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Forced Population Movements in the Ottoman Empire and the Early Turkish Republic: An Attempt at Reassessment through Demographic Engineering

Nesim Şeker


This article uses the concept of “demographic engineering” for the purpose of analyzing forced migration in the Ottoman Empire and early Turkish Republic. It defines demographic engineering in a wide sense, as ‘deliberate state intervention in population figures’ for political, ideological, strategic and economic reasons. It argues that reconsidering the issue of forced migration in the Ottoman Empire and the early Turkish Republic as a case of demographic engineering provides us with an analytical tool enabling comprehensive understanding of the state-directed population movements, and challenges the state-centered, nationalist outlook that has dominated the historiography on forced migration of the late Ottoman Empire.

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  • 1 From very earlier periods, forced migration has a close association with the state. It was the poli (...)

1Forced migration is central theme of history. Temporally, it can be observed from ancient times to the present era ; spatially, it is possible to view it in several geographies. No period or geography of human history appears to be immune from this phenomenon. As many examples demonstrate, the manipulation of the demographic composition of a territory for the purpose of controlling and dominating its resources is not restricted to the modern age, when the practice began to take on a different character due to the political redefinition of the state and its constituents.1 Although motives of displacement, removal and elimination of a specific population group have not essentially changed from the pre-modern era, modern implementations deserve particular conceptualization not only because of the political redefinition of the state as nation-state and its essential constituent as nation but also for the subtle and diverse methods employed in manipulating populations and its universalization. In the modern age, forced population movements were no longer solely the work of ‘great’ states with the military and political strength to conquer and colonize. They were also used by ‘minor’ states with limited power, as well as by political actors claiming to form the state. The interaction of economic, political, scientific and intellectual developments in the 19th century contributed much to the dissemination of practices of manipulating the population figures and provided the means of doing it in an ‘engineered’ manner. This paper aims to introduce demographic engineering as an analytical tool and to give an overview of forced migration in the Ottoman Empire and early Turkish Republic by using the vocabulary derived from it. Rather than an exhaustive and in-depth analysis of the forced population movements, it aims to present a comprehensive conceptual framework which may provide broader perspective in approaching forced migration issues of, particularly, the late Ottoman era and the early Turkish Republic.

I. Conceptualizing Forced Migration in the Modern Era: Demographic Engineering

2Though demographic engineering, in the wide sense of state intervention in population figures (in its composition, distribution and increase/decrease) can be used to denote the manipulation of population composition throughout history, its close association with ethnicity, nationalism, and the nation-state makes it appear as an essentially modern phenomenon. Although as Bookman states (1997 : 1) state intervention in population numbers during the course of ‘struggles for territory and control of its resources’ has not always been based on ethnicity, demographic engineering is usually used in the context of inter-ethnic struggles, which may occur in several forms. Thus the concept comes also to mean ‘demographic struggle for power’ with the aim of increasing ‘the economic and political power of an ethnic group relative to other groups.’ This necessarily involves an attempt to increase population numbers of one group relative to other groups (Bookman, 1997 : 1-2). McGarry defines demographic engineering as ‘the state-directed movement of ethnic groups as a technique of conflict regulation.’ In dealing with diverse ethnic groups, one of the methods that states resort to is population movement. States, he underlines, impel groups to move ‘through a variety of incentives or pressures’ or by using force (1998 : 613). The central role of the sate in moving the population is also emphasized by Weiner and Teitelbaum (2001 : 54) who consider the concept in relation to states’ search for security and suggest that :

The implication of the notion of demographic engineering is that the movement of peoples is not the consequence of social and economic trends – such as differentials in wages or employment opportunities across regions. Nor does demographic engineering refer to all actions by the state that result in the large-scale movement of populations – for example, the failure of government to deal with a famine, or the neglect of the environment, or the construction of a large dam which will displace a segment of society. Demographic engineering implies that the movement itself is deliberately (italic is mine) induced by the state ; it is not the consequence of another policy or program (63).

3Thus whether the motives are political, economic, strategic or ideological, any state policy aiming to ‘affect the size, composition, distribution, and growth rate of a population’ can be described as demographic engineering (Weiner and Teitelbaum 2001: 54). Forms of state intervention in this regard range from policies affecting birth and fertility rates with the goal of eliminating the differences between ethnic groups and incorporating smaller groups into the larger and dominant ethnic group, to population transfers, including deportation, resettlement, ethnic cleansing, as well as economic pressures such as ‘selective tax policy’, restrictions in employment, property rights, etc. (Bookman 1997 : 32-34 ; Weiner and Teitelbaum 2001 : 54-74).

