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Media Watch 2005

30 November 2005
Source: Times Literary Supplement
Author: Richard Clogg
Comment: The following review appeared in the Times Literary Supplement of London on 30 November 2005.
The empty spaces where Greeks once were


"Speros Vryonis, Jr
THE MECHANISM OF CATASTROPHE
The Turkish pogrom of September 6-7, 1955, and the destruction of the Greek community of Istanbul
659pp. New York: NY Greekworks.com. $75.
0 9747660 38

Samim Akgönül
LES GRECS DE TURQUIE
256pp. Paris: L'Harmattan. 22euros.
2 7475 7452 0

Not so long ago, the Church of England used to pray on Good Friday for God’s mercy on the Turks and that all ignorance and hardness of heart be taken from them. Now the British Government has emerged as the most committed champion of Turkish accession to the European Union. In Austria, by contrast, old prejudices die hard. The Siege of Vienna in 1683 casts a long shadow. Perhaps mindful of Metternich’s dictum that “the Orient begins at the Landstrasse”, the Austrian Government, with the massive backing of public opinion, has tried to sabotage the beginning of formal accession talks. After the cliff-hanger at Luxembourg, these have now begun on schedule, if with only a few hours to spare. Not surprisingly, European shilly-shallying has provoked a backlash in Turkey, and not only among ultra-nationalists. There is much resentment that the valiant efforts that have been made in recent years to embrace European norms may not, in the end, lead to acceptance as a full member of the EU. The Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his Foreign Minister, Abdullah Gül, have articulated this bitterness, declaring that the rejection of Turkey would be the final proof that Europe sees itself as a Christian club, and would precipitate the long-feared clash of
civilizations.

The accession talks, which some have predicted could last as long as fifteen years, may yet fail. One of the thorny issues that will have to be addressed is the treatment of minorities. As part of the effort to overcome European misgivings, President Ahmet Necdet Sezer has recently invited Pope Benedict XVI, who is on record as saying that Turkish accession would go against the tide of history, to pay an official visit in 2006. No doubt an attempt will be made to persuade the new pontiff of the protection afforded the country’s small Christian minorities in a secular polity with a population that is overwhelmingly Muslim, at least by birth.

This makes two recent books on the fortunes of the Greeks, until the 1950s the largest of these Christian minorities in Republican Turkey, particularly timely. The Mechanism of Catastrophe by Speros Vryonis, Jr provides a painstakingly detailed anatomy of the ferocious anti-Greek riots that convulsed Istanbul almost exactly fifty years ago in 1955, and of their physical and political consequences. The events of September 6–7, 1955, “Alti Yedi Eylül Olaylari”, as they are known in Turkish, or in Greek simply as the “Septemvriana”, also figure prominently in Samim Akgönül’s Les Grecs de Turquie. This chronicles the decline to the point of virtual extinction, during the eighty years of the Republican period, of the once large and flourishing Greek community in the city of Istanbul and on the islands of Imvros (Gokçeada) and Tenedos (Bozcaada), straddling the entrance to the Dardanelles.

Both authors make the point that, while the riots scarcely erupted out of the blue, they came at the end of a period, 1948–55, that has been described by Kostas Stamatopoulos as the last flowering of the Greek minority. Hitherto, the situation of the this minority had, at best, been precarious. The Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 had provided for a compulsory exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey, but those Greeks, known as the établis, who could demonstrate residence in Istanbul prior to 1918, had been allowed to remain. In return, the Muslims (Turks, the Slav-speaking Pomaks, and Roma) of Western Thrace were similarly exempted from the transfer. The Greek state has generally treated members of this minority, who nowadays mostly self-identify as Turks, as second-class citizens. But they still number about 1 per cent of the population, whereas the Greeks of Turkey now constitute a statistically negligible proportion of the total population, perhaps 3,000 out of population of some 70 million. Ethnic Greeks with Turkish citizenship constitute the Rum minority. Significantly, the Greek inhabitants of Cyprus continue to be known in Turkey as Kibris Rumlari, the Rums of Cyprus, rather than Yunanlilar, the term used for the Greeks of Greece.

