in the Ancient World and in the Middle Ages, till the Greek Empire of Constantinople was conquered by the Turks in 1453. From that moment they dropped out till the War of Liberation, a century ago, restored part of the Greek nation to independence. The Greeks who have remained under Turkish government have also remained cut off from Greek national life.

The Armenians were the first people to make Christianity their national religion. They are an intellectual people, clever and industrious in practical affairs and in the life of the spirit. When they possessed an independent kingdom they produced a fine literature and architecture, which Turkish conquest destroyed. Since then the Turks have repressed all symptoms of Armenian revival by massacres, the most terrible of which was perpetrated last year.

The Arabs created a wonderful civilisation at the time when Medieval Europe was in its darkest age. Their discoveries in mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, medicine, are the foundations of modern science, as is witnessed by the Arabic words in our scientific vocabulary. This Arabic civilisation was swamped by the Turkish migrations from Central Asia in the 11th century, and blotted out by the Mongols, who followed in the wake of the Turks and sacked Baghdad, the Arab capital, in the 13th century. The Arabs are still the most progressive race in the Islamic world; they are almost as numerous as the Turks in the population of the Ottoman Empire, and they are not divided from the Turks by difference of religion. Yet the Turkish government excludes them from all share of control, and has thwarted their revival as persistently as it has thwarted that of the Armenians and Greeks. They too have been massacred and exiled during the present War.

The Kurds, also, were there before the Turks, but they have not the same tradition as the other three races behind them. In their case the Turks have not destroyed an existing civilisation, but have prevented them acquiring civilisation when they showed inclination to do so. The Kurd has been a lawless mountain shepherd for many centuries, but he becomes a hard-working, peaceable cultivator when he comes down into the plains. The Turkish government deliberately checked this tendency, which began to show itself in the Kurds about half a century ago, by serving out arms to them and licensing them to harry their Armenian neighbours.

The Murderous Tyranny of the Turks: The First Stage

This maiming and warping of more gifted peoples is in itself a capital indictment of Turkish domination, but the wrong is made infinitely worse by the outrageous methods by which it has been carried out. These methods are justly described as a “murderous tyranny” in the Allies’ Response to President Wilson’s question.

There are three stages in the history of Ottoman tyranny, and the worst stage is the present. The Ottoman State has been a purely military State from beginning to end. Osman, its founder, from whom the Osmanli Turks take their name, was the hereditary chief of a wandering band of Turkish freebooters from Central Asia, whose father was licensed by Turkish Sultans already established in Asia Minor to carve out a principality for himself at the expense of the neighbouring Christians, just as the Teutonic knights carved out the principality of Prussia at the expense of the original native population. This Ottoman dominion, which started thus in the 13th century with a few square miles of territory in North-Western Asia Minor, expanded during the next three hundred years till it stretched from within a few miles of Vienna to Mecca and Baghdad. It destroyed the Ancient Empire of Constantinople, which had preserved Greek learning during the Middle Ages; the free Christian kingdoms of Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia, Wallachia, Moldavia and Hungary; and the independent Moslem states of Western Asia. Such a career of destructive conquest was a disaster to civilisation, and it was only made possible by a ruthless militarism.

The Ottoman method of conscription was to take a tribute of children from the conquered Christians — so many children from each family every so many years — bring them up in barracks as fanatical Moslems and train them as professional recruits. These “Janissaries,” militarised from their youth up and divorced from every human relation except loyalty to their war-lord, were the most formidable soldiers in Europe, and each new Christian land they conquered was a new field of recruitment for their corps. The Ottoman Empire literally drained its victims’ blood, and its history as a Vampire-State is unparalleled in the history of the world.

The Second Stage: Abd-ul-Hamid

This was the first stage in Ottoman history; the second, inevitable in a purely military state, was internal and external decay. The Empire was cut short by Austria, Russia and other foreign powers; the subject peoples began to win back their freedom by breaking away from under the Turkish yoke. A good government would have met these dangers by improving the conditions of the Empire. It would have tried to make the subject peoples contented, to give their capacities for development free play, to build of them a bulwark against outside enemies. But the Turkish government had not the imagination or the good will to adopt a policy like this. It had nothing but its military tradition of violence and cunning, and it tried to stave off the consequences of its own rottenness by making the subject peoples even weaker and more wretched than itself. This was the policy of Abd-ul-Hamid, who reigned from 1876 to 1908, and his method was to set one race against another. The Kurds were encouraged to massacre the Armenians; the Turkish soldiers were ordered to join in the massacre when the Armenians put up a resistance. The Bulgars were allowed to form armed bands to “Bulgarise” the villages of Macedonia, and the Greeks to form bands of their own to withstand them; the Macedonian peasants were harried by both parties, and if they harboured the bands to avoid incurring their vengeance, Turkish troops came up and burned the village for treason against the Ottoman State.