  • 2 Attempting to classify the methods of ethnic conflict management and termination, McGarry and O’Lea (...)

4The relationship between demographic engineering and nationalism, particularly its ethnic form, is well-established. As McGarry aptly states, the development of nationalism has shaped demographic engineering in the modern period (1998 : 615). The impacts of the development of nationalism in this respect are twofold. First, ethnicity in many cases became the primary criterion in defining the affiliation to nation and state, which were generally named on behalf of the dominant ethnic group. Secondly, the groups that did not belong to the dominant ethnicity were cast out of the ‘ethnic nation’ and were relegated to minority status and/or assimilated. Whenever minorities developed ‘minority-based nationalist movements’ they confronted states and were viewed as threats to state security. As a result demographic engineering was implemented against those groups which nationalism determined as being against the state (McGarry 1998 : 615, 623). Forced population movements thus typically occurred during wars for national self-determination in which the national was defined along ethnic lines as a form of ‘ethnic unmixing through migration, murder, or some combination of both’. As a result, demographic engineering occurred frequently in the process of nation-state formation, the ‘ethnic nationalization of existing states’ (Brubaker 1996 : 154-155), and during ethnic conflicts, especially as a method of conflict management and resolution.2

  • 3 The author of this study is aware of the vast literature on the terms nation, ethnicity, nation-sta (...)

5Although the framework suggested so far has been formed through the cases of ethnic conflicts that were seen in the last two decades in the regions stretching from the Balkans to the Caucasus to Africa, it seems very applicable to policies adopted by many states in the past, especially in the context of imperial decline, nation-state formation and nation-building processes. Intimately related to the rise of nationalism, particularly in its ethnic form,3 governments widely attempted to homogenize territories within their jurisdiction by employing the methods of demographic engineering. Manipulation of population figures by statistical records, deportation, assimilation, massacres and ethnic cleansing were the most frequently used methods.

II. Forced Migration in the Ottoman Empire

  • 4 Erik-Jan Zürcher (2008) aptly defines the modern period of the Ottoman Empire in general and the la (...)
  • 5 This periodization is an approximate one. It is not claimed that it has general applicability.

6The Ottoman Empire illustrates to a great extent the manipulation of population figures under the initiative of the state. From the 16th century until its final dissolution in the first quarter of the 20th century, the Ottoman lands witnessed intensive state-induced population mobility between regions.4 Forced migration in the Ottoman Empire can be divided in three sub-periods. The first period extends from the 16th to 18th centuries when the Ottomans resorted to deportation and resettlement policy with military, administrative, economic, and to some extent political motives. During the second period, which extends from the second half of the 19th century into 1913, the Ottoman lands became a shelter for Muslim refugees coming from the Caucasus and the Balkans. In their resettlement, the Ottoman officials exclusively took immigrants’ ethnic and religious affiliations into consideration, especially after 1878. The final period, the years in between 1913-1918, population movements were the result of the policy followed by a nationalist elite aiming to ethnically restructure the Empire’s core territory, Anatolia.5 In the following, an overview of each sub-period will be presented in accordance with the main purpose of this essay, which is to evaluate emigration/immigration issue in Ottoman/Turkish history through the concept of demographic engineering.

7Colonization through deportation (sürgün) and settlement was the principal means that accompanied military conquest in the making of the Ottoman Empire (Barkan 1949-1950 : 544, 546). Securing their domination in newly conquered territories, increasing the power of the central authority, organizing agricultural production and providing security and order seem to have been the general motives for the Ottomans for moving a particular population group from one place to another (Tekeli 1990 : 50-54). The Ottomans resorted to mass deportation and resettlement on a large scale in order to, for example, fill empty land and make it inhabited and prosperous , or to facilitate the dispatching of troops and supplying provisions by establishing villages and towns through which they organized transportation and expeditions. There were also political motives (or goals) behind the Ottomans’ deportation and resettlement policy. Resettling Turkish and Muslim immigrants (muhacir) among ‘hostile’ elements (Barkan 1951-1952 : 56-58) and moving Christians from the conquered territories were viewed as preconditions of security and order (Barkan 1951-1952 : 62). The deportation of the heterodox population whom the state perceived as political and religious troublemakers also reveals the political motives behind population moves in the earlier periods of the Ottoman Empire (Barkan 1953-1954 : 228-229).

