In her 2012 book Smyrna’s Ashes: Humanitarianism, Genocide, and the Birth of the Middle East, UNLV history professor Michelle Tusan traces historical developments that seem a world away: post-World War I conflicts in the Balkan states, humanitarian concerns for minority Christian populations in the Ottoman Empire, and British foreign policy.
Tusan suggests, however, that these seemingly distant historical developments have striking pertinence to Americans today, as they led to the rise of the modern-day Middle East.
“I was trained as a British historian at Berkeley, and I didn’t think I was going to write about the Middle East at all,” Tusan says. “But I kept being led to these stories of maps and people in the Middle East, and I realized this is an important history that hasn’t been told before. It occurred to me that Americans really need to know more about the Middle East as a place and what the West’s involvement there has been.”
Tusan started unraveling Britain’s role in creating the Balkans and the Middle East through maps drawn in the second half of the 19th century. The maps reveal that the British defined the geography of the region on the basis of religious orientation: Europe and the Near East (as the Balkans were then known), was identified as Christian; areas east of that location, now known as the Middle East, were identified as Muslim. Those boundaries were constantly shifting on the map, as Britain had a strong interest in keeping territories on the route between Europe and India – its biggest colony – within its control.
That entire area, of course, was ruled by the Ottoman Empire during that time, however, and the treatment of the minority Christians by the Ottoman rulers was constantly at issue as a humanitarian concern for both Britain and other European nations.
This is where humanitarian concern and geopolitics began to collide in history, Tusan says, and the world is still living with the results today.
“That Muslim-Christian divide is really solidified during World War I,” she says. “It goes back to the 19th century, in part, because of this map-making.”
She explains that as World War I ended, world leaders drew the map of Eastern Europe and the Middle East along sectarian religious lines in response to both geopolitical and humanitarian concerns. The massacre of minority Christian populations in the Ottoman Empire during the war sparked a massive humanitarian response to what is today called the Armenian Genocide.
The book details one scene from the aftermath of that genocide – the burning of the ancient city of Smyrna, occupied by Greece at the time and now located in the Republic of Turkey. Tusan explains that the term “crimes against humanity” was coined by the international community to describe the genocide.
Unfortunately, Britain and its allies left the prosecution of the war criminals to the Ottomans, and little was done. Tusan believes this prosecutorial inaction later emboldened Hitler.
“Hitler famously says, ‘Who remembers the Armenians?’” she notes. “He clearly remembered them. He was saying essentially, ‘No one’s going to care what we do to the Jews.’”
Tusan points out, however, a difference in context between the aftermaths of the first and second World Wars. After World War I, the West was still trying to figure out how to deal with such atrocities, she says; by the end of World War II, they got it right with the Nuremberg trials.
But the tension between humanitarian concerns and geopolitics has continued in recent decades, she says, citing Rwanda, Bosnia, and now Syria. Today, instead of Britain, the United States has taken over the mantle of world leadership, however, and seems to be in charge of monitoring humanitarian causes, Tusan says.
“There’s a way in which we think about foreign policy as having a conscience, that what we do in the world matters,” she says, “not just because we’re advancing our interests, but because we are good stewards in our role as a global leader. It’s part of Americans’ DNA, inherited from the British.”
There is always talk of protecting minorities, Tusan says.
“But the problem is when you talk about protecting minorities as a foreign policy, how far are you willing to go to protect those minorities? There are a hundred ways you can think about how you protect, and most of these involve some sort of cost, including war.”
Historically determined divisions make it hard to know when and how to intervene, she adds. For example, sectarian conflict in the modern Middle East that often pits Christian, Muslim, and Jewish communities against one another resulted in part from the divide-and-rule strategy employed after World War I by the British and the French. Some of the violence seen in Syria today comes out of the destabilizing effects of a policy that used the doctrine of minority protection to further geopolitical ends.
“People don’t wear black and white hats in this story, right?” she says. “The tensions that were caused by creating these nations in moments of conflict after World War I exacerbated conditions under which those hatreds thrived.”
Tusan herself knows firsthand the effect of those deep hatreds. Her grandmother and great-grandmother survived the Armenian Genocide.
Her great-grandfather, an Armenian barber, was warned and had enough time to immigrate to the United States and establish himself in Portland, Maine. But by the time he sent for his wife and child, the massacres had begun, and the pair had to find a way through France and across the sea to Ellis Island.
“That was a story that was always there, but we never talked about it very much,” Tusan says.
Writing about the genocide that her family survived will be her next project, one that she knows will be hard to write.
“But I’m a historian. I tell stories about the past,” she says. “It’s a compelling story, both professionally and personally.”