By Professor Robert Zaller, Distinguished University Professor at Drexel at Drexel University
The fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Ottoman Turks was one of the great disasters of Greek history, perhaps the greatest. Founded by the Romans in 330 as their eastern capital, it would become, as Byzantium, the center of the revived Greek civilization of Asia Minor, whose ancient city-states had achieved commercial prosperity and cultural splendor, and produced the Western world’s first philosophers.
But Greeks had been culturally and demographically dominant in Asia Minor from the Bronze Age to the Roman era with the exception of the Persian occupation of 550-470 B.C.E., a period marked by Greek resistance and ultimately the Alexandrine conquests. Even under alien rule, the Hellenized East had remained the most advanced and prosperous part of Rome’s far-flung empire. Constantinople itself had been the true capital of the late Roman empire as well as the focal point of the new Byzantine state, while the city of Rome itself had gradually fallen into decline until the Catholic revival of the Middle Ages.
Known gradually as Istanbul after its fall, Constantinople had in its turn fallen on hard times as the Ottoman Empire gradually unraveled, remaining unelectrified even after every European capital had embraced modern power. It was still the imperial capital of the no-longer Sublime Porte, as the Ottomans referred to their tottering state, and it still commanded the strategic entrance to the Black Sea through the Straits of the Bosporus. With these under siege during World War I, the government prepared to burn the city as it evacuated it in March 1915. This did not occur, but the threatened repetition of the city’s fifteenth-century fate underscored how far it had once again fallen.
In contrast, the port of Smyrna on the Aegean coast to the south was the wealthiest and most cosmopolitan city of the remaining Ottoman Empire, and with its deep, crescent-shaped harbor the leading trade center of the eastern Mediterranean until World War I. So it had been for centuries. A seventeenth-century French visitor found the city “the richest magazine” (i.e., storehouse) in the world. Between June and October each year, caravans arrived daily from the east, carrying silk, dyes, and spices precious to the West, as well as much-prized local figs and grapes whose scents mixed with those of jasmine and mimosa hung in the air, and products as diverse as cotton, carpets, and, for the pleasure-loving, fine wines, and fabrics, and narcotics too. Europe, for its part, sent serges, woolens, tins, and steel. Fragrant gardens blossomed in the more well-to-do quarters of the city. Although population estimates for the city varied, most estimated Greeks to be the majority, with lesser numbers of Europeans, Armenians, Turks, and Jews, each in their own quarter. By the latter nineteenth century, there was also a growing community of Americans, who called their own area “Paradise.” But Smyrna was still what it had been fundamentally from time immemorial: a Hellenic city, with more Greek residents than lived in Athens. Even in the late summer of 1922, with foreboding news from the interior of Anatolia, life took its familiar rounds. Then disaster struck.
The destruction of Smyrna was swift, but the story of its fall was complex and multi-faceted. Greeks had never controlled Asia Minor politically since the fall of Constantinople, and from the late thirteenth century first Seljuk and then Ottoman Turks had gradually conquered it. The Turks were demographically dominant only in certain areas of Anatolia, a conqueror people rather than a settler one. All of what had once been Greece, from ancient city-states to medieval empire, had long been under foreign control until the Revolution of 1821 gave it a state of its own again at the base of the Balkans. It was a state, however, partially birthed by the British navy, given to a German princeling to govern, and heavily indebted—as it is today—to foreign banking interests. Greeks had their own flag, and the pride of having achieved the first successful revolution in the Old World. But their leading spirits had ambitions that went far beyond a territory bounded by the Peloponnesus, the nearer Aegean islands, and the Arta-Volos line south of Thessaly drawn by the Protocol of London. Former glory beckoned them; so did modern nationalism.
Greek ambitions to reconstruct Hellenism’s historic dominions coalesced in the Megali Idea, pithily expressed in 1844 by the parliamentarian Yannis Kolettis: “There are two great centers of Hellenism. Athens is the capital of the kingdom. Constantinople is the great Capital, the City, the dream and hope of all Greeks.” Just how and in what form the “dream” was to be materialized was left aside by Kolettis for practical as well as imaginative reasons. Greece, badly bled by its war of independence, was small and impoverished. Europe’s Great Powers, already angling for position in the eastern Mediterranean as Ottoman power waned, regarded the new Greek state as largely a nuisance, and certainly not to be accepted as a competitor.