8Examples of the early Ottoman deportation and settlement policy are many. One of the most illustrative cases is the deportation of groups from Anatolia into the newly conquered Cyprus (Barkan 1949-1950 : 550-561). According to the deportation decree of 24 September 1572, ‘one family out of every ten in the provinces of Anatolia, Rum (Sivas), Karaman and Zülkadriye were to be sent to Cyprus’ in order to rehabilitate and provide the security on the island. The deportees were to be chosen from peasants and craftsmen who were to be exempted from paying taxes for two years in their new settlement (İnalcık 1954 : 123 ; Arslan 2001 : 337-345). Similarly, the Ottomans forcedly moved population from Anatolia into the Balkans in order to consolidate their rule there following the conquest (Barkan 1951-1952) and, conversely, moved population from the Balkans to Istanbul in order to make the city prosperous (İnalcık 1954 : 123). In the 18th century, when the expansion of the Ottoman Empire through conquest came to a halt, forced migration took the form of settling nomadic tribes in order to increase agricultural production and provide domestic security (Tekeli 1990 : 52-54).

9The settlement of nomadic tribes continued in the 19th century (Tekeli 1990 : 55) ; however, the emigration of hundreds of thousands of Muslim Turks from territories that were no longer within Ottoman jurisdiction requires a separate assessment of this period. Throughout the 19th century challenges to Ottoman rule came mainly from two sources : Russia, which was gradually expanding southward, and the nationalism of the subject populations, beginning in the Balkans. Thus, imperial rivalry and nationalism, and the wars fought around these produced millions of refugees in the region stretching from the Caucasus into Anatolia and the Balkans (McCarthy 1995 : 1-21).

  • 6 There are diverse figures on the emigrated Tatars. While Tekeli (1990: 55) and Saydam (1997: 65) gi (...)
  • 7 A challenging study that urges one to think that this was not a linear development has been publish (...)

10The first example of emigration was that of the Crimean Tatars, who had to flee from their lands as a result of the Russian subordination of the region in the last quarter of the 18th century.6 Their immigration continued into the 19th century, especially after the Crimean War. During and following this war, hundreds of thousands Tatars were forced to move to other regions because of discriminatory Russian policies which viewed them as a ‘harmful element’ and as a threat to security, and due to fear of Russification (Pinson 1970 : 32ff ; Karpat 1985 : 66). Following the Tatars, the Circassians became the subject of the Russian policy of expulsion in the 1860s. Besides administrative, military, strategic and security reasons, ideological and cultural concerns seem to have played a role in their emigration into Ottoman lands (Pinson 1970 : 85-86 ; Karpat 1985 : 67).7 Ottoman-Russian military confrontations continued to produce Muslim refugees from the Caucasus and the Balkans in the coming decades. The most illustrative case is the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish war.

  • 8 This is not peculiar situation to the national development of Greece and observable in every case i (...)

11The Russo-Turkish war also displays the disruptive effects of nationalism in the Ottoman context. The principal cause of Muslim emigration from the Balkans in the aftermath of the war was nationalism, which had already become a legitimizing ideology of independence demands for would-be states in the Balkans. In addition to the considerable losses among the Muslim-Turkish population due to massacres during and after the war, the emergence of independent Serbian and Romanian states and an autonomous Bulgaria in the post-war settlement was accompanied by the flow of Muslim-Turkish refugees in huge numbers (İpek 1994). However, this was not a new development in the Balkans. Since the beginning of the 19th century, the ‘nationalization’ process among some groups brought about the ‘othering’ of others, depending on the definition of the ‘imagined nation’. The Greek case is noteworthy in this respect since it was the first and, more importantly, became a role model for emerging nationalisms in the Balkans (McCarthy 1995 : 9-10). During and after the Greek struggle for independence Muslims became the target of the Greek nationalists. They were the ‘alien’ elements of the Greek nation. They were massacred, forced to leave and had their lands seized for the sake of nationalization. From the 1820s to the 1910s, the Greek policy-makers undertook such measures against Muslims within the jurisdiction of the Greek state on several occasions.8

  • 9 These were the measures taken as a result of the Muslim emigration into the Ottoman lands and shoul (...)

