Saturday, May 05, 2018


“The greatest blow given to this beautiful city was dealt by the Greek soldiers, who burnt Izmir at the time of their retreat. Don’t pay attention to those who say that it was burnt by Turks. The greatest blows were delivered by those who consider themselves to be the most civilised in this geographic region…..Our ancestors did not want to destroy, or to burn. They always sought to build, to create, as can be evidenced by the development of Izmir after the war of Independence.”
The Turkish president’s latest outburst is chilling. Not only because it beggars belief that in the technologically and supposedly socially advanced twenty first century, the leader of a major power would resort to such infantile behavior, taunting neighbouring countries, but also, because his denial of his country’s complicity  in one of the most barbarous and criminal acts of the twentieth century, the burning of Smyrna, creates a precedent that is inimical to world peace.
It is trite to mention from the outset that the Greek army did not burn Smyrna. It had no reason to. Thousands of Greeks were still in the city trying to flee after the Greek army, pursued by Kemalist soldiers, effectively abandoned them to their fates. Enough evidence, by way of eyewitness testimony exists, to implicate the Nationalist Turks in the destruction of this great cosmopolitan city. Over the years however, Turkish historians and politicians have sought to blame the victims of the catastrophe, variously attributing blame to the Armenians for the arson, and at other times, the Greeks, depending on who has roused their ire at that particular moment.
Falih Rıfkı Atay, a Turkish journalist and nationally renowned author, for example, in attributing blame to the Turks for the Smyrnan conflagration, does so in the context of addressing Turkish claims that the Armenians were responsible:
“Gavur [infidel] 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.”
Having thus explained that the Turkish army has already engaged in targeted arson of minority areas previously, Aktay also tries to analyse what motivated the Turkish Army, and in particular, its commander in Smyrna, to set fire to the city. Simply put, revenge at the Greek army’s scorched earth tactics in Anatolia and an understanding that this was the most efficient way to ethnically cleanse the hitherto multicultural city, proved the primary motivation:
“If there were another war and we were defeated, would it be sufficient guarantee of preserving the Turkishness of the city if we had left Izmir as a devastated expanse of vacant lots? Were it not for Nureddin Pasha, whom I know to be a dyed-in-the-wool fanatic and rabblerouser, I do not think this tragedy would have gone to the bitter end. He has doubtless been gaining added strength from the unforgiving vengeful feelings of the soldiers and officers who have seen the debris and the weeping and agonized population of the Turkish towns which the Greeks have burned to ashes all the way from Afyon.”
This sentiment is echoed by Professor Biray Kolluoğlu Kırlı a professor of Sociology at Bogazici University, Istanbul, who in a 2005 paper, argued Smyrna was burned by the Turkish Army to create a Turkish city out of the cosmopolitan fabric of the old city. Aktay, on the other hand, is careful to distance Turkish national leader Ataturk from the act, placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of Nureddin Pasha, who had a reputation for brutality:
"At the time it was said that Armenian arsonists were responsible. But was this so? There were many who assigned a part in it to Nureddin Pasha, commander of the First Army, a man whom Kemal had long disliked..."
In his influential 2008 book, Paradise Lost, Smyrna 1922, Giles Martin provides plausible evidence that that in fact, it was the Turkish army that brought in thousands of barrels from the Petroleum Company of Smyrna and poured them over all of the buildings except those in the Turkish quarter of the city. He also suggests that this was done with the full approval of Atatürk, who was determined to ride Turkey of its minorities, in order to establish a new ethnically homogenous republic.
American industrial engineer Mark Prentiss was present in Smyrna during its holocaust. He wrote: 
“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.”
Turkey loses nothing is accepting its culpability for the Great Fire. Subsequent to the destruction of Smyrna, peace treaties were signed with its adversaries, including Greece and the city was rebuilt as a Turkish one. Had Turkey admitted liability and apologized, the nations concerned and affected would have moved on, forged closer ties and relegated the affair, albeit painfully, to history. Instead, Turkey has done the opposite. By committing the act in the first place, it has proven that persistent aggression and violence can allow one to violate international treaties and evade international law, a practice it has employed again during the invasion of Cyprus in 1974 and in its current invasion of Syria. By then denying it committed that act and transposing the blame for it on its victims, its political culture has shown that not only does it lack the requisite moral introspection to understand that evasion of responsibility is tantamount to a wholesale endorsement of the crime itself but also, that the State is capable of committing such acts in the future. Finally, by returning to this event, it does not grant victims and their families the ability to surmount its trauma, retaining it, unnecessarily, as a “live” issue.
Just before the end of his term in office, US President Barack Obama gave a speech in Athens, extolling the virtues of democracy, to those who invented the concept. At no stage did he state that the United States, a country that has constantly interfered in Greek affairs and in the case of the Junta, supported the subversion of the Greek democratic system, stands with Greece against foreign aggression. As a result, an emboldened Turkey has been encouraged to turn the clock back to the horrific days of 1922. Where before, its jets flew over Greek airspace and sabre rattling was formulaic and ritualistic, today, its politicians gleefully threaten to “throw the Greeks into the sea,” threaten war, and kidnap and imprison disoriented Greek soldiers, all because the powers that be, have turned a blind eye to Turkish state aggression, have tacitly permitted Turkey to cover up past crimes and thus, encouraged Turkey in its conviction that aggression and bullying is a viable foreign policy option.
Culprits aside, the Great Fire of 1922 was a catastrophe for humanity. It showed that despite humankind’s level of technological and social advancement, we were unable to learn anything at all from the carnage of the First World War. It proved that despite the rhetoric about modernity and the new man, there is no evolution, but rather only revolution around the axis of a vicious cycle of savagery. Greece, which has not fought an aggressive war since 1922, has put its trust in international structures of security and jurisprudence that while paying lip service to the rudiments of civilization that Turkish politicians so parody, actually reward their behaviour. Nonetheless, Greece constantly affirms its commitment to peace and amity between nations by responding to ever-increasing racist taunts and threats of violence from across the water, in a mature and composed fashion, as truly behooves a modern civilized nation. It does so because it understands just how catastrophic the irresponsible remarks of the petulant and powerful can prove for the lives of its people and because it knows that the safety of its peoples are much more important than the outmoded egotistical posturings of the bellicose.
We do not really need to prove that a holocaust that took place one hundred years ago, and which signaled the demise of 3,000 years of Greek civilization in Asia Minor was not our fault. As the poet Yiannis Ritsos wrote: «Λοιπόν δεν είναι ανάγκη να φωνάξω για να με πιστέψουν, να πουν: « Όποιος φωνάζει έχει το δίκιο». Εμείς το δίκιο το `χουμε μαζί μας και το ξέρουμε». What Turkey’s politicians need to prove, is that in the ensuing century, their nation has been able to draw valuable lessons about the necessity for peaceful co-existence and tolerance. Their leader’s latest verbal paroxysm casts grave doubts in that direction and dashes hopes for achieving stability in the region, stoking fires that will smoulder for generations to come.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 5 May 2018