Nonetheless, Greek borders would expand seven times in little more than a century after being initially fixed in 1829-32. The first such adjustment came over the Ionian islands, which, in British hands after the Napoleonic wars, had agitated for union—enosis—with Greece from the 1840s. Britain ceded the Seven Islands to Greece in 1864, partly to shed the cost of their upkeep and partly because Malta seemed a sufficient anchor for its interests in the central Mediterranean. The annexation of Thessaly by treaty followed in 1881, and in the turbulent year preceding the outbreak of World War I, no fewer than five treaties adjusted the Greek frontier, with Epirus and Macedonia to the north and Crete in the south. These changes mostly reflected the two Balkan Wars of 1912-13 and 1913-14, which gave the greatest advocate of the Megali Idea, Eleftherios Venizelos, the vision of a unique opportunity to create a Greater Greece not only in the southern Balkans, but in Anatolia itself, where the Young Turk movement would attempt to succeed the Ottoman Empire in its heartland.
Venizelos was, of course, hardly alone in prospecting the conflict that by 1914 become the Great War for advantage in these regions. Germany had long contemplated a Berlin-to-Baghdad railroad that would open the entirety of the Balkans and the Near East to its hegemony. Britain, France, Austria-Hungary, Russia, Italy, and, latterly the United States, all coveted the spoils of the Ottoman world should its final disintegration come. Most attention during the war was focused on the grinding battles on the Western and Eastern fronts, largely to the north. But the real stake in it was control of the oil riches of the vast Ottoman province of Mesopotamia. Whichever party or parties gained it would own the foreseeable future, for oil would be literally the driving force of the twentieth century. While the world wondered whether Paris would fall, those in the know were no less interested in Mosul, today the second-largest city in Iraq and already known to float on oil.
Greece could not of course compete in this league, but, adjacent to the Ottoman dominions, it had strategic importance for whichever of the warring alliances, the Triple Entente and the Central Powers, it might choose to support. At first, neither Greece nor the Ottomans did take sides. Venizelos, convinced that the Western Allies would prevail, was anxious to join the Entente, especially once the Ottomans had chosen the Central Powers by attacking Russia. The Allies promptly courted Greece, offering it large territorial concessions on the Asia Minor coast. This did not avail, however, because King Constantine I, whose wife was the Kaiser’s sister, insisted on neutrality. Intensely frustrated, Venizelos not only quit the government but established a revolutionary regime on Crete, from which in November 1916 he declared war on the Central Powers and Bulgaria. The gesture was merely symbolic, but also an invitation to Britain and France to assist him in overthrowing Constantine. This was soon accomplished, and on June 30, 1917, with Venizelos restored to power, Greece entered the war on the Allied side.
The French had gone as far as offering Constantinople to Venizelos—Kolettis’ “great Capital” of the Megali Idea—but Venizelos, realizing that the Allies would never yield so great a prize, shrewdly refused the bait. His eye was set however on Smyrna, a more tangible asset, and one which, with a substantial surrounding territory called “Ionia,” would be granted Greece at the postwar Versailles Conference by the Treaty of Sèvres (1920). After four and a half centuries, Greece once again had had a presence of its own in Asia Minor.
By this time, however, a humanitarian crisis was underway that dwarfed all other considerations. From the latter half of the nineteenth century, the Ottomans had increasingly resorted to pogroms against mostly Christian minorities, chiefly in Anatolia, as a response to the Empire’s deteriorating position both internally and externally. Such pogroms were not unknown to Europe, where Jews were the primary victims, in some cases such as England and Spain being expelled from the country. The notorious Albigensian Crusade of the thirteenth century against alleged Christian heretics in southern France decimated much of that region, and a century and a half of confessional warfare resulted from the Reformation of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Russia, too, saw a bloody conflict between the so-called New and Old Believers of the Orthodox Church in the seventeenth century. It was only with the rise of secularism in the eighteenth century that these conflicts abated, and with the nineteenth that the notion of full civil citizenship took hold in the West. (In America, the question of faith for its slave population was elided by denying it access to Christian services of any kind.)
