The Asia Minor catastrophe

An overview of a historical event that changed the face of modern Greece

This month marks the 91st anniversary of the catastrophe of one of the great cosmopolitan metropolises of the Mediterranean sea, Smyrna. The month of September also marks the beginning of the end of the 3,000 year long presence of Greeks in Asia Minor.
In order to commemorate this important anniversary, Neos Kosmos is presenting a brief overview of the Greek defeat in the hands of the nationalist Movement of Turkey, led by Mustapha Kemal (Ataturk), that changed the face of Asia Minor and of Modern Greece.
Following the end of the World War I at the 1918 Paris Peace Conference, Greek Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos, who entered the war on the Anglo French side, lobbied hard for an expanded Hellas to include the large Greek communities in Northern Epirus, Thrace and Asia Minor.
In May 1919 Greek troops were sent by the victorious allies to the cosmopolitan and multi-ethnic city of Smyrna in Asia Minor, to protect Greek citizens who constantly lived under the fear of massacres and suffered under the Young Turk Nationalist (YTN) movement. Greeks constituted the majority of the population of the Ottoman city, but not of the greater inland region surrounding Smyrna – it was estimated that more than 2.5 million Greeks were living in the Ottoman Empire at the time. In reality, however, the Greek troops were sent to provide a buffer between the Italian army, which was rapidly advancing up the southern Turkish coast, and the British military stationed in Constantinople (Istanbul).
What is known as ‘The Megali Idea’ or the ‘Great Idea’ of a new Hellenic Empire on both sides of the Aegean looked like it was about to become a reality.
The World War I Peace Treaty of Sevres (signed in the town of Sevres, France in August 1920) between the defeated Ottoman Empire and the Allies (Britain, France, Italy, Armenia, Greece and others) formally created a Greece of two continents and five seas.
According to the Treaty of Sevres, Smyrna was to be administered by a local parliament under Greek administration within the borders of the collapsing Ottoman Empire. It was left to the people of Smyrna in a plebiscite supervised by the League of Nations who were to decide their fate, in whether or not to join Greece or to remain in the Ottoman Empire after five years.
The treaty ceded to Greece part of Thrace, the islands of Imbros and Tenedos, and dealt with other territorial issues, colonial power issues and nations with an interest in drawing up a new map for the Middle East and Armenia.
In unforeseen circumstances, King Alexander of Greece died as a result of a monkey bite in October 1920.
The Greek Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos, despite doubling the territorial size of his country in the Balkans wars of 1912-1913 and as a result of World War I, fell from favour with the Greek people and lost the election in November 1920, leaving the country soon after.
One month later, a royalist rigged election called for the return of King Constantine. The Greek Army which had secured Smyrna and the Asia Minor coast was purged of Venizelos supporters while it marched on to the new nationalist capital of Turkey, Ankara. The Greek army, however, did not know at the time that the Italians and Russians were selling arms to the Nationalist Turks led by Kemal Ataturk and that the British and French had negotiated a separate peace agreement with the Nationalists, with the realisation that the Ottoman Empire was virtually decimated.
After encouragement from its European ‘friends’, the Greek Army found itself isolated in central Turkey and was subsequently defeated by the forces of Kemal Ataturk, who forced them to retreat to the shores of the Aegean. In their exit they were accompanied by thousands of Greek and Christian citizens residing in the Ottoman Empire who feared that the advancing Turks would massacre them.
Meanwhile the French, British, US and Russian fleets watched in the harbour while the city of Smyrna was burned to the ground. Tens of thousands of Greeks and Armenians were murdered or incinerated in Smyrna in September 1922. Greek population losses before and after the Asia Minor catastrophe were estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands.
A Venizelist revolution began on the battleship Lemnos with officers of the Second Army after being evacuated from Smyrna. The revolution spread to Athens, led by Colonels Plastiras, Gonatas, Captain Phokas of Lemnos and 12,000 soldiers who marched into Athens with the demand that the government resign and Constantine abdicate the throne.
King Constantine was forced into exile, while the politicians and military officers, whose incompetence was blamed for the defeat of the Greek army, were duly tried and executed for treason, against the lone protest of the British government.
The disaster of Smyrna meant the end of the 3,000 year Hellenic presence in Asia Minor. Approximately 1.65 million orthodox refugees left for Greece, Russia and across the globe, including Australia and the United States. Approximately 650,000 Muslims who were subjects of Greece left for Turkey.
The massive population exchange was part of the agreement reached between the World War I Allies, including Greece, and the Nationalist Movement of Turkey, at the Treaty of Lausanne in July 1923, replacing the Treaty of Sevres.
The Asia Minor Disaster, as it came to be known, changed the face of Greece and influenced Greek culture forever. As a result of the human refugee exchange, Athens and Thessaloniki doubled in size. Upper middle-class and working class Greeks who lived comfortably in Smyrna and other population centres in Turkey soon became the bottom class structure in a country that could barely take care of its own people.