Swans Commentary » swans.com August 9, 2010  



Cities Sunny And Tragic


by Peter Byrne


Book Reviews



Milton, Giles: Paradise Lost, Smyrna 1922, The Destruction of Islam's City of Tolerance, 2009, Sceptre, London, ISBN 978 0 340 83787 0, photos and maps, 426 pages.

Mazower, Mark: Salonica, City of Ghosts, Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950, 2004, Harper, NYC, ISBN 0 00 712022 2, photos and maps, 525 pages.


(Swans - August 9, 2010)   Smyrna and Salonica still sparkled in the tarnished crown of the Ottoman Empire as the 20th century began. In decline the Ottomans welcomed Western imperial efforts within their leaky empire. Smyrna, the splendid port city on the east coast of the Aegean, was the prime example. Americans were the most recent arrivals and didn't hide their intentions. They named their rich suburban community -- gated before the letter -- Paradise. Part of their wealth came from the Standard Oil refinery whose storage tanks stood on the quays, out of sight from Paradise. But the Americans also employed thousands of workers in various other enterprises. They buttressed their bridgehead with the usual camp followers: charities, schools, nomadic do-gooders and busybody missionaries.

Other affluent Smyrna suburbs housed the city's bourgeoisie. The most lavish was that of the Levantines. Active in Turkey since the 18th century, they were of European descent, multilingual, often possessing British passports without ever having set foot in Britain. The Levantines had built powerful business dynasties. They controlled the region's commerce, banks, insurance agencies, shipping, imports and exports. A vast number of hands from all ethnic groups worked in their factories and mines. The Oriental Carpet Manufacturing Company alone employed 150,000. The Levantines' wealth was such that the sultan would call on them for aid. Before 1914 Smyrna's exports were more than double those of Istanbul.

Smyrna itself consisted of various ethnic communities that lived in rough harmony. Tourists who arrived with ideas of the Terrible Turk were taken aback by Ottoman tolerance. This largest Christian city in Islam was dominated by 320,000 Greeks whose roots in some cases went back to Byzantine times. There were 140,000 Turks, mainly artisans and craftsmen. The largely prosperous Armenians numbered 10,000. A small, poor Jewish community, often Judeo-Spanish speaking, managed to keep five Hebrew newspapers going. (The Greeks had eleven papers, Turks seven, Armenians five, and the French four.)

In 1914 trouble blew up in the hinterland. Muslims driven from the Balkans by the Turkish-Greek-Bulgarian conflict harassed Greek settlements on the Aegean coast. But the intimation of future regional catastrophe came from London. Lloyd George, before and after becoming prime minister, was besotted with the idea of supplanting the Ottomans with a reconstituted Byzantine Empire. Despite strong opposition from British military and foreign policy circles, he joined with the charismatic Greek politician Eleftherios Venizelos to realize their mutual dream. Ultimately it would destroy Smyrna and bring about the most dramatic humanitarian crisis in history.

During WWI, Smyrna's position fundamentally changed. The Ottoman ministers abolished the Capitulations. These were exemptions that favored foreigners over native merchants and had made possible the huge fortunes of the Levantines. Smyrna's loyalty to Turkey had faltered to the point that its Turkish pro-Entente governor tried to sign a separate peace for the city. This was nothing less than treason and it's not surprising that the rest of Turkey turned vindictive toward "the Pearl of the Orient." Moreover, Turkey's richest city could hardly be left under the sway of Greeks when Greece had joined in a war against Turkey. The need to "Turkify" the nation was an inevitable concomitant of the war. Separatists were seen as no better than the European powers that wanted to carve up Turkey. The fact that some Armenians had sided with the invading Russians would lead to often-genocidal deportation of whole communities.

WWI terminated, the victorious European powers sat in Istanbul bickering over how they would divide up the spoils. Mustafa Kemal, his reputation much enhanced by his recent military achievements, saw that the sultan could no longer be more than a puppet and that Turkey would be dismembered. He left the capital for Anatolia where he would organize resistance to the imposed terms of peace.

Then Lloyd George began the destruction of Smyrna. He convinced the other Entente leaders to allow Prime Minister Venizelos to land Greek troops in the city. Britain's Chief of Imperial Staff rightly predicted that this would be the start of a new war. Ostensibly the troops were to quell the ethnic conflicts. But the insolence of the soldiery and the theatrical antics of the Greek authorities looked like an annexation of Turkey's second city and sent a shock wave through the country. In a matter of months the Greeks, again encouraged by Lloyd George, took another step and marched on Istanbul.