In the Ottoman world, the problem of religious minorities was compounded by ethnic diversity in the wake of its fifteenth and sixteenth century conquests. Ottoman sultans dealt with it by placing religious leaders in charge of their respective communities, the so-called millet system, which exchanged de facto religious toleration and communal self-government for civic order, the payment of special taxes, and, among Christian groups, compulsory military service. This did not always suffice; from the fifteenth century, the Ottoman Turks in Anatolia persecuted its restive Kurdish population, a problem that remains for modern Turkey today. By the nineteenth century, the Empire’s decline was evident, and with it the Porte’s control of its many, often tribally-based populations. The success that earlier Ottomans had had with decentralized administration was less suited to compete with Western modernization and imperial expansion. By 1914, they had lost control of a North African coastline that had stretched nearly to the Atlantic, and all of a once Texas-sized European land mass but for the sliver of eastern Thrace. As the Sultanate’s authority began to lapse over its shrinking empire, the so-called Eastern Question preoccupied Western statesmen, namely how the effects of such a contraction and even possible collapse would affect European political stability. Tsar Alexander I of Russia was the first to point this out, himself fearful of the opportunism of Britain and France. The unification of Germany after 1870 introduced a third major player, and in 1878 a general war over the region was narrowly averted. That war came in 1914. By then, the stakes were not merely control of territory and trade routes, but of the one commodity on which, as the young Winston Churchill pointed out, Britain’s worldwide empire would henceforth depend, oil.
As the crisis of the Eastern Question approached, so did the tempo of Ottoman persecutions, chiefly against Armenians but also against Greeks, particularly of the Pontic region. These persecutions, chiefly spurred on by Anatolian Turks and their leader, later to be known as Kemal Ataturk, soon took on the character of a genocide—not merely the forced migration, deportation, or expulsion of an entire people, but its physical extermination. Genocides—the word itself did not exist until 1944, when it was coined in reference to the Holocaust—had occurred among aborigine populations in colonized regions, such as the Herrero of German-held South Africa and the Maori of New Zealand, or in the process of a longer period of conquest and settlement as in the Americas. But what began in Anatolia in 1915, climaxed in Smyrna in September of 1922, and did not abate until the following year, was of a different character: massive, systematic, and merciless. One observer would liken the fate of Smyrna to the Roman destruction of Carthage, and another flatly described it as the greatest tragedy in the history of the world.
Venizelos’ desire to restore Hellenic rule to at least part of Anatolia had thus, by the end of World War I, taken on an additional and more urgent character: the literal survival of the Greek population of Asia Minor itself, and with it, as far as possible, of the Armenians as well, a people without nation or army. The effective collapse of the Ottoman government with the end of World War I left no potential check on the massacres, such as that against the Armenians of Marash, where marauders killed thousands of victims, burning many alive. The Allied powers thus faced virtual anarchy in the Ottoman realms, a situation hardly conducive to signing lucrative oil contracts and maintaining the degree of order necessary for extraction.
The Allies, anticipating this possibility, had at various points considered dividing the remaining Ottoman lands among themselves. With their publics exhausted by the Great War, however, and with most of Britain’s troops, the most active in the area, already withdrawn, there was little appetite for the massive task of occupation. Only Eleftherios Venizelos saw opportunity. He had most recently shown his bona fides on the Bulgarian front and by taking on Bolshevik forces in Odessa when no other Allied force would do so, and he could point to the still-sizable Greek populations of western and northern Anatolia, particularly in and around Smyrna, as a base for operations and control. The only hitch was that postwar Smyrna had already been promised to Italy, but the Allies now voided that agreement and, with the strong support of Britain’s prime minister, David Lloyd George, Smyrna and its hinterland was awarded to Greece at Versailles, a package confirmed at Sèvres. In May 1919 Greek forces, backed by the British navy, occupied Smyrna, to the rejoicing of its Christian population. Nominally, they did so on behalf of the Ottoman sultan, but there was few doubted that with this the final dismemberment of the Empire had begun.