12Nation-state formation gained momentum in the Balkans in the 1870s. In the aftermath of the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, the emergence of autonomous Bulgaria was accompanied by the forced migration of the Muslims from the Bulgaria-owned lands. In the space of approximately two decades, from 1870 to 1888, the Muslim population of Bulgaria decreased sharply as a result of the attempts to make ‘Bulgaria for the Bulgarians’ (Brubaker 1996 : 153). From this period until the end of the 20th century, Muslim emigration was to become ‘a recurrent feature of Bulgaria’s ethno-demographic development’ (Kalionski 2002 : 97). The responses of the Ottomans to Muslim emigration from the Balkans in particular may serve to illustrate not only their short-term reactions but also a long-term policy embedded in the management of ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversity, a policy that extended well into the inheritor state of the Ottoman Empire, the Turkish Republic. First was the resettlement policy that aimed to change the ethnic and religious demographic composition of definite regions for strategic, territorial and political reasons in favor of the Muslim/Turkish elements. The second policy was the ethnic restructuring of Anatolia under a deliberate act of the nationalist ruling elite. It was effectively implemented during the First World War and went hand in hand with the resettlement policy.9

  • 10 For addition as a form of state intervention see Weiner and Teitelbaum (2001: 55). McGarry defines (...)

13The Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 caused tremendous flows of refugees into the Ottoman lands. Over a million Muslim Turks had to emigrate from the Balkans (İpek 1994 : 40-41 ; Karpat 1985 : 74). The state attempted to resettle these refugees in accordance with its military, strategic and political concerns. Muslim-Turkish refugees were resettled along the borders and in villages around the Straits in order to secure the borders and the the Straits, and to balance the non-Muslim population in strategic regions. In some cases, they were resettled in such a way as to surround non-Muslims in order to counter-balance the latter and prevent them from forming the majority. Resettlement with these motives was carried out on a wide geographical scope including Rumelia, Eastern Anatolia, the Vilayet of Hudavendigar and Macedonia on the eve of the Balkan Wars (İpek 1994 : 155-159 ; 176-179 ; 197 ; 206-207 ; Ağanoğlu 2001 : 101-108). In this way, the Ottoman state promoted and added a particular group of population as settlers into some regions populated by minority groups.10 The second response to refugee flows into the Ottoman lands was to remove definite population groups, ‘enemies which in their present location pose a problem for the authorities and an obstacle to their goals’ (McGarry 1998 : 615), ‘out of the country or from one portion of the country to another’ (Weiner and Teitelbaum 2001 : 55-56). This overlaps with the final phase of the forced migration in the Ottoman Empire which signifies a radical break from the past in dealing with refugee problem as well as ethnic issues.

III. In Search of the Loyal Nation: The Committee of Union and Progress’ Ethnic Restructuring Policy

14McGarry formulates two broad answers to his question ‘when do states move ethnic groups?’ First, he suggests that states move a population that is categorized as ‘enemy of the state’ when it is ‘captured by radical (chauvinistic or anti-nationalist) élites.’ Secondly, states force a definite group of population to migrate when their security is considered to be threatened by minority groups. The rejection of the state’s authority by minority leaders, the existence of inter-state conflict in which a minority is perceived as a security, the ‘fifth-column’ threat, and the state’s weak control over minority regions are among the primary circumstances in which state actors feel insecure and threatened by minorities (1998 : 623-625).

  • 11 Social Darwinism was very influential among the Ottoman intellectuals from 1890s to 1910s (Doğan 20 (...)

15The last climactic phase of Ottoman-Turkish demographic engineering policies can be grasped within this framework. On the eve of the First World War, nationalist elite within the Committee of Union and Progress, who perceived world events through the lens of Social Darwinism11 had seized power in the Ottoman Empire. During the First World War, they focused their efforts on the demographic restructuring of Anatolia. The survival of the state and the recently defined nation were the main motives behind this attempt, and they found the practical justification in their failure to preserve the state’s territorial integrity against minority nationalisms and the great powers’ interventions. Nevertheless, the incessant flow of Muslim-Turkish refugees from the Balkans during and in the aftermath of the Balkan Wars seems to induce the Unionist élite into action in this respect. Their suffering at the hands of Bulgarian and Greek nationalists who aimed to homogenize their territories reinforced and popularized the Turkish nationalist sentiment (Edib 1930 : 115) and it stimulated the policy-makers into developing ways of resettling them.

  • 12 For the evaluation of ‘Turcification’ as ‘nation-building’ process see Ülker (2005).
  • 13 For the conceptual and narrative account of the Armenian deportation and massacres see Bloxham (200 (...)