Meanwhile the Kemalists in Ankara gathered such force that the Entente leaders had to treat with them. But Lloyd George made dialogue difficult and then gave the Greeks the go-ahead for an offensive against the nationalists in the heart of Anatolia. It failed completely. The Greeks were reduced to administering a zone that except for Smyrna was overwhelmingly Turkish. To even the demographics they soon resorted to ethnic cleansing. Outside the Greek zone, Turkish irregulars subjected Greek residents to the same treatment. Atrocities became the rule, not the exception.

The desperate Greek army soon launched a second offensive against Kemal that took them to the outskirts of Ankara. It was a mistake from all points of view and, after some initial success, a total defeat. The Turks took 50,000 prisoners and effectively ended the Greek presence in Turkey. The survivors straggled back to Smyrna, burning and pillaging on the way.

The city itself was in disarray. The Greek and Armenian communities feared Turkish vengeance. The disbanded Greek soldiers only wanted to see no more of Turkey. The Levantines thought they could buy their way out of trouble, while the other Western residents hoped the Entente powers whose battleships filled Smyrna harbor would protect them.

Violence now came from all directions. Brigands and Turkish irregulars operated in the countryside, driving refugees into the city. The Smyrna Turks made their new strength felt. The Greek troops settled scores between themselves and didn't spare even the local Greeks. But the event everyone in Smyrna either desired or dreaded was the arrival of Kemal. It in fact took place with exemplary discipline and style.

However, it soon became clear that Mustapha Kemal had not forgotten the treason of Smyrna. While he gave the impression of being above vendetta, his making of Smyrna into a thoroughly Turkish city was a cruel process that would afterwards leave 200,000 souls unaccounted for. After the departure of the Greek troops, up to half a million Greek and Armenian civilians were trapped on the quayside as the city went up in flames set alight most probably by Turkish soldiers. These refugees spent days without food, water, or shelter. At times they were packed so tightly that even the dead stood upright. The Entente warships hesitated to intervene in what was now an internal Turkish affair. The Western powers were already thinking of deals to be done with the newborn Turkish Republic.

Giles Milton makes extensive use of the personal papers, memoirs, and letters of the Smyrniot Levantines. His book is actually the chronicle of this community's demise seen in an historical context, which he takes care to keep objective. But we should remember that the Levantines were not the only ones in Turkey to have their personal lives turned topsy-turvy in the fatal year of 1922. That said, their story here does make a very readable historical study.

While Milton looks at a quarter of a century of Smyrna's life, the historian Mark Mazower surveys five centuries of Salonica's. Both Aegean cities have their origins in antiquity and both played a crucial role in 20th century history. Smyrna threw off cosmopolitanism and hoisting the flag of Turkish nationalism. Salonica, to a similar dirge of death and violence, did the same, raising the Greek flag.

Mazower doesn't linger over the Hellenistic origins of the city, nor over its ascent under the Romans. He recalls the synthesis of these with Christianity that produced Byzantine civilization, of which Salonica was one of the great centers. He reminds us that philhellenism vibrating through Europe in the 17th-19th centuries produced more myth than history. Its influence on British elite education, for instance, would produce fantasies like Lloyd George's. Mazower points out that 19th and 20th century nationalism would distort Salonica's history by glorifying classical Greece, pushing Byzantium to the margins and obscuring the Ottoman centuries and the Jewish presence as if they never were.

The Ottomans captured Salonica twenty years before they sealed the fate of Byzantium at Constantinople in 1453. The Sublime Port realized that the city, grown weak as the Eastern Roman Empire fragmented, gave access to the great wealth of the Balkans and immediately set about strengthening it. In line with Ottoman imperial practice, the local religion was left alone. To remedy depopulation Anatolians were brought in by force. Thus the displacement of populations that would ever mark the city got underway.

The revitalizing of Salonica proceeded slowly until the 16th century when the inhabitants suddenly doubled thanks to the arrival of Jews expelled from Spain. The Ottomans welcomed them with guarantees of political protection and economic concessions. In no time and for four centuries, Salonica, more than anything else, would be a Jewish city. But it would also remain an intersection for many different creeds.