With Smyrna secure, the Greek army proceeded toward central Anatolia, meeting little effective resistance. However, these initial successes masked longer-term challenges. The Allies, in return for canceling Greek war debts, declared that they would provide no further financial assistance to Venizelos’ forces. This meant that the burden of an open-ended war and occupation lay entirely with Greece, which scarcely had the resources for it. The campaign itself was divisive, as pro-royalists opposed it, and a war-weary public voted Venizelos out of office so decisively that he temporarily left the country, leaving a vacuum of power in Athens itself. Ataturk, rallying nationalist Turks, turned the tide of battle against overextended Greek lines. By the time Venizelos returned, Greek forces were in retreat, a retreat that by the summer of 1922 had turned into a rout.
The remaining Greek troops in Smyrna left the city with the civil administration, leaving it an open city. Turkish forces entered it on September 9 as Ataturk conducted leisurely parlays with foreign consuls interested only in arranging safe passage for their own nationals. The Turks commenced an immediate slaughter in the Armenian and Greek quarters, pausing only to demand valuables and abduct young women for rape. By this time, Smyrna’s harbor was encircled by an armada of Allied warships, whose purpose was not to afford rescue to the tens of thousands of desperate refugees who, flocking to the quay, were confined there by Turkish troops without food or water, and so closely packed together that many of them could sleep only standing against one another. The warships were strictly forbidden to assist or evacuate them, their sole purpose being to deny access to the harbor to either Greek or Turkish naval forces. As the Turks had no need of entry, the consequence of this was to deny Greek ships any possibility of rescuing the desperate throngs there being mauled and massacred at pleasure. Some ships, their sailors almost mutinying at the horrors unfolding before them, did take in the small number of refugees who managed to swim within reach, but the only vessels permitted to pass the cordon were those carrying commercial goods. Human cargo was expressly forbidden, unless to evacuate nationals.
Many Armenians and Greeks remained trapped in their neighborhoods, of course, desperately seeking shelter wherever they could. With no civil officials left, the leader of the Greek community was its Metropolitan, the Archbishop Chrysostomos, who refused to leave his flock. A Turkish mob, ordered to set upon him by the city’s military commander, Nourredin Pasha, tore out his beard, gouged his eyes out with knives, and cut off his ears, nose, and hands before finishing him off in front of a dozen horrified French marines who, dispatched as a bodyguard, were forbidden to intervene.
On September 13, the Turks started setting fire to the city. Many observers saw them moving through the Armenian, Greek, European quarters, spreading kerosene from house to house and hurling torches to light them. The Turkish quarter, set mostly against the city’s hills, was wholly spared, and the local headquarters of the Standard Oil Company was fully protected. The fire burned the center of the city down to the quay, where the refugees were engulfed in unbearable heat in addition to the hunger and thirst already consuming them; many, including whole families, jumped into the bay to drown themselves.
News of the fire reached Athens by telegraph, and crowds rushed to Piraeus, hoping to see rescue ships. None arrived but for a lone Japanese freighter that had dumped its load to make room for as many refugees as it could carry. Stunned, Greece draped itself in black and flew all flags at half mast. The Greek government, four days from collapse, made no effort to challenge the cordon.
Not all foreign officials were indifferent to the unfolding catastrophe. George Horton, the American consul in Smyrna, made desperate attempts to intercede with the Turkish command, and, when these failed, to hire boats able to run the port blockade at his own expense to bring out as many refugees as possible. He appealed as well to the U.S. State Department to take them in, pointing out that Greece could not accommodate any substantial number. This plea was coolly rejected. The official American position was that the U.S. was obliged to keep strict neutrality in any internal matter concerning Turkey since it had never declared war on the Ottoman Empire, restricting itself to the safety of American citizens resident there. Horton’s efforts were repeatedly thwarted too by the American High Commissioner in Constantinople, Admiral Mark L. Bristol, who, apart from his sneering contempt for Greeks and Armenians in general, had little use for his Allied partners. In Bristol’s view, the U.S. should assume control over all of Turkey, observing that the country was wide open for American business and financial penetration—that is, a giant oil field ready for the taking. With British and French interests already entrenched in the region, however, such ambitions were for the time being premature, and it was not until the end of World War II that an effective American dominion was established, albeit briefly, over virtually the whole of the Middle East.
Some Allied diplomats and commanders, appalled at what amounted to complicity in an unparalleled atrocity, did what little they could to provide rescue and shelter for a handful. But the single figure who did most was an American civilian working for the international YMCA and barely arrived in Smyrna himself. Asa Jennings was an unprepossessing man of forty-five, hunched and barely five feet tall. Taking advantage of a Greek merchant’s house on the quay, he raised an American flag above it to protect the refugees he took in, and distributed such food as he could find. Told to lower the flag, he borrowed a launch to comb the harbor for vessels that might accommodate refugees, and managed through sheer effrontery to commandeer an empty Italian cargo ship. Setting sail filled with refugees and under his orders, it brought them to Mytilene. There, Jennings likewise commandeered a Greek battleship, the Kilkis, and, declaring himself to have the full support of the American navy, assembled ten warships to rescue as many as could be saved from the now-destroyed Smyrna harbor. Raising a Stars and Stripes on his flagship, he had effectively made himself a Greek admiral commanding an American flotilla. Joined on the way by an American destroyer, the U.S.S. Lawrence, he was able to save more Greek lives, in Smyrna and later on the Pontic shores, than anyone else.
Unfortunately, the sequel to Jennings’ exploits, was a dismayingly compromised one. The Greek government, embarrassed by its inaction, awarded him its highest civilian and military honors. In public speeches, however, he would later all but absolve the Turks of responsibility for Smyrna’s destruction, and, patronized by Admiral Bristol, glowingly praised the latter’s nonexistent efforts on behalf of its victims. Returning to Turkey, he established a new organization, “The American Friends of Turkey,” a virtual lobbying group for Turkish-American relations. Happily for what remained of his reputation, he died in 1933.
The fires of Smyrna had finally burnt themselves out by September 22, leaving nine-tenths of the central city destroyed. With the catastrophe at last fully visible, the Allied fleet finally began to transport survivors both in Smyrna and other points of massacre. Ataturk gave the ships a few days’ permission for this, with Turkish soldiers continuing to beat and rob survivors up to the gangplanks. With that began the great cover-up. The fire, Ataturk asserted, had been entirely the work of Greeks and Armenians themselves, who oddly enough had set it only in their own communities. Admiral Bristol, seconding this propaganda, asserted that the Turkish troops had hemmed in the victims on the quay only to guard them, and that those who had congregated there had been at all times free to leave. As to the total number of deaths in the city, he estimated them at “probably” not more than 2,000.
How many did die in Smyrna? Historians’ numbers have fluctuated wildly. George Horton, an eye-witness, estimated the number at over 100,000. Marjorie Housepian Dobkin has calculated the Christian population of Smyrna, both resident and refugee, at 400,000 at the time of the fire, noting that at least 190,000 remained unaccounted for in the city by October 1. This suggests the possibility of something close to 200,000 fatalities. In the chaos of extermination, we may never know for sure. But in a census of the city in the late 1920s, less than half the pre-war population remained, and only 22,000 Christians among them. Smyrna had ceased to be, except in memory, a Greek city.
With the fall of Smryna and the withdrawal of Greek forces from Anatolia, the three-year Greco-Turkish war ended as well. For Greece, the defeat was a complete one. For the Turks, it meant the proclamation of a new state, the Turkish Republic, with the former Mustapha Kemal now becoming Kemal Ataturk, the Father of the Nation.
The Allies enforced a peace in 1923 with the Treaty of Lausanne. The Turkish Republic was recognized as sovereign over all of Anatolia, but stripped of the former Ottoman dominions south of it, namely Syria, Lebanon, and the former Mesopotamia (now Iraq), and the coastal regions surrounding the Arabian peninsula. British and French interests predominated in these latter areas. The U.S., cultivating relations with Ataturk, negotiated for the rights to a railway system and oil reserves, though the system was never built and the reserves, at least on Turkish soil, proved relatively scant.