16The resettlement of Muslim-Turkish refugees was not an end in itself but part of a broader project of ‘nationalizing’ or ‘Turcifying’ the Ottoman lands.12 This project had two main aspects : forcing ‘disloyal’ elements to migrate and resettling supposed ‘loyal’ refugees into evacuated places. It was with these goals that the Unionist leadership inaugurated a campaign against the Ottoman Greeks to disrupt their economic activities and to uproot them through coercive measures on the eve of the First World War (Dündar 2008 : 191-248). The implementation of this policy against the Armenian population during the War demonstrates all aspects of the Unionist demographic mentality. Legitimized by security concerns, measures ranging from murder and massacre to religious conversion, assimilation and seizure of property were undertaken simultaneously, illustrating political, demographic and economic aspects of demographic engineering.13

  • 14 Speaking on the integration of the Muslim refugees in the aftermath of the Lausanne settlement, Ülk (...)

17A similar mentality was at work in the resettlement of the Muslim refugees. The Unionists made solid preparations to organize their resettlement in such a way that they would efficiently assimilate into the Turkish population.14 For example, they enacted the Law for the Settlement of Immigrants, which led to the formation of the General Directorate for Settlement of Tribes and Refugees. The resettlement of Albanian and Bosnian refugees who were expelled from the Balkans and of the Kurds fleeing before the Russian troops demonstrates that the Unionist government did not want to see any non-Turkish group forming a majority in a particular region and constituting more than 5-10 % of the population. The Directorate was also in charge of linguistic and ethnological research on ethnic and religious minorities in Anatolia such as Kizilbashes, Bektâshis, Ahîs, Armenians, Alevis, Kurds and Turcomans, unequivocally for political goals. It is estimated that approximately half of the Anatolian population, approximately 8 million souls, had to move during the First World War due to the Committee of Union and Progress’s deportation and resettlement policy (Dündar 2006 : 37-42).

  • 15 At this point, the intimate relationship between ‘size and power’ should be underlined since ‘the r (...)
  • 16 The occupation of Izmir and its environ examplify this situation well. Besides massacres, between 8 (...)
  • 17 As frequently stressed in this essay, population transfers, displacement, forced migration has been (...)

18When the First World War ended, the demographic composition of Anatolia had been radically changed as a result of the Unionist wartime policy. In the aftermath of the War a struggle broke out among the ethno-religious groups of Anatolia attempting to preserve or change the existing demographic composition in accordance with their political goals. Initially, the principle of self-determination, which was considered to be the basic principle in remapping Anatolia in accordance with the population figures of different ethnic groups on the same territory, led the competing groups to use politicized statistics on ethnic populations at the Paris Peace Conference.15 Turkish, Armenian, Greek, and Kurdish claimants presented a variety of numbers in order to justify their nationalist causes for annexation, autonomy or independence. In addition, each group resorted to violent measures in order to decrease the numbers of rival groups. While the Turkish nationalists, for example, spent considerable effort to maintain the demographic status quo that resulted from the Unionist wartime policy by setting obstacles before the repatriation of the surviving Armenian deportees, the Greek and the Armenian nationalists made efforts to reverse this policy in favor of their political goals by forcing the Muslim population to migrate in the Greek or Allied occupied regions, and in some cases massacring them.16 Thus between 1919-1922 there was a severe struggle among competing nationalisms aiming to fulfill their programs by increasing the size of the favored ethnic/religious group at the expense of rival groups. This struggle resulted in the almost complete elimination of the non-Muslim population from Anatolia, mainly through coercive measures. However, the resolution of the Turkish-Greek conflict through an internationally sanctioned treaty, the population exchange has tremendous symbolic significance as it shows that the ‘engineering’ mentality was not restricted to actors that were directly involved in the struggle but was a widespread means of conflict resolution.17

IV. Reshaping the Nation in the Early Turkish Republic

19The continuity in social, political and economic structures as well as in the government policies between the late Ottoman and early Republican periods has frequently been underlined. Among the continual aspects that can be traced between these two periods, the ‘Turkification’ of social, economic and cultural life is preeminent. In this respect, the founders of the Turkish nation-state inherited a legacy from the previous period that would shape both their mentality as well as practices in ‘nationalizing’ Turkey.

  • 18 According to the official census of 1935, among the 16.157.450 total population, there were Greek O (...)
  • 19 Several studies have attempted to uncover the Turkish nation-state’s policy toward minorities as we (...)

20The Turkish nation-state was established on a Muslim foundation in 1923. The inter-ethnic struggles that accompanied the inter-state wars between 1912-1922 and the Committee of Union and Progress’s Turcification policy resulted a territory inhabited by an approximately 98 % Muslim population. Nevertheless, the Ottoman Empire’s multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-lingual societal structure was inherited by the new state despite the tremendous quantitative change.18 In managing the heterogeneous society, the founders of the nation-state employed repressive and assimilative means in accordance with a Turkish nationalism that defined the constituencies of the ‘imagined nation’ in 1920s and 1930s.19

  • 20 For an analysis of the relationship between citizenship and ethnic origin see Yeğen (2002).