In the inter-war period, there were continual disputes over the status of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and over the control of the extensive property of the Greek community. The Greeks, like the Armenians and Jews, were victims of Kemalist Turkification policies, such as the “Fellow countrymen, speak Turkish” campaign, and could be fined for speaking their native language in public. The fortunes of the Greek minority looked up somewhat, following the Ankara Convention of 1930. Then, in a remarkable display of statesmanship, the Greek Prime Minister, Eleftherios Venizelos, sought to bury the hatchet with Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk), a mere eight years after the ill-fated Greek military venture in Asia Minor had met with catastrophic defeat. Venizelos went so far as to nominate Atatürk for the Nobel Peace Prize, albeit unsuccessfully. One consequence of this rapprochement was that the status of Greek nationals in Istanbul was regularized.

During the Second World War, the fate not only of the Greeks but of the other minorities took a distinct turn for the worse. In 1941, Greek, Jewish and Armenian males, aged between twenty and forty, were drafted into labour battalions and put to work in grim conditions in Anatolia. A year later, the notorious Varlik Vergisi (capital tax), was introduced. Ostensibly aimed at war profiteers, of whom there were certainly many, it bore disproportionately heavily on the minority communities and also on the Muslim dönme, descendants of the followers of Sabbatai Sevi, the Jewish “False Messiah”, who, in the seventeenth century, had converted to Islam.
Huge taxes were levied, and not only on the rich. Those who could not pay were shipped off to a bleak labour camp at A£kale near Erzerum. After the war, Faik Ökte, the civil servant with overall responsibility for collecting the tax, wrote a damning critique of what he termed the tragedy of the Varlik Vergisi, which he
saw as the bastard offspring of German racism and Ottoman fanaticism. Ayhan Aktar has recently produced a scholarly study of the Varlik Vergisi in the context of official policies of Turkification.

In the tense post-war international climate, relations between Greece and Turkey developed a new warmth, as both felt themselves threatened by aggressive Communist neighbours. One consequence of this was a marked improvement in the circumstances of the Greek minority. The victory of Adnan Menderes and his Democratic Party in the 1950 Turkish elections led to economic liberalization. Greek entrepreneurs were quick to take advantage of this new climate, regaining in the process some of the economic power lost through the Varlik Vergisi.

Greeks from the Kingdom of the Hellenes studied at the University of Istanbul. There was even talk of establishing a Greek-run Institute of Byzantine Studies on the model of the Russian Archaeological Institute that had existed in Ottoman times. Literary life flourished, including the perpetual wrangles over the language question, and Athenian theatrical companies made regular visits to Istanbul. In the parade of the Turkish troops who had fought in the Korean War, Istanbul Greeks formed a separate contingent. King Paul and Queen Frederica paid a state visit to Turkey, although the royal couple prudently refrained from setting foot in Ayia Sophia, the Constantinople church turned Istanbul mosque turned museum, with its emotive associations. Queen Frederica records that Prime Minister Menderes could speak Greek. The Turkish President, Celal Bayar, paid a reciprocal visit to Greece and opened a gymnasium named after him, in Komotini, for members of the Turkish minority.

This late resurgence of the Greek community was, however, to prove short-lived. In 1955, Greek-Cypriot demands for the unification of the island with Greece reached an acute stage. Wild rumours circulated in Turkey that the Greek Cypriots planned a massacre of Turks. These were fanned, with official encouragement, by Hikmet Bil’s “Cyprus Is Turkish Association” and by the National Union of Turkish Students. Through the summer of 1955, the tone of much of the Turkish press became ever more strident. Demands were made of the
Ecumenical Patriarch, Athenagoras, that he
dissociate the Patriarchate from Greek-Cypriot agitation on the island. The Turkish Foreign Minister, Fatin Zorlu, in London for tripartite British, Greek and Turkish talks on the island’s future, seems discreetly to have let his government know that a public display of Turkish anger at what was happening in Cyprus would strengthen his negotiating hand. There were suggestions, too, that the British would not be displeased by some manifestation of Turkish obduracy.