For Greece, the consequences of the new treaty, apart from the recognition of the Turkish Republic, were threefold. Its own boundaries were fixed, with the Aegean islands confirmed to it apart from Imbros, Tenedos, and Rabbit islands near the Turkish shore, where provisions were made for the autonomy of their Greek populations. (These were not honored.) The principal provision of the treaty was for an exchange, or more precisely a mutual deportation of Orthodox and Muslim populations between Greece and Turkey. This much-disputed agreement was actually proposed by Venizelos, now back in power. It meant, effectively, the end of a three-thousand year Greek civilization in Asia Minor, not simply in the region of Smyrna but all along the Black Sea shore and in Cappadoccia. Only in Constantinople was there a residual Greek population of any size. This soon withered, so that today Greeks number only 0.3-0.4% of Turkey’s population. The Greek exodus included 90% of Anatolia’s commercial class. This was not only devastating for the new Republic, but critical in the organization of it as a state, because only government officials could fill the social and cultural as well as economic gaps left. This proved a poor substitute, and sparked much conflict.
The exchange proved costly in many ways to Greece as well. A country poor to begin with and sapped by a catastrophic three-year war found itself having to assimilate a new population equal to a quarter to a third of its existing one, almost all of it destitute. Most of it was placed in newly acquired northern territories, themselves disproportionately poor. A strong Communist party took root in it, expressing the grievances of the dispossessed, and profoundly affecting Greek politics during the civil war of 1946-49. No happier were the 350-400,000 Muslims relocated in Turkey, mostly in the lands cleared of Greeks. And there were fresh losses on both sides even when the killing had stopped: in the first year of their transportation, the death rate for Greek refugees was fourfold the birthrate.
The final major provision of the treaty was a blanket amnesty for all atrocities committed against minorities on Turkish soil between 1914 and 1922. This was covered the period during which the Ottomans and their Turkish successors had systematically starved, slaughtered, and marched to their deaths between two and thee million Armenians and Greeks, a policy soon renewed, with far less publicity, against the Kurds of southern Anatolia. It was with this in mind that Britain’s Lloyd George, now out of office, called the Treaty of Lausanne “an abject, cowardly, and infamous surrender.”
It was also a perfectly characteristic piece of imperial diplomacy. In recognizing Ataturk’s Turkish Republic, the Allies solved two problems at a stroke: it obviated the necessity to assume control of Anatolia, certain to be a source of conflict otherwise, and it gave them a negotiating partner who, in return, renounced all claims to oil-rich Ottoman Mesopotamia and the Arabian peninsula. Conversely, Ataturk ‘s regime was free to pacify Anatolia as it wished and complete its forcible Turkification. For his part, Ataturk presented himself as modernizing, secularizing reformer whose interests would dovetail with those of the West. The West obligingly embraced his account of his genocides as the fault of Armenian nationalists and Greek aggressors. As we have seen, Asa Jennings and Admiral Bristol readily credited him, as did the historian Arnold J. Toynbee, who after condemning Ottoman and Turkish war crimes in the strongest terms became their foremost apologist. Even Venizelos, in his later career, entered a peace treaty with Turkey, going so far as to nominate Ataturk for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1934! Ioannis Metaxas, the military dictator of Greece in the late 1930s, found in Ataturk a kindred spirit, and even adopted his title of “Father of the Nation” for himself.
To this day, Turkey denies any acknowledgment of the Armenian and Greek genocides that attended its birth; indeed, it is a crime under Turkish law to assert that they ever occurred. This leaves Turkey a state uniquely without legitimacy in the modern world. Few nations have come into being without bloodshed; only one steadfastly refuses to reckon with the truth of its history. Smyrna is still burning.
Bruce Clark. Twice a Stranger: How Mass Expulsion Forged Modern Greece and Turkey. Harvard University Press. 2006.
Marjorie Housepian Dobkin. Smyrna 1922: The Destruction of a City. New Mark Press. 1998.
Michael Llewellyn Smith. Ionian Vision: Greece in Asia Minor, 1919-1922. University of Michigan Press. 1999.