Magazine article History Today

Catastrophe at Smyrna: Matthew Stewart Traces the Roots of the Greco-Turkish War of 1921-22, and the Consequent Refugee Crisis, to the Postwar Settlements of 1919-20

Magazine article History Today

Catastrophe at Smyrna: Matthew Stewart Traces the Roots of the Greco-Turkish War of 1921-22, and the Consequent Refugee Crisis, to the Postwar Settlements of 1919-20

Article excerpt

ON SEPTEMBER 15TH 1922, the fires of a raging holocaust began finally to burn themselves out. Smyrna (present-day Izmir), the gem-city of the Turkish Aegean, had gone up in flames. Over breakfast that day readers of the London Morning Post were informed that Turkish regular troops had set fire to the Greek, Armenian and European quarters of the city, while ensuring that no damage was done to Turkish neighbourhoods. Future estimations would set the death toll as high as 100,000. For two days while the fires raged, and for some two weeks after, the citizens of this once-lovely and essentially Hellenic city experienced brutality and neglect on a massive scale. George Horton, seasoned US Consul and witness to these terrible days, would later write:

   One of the keenest impressions which
   I brought away with me from Smyrna
   was a feeling of shame that I
   belonged to the human race.

In the days that followed, the massacre received coverage in the Western press, though it quickly disappeared from the newspapers. Today the affair is virtually forgotten outside the countries involved. 'The Smyrna after ... has been somehow soft-pedaled and almost expunged from the memory of present-day man', declared the American writer Henry Miller in 1941. The event triggered the largest European refugee problem prior to the Second World War (at least 1.5 million people were involved in a post-war 'exchange of populations'), yet mention of the 'Greco-Turkish War' is still more likely to conjure an image of Byron or Delacroix than a reference to David Lloyd George or Mustafa Kemal. For the antagonists, on the other hand, the Smyrna catastrophe and the three-year-war that led up to it continue to provoke accusation and denial. The affair lives on, subject of propaganda and public relations onslaughts from both sides.

Settlement with the Ottoman empire was not at the top of the agenda for the Great Powers at Versailles ill 1919. Indeed the terms of peace between the victorious Allies and the Ottomans awaited settlement in the Treaty of Sevres (France) which was not signed until August 10th, 1920. The document was produced in the wake of mutually exclusive, often secret, Allied wartime promises, and fabricated in the mould of nationalistic self-seeking and diplomatic intrigue that characterised much of the victors' agenda. Charles Swallow has said that Sevres 'came draped in the flags of Western imperialism'. Its terms were never implemented.

The treaty stipulated that: (1) Smyrna and the adjacent regions of Anatolia would nominally remain Ottoman but would be administered by Greece for five years, after which a plebiscite would determine whether it would be Turkish or Greek; (2) virtually all of Thrace, both eastern and western, would be ceded to Greece; (3) Constantinople (Istanbul) would remain under Ottoman control, but a substantial garrison of former Entente powers would remain there. Remarkably, this prescription for confusion and resentment had already been preceded by Greek military occupation of Smyrna, which had begun on May 15th, 1919, and initially involved 20,000 troops, a number that swelled in the ensuing months. The occupation was undertaken at the urging of Lloyd George's government and achieved under the gaze of Allied warships positioned in Smyrna's harbour. These events proved intolerable to the Turkish nationalists, whose political strength grew proportionally as the surviving Ottoman power structure diminished.

The Greek military presence, which seemed premature and heavy-handed, was in part the result of understandable Greek anxiety that Italy might gain regional control, for it had been promised Smyrna in 1917. The Greek incursion must also be viewed as a result of the warm relations between Lloyd George and the Greek prime minister Eleutherios Venizelos. Venizelos had taken a vigorously pro-Allied position during the First World War and had charmed Lloyd George and the entire European entourage at Versailles. …

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