A grossly exaggerated press report of an explosion (subsequently demonstrated to have been an inside job) at the reputed birthplace of Atatürk in Thessaloniki, which formed part of the Turkish Consulate General, was the signal for the unleashing of a violent orgy of destruction. The mob, estimated by Vryonis to number 100,000, and directed in some cases by members of the ruling Democratic Party, appeared to be well informed of the whereabouts of Greek property where this was not obvious. The rampage turned into an attack on visible manifestations of wealth in general, and Jewish and Armenian and, indeed, some Turkish property was plundered, although on nothing like the scale suffered by the Greeks.

As Vryonis demonstrates, in exhaustive detail, almost 4,500 shops were wrecked and looted. Community property and businesses (many restaurants were Greek-owned) met with the same fate. Over a thousand private residences were vandalized. The great majority of the numerous Orthodox churches in the city were pillaged and in some cases desecrated. Some were totally gutted, as in the case of the Panagia Veligradiou. Cemeteries were vandalized and bodies dug up. There were reports of forced circumcisions. Rape appears to have been widespread although – given the degree of shame attached to this crime – it tended to be under-reported. Vryonis gives a figure of between fifteen and thirty-seven deaths, although British and American diplomats reported only one. Akgönül mentions two.

Some individual Turks came to the aid of their Greek compatriots, but the police, with few exceptions, stood idly by. Only in a very few instances did the authorities intervene, as when shipborne bands of marauding looters were prevented from landing on Kinali (Proti), one of the Princes’ Islands.

In the early stages of the riot, Prime Minister Menderes was actually in Istanbul. Only after the situation
had clearly got completely out of hand was his Ankara-bound train halted, and he returned to the city. Tanks were stationed on Istiklâl Caddesi, the old Grande rue de Péra, at that time still the city’s most fashionable shopping street. Martial law was imposed and remained in force for months. The Turkish Government apologized, but, as Vryonis demonstrates, only a fraction of the promised compensation was ever paid.

That the events were officially inspired is clear, but Menderes can scarcely have envisaged the sheer scale and wantonness of the destruction. Moreover, to orchestrate such behaviour at a time when the city was hosting a meeting of the International Monetary Fund, and, of all things, an Interpol conference, attended, among others, by Allen Dulles, the director of the CIA, and by the head of the British CID, shows a curious sense of timing. The attitude of Dulles’s brother, John Foster Dulles, the US Secretary of State, who must have been aware of the extent ofthe devastation, was distinctlyunhelpful, at least from the Greek point of view. He urged continued cooperation between Greece and Turkey in the light of what he termed these “unhappy events”.

Paradoxically, a week afterwards, the Tenth International Congress of Byzantine Studies also met in the former Byzantine capital. Did the collectivity of Byzantinists, a group scarcely known for its political activism, register a protest against the pillaging and desecration of the church of the Panagia Mouchliotissa (Mary of the Mongols) in the Phanar, the only Byzantine foundation, dating from c1261, to remain under the control of the Patriarchate?

Given the massive size of Vryonis’s book, the best part of 700 pages long, there is one rather surprising omission. He makes only a glancing reference to Papa Eftim (Karahisaridis, subsequently Hisaroglu, subsequently Erenerol), while there is one mention of Eftim’s wife (an unusual attachment for a self-proclaimed Orthodox prelate). There is no hint of the degree to which Eftim and his sons, Turgut and Selçuk, backed by the Turkish authorities, proved a persistent thorn in the flesh of the Greek community, quite out of proportion to the size of his flock, for sixty years or more after the establishment of the Turkish Republic.

Eftim, an Orthodox priest from Anatolia,
had thrown in his lot with Mustafa Kemal and the Turkish nationalists in the hope that the Turkish-speaking Karamanli Greeks, of whom heEftim was one, might secure exemption from the exchange of populations. For a time this appeared a real possibility, and the Ecumenical Patriarchate was itself prepared to concede the creation of an autonomous ecclesiastical province in which the liturgical language would be Turkish. In the end, however, the Karamanli Greeks were transferred, when religion, and not language, was made the criterion of exchangeability. But Eftim’s ties with the Ankara
Government secured his own exemption, and, until his death in 1968, this turbulent priest and his Independent Turkish Orthodox Patriarchate was allowed to seize Greek ecclesiastical property with impunity and from time to time was used by the Turkish authorities as a means of harrying the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Eftim’s following was minimal (when I attended a service in the mid-1960s, I was virtually the only one in his congregation). After his death, he was succeeded as “Patriarch” by his sons, both now dead, and the properties of his “Patriarchate” remain in the family.

