Saturday, 16 February 2013

The Greek-Turkish population exchange: a necessary evil?

Thanks to the HA reader who suggested I go here and watch the talks and Q&A (in English) from professors Giorgos Mavrogordatos and Ayhan Aktar on the 1923 population exchange agreements between Greece and Turkey that saw 1.5 million Greeks from Asia Minor, Anatolia and Thrace resettled in Greece and half a million Turks go the other way.

Mavrogordatos suggests that the exchange was the best, or at least most pragmatic, outcome to the failed attempt by Greece to liberate Ionia.

Arguing in favour of homogenous nation-states, Mavrogordatos says that the Ottoman Greeks provided a means to complete the Hellenisation of those territories (especially Macedonia) liberated during the Balkan wars; ensured, with the expulsion of Muslims from Greece, that Greece didn’t end up with a problematic Muslim minority, which would now number three million; and that, indeed, since Turkey’s preferred method of dealing with minorities in its midst was physical destruction, having some sort of agreed relocation was the only way to guarantee the survival and future of 1.5m Greeks.

On the other hand, the Turkish professor bemoans the population exchange, guided as it was, he argues, by narrow, nationalist definitions of ethnic identity, which ended up impoverishing both countries and was a disaster for those directly affected.

The discussion to be had on the issues raised is inexhaustible, but I’ll just make a couple of points.

Having experienced the humiliating trauma of the decline and disintegration of the Ottoman empire, the new Turkish republic couldn’t countenance the continuing presence of Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks and had an unambiguous policy of annihilating its Christian minorities. This decisive approach is in contrast to the policy of Greece towards non-Greeks in the territories it had liberated in 1913 and was expecting to annex in Asia Minor.

Eleftherios Venizelos was torn between creating a Greece that would be a liberal multi-ethnic state in which non-Greeks (Muslims, Jews and Bulgarians) would be full citizens and have their rights and identities protected, and a more homogenous country, insensitive to its minorities, who would be subordinate to the dominant Greek element and encouraged to assimilate or, in the worst-case scenario, face exchange with Greeks living in Rumelia and Turkey. (Exterminating its minorities, as Turkey was prepared to do, did not appeal to Greece).

In Ionia, Venizelos was inclined to the former policy, insisting that the Turks living in the newly liberated areas should experience no discrimination and be won over to the benefits of Greek government – though at other times (as Mavrogordatos notes) he contemplates exchanging the Turks in Ionia for Greeks living in parts of Anatolia not liberated by the Greek army.

Informing Venizelos’ view of the Turks as susceptible to the advantages of enlightened Greek rule was a sense that Turks were less conscious of their national and religious identity than Greeks. This ignorance of the Turks had disastrous consequences for Greek rule in Ionia. More ruthless treatment of the Turks in Ionia may have suited Greek interests better, though it would have risked alienating Greece’s European allies who, hypocritically, made their support conditional on Greece proving its credentials as a civilised country by the fair treatment of the non-Greek population under its jurisdiction.

A similar Greek underestimation of Turkish nationalism was also evident later in Cyprus where, it should be pointed out that, after the Turkish invasion in 1974, the 200,000 Greeks forced from northern Cyprus and 50,000 Turks encouraged (by Turkey and Britain) to leave the government-controlled for the occupied areas – were not, according to the Turks, ethnically cleansed but the necessary victims of an agreed population exchange.


Hermes said...

This is a very difficult one. I still dont know what to make of Mavrogordatos's ideas. Of course, he comes across as a hard headed Realist; but, arguably, he could claim that he is really being liberal or humanistic in that if we did not partake in an Exchange, the Greeks left behind in Asia Minor, Eastern Thrace, Pontos and Cyprus, would have been slaughtered or gradually thrown out anyway, whilst being left with half a million Turks in mainland Greece and another 50,000 in Cyprus.

Of course, another question is, could we have done more to protect the Smyrna vilayet. Some commentators believe it was defensible.

John Akritas said...

I think the expulsion of the Anatolian Greeks was a fait accompli – the Smyrna Greeks had left before Lausanne – in which case, the exchange was an opportunity for Greece to get rid of its Muslims. The Turks could have said no, the Muslims stay, and there would still have been no Greeks in the new Turkey but Greece would have had to figure out what to do with half a million Turks within its borders.

There was also an argument for holding on to Eastern Thrace and even taking Constantinople from the British; but, in the first instance, Greece was worried that a complete collapse might end up with a reverse of the gains of 1913 and, in the second instance, didn’t want to go up against Britain.

Hermes said...

