Monday, September 29, 2008


“We didn’t know how and we didn’t know why. All we knew was that they were coming. People were streaming in from the interior, their clothes in tatters, telling gruesome stories of the horrors that befell them. When we left, they were close behind us, every step of the way and all we knew was that we had to flee, that if they caught up with us, it would mean death. When we got to Smyrna, we thought we were safe. No one ever thought that they would enter Smyrna.”
In 1922, an eleven year old boy fled his home city of Aydin in western Asia Minor and embarked on what was for him, an epic 100km journey westwards with his brother, to Smyrna and safety, escaping a pursuing Turkish army. Along the way, he witnessed the rape of the country side occasioned by the Graeco-Turkish War, the panic and hysteria of a Greek population just beginning to comprehend that the 3000 year sojourn in these lands was coming to a close and that their lives were in mortal peril. He also witnessed what was to be the most terrible closing chapter in the history of Greek habitation of Asia Minor – the holocaust of Smyrna. That boy was my grandfather, Kostas Kalymnios.
For over two thousand years before 1922, the Greek people thrived in Smyrna, a beautiful port on the coast of Asia Minor, founded by the Ionians. It is one of the cities which lays claim to the honour of being the birthplace of Homer. Enlarged and rebuilt successively by Antigonus I and Lysimachus, it soon became one of the largest and most prosperous cities in Asia Minor. Its wealth and splendour increased under Roman rule, and Smyrna was one of the cities referred to in the Revelation of John as comprising one of the seven churches of Asia Minor. Throughout its tortuous history, captured by Seljuk Turks, Mongols and finally the Ottoman Turks in 1424, it remained essentially a Greek city throughout the ages, a cultural as well as commercial entrepot of trade and commerce, under Adamantios Korais fostered the Greek enlightenment and with the rise of nationalism became one of the key foci of the Greek «Μεγάλη Ιδέα» or ‘Great Idea’ to reunify all the historical lands inhabited by Greeks.
At the turn of the twentieth century, the Ottoman Empire, known as the ‘sick man of Europe’ was in constant turmoil, with each subject nationality aspiring towards self-rule and many Turkic groups embracing nationalism, liberalism and questioning the values of the Empire. Smyrna especially proved a hotbed of radical idealists, given its international character and its concentration of intellectuals from France, England, Russia and America. The Young Turk revolution of 1908 brought Turkish nationalism to the fore and it became the ideology of the regime that non-Turks could not play a role in what should be a Turkish-only state. Beginning around 1913, the Ottoman Turks, sensing the imminent collapse of the Empire, began a campaign to "Turkify" the population of Asia Minor by expelling or eliminating its minority populations. The Greeks, Assyrians and Armenians were of the many ethnic groups whose legitimacy of habitation in Asia Minor was questioned. Smyrna proved somewhat of an anomaly for the Ottomans and Young Turks alike: its predominantly Greek population along with substantial, Armenian, Jewish and other European populations as well did not lend itself easily to be included within the ethnically based policies of Young Turks. It was in essence a European city, adorned in neo-classical architecture, with Parisian inspired theatres, auditoriums, colleges and clubs, possessed a tram line and a fin de siecle self confidence in western civilisation. No wonder then that Smyrna’s appellation in the popular parlance of the Turks was “gâvurizmir,” Smyrna of the Infidels. In 1922, in the culmination of a campaign to rid the newly created Republic of Turkey of its ethnic minorities, the ancient city of Smyrna was destroyed.
With the signing of the Treaty of Sevres in 1919, Greece was given a mandate to occupy the province of Smyrna for five years, after which time, a plebiscite would determine whether the province would remain in Turkey or be ceded to Greece. The liberation of Smyrna on 2 May 1915 was greeted with jubilation by the Christian population of the city. However, as Venizelos managed to extend the Entente mandate to occupy the province of Aydin, Turkish patriotism, dormant after the Empire’s humiliating defeat, began to come to the fore. It was considered that Greece was invading and occupying the Turkish heartland, and Turks rallied around Mustafa Kemal Atatürk to remove the Greeks from Asia Minor and began to attack Greek troops. Venizelos ordered a general advance of troops into Asia Minor. The troops eventually advanced to the outskirts on Ankara, drawn further and further from their supply lines, demoralised by a war that was a running sore on the Greek economy and psyche and having to combat the competing interests of the Italians who had occupied southern Turkey and were actively assisting the Turks against the Greeks. The removal of Venizelos and restitution of the throne to Constantine awarded the Entente a pretext to extricate themselves from an issue that had now become uncontrollable- they withdrew their support from Greece.
In a major offensive on August 26, 1922, against the Greek positions on the Sakarya River, Atatürk smashed the Greek army, forcing them to retreat in a panic from Asia Minor, committing widespread brutalities against Turkish populations as they fled and leaving Greek populations undefended.
As the Turkish troops began their inexorable advance towards the Aegean, Smyrna was seized in panic. The arrival of crowds of refugees from the interior and of the ragged remnants of the Greek army, coupled with the abandonment of the town on the part of civil and military authority, reduced the inhabitants to waiting in agony for the end. On 27 August, the first Turkish irregulars entered the town through the Pounta bridge and began to loot and pillage. Rudolph J. Rummel states that the Turkish army indulged in "systematic firing" in the Armenian and Greek quarters of the city. He argues that after the Turks recaptured the city, Turkish soldiers and Moslem mobs shot and hacked to death Armenians, Greeks, and other Christians in the streets of the city; he estimates the victims of these massacres, by giving reference to the previous claims of Marjorie Housepian Dobkin, at about 100,000.
