No 9 April 21 2015 The Asia Minor Catastrophe and the Burning of Smyrna 1922. Part Two Aftermath: The winners and the Losers.
The Asia Minor Catastrophe and the Burning of Smyrna 1922. Part Two
Aftermath: The winners and the Losers.
“The politicians made us hate each other”
View of many Asia Minor refugees after 1922
Following WWI and the ill-fated Treaty of Sèvres (1920), the Greeks were given a mandate to occupy Smyrna and the surrounding region to which they had long-standing claims both historically and demographically. Following a change in government in which Eleftherios Venizelos was replaced by King Constantine, the Allies withdrew their support for the Greek army leaving them without money, arms and casting them adrift in what was becoming a maze with no exit. Rather than retreat, the King pushed on further into Anatolia. By this time, it was too late. Mustafa Kemal had been busy reorganizing a growing Nationalist movement into a strong Turkish army. By the summer of 1922, the Turks had gained the upper hand. The military disaster culminated in the destruction of the thriving city of Smyrna by fire in September 1922. Thousands of Greeks and Armenians were wounded maimed or killed, women were assaulted, houses looted and burnt, and many who succeeded in reaching Smyrna harbour drowned in their attempt to escape. The fortunate were finally evacuated by Greek, Italian and American ships. Most able-bodied men were forcibly detained by the Turks for service in the notorious ‘labour battalions’ where inhuman conditions resulted in a high mortality rate.
The influx of destitute persons into Greece reached several thousand within a few weeks. With the onset of winter, refugees huddled together in warehouses, sheds and tents in Greek ports and towns hoping for a speedy return back to Turkey. The Athens Opera House, school buildings and public buildings were all taken over and members of voluntary relief organizations such as The Red Cross and Save the Children Fund worked alongside the Greek Refugee Relief Fund. At that point, there was little reason to suspect that repatriation would not be possible. The first indication that this would not happen came with the new peace negotiation in January 1923 where the new Turkish leadership made its conditions known. The new nation-state of Turkey was to have a secular legal system and there was no place for religious minorities and the Christian population had to be removed. The Turks were unyielding and in an unprecedented move, an agreement signed between Greece and Turkey – The Treaty of Lausanne (1923) – there was to be a compulsory exchange of populations. Over the next two years, a further 200,000 Christians were removed from Asia Minor and Thrace to settle in Greece joining the thousands of destitute refugees who had escaped earlier. At the same time, 350,000 Muslims were compelled to leave Greece and settle in Turkey. Exempted were the Greeks of Istanbul and the Muslims of Thrace. In the meantime, the overall scale of the problem was immense and the bitter winter and extreme deprivation caused a high mortality rate. In some parts of the country about twenty percent of the refugees died within a year. In all, there were almost 1,500.000 refugees.
The Asia Minor Greeks had lived in Ottoman society, which preserved continuity with its predecessor, the Byzantine Empire. Up until the twentieth century, the ottoman Empire was a cosmopolitan and heterogeneous society and diverse ethnic groups were grouped by religious affiliations (e.g. Orthodox Christians, Jews), and granted legal status and administered as separate ‘nations’ in the millet system. This effectively allowed the survival and co-existence of ethnic minorities and promoted their sense of cultural and civil autonomy. This was in sharp contrast with the Modern Greek State after the Greek War of Independence which was increasingly shaped by Western European ideas. For Asia Minor Greeks, the bond with Byzantium remained vital. Constantinople, not Athens, was their first point of reference. These points of difference were apparent when the refugees reached Greece, especially those from Anatolia. In 1922, the Greek State did not compare favourably with the wealth and diversity of their homeland. Athens and Salonika where many moved to were viewed as small towns, provincial and disorganized, backwards and poor. In 1972 – fifty years after the tragedy- those memories still prevailed. I recall my friends whose families hailed from Asia Minor saying, “Athens was nothing in 1922. Smyrna was much wealthier and far more cosmopolitan.” Others said “They knew nothing. Before we came what were they; it is we who taught them everything.”
