Brutality management

December 1, 1995

As the carnage in Bosnia ends, Richard Clogg asks if there are lessons in an earlier episode of ethnic engineering.

Twenty miles of carts I with exhausted, staggering men, women and children, blankets over their heads, walking blindly along in the rain beside their worldly goods." So the young Ernest Hemingway described the desperate flight of the Greeks from Eastern Thrace in 1922. The term "ethnic cleansing" may have entered the language only recently but the phenomenon is almost as old as history.

With the signing of the Bosnian peace agreement in Dayton, Ohio, the pattern of ethnic cleansing seems about to be consolidated in ex-Yugoslavia. It is apparent that the eventual outcome is likely to be three more or less ethnically homogeneous states; Croatia, Serbia, and a much truncated and very largely Muslim Bosnia.

The human suffering of communities violently uprooted in this way is almost beyond imagination and the consequences of the war in ex-Yugoslavia are likely to haunt Europe for decades. But could these horrors at least have been mitigated by a negotiated exchange of populations at an earlier stage of the conflict?

A precedent for such ethnic engineering does exist. For, some 70 years ago, such an exchange was negotiated between Greece and Turkey. It was an admittedly imperfect and harsh solution to seemingly irreconcilable ethnic conflict, but one that has nonetheless contributed significantly to the keeping of a shaky peace between the two countries.

When Greece gained her independence in the 1830s many more Greeks remained under the rule of the Ottoman Turks than within the bounds of the new country. Unlike the other Balkan peoples, who were more or less compactly settled, the Greeks were widely scattered over the territories that comprise the present Greek state and throughout Asia Minor. Many of these Anatolian Greeks were Turkish-speaking (although they used the Greek alphabet to write Turkish), while the Greek spoken in distant Pontos, on the south-eastern shores of the Black Sea, was scarcely intelligible to Athenians.

Throughout the 19th century the Greeks of the newly established kingdom were consumed by the "Great Idea" of uniting these dispersed populations within the bounds of a single state, whose capital would be Constantinople and which would in effect constitute a revived Byzantine Empire. But whenever the pursuit of these grandiose irredentist ambitions brought the Greek state into conflict with the Ottoman Empire, the Ottoman Greeks were vulnerable to reprisals. This was particularly the case at the time of the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, when Greece expanded her territory by some two-thirds at the expense of the Turks. In reprisal the Turks began to expel Greeks from western Asia Minor and settle in their place Muslims displaced as a result of the conflict over Macedonia.

In response to these deportations, the Greek prime minister, Eleftherios Venizelos, in 1914 proposed an exchange of populations, but nothing came of the scheme when Greece and Turkey ended up on opposite sides during the first world war. At the end of the war, with the encouragement of the victorious Allies, Greece occupied a large slice of western Asia Minor and for a time it looked as though her irredentist project was within reach. Nationalist enthusiasts spoke triumphantly of the creation of a "Greece of the two continents and the five seas".

But the triumph proved to be short-lived, for the Greek occupation proved to be the catalyst for the Turkish nationalist movement headed by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The dream of the "Great Idea" collapsed in 1922 in crushing military defeat. A victorious Turkish army burnt Smyrna, Gavur Izmir or "Infidel Izmir" as it was known on account of its large Greek and Armenian populations. Tens of thousands of Greek civilians (and many Armenians), terrified of Turkish reprisals, followed the retreating Greek army to the islands of the Aegean and to mainland Greece amid scenes of abject suffering that have become all too familiar.

Although the great bulk of the Greek population had fled, some communities, particularly in Cappadocia and Pontos had been unable to escape in the melee. It was these which were the subject of the Greco-Turkish Convention on the Exchange of Populations signed in early 1923 as part of the peace settlement between Greece and Turkey at Lausanne. The basis of the exchange was not "national consciousness" but religion. Orthodox Christians in Turkey were to be compulsorily exchanged for Muslims in Greece. The only exceptions were the Greek communities of Istanbul (including the Ecumenical Patriarchate) and the islands of Imvros and Tenedos. These were allowed to remain in situ, as were the Muslims (some of them Slav speaking) of Greek Thrace. Whereas the size of the Muslim population of Greek Thrace has remained more or less stable, the Greek communities in Turkey have by now dwindled to the verge of extinction.

Just as many of the Christians included in the exchange were primarily or exclusively Turkish-speaking, so many of the Greek Muslims, particularly those in Crete, were Greek-speaking. Altogether some 1,200,000 refugees (some from Russia and Bulgaria) entered Greece and some 350,000 Greek Muslims were forced to leave for Turkey, where some of their descendants to this day use Greek as their lingua franca. Those included in the exchange were able to bring religious relics, such as icons, and communal records with them. A framework was also established for the liquidation of immovable property left behind by both communities, although in practice this proved to be a dead letter.

As was only to be expected, the sudden influx into Greece of a refugee mass equivalent to 20 per cent of the existing population was fraught with difficulties. The refugees were derisively referred to as Tourkosporoi, the "offspring of Turks", or giaourtovaptismenoi, "baptised in yoghurt", a reference to their fondness for yoghurt in their (noticeably better) cuisine. The Pontic Greeks became (and remain) the butt of derogatory jokes.

But given the magnitude of the influx their resettlement was a remarkable success story for the impoverished country that Greece then was. A Refugee Settlement Commission, headed by an American, was created under the authority of the League of Nations and an (expensive) loan raised to underwrite the associated costs. Over half a million refugees were settled in rural areas on land vacated by the departing Muslims, and provided with basic housing, a small allotment of land, agricultural implements, fertilisers, seed etc. Many settled in the outskirts of the main cities and their shanty towns continued to exist until well after the end of the second world war. Some refugees, particularly those from great mercantile centres such as Smyrna, were able to inject much-needed entrepreneurial skills into the Greek economy. The refugees also had a powerful influence on the course of interwar politics and helped to transform Greece into one of the most ethnically homogeneous states in the Balkans.

Although the integration of the refugees into Greek society was basically a success story, it was inevitably a painful one. The human cost of ethnic engineering on such a scale was high. Nonetheless the exchange did ensure the survival of communities that might otherwise have faced physical extinction. Moreover, although the minority question has proved an irritant in relations between Greece and Turkey over the past 70 years, the small size of the remaining minorities has prevented them from becoming a casus belli.

Richard Clogg is a fellow of St Anthony's College, Oxford.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments