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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Greek Diaspora

"The Smyrna Catastrophe" by Vasilis Bottas.

The early Greeks were restless colonizers since the Bronze Age (3100 - 1200 BCE), when they settled the Aegean coast of Asia Minor.  When Asia Minor was conquered by Alexander the Great, even more Greeks settled in the area.  Under Hellenization, Greek became the lingua franca of the area, and was one of the first places that Christianity spread.  By the 4th century CE, Asia Minor was pretty much both Greek-speaking and Christian.

All the colored land areas are part of the Hellenistic civilization
(Greek civilization beyond classical Greeks) that was
established by colonization and by Alexander the Great.

In the 11th century, the Seljuk Turks took over Asia Minor and settled there. Gradually the population changed, and became predominantly Turkish-speaking and Muslim.  There was a wealthy class of Greek merchants who were influential in the Ottoman Empire administration.  These Greek-Turks considered themselves Hellenic.  They also used their wealth to endow libraries and schools, and one of the most important centers of learning was in Smyrna, a major center of Greek commerce.

The distribution of Greeks in the Balkans and western Asia Minor from a 1919 map.
This map was submitted to the Paris Peace Conference that year.

The Ottoman Empire existed from 1299 to 1923, when the Treaty of Lausanne officially ended it.  Its height was in the 16th and 17th centuries.  Toward its end, by the mid-19th century, it was known as the "sick man of Europe".  At this time the rise of nationalism was sweeping through Europe, and it affected many of the territories in the Ottoman Empire, which was forced to deal with it both within and outside its borders.  Before I go on, let me make it clear that the Ottomans and the ensuing Turkish government were not one and the same.  The Ottomans tended to look down upon the Turks, and were banished once Turkey became a Republic.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Asia Minor was part of the irredentist notion known as the Megali Idea (big idea).  This advocated the establishment of a Greek nation encompassing all ethnic Greeks.  It was to include former Byzantine lands from the Ionian sea to Asia Minor and the Black Sea (west to east, respectively), and Trace, Macedonia, and Epirus to Crete and Cyprus (north to south). Constantinope would be the capital, and it would be called the "Greece of Two Continents and Five Seas" (Europe and Asia; the Ionian, Aegean, Marmara, Black, and Libyan Seas).

Greece after the Treaty of Sèvres.  In the left corner is Eleutherios
Venizelos, two-time Prime Minister of Greece and an eminent
revolutionary.  He represented Greece in negotiations that led to the
Treaty of Lausanne, and was a proponent of the Megali Idea.  

After WWI, Greece was given Smyrna and surrounding areas, as promised by the western Allies, Great Britain in particular, in exchange for Greece's support of the Allies.   In 1919, the Greek army occupied Smyrna.  Many historians, including Arnold J. Toynbee, argue that it was this occupation of Smyrna that created the Turkish Nationalist Movement.   Smyrna, at that time, had more Greeks than Athens living there.

Greek troops in Smyrna welcomed by the Greek population on May 15, 1919.

During the Greco-Turkish War (1919-1922), a series of military events that happened during the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire, Greece gave back the territory of Smyrna that it had gained during the war.  A population exchange was conducted with the new nation of Turkey under the provision of the Treaty of Lausanne.  More than one million Greeks were displaced, most settling in Attica, Macedonia and Thrace.  They were exchanged for 500,000 Muslims from Greek territories.

Smyrna harbor prior to 1922.  It was the largest Greek city in the world.

A major factor contributing to the defeat of the Greeks was the withdrawal of Allied support, for complex reasons.  The most plausible reason was no one wanted to engage in battle after the bloodshed of WWI. This lack of support not only included military aide, but all credit was stopped.  The Allies would also not allow the Greek Navy to carry out a blockade, which would have restricted Turkey from receiving food and materials.  The Russians, who had felt humiliated after WWI, supported the Turks, providing them with weapons and monetary aid.  Italy and France joined with the Turks, also sending them military aid, because they saw Greece as a client of Great Britain.

There are substantial reports that when the Greeks first occupied Smyrna they caused massive destruction and massacred whole villages of Turks.  There are equally substantial reports, and they are more numerous, of the Turks committing horrible atrocities against the Greeks in the Black Sea area and of Armenians in the East and South.  Newspapers of many nations state that the Turkish aim was to exterminate non-Turkish populations.  Turkish authorities also prevented missionaries and humanitarian aid groups from assisting Greek civilians.

Panicked refugees prefer drowning to slaughter.
Image courtesy of www.imia.cc.duth.gr.

In September of 1922 a fire began in Smyrna, four days after Turkish occupation. Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal, had issued a proclamation, written in Greek and distributed throughout, that any Turkish soldier who harmed non-combatants would be put to death.  Nonetheless, the city was set on fire and the properties of the Greeks were pillaged.  Although the Greeks were blamed for setting the fire, most eye-witness accounts identified the Turkish army as setting the fire.  The fact that only the Greek and Armenian parts of the city were burned adds credence to this claim.