Memory and recollection through oral stories plays a huge part in Greek life and has shaped the last eighty-three years both politically and socially. Subsequent political instability was to have a cumulative effect on Greek society which marginalized much of the population. The Mikrasiates, people from Asia Minor, as they still call themselves were resilient and flexible and in the end carved out a new life. Religion and festivities played a huge part in keeping their memories alive. With so many of the male population killed or missing, there was an imbalance of women to men. Many intermarried to keep the connections strong. In the 1970,s Turkish was still used as the first language of the older generation by some families. If they had come from coastal towns, many spoke several languages which were put to use in forging new business ventures, cinemas in Migrant areas regularly watched Turkish films, especially the elderly, Turkish proverbs were used and naughty children were threatened with ‘the stick of Sultan Mehmet’. If they had come from coastal towns, many spoke several languages which were put to use in forging new business ventures. And most poignant of all, up until the seventies, families still held out hope that they would be reunited with loved ones still missing in Turkey.
After the Greek defeat, most of the army was in a state of dissolution. Several middle ranking officers took charge and formed a revolutionary committee. The revolution reached Athens by September 26 and demanded the abdication of King Constantine, the resignation of the government, the dissolution of the Chamber and the strengthening of the Thracian front. The lives of the King and the Royal Family were now in danger. The King and government bowed to revolutionary demands and the new king, the young George II acceded to the throne. Four prominent Venizelists who had signed a republican manifesto, were for abolishing the monarchy once and for all. The ex-king sailed away on September 30. It was his second time in exile and he would not return. He died one year later in Palermo. On 23 October, it was announced that the ministers responsible for the Catastrophe would be tried by court martial. A month later on 29 November 1922, the six accused, now the most despised men in Greece, were taken out to the military barracks a few kilometres north of Athens and executed by firing squad. They were Dimitris Gounaris, Prime minister; Georgios Hadzianestis, Commander-in-chief of the Greek Army; Nikolaos Stratos, Minister of the Interior; Nikolaos Theotokis, Minister of War; and Petros Protopadadakis, Finance Minister. A year later, King George followed his father in exile. He was to return to reign from 1935-1947. The hopes and aspirations of the Great Idea were over. Amongst the Anatolian Greeks and ordinary soldiers, the loss and waste was incalculable. A new era was beginning for the Greeks.
Meanwhile, in Turkey Nationalist troops marched towards Constantinople. The Allies wanted to keep the capital at all costs and were determined to defend the Dardanelles. But in a series of cat and mouse games that were so familiar to this story, the Turks and the Allies were taken once more to the brink of war. The Turks threatened to attack if they didn’t get what they wanted. On October 17 an armistice was held in Mudana. The Turks had won. Two days later the Conservative Party in Britain took itself out of the wartime coalition and Lloyd George – the man who had once called Mustafa Kemal ‘a carpet-seller in a bazaar’ resigned. He would never hold office again. A week after the armistice, whole villages could be seen without a Christian in them. Now the Greeks were leaving Thrace. It was the exodus by land which took the breath away of all those who saw it. The young journalist, Ernest Hemingway wrote: In a never-ending, staggering march the Christian population of Eastern Thrace is jamming the roads towards Macedonia. The main column crossing the Maritza River at Adrianople is twenty miles long. Twenty miles of carts drawn by cows, bullocks and muddy-flanked water buffalo, with exhausted, staggering men, women and children, blankets over their heads, walking blindly along in the rain beside their worldly goods. It is a silent procession. Nobody even grunts. It is all they can do to keep moving.
Like many old enemies, when Venizelos and Mustafa Kemal came face-to-face with each other again in Ankara in 1930, they found they had much in common and enjoyed each other’s company. When Venizelos left the dinner he was met with an extraordinary sight. Buntings and flags in the blue and white colours of Greece lined the street. For a brief moment, it seemed that the Great Idea had indeed triumphed.