21Taking into consideration the citizenship definition of the 1924 Constitution and the historical and linguistic studies that formed the intellectual basis of Turkish nationalism in the early Republican era it can be argued that the Turkish nationalist elite oscillated between civic-territorial and ethnic forms of nationalism (Poulton 1997 : 97). The 1924 Constitution stated that ‘the people of Turkey, regardless of religion and race, are Turks as regards citizenship’ (Kili and Gözübüyük 2000 : 138). At first sight, this definition defined citizenship as membership of the political community regardless of ethnic origin ; however, this did not come to mean that ethnicity was entirely disregarded. As many practices demonstrate, the door was left open for the cultural and linguistic assimilation of non-Muslim minorities and non-Turkish Muslims into the supreme ethnic identity.20

  • 21 A study by Guttstadt (2006: 50-56) focuses on another aspect of ‘Turcification’ policy comprising o (...)
  • 22 From Wealth Tax of 1942 to 6-7 September Events in 1955; from the plan that was prepared by the Sta (...)

22Cultural and linguistic assimilation into Turkishness, which was defined around secular and overtly ethnic nationalist terms, was the principal end, and repression, settlement and deportation were the principal means of demographic engineering in the early Turkish Republic. ‘Turcification’ policies encompassed curbing non-Muslim communities’s minority rights, which had been granted in the Lausanne Settlement (Alexandris 1992 : 135-139 ; Levi 1996 : 70-74 ; Bali 2000 : 59-77) forcing the public use of Turkish under the motto ‘citizen, speak Turkish’ (Bali 2000 : 105-109), to promoting Muslim immigration from the Balkans in order to strengthen ‘the cohesion and homogeneity of Turkish nation’, settling new immigrants among the Kurdish population to provide a Turkish majority in overwhelmingly Kurdish-populated areas and dispersing the Kurdish population among the Turks through a Settlement Law enacted in 1934 (Ülker : 2007 and 2008), and finally, changing place names, a policy Öktem (2009) calls ‘toponymical engineering’. There are many more examples of the Turcification policy,21 but at the moment it is proper to conclude that the ‘Turcification’ motive of Turkish nationalism was not restricted to the First World War and early Republican periods but extended well into the end of the 20th century.22

Concluding Remarks

23As it can be seen throughout this study, forced migration is one of the key issues in the history of the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic. From the 1950s to the present, several studies demonstrating its various aspects have been published. Nevertheless, the treatment of the issue has predominantly adhered to state-centered and nationalist outlook, especially in the evaluation of forced migration in the late Ottoman and early Republican eras. In explaining the Armenian deportations and massacres, for example, representatives of such an outlook highlight security concerns and abstract the events from their social, political, ideological and economic milieu. Instead of historicizing and comparing the Turkish case with other cases, they focus on the nationalist activities of the minority leaders, who were perceived as ‘fifth-columnists’ by those who took the decision to deport the minority population. Studies of this kind are usually dominated by a narrow empirical method. Such outlook has undoubtedly served to present the deportations and accompanying events as a natural consequence, thus legitimizing and justifying the state’s actions. Studying state intervention in population figures from a nationalist perspective and methodology thus actually serves the function of ideologically reproducing the ‘nation’. Considering the late Ottoman case, the state intervened in population for ‘nation-building’ by recasting the population as ‘loyal’ and ‘disloyal’ or by using terms such as ‘us’ and ‘others’. Narrating the actions that were taken in order to create the ‘loyal’ nation through the perspective of those who undertook the actions reinforces a particular understanding of ‘us’.

24The concept of demographic engineering should be considered a challenge to the nationalist approach to the question of ‘why do states move populations ?’ The concept does not aim at theorizing forced migration but to analyze it in a broader, integrative perspective. It brings together the social, political and economic motives behind states’ intervention in populations and allows us to make conceptual analyses of events. Situating forced migration into the context of demographic engineering also allows us to incorporate contemporary and historical experiences, as it provides us with the analytical means to compare similar cases in different times and places. In other words, it implicitly suggests that forced migration or state intervention in population is a universal phenomenon and should be treated as such. By universalizing the language of the forced migration, it enables us to write comparative cross-histories since more or less every state in the modern age has resorted demographic engineering for different purposes. Therefore, in the study of forced migration in the Ottoman-Turkish case, the employment of this concept is likely to allow the systematic treatment of the issue in a broad conceptual framework and enable us to extend the scope of discussion on past and present issues relating to identity.

