“It is believed that in Turkey between 1913 and 1922, under the successive regimes of the Young Turks and of Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk), more than 3.5 million Armenian, Assyrian and Greek Christians were massacred in a state-organised and state-sponsored campaign of destruction and genocide, aiming at wiping out from the emerging Turkish Republic its native Christian populations. This Christian Holocaust is viewed as the precursor to the Jewish Holocaust in WWII. To this day, the Turkish government ostensibly denies having committed this genocide.”
Dr Israel Charney
At the close of the First World War, Greece was a nation being torn apart at the seams. Sundered politically and socially through the ‘National Schism’ between the Royalists, who wanted to stay out of the war and were only forced to enter the war after the Allies blockaded Piraeus, and the Venizelists, who, with a view to territorial expansion, set up their own rival government in Thessaloniki, from there to prosecute the war, across the Aegean, terrible stories were being told of a mass genocide of Greeks in the Ottoman Empire. Unlike the West, which was largely innocent of the holocaust while it was being carried out, Greece was well aware of the crime being perpetrated against her own people. King Constantine himself accused the German Kaiser, his brother-in-law, of Germany’s complicity in the genocide, a claim the Kaiser denied, though enough evidence now exists to suggest that the organised removal of Greeks from coastal regions such as Gallipoli and the forced death marches of the population were suggested to the Ottomans by German military advisers. Nonetheless, as Manus Midlarsky states in his book: The Killing Trap: Genocide in the Twentieth Century, the Greek genocide was nuanced and calculated to take place without attracting too much western opprobrium: “Given these political and cultural ties, wholesale attacks on the Ottoman Greeks would have profoundly angered not only the Entente Powers, but Germany and Austria-Hungary as well, the allies upon whom the Ottomans were deeply dependent. Under these conditions, genocide of the Ottoman Greeks simply was not a viable option. (…) Massacres most likely did take place at Amisos and other villages in the Pontus. Yet given the large numbers of surviving Greeks, especially relative to the small number of Armenian survivors, the massacres were apparently restricted to the Pontus, Smyrna, and selected other ‘sensitive’ regions.”
Thus, in 1919, a politically fragmented Greece that was fraught with domestic strife, exhausted by continuous war since 1912 and almost bankrupt, had lost an extremely large portion of its eastern population to genocide, was granted occupation of most of Eastern Thrace, to a point forty kilometres from Constantinople. Prime Minister Venizelos, in the face of serious Allied (and Greek military) misgivings, asserted Greece’s capacity to occupy and police a zone around the city of Smyrna. Owing to the support of British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Greek troops finally landed in Smyrna in 1919, to the consternation of the Turks.
The occupation and administration of Smyrna, which was supposed to be of five years’ duration, after which time, its inhabitants would hold a plebiscite to determine which country they would like to belong to, marks the departure point between the constituents of the Christian genocides. Unlike the Armenians and the Assyrians, who did not have a state at the time the Christian genocide was committed, the Greeks not only had such a state but also found themselves embroiled in a war against forces the like of which they had never before encountered.
While the vanquished Sultan in Entente-occupied Constantinople was cajoled into accepting the Greek occupation and the cession of Eastern Thrace, culminating in the Treaty of Sevres that formalised Greece’s gains at the expense of the Ottoman Empire, the occupation of parts of Turkey by erstwhile Ottoman subjects was something that could not be countenanced by nationalist Turkish forces. Coalescing around Kemal Ataturk, the hero of the defence of Gallipoli, they landed in Samsounta on 19 May 1919 and commenced a campaign to remove the last vestiges of the Greek presence in Anatolia.
According to Igor Diakonov in The Paths of History, in the context of the nationalist campaign, which was considered a battle for the survival of Turkey, “Kemal attempted to continue the genocide of Armenians in Transcaucasia, and of Greeks on the coast of the Aegean. Especially heartrending and horribly bloody was the genocide of the Greeks in Smyrna (Turkish Izmir) where they had lived since the tenth century BC”.
As a result of the Kemalist campaign, the Treaty of Sevres was never ratified. As Kay Holloway wrote, the failure of the signatories to bring the treaty into force “resulted in the abandonment of thousands of defenceless peoples – Armenians and Greeks – to the fury of their persecutors by engendering subsequent holocausts in which the few survivors of the 1915 Armenian massacres perished”.
Given the refusal of Turkish Nationalists to abide by the Treaty, and the constant harassing of the Greek forces by Turkish guerrillas, irregulars and nationalist forces, the already beleaguered Greek army had no choice but to cross over from the Smyrna zone into Turkey proper, in order to neutralise the aggression. While this is widely considered, especially by Turkish forces, to have been tantamount to an invasion, the strategic objective of these operations was to defeat the Turkish Nationalists and force Kemal Ataturk into peace negotiations. The advancing Greeks, still holding superiority in numbers and modern equipment at this point, had hoped for an early battle in which they were confident of breaking up ill-equipped Turkish forces. Yet they met with little resistance, as the Turks managed to retreat in an orderly fashion and avoid encirclement. Winston Churchill, who was sympathetic to Greek aspirations but was sceptical about their ability to fulfil these, said: “The Greek columns trailed along the country roads passing safely through many ugly defiles, and at their approach the Turks, under strong and sagacious leadership, vanished into the recesses of Anatolia”.
As the war continued, Turkish forces lured the Greek army further and further way from its supply lines, the Greek army advanced as far as the Sangarios River, near Ankara. Along the way, and during its retreat, the Greek army committed several instances of brutalities against the civilian Muslim population. These incidents are often referred to by Turks when the issue of recognising the genocide of the Assyrians, Greeks and Armenians in Anatolia is broached with them, and in fact there exist in Turkey various museums dedicated to exposing Greek army atrocities. As these atrocities are raised as a counterpoint to the genocide, or by way of excusing Turkey’s liability for it, they are certainly worth examining, no less because they feature hardly in the Greek discourse about the period. Not only do they provide a context for Turkey’s continued genocide denial, but also suggest that frameworks other than the political and the historical could be employed, in order to render the process by which Turkey and Turkish society can accept the historicity of the genocide, with the minimum of trauma and difficulty. Next week those facts will be examined in detail.
* Dean Kalimniou is a Melbourne solicitor and freelance journalist.