Smyrna 1922: A Complex Legacy

One hundred years ago today, Turkish forces entered the city of Smyrna (now Izmir), ending the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-22. Michel Cotakis reflects on the legacy of the events of September 1922 for Turkey, Greece and the rest of the world.

On September 9, 1922, Mustafa Kemal (later Atatürk) rode down Frank Street in the European quarter of Smyrna astride a white war horse. The color of his mount signified victory over the Greek armies in Asia Minor after years of bloody warfare. It also meant purity, cleanliness, a blank slate. Because with his great arrival, five hundred years of history have been changed. The latest fashion of empires and cities has given way to the monochromatic world of the nation-state. The world events that followed are well known, though connections to this date are rarely made. It has been a hundred years since Ottoman Smyrna became Turkish Izmir.

For the Turks, today is a holiday. The proud nation of Turkey, born from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, is now a regional power and a dynamic bridge between East and West. A thriving oasis in a difficult Middle East, “Turkey” as a project was a success. For the Greeks, the date is tinged with infamy, and a dose of nostalgia. The destruction of multicultural Smyrna, in which the Greeks formed the largest group, is still considered the ‘Catastrofi’ (disaster). Its aftermath has brought much pain and upheaval – a reality check for a small country with imperial pretensions in a time of dying empires.

Between September 1922 and November 1924, some 1.5 million Ottoman Greeks – many of whom spoke only a handful of their “mother” language – were forcibly deported from their homes in Asia Minor to an unknown and inhospitable Greek state. In the other direction went 600,000 Greek Muslims, colonizing a land they knew little about. The process, legitimized ex post by the Treaty of Lausanne, forms the demographic base of modern Turkey and Greece. Others will comment on their content and sequence. But what must posterity think of these events?

Population exchange

“Population exchange”, as it is now known, is generally heralded as having ended centuries of conflict, laying the foundations for stable nation states. The influx of educated Greeks from prosperous Asia Minor breathed new life into Greece’s economy, moribund after a decade of war. Construction exploded, as towns rushed to accommodate the deportees.

Many later cultural styles derive their dynamism from the newcomers. A fine example is the ‘rebetiko’ musical tradition, immortalized in the resounding rhythms of Manolis Chiotis on his bouzouki, and strains of Mikis Theodorakis – of Zorba fame. Politics has also matured. Since 1922, Greek governments have abandoned their penchant for daring foreign adventures, putting their country on a firmer footing. Greece has suffered further downgrades since, although less is of its own doing.

For Turkey, getting rid of its non-Muslim population – a fifth of all inhabitants in 1921 – meant removing a tempting bait for irredentists, a bait likely to have plagued the country indefinitely. The Kemalist logic of a unitary national economy and society could not triumph in the presence of eminent resistance fighters. Fortunately, many Muslim arrivals to Turkey were strong supporters of the new regime.

After witnessing the decline of the Ottoman Caliphate, leaving them stuck in the slippery darkness of the Balkans, they embraced the Turkish nation-state and helped secure its western future. Greeks and Turks, enemies for centuries, see their relations improve. As new disagreements surfaced, they would never go to war again. To cap this historic turnaround, Greek Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos nominated none other than Atatürk – architect of the population exchange – for the 1928 Nobel Peace Prize.

But the broader legacy of 1922 entails a darker reading. Its events affirmed a new modernism; one distorting those miracles of industrial engineering which had produced the many social improvements of the previous century. Such devices had been deployed to tame and civilize the natural world – to alter it, in some way, for the benefit of humanity.

From 1922, following the ravages of nationalism and war, his logic had turned to whole populations: peoples, nations too, could be manipulated. In this synthesis, tradition and heritage were viewed with suspicion. The past might be broken, lest it hold back the advancing nation. Asia Minor, home of Christians for centuries, could be “cleansed” – the international community casually observing. Vibrant communities of European Muslims could be regenerated as Turks; whatever their complaints.

national purity

The trends embodied by 1922 and its aftermath gave rise to the maxim that the nation can only succeed if it is pure. And with the instrument of “population exchange”, he offered a model for others to follow. All of the states that emerged from World War I with significant minorities – Germany, Poland, Romania, Hungary and the Soviet Union – would continue over the following decades, and with varying degrees of success, this chalice of national demographic purity.

Forced population transfers in the years following Lausanne are terribly numerous. It is estimated that between 1922 and 1952, more than 30 million people were part of forced movements – the impact of such uprooting on lives and livelihoods is unimaginable to us. The cost in terms of human life is debated, although researchers have suggested that some 8 million people perished.

The impression these events had on the imagination of the nascent fascist movements should not be underestimated. The Greco-Turkish War and the Treaty of Lausanne were followed feverishly by the European right-wing press. Nationalist leaders saw Ataturk as their prototype. For Hitler, he was particularly intoxicating.

The Treaty of Sèvres (1919) had provided for an ethnic mix. Yet Atatürk used the cover of war to redefine the ethnic makeup of Asia Minor through forced marches, deportations, and massacres. By the time the international system was able to arbitrate, the ethnic cleansing of the region – unpleasant as it was – had become a “fait accompli”. This logic of incendiary revisionism on questions of national demography exerts a particular attraction on the Führer and the Nazi strategists.

A complex legacy

The logics of the early 1920s also have applications in contemporary politics. Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine carries the pride of the Megali idea. Here, too, the dream of rebuilding a lost empire, of uniting ethnic Russians under one state, is paramount. In the meantime, his tactics are reminiscent of Lausanne. We hear of forced marches of women and children to Russia and the resettlement of ethnic Russians in conquered Ukrainian territories. Ukrainian civilians are dying in alarming numbers as evidence of genocide mounts. Clearly for Putin, ethnic purity serves a political purpose. It’s a familiar playbook.

One cannot, of course, claim that Atatürk and the European fascists, old or new, are equivalent. Turkey’s success, compared to other states in the region, is a testament to the foresight and effective management of its early leaders. Despite all its faults, contemporary Turkey is richer, freer, more tolerant and more open than its eastern neighbors. Atatürk’s face gazes paternally from every public building, square and sports venue in the country. For his offspring, the Turks of today, he is a symbol of inspiration and acclamation.

In 21st century Izmir, a city that has changed both in physical form and demographics, Atatürk remains a hero. His grand arrival in the city in 1922 will be replayed today, as every year, with the usual brilliance. But in celebrating a more harmonious century of Turkish-Greek relations, let us also remember the darker international resonances of Smyrna 1922 and its aftermath, so that we can place these events in a more solid historical context.


Note: This article gives the author’s point of view, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured Image Credit: “The Turkish Army’s Entry into Izmir” (Public Domain)


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