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1 From very earlier periods, forced migration has a close association with the state. It was the political figures acting behind the state who forced a particular group of people to migrate. Typical example is the Assyrian Empire in which forced migration was a frequently observed practice. Between 11th and 7th centuries BC, it is stated that there were at least 157 population transfer practices led by the Assyrian rulers. Approximately, the name of 500 places was subjected to change and about 4.5 million persons were forced to migrate (Schechla 1993: 240). In the following centuries, forced migration was increasingly practiced as a mean of conquest and colonization. Especially, following the Age of Discovery, the Spanish carried out it on a large scale with the purpose of removing and enslaving the indigenous population in the conquered territories. In order to remove the natives from their territories, they effectively implemented a policy called descargar la tierra, empty the land. Similar methods were also practiced by the British in their conquest of, for example, Ireland and the American government in the policy of removing the Indian population in the 19th century (Schechla, 1993: 241-244; Bell-Fialkoff 1993: 111-113).

2 Attempting to classify the methods of ethnic conflict management and termination, McGarry and O’Leary suggest two principal methods; one for eliminating differences and another for managing them. As methods for eliminating differences, there are genocide, forced population transfers, partition and/or secession and, finally, integration and/or assimilation, which all actually refer to demographic engineering. For managing differences, there are mainly four methods: hegemonic control, arbitration, cantonisation and/or federalisation and consociationalism or power-sharing (McGarry and O’Leary 1993: 4).

3 The author of this study is aware of the vast literature on the terms nation, ethnicity, nation-state, nationalism and nation-building and knows that there exist several approaches, definitions and explanations changing in time. Within the limits of this study however, he does not aim to make a review of these concepts as their applicability may well differ according to space and time and in that they are subjects of a separate comprehensive study. For the purpose of this essay, therefore, they are used flexibly as broad concepts embedded in the lexicon that emerged with the rise of nationalism. For a workable review of these concepts see Smith (2001).

4 Erik-Jan Zürcher (2008) aptly defines the modern period of the Ottoman Empire in general and the late Ottoman era in particular as ‘laboratory of demographic engineering’.

5 This periodization is an approximate one. It is not claimed that it has general applicability.

6 There are diverse figures on the emigrated Tatars. While Tekeli (1990: 55) and Saydam (1997: 65) give the numbers of emigrated Tatars between 1789-1800 as 500.000, (Karpat 1985: 65) estimates it as 80.000.

7 A challenging study that urges one to think that this was not a linear development has been published by Meyer who suggests that ‘far from following a single-minded policy to expel Muslims from its territory, tsarists policy makers and bureaucrats endeavored increasingly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to induce Muslims to remain in Russia. Indeed, while influential studies of Muslim emigration have argued that the Crimean War marked the beginning of an era in which the forcible eviction of Muslims became an objective of Russian state policy, the year 1860 in fact marked the undertaking by the Russian government of new policies designed to limit Muslim emigration. Policies aimed at retaining Muslim subjects were carried out through several instruments available to the state. These included, on occasion, attempts at dialogue and persuasion but also frequently involved the use of force, intimidation, and violence’ (Meyer 2007: 27-28).

8 This is not peculiar situation to the national development of Greece and observable in every case in the Balkan context. Under the circumstances shaped by the interaction of socio-economic transformation of the Ottoman millets, their cultural development through linguistic and historical studies, rise of the nationalist elites who adopted nationalism as political ideology in manifesting socio-economic grievances of their societies against the Ottoman rule and eventually striving to free themselves by seeking state-formation are observable in Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria. In all of these cases, nationalization process brought about the ‘othering’ of the Muslims (Karpat 1985: 70-75), who were perceived as the agents of the Ottoman rule and efforts to eliminate them for homogenization. For nationalization processes in the Balkans in general see Karpat (1973); Pavlowitch (1999); Jelavich (1983 and 1983) and Stavrianos (2000).

9 These were the measures taken as a result of the Muslim emigration into the Ottoman lands and should be considered separately from the Ottoman state’s response to the development of nationalism among the Ottoman millets, notwithstanding response to nationalism and refugee flows interacted and sometimes overlapped as was the case in the aftermath of the Balkan Wars. As a matter of fact, such measures as promoting Ottoman identity, extending the rights and privileges of the millets and developing modern secular criteria for citizenship as response to nationalisms of the millets (Davison 1977: 39-43) were the attempts at avoiding conflict by the state and providing integration. In that, they signify earlier attempts at the management of ethnic conflict. Resettlement of Muslim refugees and ethnic restructuring refer to a change in mentality in dealing with ethno-religious issues. Flow of Muslim refugees seems to have a vital role in this change.