The Third Stage: The Young Turks

In the first stage the subject peoples paid their tribute of children and were then left to themselves. In the second stage they were hounded on to destroy each other by the Machiavellian policy of Abd-ul-Hamid. The third stage has been introduced by the Young Turks, and they have been destroying the subject races by systematic government action — a government employing its resources in the murder of its own people. And this has been carried on with redoubled vigour and ruthlessness since the Turkish Government entered the War, and has been sure of Germany’s support in defying the civilised world.

The Young Turks are “Nationalists” who have learnt in the German and Magyar school. Their national idea is to impose their own nationality by force on others. When the Young Turks came into power in 1908 they announced a programme of “Ottomanisation.” Every language in the Empire but Turkish was to be driven off the field; Turkish was to be the sole language of government, and even of higher education. The non-Turkish majority was to be assimilated to the Turkish minority by coercion. The programme was copied from the “Prussianisation” of the Poles and “Magyarisation” of the Roumans, Slovaks and Southern Slavs in Hungary whom the Allies declare their intention of liberating likewise from foreign domination in another clause of their Note. But in their Nationalism, as in their Militarism, the Turks have gone to greater lengths than their European counterparts. The Prussians expropriate Polish landowners against the payment of a price for their land; the Turks drive forth Greeks and Bulgars destitute from their homes and possessions. The Magyars mobilise troops to terrorise Slovaks and Roumans at the elections; the Turks draft the criminals from their prisons into the Gendarmerie to exterminate the Armenian race. From the beginning of their régime the Young Turks have pursued their nationalistic programme by butchery. The Adana massacres of 1909, the most terrible slaughter of Armenians between the Hamidian massacres of 1895-6 and those at present in progress, occurred within a year of the proclamation of the Young Turk Constitution, which assured equal rights of citizenship to all inhabitants of the Empire. In 1913 the Turkish Army was engaged in exterminating the Albanians because they had an un-Ottoman national spirit of their own. This work was interrupted by the Balkan War, but the Turks revenged themselves for their defeat in this war, which liberated large Greek and Slav populations from their yoke, by exterminating all Greeks and Slavs left in the territory they still retained. They occupied themselves with this in the interval between the end of the Balkan and the beginning of the European War, and Greece was on the verge of war with Turkey again to protect the dwindling remnant of the Greeks in Turkey’s power, when the crisis was overtaken by the greater conflict. As soon as Turkey became Germany’s ally, Germany restrained the Young Turks from persecuting their Greek subjects, because it was not to Germany’s interest that Greece should be involved in the war on the side of the Entente. But she left them a free hand with their other subject peoples, and the result has been the Armenian and Arab atrocities, which began in 1915 and have gone on ever since.

The Armenian Atrocities of 1915

Only a third of the two million Armenians in Turkey have survived, and that at the price of apostatising to Islam or else of leaving all they had and fleeing across the frontier. The refugees saw their women and children die by the roadside, and apostacy too, for a woman, involved the living death of marriage to a Turk and inclusion in his harem. The other two-thirds were “deported” — that is, they were marched away from their homes in gangs, with no food or clothing for the journey, in fierce heat and bitter cold, hundreds of miles over rough mountain roads. They were plundered and tormented by their guards, and by subsidised bands of brigands, who descended on them in the wilderness, and with whom their guards fraternised. Parched with thirst, they were kept away from the water with bayonets. They died of hunger and exposure and exhaustion, and in lonely places the guards and robbers fell upon them and murdered them in batches — some at the first halting place after the start, others after they had endured weeks of this agonising journey. About half the deportees — and there was at least 1,200,000 of them in all — perished thus on their journey, and the other half have been dying lingering deaths ever since at their journey’s end; for they have been deported to the most inhospitable regions in the Ottoman Empire: the malarial marshes in the Province of Konia; the banks of the Euphrates where, between Syria and Mesopotamia, it runs through a stony desert; the sultry and utterly desolate track of the Hedjaz Railway. The exiles who are still alive have suffered worse than those who perished by violence at the beginning.