Seventeenth century Salonica was a vital commercial hub. The Greeks, though still a minority in the city, formed a strong merchant class. At the end of the next century, encouraged by Russia, they were straining against their Ottoman rulers. Rebellion in the 1820s gave birth to modern Greece in Thessaly and the Peloponnese. But the Ottomans still had a firm grip on Macedonia and a threat of revolt in Salonica produced a ruthless repression.

But the sultan's government in Istanbul knew that, barring exceptional circumstances, repression was a mistake. It needed the confidence of Christians within the empire and, as the 19th century proceeded, gave more attention to their needs. For the sultanate itself had entered a period of reform. This was lost on European opinion:

In the increasing racialized vocabulary of the late nineteenth century, "Turks" were seen as Asiatic and essentially nomadic, the antithesis of European civilization and by implication, merely a transient presence on European soil. The idea that the empire might be modernizing itself, and transforming its cities and societies struck only a few. Yet the great historical irony is that even as Victorian travelers were insisting more and more upon the hopelessly immobile character of late Ottoman Salonica, it was in the process of changing faster and more dramatically than at any other time in its history. (Page 221)

Because Salonica was in European Turkey and cosmopolitan in make-up, it became the empire's point of contact with modern thinking. The Young Turk coup d'état was hatched there in 1908. This reinstated the constitution suspended in 1876 by sultan Abdal Hamid and drove him into exile. It was a Turkish army from Salonica that advanced on Istanbul and installed the new regime.

But this surge of the city pulled up short in the Balkan War of 1912-3. Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro, and Serbia cast off Ottoman sovereignty and in the upshot Salonica became part of an enlarged Greece. This brought a large influx of people from "Old" Greece. Conflict with Bulgaria meant that the Bulgarian community left the city and that Greeks fleeing the Bulgarians sought refuge there. The ethnic to-and-fro never seemed to end. In WWI the population doubled by the addition of 200,000 Entente troops, many of them French and British colonials from across the world.

As we learned from Giles Milton, the Greeks, after the Ottoman defeat, felt confident enough to invade Anatolia. Only the resistance mustered around the Salonican Mustapha Kemal (soon to be christened Ataturk) drove them out. His victory set the stage for another of Salonica's mass displacements of people. By agreement in 1923, 30,000 of the city's Muslims returned to Turkey from where 100,000 ethnic Greeks arrived to replace them.

The Hellenization of Salonica began slowly but quickened after the fire of 1917 that destroyed the Ottoman town and its Jewish quarter. But if in the interwar years the Muslim population all but vanished, the Jews were still very present. Convinced that the Ottomans had treated them decently, they had been wary of the Greek takeover. Nevertheless the two communities managed to live and work together. Some anti-Semitism appeared, but it never reached the boiling point. All that changed after the Germans marched into Salonica in 1941. The coming and going of people that had always marked Salonica took its most murderous turn ever. Only 5% of the city's Jews escaped deportation.

In his introduction Mazower tells us that he didn't want the 1943-45 genocide to blind us to Salonica's more than two millennia of life and death. But in that he had to fail. His readers like everyone else are rooted in the years of their own lives and can't help being overwhelmed by the fact that in their century forty-five thousand Salonica Jews were sent to Auschwitz. In the last lines of his book the historian recognizes his failure in this respect and characterizes the city by its decimated Sephardim. But he has brilliantly accomplished his overall aim, which was to dissect the charade of nationalism:

The history of the nationalists is all about false continuities and convenient silences, the fictions necessary to tell the story of the rendez-vous of a chosen people with the land marked out for them by destiny. (Page 474)

We have been taught by advertising that tourist euphoria thrives in a balmy cloud of unknowing. Complacency is better served that way. Sitting at a café table on Smyrna's splendid sea front casual visitors are ignorant that not very long ago:

The sea was full of bodies....There were so many that if you fell into the water you wouldn't sink because all those bodies would keep you on the surface. And you could see on every body the belly swollen, curving above the surface. (Paradise Lost, page 339)

The enterprise of tour operators being what it is, the same tourist could the following day be looking down from the Venetian citadel above Salonica. His eyes would have to pass over a vast track of gimcrack 20th century buildings before he saw the splendid bay. He wouldn't be distracted by the Jewish cemetery that has been cemented over by the Aristoteleion University or by the twenty-six minarets that were razed in 1925.


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Published August 9, 2010