The fire as seen from an Italian ship, September 14, 1922.

50,00 to 400,000 (none of the data of any of this history can be confirmed) Greek and Armenian refugees lined the waterfront escaping the fire.  They remained there for almost two weeks until Greek Ships under the supervision of Allied destroyers entered the harbor to evacuate them.

Some of the thousands who lined up on the waterfront.
Image courtesy of the Benaki Museum,

The fire, which broke on the afternoon of September 13, and spread quickly due to the wind and the fact no efforts were made to put it out, was finally extinguished on the 22nd.  It was not until the 24th that the first Greek ships came to get the refugees.  Evacuation was difficult because of the number and state of distress of the refugees.  On the quay, some Turkish soldiers robbed and beat the refugees, arresting anyone who resisted.  Many of the terrified people took their own lives. 150,000 - 200,000 Greeks were evacuated, while approximately 30,000 fit Greek and Armenian men were deported to the interior.  Many of them died en route or were executed.

Caravans of refugees were deported into the interior of Turkey.
Image courtesy of this site.

There were numerous ships from the various Allied nations in the harbor of Smyrna at the time, but they did not help the refugees, citing "neutrality".  Military bands played loudly in an attempt to drown out the screams.  A U.S. seaman recalled that the screaming, which started on the docks as the sun fell, never ceased through the nights.  A lone Japanese freighter dumped all of its cargo and filled the ship to the brink with refugees and took them to Piraeus.  Many refugees were rescued via an impromptu flotilla arranged by Asa Jennings.

Jennings was an employee of the YMCA in Smyrna who took it upon himself to telegraph the government in Athens to rescue the refugees.  When he threatened to make public the government's refusal, they placed all the Greek ships in his command.  He later recalled, "All I knew about ships was to be sick in them."  By the end of September he had rescued all of the refugees, not quitting until there was no one left.

Refugees.  Image courtesy of this site.

George Horton, U.S. Consul and a witness to the fire, wrote later, "One of the keenest impressions which I brought away with me from Smyrna was a feeling of shame that I belonged to the human race." He also was of the opinion that "..a united order from the [Allied] commanders or from any two of them - one harmless shell thrown across the Turkish quarter - would have brought the Turks to their senses."

In the aftermath, Greek officers at Piraeus.  Image courtesy of http://smyrniaalbum.s5.com.

The refugees who finally made it to Greece were scarcely welcomed with open arms.  Greece was a poor country and the influx was about one-third of its population.  The housing and lands from the Muslims who were traded were hardly enough to accommodate the refugees.  Also, their culture was more akin to Constantinople, rather than the Greek cities they came to.

Greeks at a refugee camp.  Image courtesy of www.greeklibrary.agrino.org.

So who was to blame?  In part, the Allies, particularly Great Britain, need to assume some responsibility.  Even Winston Churchill commented, "At last peace with Turkey:  and to ratify it, War with Turkey!  However, so far as the Great Allies were concerned the war was to be fought by proxy.  Wars when fought thus by great nations are often very dangerous for the proxy."  The Greeks were worried that Italy, who had been promised Smyrna in 1917, might gain control of the area, so they pushed their dominance.  However, their occupation of Smyrna was urged by the British government, and Allied warships were positioned in the harbor.  This undoubtably added resentment on the part of the Turkish nationalists.

Memorabilia of the horrors.  Image courtesy of www.greeklibrary.agrino.org.

We will never know all the facts, nor will we know the true ones.  Any kind of accounting is suspect as numbers kept varying from party to party and are not based on the same reasoning.  The Turks, for instance, kept populations numbers according to religion and not ethnicity.

One of the Greeks who survived Smyrna was Aristotle Onassis.  He was born there, and his family had substantial property losses from either bribes or confiscation.  While some of his family fled, he remained behind to successfully save his father from a Turkish concentration camp.  He lost three uncles, and aunt, and a niece when the Turks set fire to a church where 500 Greeks had turned to for shelter.

Aristotle Onassis.

While he obviously was able to recoup any financial losses, his story was an anomaly.  My grandparents were refugees, and my grandmother was soon abandoned in Athens by her new husband, left with a baby daughter - my mother. My mother escaped her poor circumstances by marrying my father and moving to the U.S.  No one was more shocked than her, returning to Athens in 1965 with me in tow and seeing the indigent circumstances my grandmother lived in.  Yia Yia was too proud to ever ask for anything, and always wrote that things were fine. The guilt of leaving her had been hard on my mother, and it was made worse by her findings.  The horror and sorrow of Smyrna was passed down the generations.

The end of Smyrna, a great Ionian city.
Image courtesy of http://smyrnialbum.s5.com.

Thus ended 3,000 years of Greek occupation of the Aegean Coast of Asia Minor.

Unless otherwise noted, all images courtesy of Wikipedia.

1 comment:

  1. Linda, so well written! Thanks so much! Sybil