As Christians were rounded up for execution, thousands flocked to the docks in the hope of fleeing the catastrophe. Turkish soldiers would stand on the quayside and fire at refugees attempting to swim to safety. Despite the fact that there were numerous ships from various Allied powers in the harbor of Smyrna, the vast majority of ships, citing "neutrality," did not pick up Greek and Armenian civilians who were forced to flee the fire and Turkish troops. Military bands played loud music to drown out the screams of those who were drowning in the harbor. Other scholars give a different account of the events; they argue that the Turks first forbade foreign ships in the harbor to pick up the survivors, but, then, under pressure especially from Britain, France, and the United States, they allowed the rescuing of all the Christians except males 17 to 45 years old, whom they aimed to deport into the interior, which was regarded as a short life sentence to slavery under brutal masters, ended by mysterious death.
On 31 August 1922, as a direct result of the pillaging of the Greek and Armenian quarters and the burning of their homes, four fires broke out in the city. Mark Lambert Bristol, US High Commissioner, was an eyewitness to the cause: “Many of us personally saw-- and are ready to affirm the statement-- Turkish soldiers often directed by officers throwing petroleum in the street and houses. Vice-Consul Barnes watched a Turkish officer leisurely fire the Custom House and the Passport Bureau while at least fifty Turkish soldiers stood by. Major Davis saw Turkish soldiers throwing oil in many houses. The Navy patrol reported seeing a complete horseshoe of fires started by the Turks around the American school.”
US Diplomat George Horton, is also unequivocal, despite revisionist Turkish claims that the Greeks and Armenians were the cause of the blaze: “The fire was lighted at the edge of the Armenian quarter at a time when a strong wind was blowing toward the Christian section and away from the Turkish. The Turkish quarter was not in any way involved in the catastrophe and during all the abominable scenes that followed and all the indescribable sufferings of the Christians, the Mohammedan quarter was lighted up and gay with dancing, singing and joyous celebration.”
Internationally renown Turkish author, Falih Rifki Atay, admitted: “Gavur İzmir burned and came to an end with its flames in the darkness and its smoke in daylight. Were those responsible for the fire really the Armenian arsonists as we were told in those days? ... As I have decided to write the truth as far as I know I want to quote a page from the notes I took in those days. ‘The plunderers helped spread the fire ... Why were we burning down İzmir? Were we afraid that if waterfront konaks, hotels and taverns stayed in place, we would never be able to get rid of the minorities? When the Armenians were being deported in the First World War, we had burned down all the habitable districts and neighbourhoods in Anatolian towns and cities with this very same fear. This does not solely derive from an urge for destruction. There is also some feeling of inferiority in it. It was as if anywhere that resembled Europe was destined to remain Christian and foreign and to be denied to us.”
Fortunately, recently, many Turks have begun to question the state narrative of the denial. Biray Kolluoglu Kirli, a Professor of Sociology at Bogazici University, published a paper in 2005 in which she pursues an argument based on the claim that the city was burned by the Turks in an attempt to cleanse the predominantly Christian city in order to make way for a new Muslim and Turkish city, and focuses on an examination of the extensions of this viewpoint on the Turkish nationalist narrative since.
The apogee of Turkish utter repudiation of the Greeks of Smyrna was the death of Bishop Chrysostomos, who had actively campaigned for the liberation of Asia Minor. He was delivered by Nureddin Bey to the ravaging mob with the instructions: “If he benefited you, do the same to him and if he hurt you, hurt him.” The ethnomartyr Chrysostomos was literally torn apart.
The enormity of the catastrophe still invokes horror today, Governor Pataki of New York has reflected: "...Smyrna, the largest city in Asia Minor called 'the jewel of the Mediterranean', a cosmopolitan hub populated by a highly educated Greek community and flourishing commercial and middle-classes, was sacked and burned and its inhabitants massacred by the Turkish forces; the pier of Smyrna became a scene of final desperation as the approaching flames forced many thousands to jump to their death, rather than be consumed by flame."
On September 9, 1922, Atatürk entered Smyrna triumphantly. The utter destruction of this once vibrant city also signalled the death knell for Greek irredentism. A population exchange was organised in which almost two million Greeks were caused to leave Asia Minor and were settled in Greece. The exchange put a tremendous strain on the Greek economy as it tried to cope with the influx of over a million new people in Greece. The hardships endured by the individuals concerned were also very trying as many Greeks abandoned a privileged life in Asia Minor for one of poverty in shantytowns in Greece. Nevertheless, the exchange helped to stabilise the region and though heart wrenching, served to bring about peace.
There remains no vestige of a 3,000 year old Greek presence in the modern city of Izmir today. The Jewish curse “may their name and memory be erased” has partly come true with respect to the Greeks of Smyrna. While their names may be gone, their memory lives eternal, through the economic advancement of Greece, regenesis of radical political thought and rembetika music. The holocaust of Smyrna is a tragedy not only for the Greek and Armenian victims, but also for the Turkish nation. It is the tragedy of the insignificant caught underneath the millstone of the conflicting and cynical permutations of the designs of the powerful. Viewed through this prism, all are victims, the dead and those who were, through no fault of their own, forced to commit awful brutalities.
First published in NKEE on 29 September 2008