November 06, 2007

The End of Greek Asia Minor

At the end of the First World War, the great empires of Eastern Europe, the Russian, Austrian, Prussian and Ottoman all collapsed and were replaced with a variety of successor states. Some of those states were carved out by the treaties like Lausanne and Versailles after the war, others were essentially created by military facts on the ground- and in most cases the treaty recognised what had already happened. Its worth remembering that most of the territorial changes in Europe occurred far away from the areas in which the dominant powers at Versailles- the US, UK and France- had their troops- ie the North East corner of France. Look at a map of Western Europe in 1914 and the frontiers haven't changed really that much up to today, look at a map of Eastern Europe and the world is completely different.

What happened in 1918 in order to accomplish that, and happened in 1945 as well, was the massive transfer of populations across frontiers. We often think of that as a fairly harmless process- it wasn't. To take one example, for centuries, for millennia, numerous Greeks had lived in Asia Minor. Thales one of the first philosophers, if not the first, lived for example in Miletus on the coast of modern day Turkey. By the time of the Ottoman Empire, those people calling themselves Greeks still lived there- still constituted a large minority in cities like Istanbul, Smyrna and other places. In the period after World War One the Greeks and Turks battled over the frontier between their states, in 1922 the Greeks finally lost and withdrew from Asia Minor and as they did, the Greeks living there were forced out as well. I thought of this when I first heard of it, doing my history GCSE, as a fact of history, a bloodless fact- in fact of course it wasn't- there was great brutality.

Just to appreciate how horrible that process of ethnic movement was, its worth looking at some of the accounts from Greeks at the time. Thalia Pandiri has collected some and published translations in the International Literary Quarterly- I suggest you go and have a read, but what she describes is truly horrifying. Women with sticks driven through their bodies till they emerge coming out of their mouths. Some of the stories are equally horrifying for the poverty they display- women feeding children flour in water for example or walking for miles with a bag gripped between their teeth and a child in each hand. When they arrived in Greece, many of them found a less than hospitable reception awaiting them as well. Many of them afterall looked not to the new Greece but to the Russian Tsar, traditional protector of orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire, as their prince.

Bringing up old atrocities has more purpose to just wallowing in misfortune. The experience of Greeks moving from Asia Minor to European Greece was horrific, but it is relatively unknown. It highlights something though of worth to consider- that moving populations is always difficult. You encounter the fact that people don't want to leave their homes, you encounter the fact that newcomers aren't always welcome when they arrive. That is even true, when unlike say in Palestine, the moving population are in the end absorbed by another population- as in the Greek case where most of the immigrants report that they did eventually become successful Greeks. Ultimately though the experience of the Greeks moving across from Asia to Europe reminds us of two things: firstly that we should not be blase about moving populations around the globe- should for example climate change result in the destruction of Bangladesh we would see the events of Asia Minor on an even greater scale even if we found somewhere for those people to go. Secondly and perhaps more importantly, it reminds us of our own powerlessness. By the end of World War One, there was barely an army around apart from those of the Western Allies and even then in Eastern Europe, it was the facts on the ground that mattered, not the pious declarations from Paris, London and Washington. International politics requires modesty as well as ambition.


Anonymous said...

And if the Allies had been a bit less keen on sticking it to the Turks in the Treaty of Sèvres it might never have had to happen. It was there that the immodest ambitions began

Anonymous said...

Great post

a) I think the truth was not powerlessness but indifference (perhaps putting t a bit harshly) they could have intervened and stopped this- and stopped the even greater horror of the Bolshevik takeover of Russia, it was a matter of public and political will not incapacity.

b) Note of historical interest" Greeks" were Greek orthodox- including some Turkish speakers

C) it's worth noting lots of Turks got kicked out of Greece in somewhat similar circumstances.

d) It's also worth remembering the perpetrator of this crime was Kemel Ataturk- the hero of modern Turkey including its establishment and the bigger hero of the supposedly "progressive" opposition- a grim insight into the black heart of modern Turkey.

c) On the minor side points Bangladesh i think no one wants Bangladesh to be flooded! And of course the ethnic cleansing n the 40's was bigger even than the turkish-Greek one

but I) If it happens this will be decades not months -after all millions of Bangladesh have left Bangladesh over the last few decades

II) given it takes decades it will be rather less traumatic! Also it will not be done at gunpoint but by slow rises in water levels- ditto!

III) It's possible Bangladesh could deal with rising water levels (after all the rising water levels being predicted are under several of the projections only slightly higher than the rising water levels in the world in the 20th century) given natural improvements in flood defences-

IV) This is particularly the case as Bangladesh under the economic projections the IPPC relies on for it's projections for its weather will be as affluent then as the US is now. They could certainly afford flood defences that seriously dwarf says the Dutch or Louisianan!

V) It would be cheaper for the west to pay for such defences than to cripple their economy through carbon limitation

vi) The Case the world would agree to such reductions in carbon usage is laughable anyway- China and India aren't even signing the polite lie/ red herring (for most signatories apart from the UK) that are Kyoto. So in other words the point is its inevitable- death from old age for the world's population is terrible much more so than this- it's also inevitable.

Gracchi said...

Edmund and Eamon I agree with much of what you say here.

Unknown said...

Just saw this and as I think this is one of the most important events of the 20th century, a few more comments:

- this was not just a tolerated, but an internationally authorised "population exchange", approved in the Treaty of Lausanne signed by all major powers. As pointed out, also involved the eviction of thousands of Turks and other Muslims from Greece. (Interestingly, Lloyd George was brought down by an attempt to intervene in the Greek-Turk war that preceded this.)

Why is it important? I'd argue because it has created one of the most destructive myths in international relations - that stability comes from ethnically or religiously pure states, and that minorities should be eliminated (by eviction in this case, assimilation or worse). The peace treaties of 1919-20 had certainly promoted the idea of self-determination, but also required all new states to protect their minorities, in the name of creating stable states. Lausanne changed this - creating a belief that the only way to peaceful relations between Greece and Turkey was to have no minorities in either (albeit the treaty did allow a few minorities to persist in each country).

This "exchange" has subsequently been touted as a great success by anyone promoting division/partitions. A view of its "success" lay behind the Peel Commission, the first proposal for the partition of Palestine, and, I'd say you can see its legacy today in the thinking of peacemakers on Cyprus, Bosnia, Iraq where partition and "pure" areas are still seen as the way to stability.

But in fact, the Lausanne mentality is also partly the same belief that had led to the genocide of Christians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915 (not only Armenians, but also Assyrians and Greeks) who were at that time seen as a threat with the Russian invasion. Whilst the partitions of India and Palestine in 1947-8 were NOT planned to lead to ethnic/religious cleansing, it was very easy for such cleansing to occur at the time of the partitions, given the persistent belief in purity and separation as the only way to stable states.

And has the Treaty of Lausanne led to stability in relations between Greece and Turkey? Hardly, but the myth persists.

Gracchi said...

Yes I'd agree and I think one of the most dangerous aspects of both this and the partition in India was the idea that you could manage this huge movement of people without much fuss. Of course there are unintended consequences to doing it which people neglect and those unintended consequences of this attitude are horrible ultimately.