10 For addition as a form of state intervention see Weiner and Teitelbaum (2001: 55). McGarry defines such settlers as ‘agents’ and suggests that they are settled in specific areas in order to consolidate ‘state’s control of the area and its resources’. Among their functions, there is minimizing ‘the risk of dissent and rebellion from local minorities (1998: 615-617).

11 Social Darwinism was very influential among the Ottoman intellectuals from 1890s to 1910s (Doğan 2006). It also influenced the Ottoman military officers, who would be the members of the Committee of Union and Progress, in militarism and nationalism. Reflections of this perspective among the Unionists can be traced in their socialization process under German military thought as well as their wars for survival from 1900s to 1910s (Nezir 2001); (Gawrych 1986).

12 For the evaluation of ‘Turcification’ as ‘nation-building’ process see Ülker (2005).

13 For the conceptual and narrative account of the Armenian deportation and massacres see Bloxham (2005), Mann (2005: 111-179), Ülker (2005), Şeker (2007), Akçam (2008), Üngör (2008) and Dündar (2008: 248-349).

14 Speaking on the integration of the Muslim refugees in the aftermath of the Lausanne settlement, Ülker points out that ‘migration became central to the nationalization policies of Turkey not only as a refugee producing process but also as a refugee incorporation device, which concerned overwhelmingly the question of how to unify the ethnically, culturally and linguistically diversified Muslim population’ explains also the motives in the resettlement of the Muslim refugees during the World War I (2007: 2).

15 At this point, the intimate relationship between ‘size and power’ should be underlined since ‘the relative size of group of people has been crucial in determining its political and economic strength, both domestically and internationally.’ For an evaluation see Bookman (1997: 18-26).

16 The occupation of Izmir and its environ examplify this situation well. Besides massacres, between 80,000-120.000 Muslims were forced to migrate into inner Anatolia (Orhonlu 1973: 488). The Ottoman response was the prohibition of the Muslim immigration, İkdam, 28 May 1919.

17 As frequently stressed in this essay, population transfers, displacement, forced migration has been seen throughout history on several parts of the world. The peculiarity of the Convention for Exchange of Populations between Greece and Turkey is that ‘for the first time in history the international community accepted the forcible uprooting and the accompanying distress and hardship of thousands of peaceful and law-abiding citizens’ (Pentzopoulos 1962: 61-62).

18 According to the official census of 1935, among the 16.157.450 total population, there were Greek Orthodox, Jewish, Gregorian Armenian, Catholic, Protestant peoples besides Muslims. In addition, Turkish, Kurdish, Arabic, Greek, Circassian, Laze, Armenian, Goergian, Judeo-Spanish, Pomak, Bosnian, Albanian, Bulgarian, Tatar, Spanish, Abkhazian, Romanian and French were the languages spoken by various ethno-religious communities (Cagaptay 2004: 93).

19 Several studies have attempted to uncover the Turkish nation-state’s policy toward minorities as well as non-Turkish Muslims. Cagaptay (2006), Yıldız (2001), Bali (2000), Okutan, (2004), Aktar (2006a and 2006b) and Ülker (2007) have revealed political, economic and cultural aspects of this policy.

20 For an analysis of the relationship between citizenship and ethnic origin see Yeğen (2002).

21 A study by Guttstadt (2006: 50-56) focuses on another aspect of ‘Turcification’ policy comprising of ‘naturalization’ (giving citizenship readily to Muslim immigrants) and ‘denaturalization’ (depriving the Turkish citizenship rights of many non-Muslims) in the case of Turkish Jews.

22 From Wealth Tax of 1942 to 6-7 September Events in 1955; from the plan that was prepared by the State Planning Organization after the military intervention of 1960 for the assimilation of the Kurds (Milliyet, 22 January 2008) to forced evacuation of some Kurdish villages in 1990s, it seems possible to sketch the implementation of this policy and the mentality as embedded one in the minds of administrative and political cadres in management of ethnic issues.

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Electronic reference

Nesim Şeker, Forced Population Movements in the Ottoman Empire and the Early Turkish Republic: An Attempt at Reassessment through Demographic EngineeringEuropean Journal of Turkish Studies [Online], 16 | 2013, Online since 10 December 2013, connection on 07 December 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Nesim Şeker

Middle East Technical University
Department of History

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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