There were some people; particularly, associated with Venizelos who proposed creating a militia comprised of mostly Asia Minor Greeks and a defensible perimeter around Smyrna. This proposal was put forward even as the Greek army was near the Sangarios River. Mavrogordatos does not mention this; but, this is not unexpected given he is not a military historian nor was he discussing military tactics. Also, some military commentators suggest that Eastern Thrace was very defensible and the probability of a reversal was slim.

Of course, later the Exchange was a fait accompli and it showed how shrewd Venizelos was. However, I do not believe he genuinely sought to create a multi-ethnic state before 1922. He was really only trying to curry favour with the Western powers in order to garner their support. He was a liberal nationalist through and through.

Hermes said...

By the way, you can download the Fetih 1453 movie (with English subtitles) here:

Icarus said...

There were already hundreds of thousands of Ottoman Greek refugees in Greece as a result of WW1 ethnic cleansing and the subsequent Greco-Turkish war. I once was told the "population exchange" involved the physical movement of only 250,000 Greeks from Turkey to Greece in 1923. The rest of 1.5 million simply lost their right to return to their homes in Turkey. Which book do you guys know of that goes into the details of the exchange ? I would be curious to know what regions or settlements these 250,000 came from.

John Akritas said...

I think you are right, Icarus. The vast majority of Ottoman Greeks had arrived in Greece from Eastern Thrace and Asia Minor with the persecutions during WWI and, more so, after the defeat of the Greek Army in 1922. The population exchange provisions in Lausanne merely formalised their displacement. I don’t know about the figure of 250,000 who actually left Turkey after Lausanne; but it could be as low as this and I’m assuming they were, mostly, from Pontos and Cappadocia. If the figure is as low as 250,000 Greeks, then, as a result of Lausanne, more Turks left Greece than Greeks left Turkey.

John Akritas said...

H. On whether Venizelos was serious about creating a multi-ethnic Greece or homogenous Greece; it’s an interesting question, which Mavrogordatos suggests (round about the 10 minute mark in the Q&A video) Venizelos was not dogmatic on. If a Megali Ellada was created, then there was an issue of what to do with the hundreds of thousands of non-Greeks who would come under Greek rule and Venizelos’ response, according to Mavrogordatos, was to stress a Hellenism that could accommodate non Greek Orthodox populations. Given the collapse of the Megali Idea, however, and with Greece reduced to the status of a middling nation-state, then Venizelos went to a plan B, which was the creation of a homogenous country, using the tools of a population exchange.

Hermes said...

Icarus, I would assume that all the best books on the Exchange from a Greek perspective have been written in Greek and very few in English. I do not know of any specific ones but Vlassis Agtzidis is a good historian. See link below.

John, the argument from some people is that Venizelos only stressed a Hellenism that could accommodate non-Greek Orthodox populations in order to gain concessions from the Western Powers. The Western Powers did not want to sponsor ethnic cleansing in Greek held territories. Venizelos never, in his heart of heart, accepted a multi-ethnic state as an ideal.

Ted said...

Interesting points I never knew the number actually exchanged was so low. Just highlights that it was a good decision. I honestly think that the population exchange should be modelled once more but this time for all of europe. All the muslims should go while the christians of the middle east who are on the verge of extinction should be welcomed. I think a homogenous people and more importantly compatible is more important than diversity. In fact diversity is going to be the undoing of most countries in the upcoming decades. And by the way I am no neocon and I don't have a problem with most muslims but Europe was never intended to be another america.

John Akritas said...

The low Ottoman Greek figure of 250,000, if it’s correct, is post-Lausanne. I read somewhere the other day that 200,000 Greeks were forced from Turkey in 1914-15, which means about 1m left after the defeat of the Greek army in 1922, but were prevented from returning as a result of Lausanne or rather as a result of Turkey’s unwillingness to guarantee their safety if they should come back.

John Akritas said...

It's also worth pointing out that the figure of 250,000 might be so low because so many Greeks who were left behind, in the Smyrna region and Pontos, after the Greek Army's withdrawal were massacred by the Turks.

Icarus said...

John, the Wikipedia population exchange article says 190,000 "Greeks" went to Greece.

The Karamanlides (Turkish speaking Christians) article says 100,000 Karamanlides were part of the population exchange.

If that is true then, surprisingly, only 90,000 Greek speaking Christians were actually exchanged!

John Akritas said...

That's a peculiar interpretation. The number of Greeks who were forcibly expelled or prevented from returning to Turkey is generally recognised to be 1.5m. Some of these were expelled in 1914-15, the majority in 1922 and the rest, after Lausanne, in 1923. The figure, obviously, doesn’t include the hundreds of thousands who were massacred. As we said, Turkey’s policy towards its minorities was extermination; while Greece didn’t have the stomach for this and preferred exchange or had some vague notion about turning its Muslims, Slavs and Jews into good, obedient citizens as a result of the beneficence of Greek rule.