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F - 151 : Ethnic Cleansing 100 Years ago

Muslim Refugees in 1922 - the Steamboat at the back is from the Turkish Red Crescent

When sailing along the Turkish-Greek border in the Aegean, It is difficult to say which island is part of Turkey and which belongs to Greece. The architecture looks identical (minarets excluded), the land scape is similar, but the moment people speak or you see a road sign, you know which country you are in. There are Turkish people on one side and Greek people on the other. This complete separation was the result of the "big population exchange" in 1923. Until then, Greeks and Turks lived in mixed communities on both sides.

Mixed Ethnicity abound - from an English Ma 1905

The population exchange has a long history and ended with the disastrous displacement of up to 2 million people. They were expelled by force, had to grab what they could and make it on foot to the next port or border. It was the first deliberate ethnic cleansing in modern history, sanctioned by the big powers Great Britain and France. Luckily, times have changed and these countries do not promote ethnic cleansing any longer – democracies learn from mistakes once made.

A Modern Map by Greek Nationalist who still harbour Panhellenistic Daydreams

The disaster was caused by the Greek policy of “Megali” (Panhellenism): the unification of all Greek speaking people and the resurrection of old Byzantium. Such nationalistic movements were quite in vogue by the end of the 19th century. The Czech and Hungarians dreamt of their own state (then part of the Austrian Empire), the Polish longed for independence (then part of the Russian Empire), the Arabs, Albania and Armenia wanted to cut their ties with the Ottoman Empire. The list of people seeking national fulfillment was long.

“Megali” became mainstream politics in 1897 when Greece lost the war with Turkey over the possession of Crete and Thessaloniki. The Greek Army was not up to the task. Greece had its revenge in the First and Second Balkan War in 1912 which expanded Greek territory by over 45%. Maps started to appear advocating for a Greater Greece which would include Cyprus, western Anatolia, Constantinople and large parts of the Black Sea shores in the North. The goal was unrealistic of course. There were far more Turkish people living in these areas than Greeks. But at a time when America colonized the Philippines and Puerto Rico, such political daydreaming seemed to be ok. Without the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire though, this dream could not be realised.

Greek Map submitted in Versailles 1919 - note the difference to the

Map from 1905 - the Data was altered to support Greek Territorial Claims

But exactly this happened in World War I. Greece only joined the war efforts in 1916 after France and Great Britain promised major territorial gains. By 1918, the Turkish Army was beaten. The British Troops had conquered the Ottoman’s Middle Eastern possessions (today’s Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and the Red Sea coast of Saudi Arabia). A harsh peace treaty followed. In the Treaty of Sèvres from August 1920, the Ottoman Empire was dismembered. France and England split the Middle East, Italy would get Anatolia’s south, Greece a piece around Smyrna (Izmir) and Eastern Thrace, Constantinople would be internationalized and a big Armenian State was to be created on Turkey’s eastern border.

How France, Italy and Great Britain planned to dismember the Ottoman Empire

But the maps drawn in France did not reflect the realities on the ground. Despite being exhausted by seven years of war, Turkish people would not accept being colonised but fight. A grass root insurrection made life impossible for the French and Italians who both withdrew their forces in 1922 and gave up their claims. The leader of the insurrection, Kemal Ataturk, would become Turkey’s new President.

Greek Territorial Gains from the Treaty of Sèvres are in Blue

In this turmoil, Greek troops occupied Smyrna (Izmir) in summer 1919 to underpin their territorial claims. They went far beyond the boundaries set by the Treaty of Sèvres. Not being able to break Turkish resistance, the Greek Army pushed further and further into Anatolia and almost reached Ankara. But the supply lines became too long. The offensive had to be aborted. The Greek Forces dug in.

Greek Soldiers landing in Smyrna in May 1919

Despite several tactical defeats, Ataturk could keep his new army intact and re-armed it with money, material and arms from the Soviet Union. By fall 1922 it was ready for a counter-attack. The Greek Army, superior in numbers and equipped with modern weapons from France and Great Britain, was routed and destroyed. Most Greek soldiers knew they were not welcome in Anatolia and wanted to return home after almost a decade of war. Their moral was low and they fled and surrendered in large numbers

In 1921 Greek Forces almost reached Ankara, the new Turkish Capital. But their Supply Lines were over-extended and couldn't handle the Volumes and Logistics a modern Army needed.

By September 1922, Ataturk’s troops were back in Smyrna. The town went up in flames. Still to this day, both sides blame each other for the torching. During the three years of war, civilians on both sides were massacred in large numbers. It got worse once the Turkish Army reached Smyrna. The civilian population suffered most – as always. 900’000 Greek refugees fled by boat to the safety of Mainland Greece.

Greeks Refugees waiting for Boats in the Harbor of Smyrna

Recognizing the inevitable, the Greek government proposed in October 1922 a formal population exchange. A respective treaty was signed by end of January 1923 in Lausanne. It is difficult to establish how many people had to leave their homes. For Greeks, the numbers fluctuate between 1.0 and 1.5 million, for Muslims between 300’000 and 500’000. The number of killed civilians is estimated at around half a million people.

The Word Population Exchange masks the Horror of Evicting

of Hundred Thousands of People

The long-term effects of so many people being uprooted and their capital & savings wiped out was felt for decades in both countries. Greece had to cope with an increase of its population by 25% in one single year. The new Turkish Republic with the loss of its Greek citizens, the most entrepreneurial people in by-gone Ottoman Empire. Both countries descended in decade long poverty and only recovered from the shock after World War II.

Soup Kitchen in Athens - Daily Survival was back on the Agenda again

Greek Refugees from Anatolia in Tent Villages below the Acropolis

There are a few lessons we can learn from these events which happened exactly 100 years ago.

  • First, nobody can create an Empire against the will of the people.

  • Second, destroying houses, factories and businesses leads to a massive loss of wealth. People will be impoverished for decades.

  • Wars are easy to launch. Mostly, they do not end according to plan

Both Greek and Turks paid a terrible price for the Panhellenistic Dream of Glory. There is one country on this planet that deals with ethnicity differently - the United States of America. It is possible to unit people with different roots when power is handed to them and the promise of prosperity and happiness is real. Sadly, the woke left is doing its best to destroy the American dream. Looking into the events 100 years ago during their next summer holiday may cure one or the other.

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