Eleftherios Venizelos, the distinguished statesman born in Hania, Crete, in 1864, friend of Lloyd George and admirer of British parliamentary institutions, was re-elected as Greek Prime Minister from 1928-32 and died in exile in Paris in 1936 at the age of 71. He body was brought back from France to be buried in his beloved Crete. His Liberal Democratic views often polarized Greek politics in what was to be known as the National Schism – Royalists versus the Republicans. After the Ankara Agreement when Greek refugees realized they would get little compensation for their property in Asia Minor, many Mikrasiates turned against him.
Less than nine months after the population exchange, Mustafa Kemal became the elected president of the new-republic of Turkey and the last vestiges of Ottoman rule were swept away. The caliphate was abolished, and the fez- which had for so long symbolized the old Turkey – was also abolished. The yashmak – the veil that women traditionally wore over their face – began to disappear and all Turks were required to adopt a family name in the western tradition. Mustafa Kemal adopted “Atatürk”, father of the Turks. One of the most fundamental changes he made in modernizing Turkey was to reform the language, cleansing it wherever possible of the Arabic and Persian that had infiltrated the original Turkic language of the Eurasian Steppes and replacing the Arabic with the Latin alphabet. This alone severed Turkey’s link with its Islamic past in favour of the West. In Smyrna in 1922, Kemal met Latife, daughter of a well-to-do Turkish Smryniot businessman. Latife had studied law in France and spoke French like a Frenchwoman. Her parents were spending the summer in Biarritz but she returned to Smyrna to work for the Nationalist cause. They were married soon after. Mustafa Kemal, born in Salonika in 1881, died in Istanbul in 1938 at the age of 57. Thousands lined the streets as his body was taken by gun-carriage to the strains of Chopin’s Funeral March past the old seraglio and the Galata Bridge where it was conveyed by boat out of the Bosphorus. He was buried in Ankara. Against all odds, the soldier in Ataturk saved his country against the designs of European powers and gave an element of stability in the Middle Eastern world. Like Venizelos, he was charismatic and a statesman. Both are credited with being the makers of modern Greece and Turkey.
As for Turkey itself, Sultan Mehmed VI, (1861-1926), the 36th and last Sultan of the Ottoman Empire went into exile in Malta in 1922. He reigned from from 1918-1922 and died in San Remo in Italy. He is buried at the Tekkiye Mosque of Sultan Sulieman the Magnificent in Damascus. His first cousin and heir, Abdulmecid Efendi, was elected Caliph becoming the new head of the Imperial House of Osman as Abdulmecid I before the Caliphate was abolished by the Turkish Grand National Assembly in 1924. He died in Paris in 1944, aged 76. It is significant that modern cities like Constantinople (Istanbul) and Smyrna, (Izmir), which functioned as trade and industrial centres in the decades before the population exchange, lost their position to Greece after 1922. The exodus of Ottoman Greeks led to a recession in Turkey within trade, crafts, mining and agriculture and as a result, French, Italian and Dutch firms followed the Greeks to Athens and Piraeus which gained a new and important role during the inter-war years as the platform for commerce in the Middle East. The refugees contributed considerably to the development of industry and agriculture of modern Greece. In 1961, an investigation into Greek trades and professions noted that 25 per cent of all entrepreneurs were originally refugees.
And what of the descendants of the Mikrasiates refugees today? In the suburbs of Athens and Thessaloniki, raised out of the shantytowns of 1923 onwards, many families still hold onto the keys and deeds to their properties in Turkey. Written in the old Turkish script, these are now viewed more as a link with the old world than of the hope of ever returning. Yet in every aspect of Greek life today, the old world still lives on; in the music, food, traditions and Turkish words and proverbs which punctuate the Greek language. For both countries they have a shared history which is a fundamental part of what has shaped them and after all the heartache, when talking about their relationships with their Turkish neighbours, bitterness was noticeably absent. Instead, they mentioned how they had lived peaceably for long periods in an atmosphere of mutual respect. Older people were quite categorical that the disturbances and military confrontation were not the responsibility of the ordinary Turk. The oral tradition remains strong in both communities: “Our refugeeness is disappearing,” one old lady said fifty years later. “The old people are dying and whatever one might describe, it is only a small patch of cloth. We experienced it but it it’s like a fairy story to our children.”
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