Though the omens were there for those who could read them, it was an article in what is now the oldest newspaper of northern Greece, Macedonia, that provided the spark for the general conflagration that followed. Its editor, the Venizelist politician Petros Levantis, and editor-in-chief, Nikos Fardis, alleged that one year prior, in 1930, Maccabi Salonica, a multi-sport athletic club for the Jewish community of that city, had taken part in an event in the Bulgarian capital Sofia in which Maccabi’s Bulgarian Jewish counterpart had supported Bulgarian irredentist claims to Macedonia.
On 23 June 1931, in an editorial entitled: ‘We Will Settle our Accounts’, (the original Greek uses the phrase «Θα εκκαθαρίσωμεν τους λογαριασμούς,» Fardis warned darkly:
“We Greeks may be tolerant, but we aren’t stupid. We may forgive various transgressions, but we will not leave unchecked, those who seek to undermine the sovereignty of the State. We have decided to settle our accounts with the bad Israelites, who misunderstand us. We hope that the latter are few. But even if they are more, the reckoning is inevitable.”
In the early 30s, northern Greece was divided as never before. Cut off from their traditional trading links to the Ottoman Empire and the Balkan hinterland, the Jews of Salonica, who formerly comprised the majority of the population and dominated the city’s trade and generally had not supported the Greek liberation of the city, found themselves the target of hatred by significant groups of refugees from Asia Minor, desperate to settle in the city, and gain access to the city’s limited resources and economic opportunities. On the whole, the Jewish community, like other minority groups such as the Slav-speakers of the area, gravitated to the royalist parties, which offered them concessions and were almost hysterical in their denigration of the refugees, who were, at this early stage, staunch supporters of the politics of Eleutherios Venizelos.
Venizelos was a liberal, the royalists extra-ordinary reactionary, but in the game of ethnic politics, it was expedient for the royalists to seek support in the newly liberated areas of Greece, from those who felt threatened by the mass influx of refugees from Asia Minor. Conversely, though Venizelos’ social policies were, for the time, extraordinarily progressive, his deputies in Macedonia, cemented the loyalty of their customary voting base among the refugees, by cynically tapping into traditional reserves of anti-Semitism that subsisted within noteworthy sections of the social fabric of the Greek polity.
Although on 23 June 1931, the Jewish member of parliament Mendes Bensanzi, demanded in parliament, that Minister of the Interior, Kostas Lidorikis, officially refute the allegations against Maccabi Salonica, he refused to do so. It was facile then, for Macedonia’s editors to whip up hysteria, in the cause of “saving” Macedonia from its perceived fifth columnist enemies.
As the newspaper reported on 25 June 1931, the proto-fascist group EEE, (National Union of Greece), founded in 1927 by anti-communist and anti-semitic Asia Minor refugees, and headed by former prime-minister Stylianos Gonatas, who was, at that time Governor-General of Macedonia, and the Salonica branch of the National Union of Students, “decided to punish their criminal fellow citizens” and attacked the offices of Maccabi Salonica, injuring a number of its personnel and randomly harassing Salonican Jews in the city.
Deputy Mendes Bensanzi made an impassioned speech in parliament on the same day, stating that for the past two days, the Jews of Salonica were living under a “reign of terror,” unprotected by the authorities. It was only then that Prime Minister Venizelos made some broad remarks condemning anti-Semitism in general, as did royalist leader of the opposition Tsaldaris, with Venizelos refuting Macedonia’s allegation that Maccabi Salonica actively participated in any anti-Greek event in Sofia.
The newspaper proceeded to pour further oil on the fire of ethnic tension by misrepresenting Jewish attempts to defend themselves and their property in a 29 June 1931 article:
“Organising themselves into battalions of thugs, yesterday they gave the signal for a general attack against the Greek citizens of Salonica.”
These lines served, perversely, as a general signal for an all-out attack, especially against poorer Jews who had been forced to move out of their traditional neighbourhoods in the centre of the city after the Great Fire of 1917, and had been relocated to peripheral districts, where they competed for land and jobs with resettled refugees. Thus, EEE and its followers, arrived at the Jewish district of Camp Campbell, in modern-day Kalamaria, where they methodically set fire to 20 homes, the local Jewish school and pharmacy, leaving two dead, a number injured and rendering 150 out of the 220 Jews living in the district, homeless.
As the situation began to spiral out of control, with EEE rampaging through the streets and terrorising Salonica’s Jewish population and those Geeks brave enough to raise their voices in protest against the pogrom, the editor of Macedonia, began to be concerned about the newspaper’s own legal liability in inciting the pogrom. Accordingly, on 30 June 1931, the editorial opined in a manner clearly still laying blame of the incident at the feet of the Jewish community: “It is imperative that we rise above the passions that have been created and assist in calming things down. But by God, let this provocation cease.”
In the aftermath of the pogrom, Agrarian Party deputy for Salonica Ioannis Mihail labelled EEE a “gang” and demanded in parliament that it be disbanded. However, Gonatas rose to its defence, as did the Pontian minister for welfare, Leonidas Iasonides. EEE was as a result, not disbanded as a result of the pogrom and those of its members that were brought to trial for their involvement in it, were acquitted by a court in 1932 and afforded a triumphal entry into Salonica. In 1933, 3,000 of its members staged a march to Athens, in apparent imitation of Benito Mussolini’s 1922 March on Rome.
After failed attempts to enter Greek politics as a party, the organisation was suppressed by the dictatorship of Ioannis Metaxas in 1936. It was revived however, by the Nazi occupation authorities in 1942. Consequently, many members of EEE became prominent collaborators of the Nazis, and many more joined the infamous Security Battalions and helped in the identification of Greek Jews, who were then deported to the death camps. The creation of the Security Battalions, was the mastermind of Stylianos Gonatas.
By October 1931, the Greek parliament had voted to grant compensation payouts to the victim of the pogrom. It also purchased the district of Camp Campbell from the Jewish community of Salonica, relocating its inhabitants elsewhere in the city. Nonetheless, despite contemporary rhetoric, which obscures the depth of anti-Semitic prejudice in the city, in favour of highlighting only, those instances where Greeks admirably made efforts to save their Jewish compatriots from the Nazis, sectarian tension remained, with the loyalty of Jews constantly being called into question by sections of the press.
The Macedonian Issue, in all of its protean and ever changing forms has ever served as a lightning rod for the exposition and exacerbation of other, deeper fault lines running within Greek society. The Jewish pogrom of 1931, was one of the first of these, but judging by current events, is definitely not the last.