By Uzay Bulut
The current population of Turkey is about 80 million, but Christians and Jews only comprise around 0.2 % of it. Their virtual erasure from the country took place not only as a result of murders and forced expulsions but also as a result of draconian economic measures that targeted the country’s non-Muslim minorities.
On November 11, 1942, for instance, the government of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), led by the then-prime minister Şükrü Saracoğlu, enacted the Wealth Tax Law.
The stated aim writes scholar Basak Ince, “was to tax previously untaxed commercial wealth and to rein in the inflationary spiral of World War II. However, the underlying reason was the elimination of minorities from the economy and the replacement of the non-Muslim bourgeoisie by its Turkish counterpart.”
The Wealth Tax Law divided the taxpayers into four groups, as per their religious backgrounds:
- Converts (“Donme”), i.e., members of a Sabbateansect of Jewish converts to Islam
- Foreign nationals
Only 4.94% of Turkish Muslims had to pay the Wealth Tax. It was the Armenians who were the most heavily hit.
The Turkish researcher Ridvan Akar, who wrote a book about the injustices of the Wealth Tax Law, refers to the wealth tax as “economic genocide against minorities.”
|Population group||Amount of taxes to be paid|
“The way in which the law was applied was scandalous,” writes Ince, an assistant professor of political science.
“Converts paid about twice as much as Muslims, while non-Muslims ended up paying up to ten times as much. In addition, non-Muslims were required to pay their taxes in cash within 15 days; as a result, they had to sell their businesses or property to Muslim businessmen at low prices to cover the bill. The law was also applied to the many poor non-Muslims (numbering 26,000), such as drivers, workers, and even beggars, whereas their Muslim counterparts were not obliged to pay any tax.”
Those who could not pay the taxes were sent to labor camps, deported or their properties were seized by the government.
The labor camp was at Askale, near Erzurum, which author Sidney Nowill describes as “an area cooler than Moscow in the winter.” The tax debtors were put to work breaking stones, but the tragedy did not end there.
“Out of 40,000 tax debtors,” Ince wrote, “about 5,000 were sent to these camps, and all of these were members of non-Muslim communities. Unfortunately, 21 people died in these camps and the government usurped their wealth and sold it to Turkish Muslims at low prices.”
The government also confiscated the property of the tax debtors’ close relatives, even if they had been sent into labor service.
In her book Turkey, the Jews, and the Holocaust, historian Corry Guttstadt wrote about the financial and psychological ruin the Wealth Tax inflicted on the minority non-Muslim citizens of Turkey:
“People who were unable to pay were granted a two-week extension on request, but interest was charged for this period. Many families were forced to sell their shops and businesses, their houses, even their carpets, furniture, and other household articles to raise the tax money... Some people committed suicide in despair. The extraordinary tax was also levied on foreign Jews, and if they were in no position to pay, their property was confiscated down to the beds and cupboards.
“Although the law stipulated that people over 55 years old were exempt from labor service, 75 and 80-year-old men and even sick people were dragged to the train station and deported.”
Saracoğlu, the Prime Minister at the time, said, referring to the Wealth Tax Law: “This way, we’ll break the foreigners’ tight grip over our market and put Turkish money into the hands of Turks.”
Researcher Sait Çetinoğlu has investigated and written extensively on the Turkish government’s Wealth Tax policy, based on historical documents and testimonies of the victims. A Greek victim, Marika Şişmanoĝlu, said:
“I was born in Bakırköy and spent the first years of my life there. My father Grigorios was a trader and importer of home appliances. His shop was in Eminönü. In early 1943, 30,000 Turkish liras in ‘Wealth Tax’ was levied on him. That amount was unbearable. Think about this: Only 800 liras in tax was levied on the owner of the best shop in the region, the Turkish merchant Suraski. We had two houses. The ten-room house was sold for seven thousand liras. My father was then forced to sell both houses as well as the shop but was still unable to pay his debt. So he was arrested and deported to Askale. My uncle, Yeorgio Şişmanoĝlu, who opened a women's clothes manufacturing factory in 1941, was also charged a large tax and was financially ruined. He was also deported to Askale and returned in a bad state almost a year later.
“They were cleaning the roads from the snow in Askale. I could not recognise my father in the photo he sent us in June 1943. He had lost a lot of weight.
“Later he was referred to Sivrihisar. He died there of a heart attack one morning at the age of 57. I was 16 at the time. I and my mother then moved to the house of my uncle, Hristo Aravanopulu. He was also deported to Askale in 1943. My uncle said that they buried my father under a tree in a field by putting his name in a bottle so that he could be recognised if he was exhumed because other people were also buried in the same field.
“In September 1955, another disaster awaited us; The Turks targeted our house, did not leave behind anything undamaged.
“A year later I got married and went to Greece.”
Another victim, Konstandinou V. Konstandinidi, said:
“My father Vasilios owned an appliance store. In 1943, 70,000 Turkish liras of ‘Wealth Tax’ was levied on him. We didn't own a house. My father had to sell my grandfather's cabbage field and all of his own belongings. We slept on the floor for three years. The money he collected was not enough to pay the tax. So he got arrested on May 1, 1943, after being held in Demirkapı for a few days and deported to Erzurum by train. He had a heart condition and the soldiers did not force him to clear the snow. But the gendarmes insisted that he had to work. He then got sick and died of a heart attack at age 67.
“He was buried with Kostandino Iatru in the garden of a Russian monastery in Erzurum.”
In his 2016 article entitled “The Destructive ‘Wealth Tax,’” Çetinoğlu wrote:
“The ‘Wealth Tax’ was not a tax. It was a discriminatory, arbitrary and racist practice. Thinking of that practice as a tax is to vindicate the policy of ethnic cleansing and unscrupulousness that is rooted in the Unionist [Ittihadist] tradition [The Committee of Union and Progress (Ittihad ve Terakki) that planned the 1915 Christian genocide in the Ottoman Empire] that resulted in the state’s eliminating some of its citizens, culturally eradicating them and leaving them no option other than leaving their ancient lands after taking their livelihoods away from them. The `Wealth Tax` was… a policy of economic and cultural genocide.”
The Wealth Tax was repealed in March 1944, under the pressure of criticism from Britain and the United States.
The pre-AKP (Justice and Development Party) period of Turkey is widely praised by many analysists in the West who falsely claim that Turkey was a democratic, secular country in which minority groups were not repressed. Nothing could be further from the truth.
It was the so-called “secular” Republican People’s Party (CHP), for example, that imposed this "jizya– kafir (infidel) tax" on Turkey’s non-Muslim citizens.
Until the AKP came to power in 2002, almost all non-Muslim citizens of Turkey had either been murdered, deported or had to flee the country for their lives. Many non-Muslims have been punished and victimized by Turkish governments for the sole reason of being non-Muslim. Even if they were fully assimilated, they were never considered equal citizens.
The founders and ideologues of Turkey – since the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923 – propagated a discriminatory and Turkish supremacist mindset that revealed itself under the slogan “Turkey for the Turks.” All succeeding governments have consciously attempted to make this slogan a reality, turning the lives of religious minorities into hell on earth. The current aggressive policies of the ruling AKP government against non-Muslims are just a continuation of this mentality.
About the author: Uzay Bulut is a Turkish journalist and political analyst formerly based in Ankara. Her writings have appeared in various outlets such as the Gatestone Institute, Washington Times, Christian Post and Jerusalem Post. Bulut’s journalistic work focuses mainly on human rights, Turkish politics, and history, religious minorities in the Middle East and anti-Semitism. Bulut has now also become a contributor for the Greek City Times.