The same campaign of extermination has been waged against the Nestorian Christians on the Persian frontier, and against the Arabs of Syria, Christians and Moslems without discrimination. In Syria there is a reign of terror. The Arab leaders have been imprisoned, executed, or deported already, and the mass of the people lie paralysed, expecting the Armenians’ fate and, dreading every moment to hear the decree of extermination go forth.

This wholesale destruction, which has already overtaken two of the subject peoples in Turkey, and threatens all that 60 per cent. of the population which is not Turkish in language, is the direct work of the Turkish government. The “Deportation Scheme” was drawn up by the central government at Constantinople and telegraphed simultaneously to all the local authorities in the Empire; it was executed by the officials, the Gendarmerie, the Army, and the bands of brigands and criminals organised in the government’s service. No State could be more completely responsible for any act within its borders than the Ottoman State is responsible for the appalling crimes it has committed against its subject peoples during the War.

“Radically Alien to Western Civilisation”

These crimes, and the phases of Ottoman History which lead up to them, demonstrate, in the language of the Allies’ Note, that “the Ottoman Empire has proved itself radically alien to Western Civilisation.” Where Ottoman rule has spread, civilisation has perished. While Ottoman rule has lasted, civilisation has remained in abeyance. It has only sprung up again when the oppressed peoples, at the cost of their own blood and by the aid of civilised nations more fortunate than themselves, have succeeded in throwing off the Turkish yoke; and these struggles have been so much regained for liberty and progress in the world, because the infliction of Turkish rule upon any other people has been an incalculable loss.

To this long history of horror the Allies are determined to put an end. They will “liberate the peoples who now lie beneath this murderous tyranny.” But they proclaim no tyrannous intention against the Turks themselves. In another clause of their note, they put it on record that “it has never been their intention to seek the extermination or the political extinction of the Germanic peoples.” The declaration holds good, by implication, for the Magyar, Bulgar, and Turkish peoples who are the Germanic peoples’ allies. There are regions in Asia Minor where the Turk is undisputed occupant of the land. The Allies have no intention of “deporting” or exterminating the Turk from these regions, as the Turk has deported the Armenians from the regions that are theirs. The Turk, like the German, Magyar and Bulgar, will remain where he belongs. Out of the broad territory over which he at present domineers, he will be allowed to keep his just pound of flesh, but woe to him hereafter if he sheds one drop of Christian blood….

The Reorganisation of Europe

This settlement of Turkey is a logical element in the Allies’ general aim in the War: — “The reorganisation of Europe, guaranteed by a stable settlement, based alike upon the principle of nationalities, on the right which all peoples, whether small or great, have to the enjoyment of full security and free economic development, and also upon territorial agreements and international arrangements so framed as to guarantee land and sea frontiers against unjust attacks.

This aim is no invention of yesterday; it has been the aspiration of all lovers of liberty for a century past.

Let the Turks,” said Mr. Gladstone in a famous speech, “now carry away their abuses in the only possible manner, namely, by carrying away themselves. Their Zaptiehs and their Mudirs, their Bimbashis and their Yuzbashis, their Kaimakams and their Pashas, one and all, bag and baggage, shall I hope clear out from the province they have desolated and profaned.

The province for which Mr. Gladstone pleaded was Bulgaria; but since Bulgaria has been freed, the other peoples who have still remained under the tyranny have suffered horrors infinitely worse in their extent and their iniquity than those which in 1876 aroused the indignation of the world.

Heinrich von Treitschke loved many things more than liberty, but the profanation of liberty by the Turk drew from him a denunciation as strong as Gladstone’s own. “A near future,”he writes, “will, it is to be hoped, blot out the scandal that such heathendom should ever have established itself on European soil. What has this Turkish Empire done in three entire centuries? It has done nothing but destroy.

Treitschke and Gladstone, men who stood for very different ideals in Europe, both called with one voice for liberation from the Turk; and the Allies are struggling now to bring what they strove for to completion.

The Principle of Nationalities

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