Vryonis points out that the one Greek communal institution to be given official protection during the riots was the Ecumenical Patriarchate itself. He might have added that Eftim’s churches in Karaköy (Galata), not far from the epicentre of the destruction on Istiklâl Caddesi, were likewise unmolested. This lends further credence, if such were necessary, to the argument that the rampage was, at least in its initial stages, carefully orchestrated.

Vryonis at the outset maintains that what happened on September 6–7, 1955, is virtually unknown, but he later concedes that the riots were one of the best-reported events in post-war Europe. The second view is surely correct. The September events were extensively covered in publications like the Illustrated London News and Time magazine, and were even written up in the Reader’s Digest, which described Istanbul as a “city gone mad”. Ian Fleming, covering the Interpol conference, also reported on the “great riot” for the Sunday Times.

In Vryonis’s view, this tragic event has been “effectively excluded from the scholarly and political discourse concerning its larger context”. What precisely he means by this is not clear, but there has surely been no conspiracy of silence, no intentional playing down or even suppression of the events, as is claimed by Professor Richard Hovannisian in his puff on the book’s dust jacket. More than twenty years ago, in 1983, the rampage received scholarly treatment in Alexis Alexandris’s authoritative work The Greek Minority of Istanbul and Greek-Turkish Relations, 1918–1972, a book on which both Vryonis and Akgönül draw. In my own Concise History of Greece, which has been translated into a number of languages, Turkish included, out of some sixty illustrations representing the whole sweep of the modern history of Greece, two focus on the devastation of 1955.

Moreover, in Turkey itself, the riots are no longer a taboo subject. When, in 2000, the Yapi ve Kredi Bankasi published a commemorative album to mark the 130th anniversary of the foundation of the municipality of Beyoglu (Pera), coverage was given both to the events of September 1955 and to the Varlik Vergisi. This last, incidentally, is the subject of a recent film, Mrs Salkim’s Necklace. In Istanbul, indeed, there is now a certain nostalgia among the Turkish equivalent of the chattering classes for the old Levantine city and its mosaic of minorities, before its character was fundamentally changed by a massive wave of migration from Eastern Anatolia.

Menderes’s first reaction was to pin blame for the riots on the Communists, according to some, at the suggestion of Allen Dulles, but this carried no conviction. Responsibility for the riots was one of the principal charges laid against Menderes, Zorlu, the Foreign Minister, Hasan Polatkan, the Minister of Finance, Bayar and virtually the entire leadership of the Democratic Party (the Minister of the Interior, Namik Gedik, committed suicide before he could be put on trial) when they were tried for subverting the Constitution following the May 27, 1960 military coup. Some of the ambiguities in the status of the Greek minority are reflected by the fact that, when testifying in the eleven-month Yassiada trial, Patriarch Athenagoras needed to call on the services of interpreters.

After a show trial, Menderes, Zorlu and Polatkan were not only sentenced to death but actually hanged. Celâl Bayar, a leading light in the independence struggle, was reprieved on grounds of age. (One of the charges against Bayar was that he had forced Izmir Zoo to buy an Afghan hound, for which he was given a four-year sentence.) The degree to which Turkish politics have moved on from this act of judicial murder is demonstrated by the fact that there is now an Adnan Menderes airport, while his son was until recently a parliamentary Deputy. There are also universities named after both Menderes and Bayar.

Speros Vryonis’s publishers are surely justified in claiming that his volume constitutes the definitive study of the Septemvriana of 1955. No one else is likely, and few would have the necessary skills, to construct a coherent narrative out of the mountain of evidence that
he has unearthed. Although Akgönül surveys the history of the community throughout the Republican period in a judicious fashion, perhaps his greatest contribution lies in bringing what is often a sad story up to date. In doing so he has made good use of interviews with former residents of Istanbul now living in Athens.

The events of 1955 delivered a body blow to the Greek community, in which the psychological damage matched the physical mayhem. The coup de grâce was struck, as Akgönül points out, after the Menderes era. In 1964, at another critical juncture in debate on the Cyprus question, the Turks unilaterally abrogated the 1930 Turkish–Greek Convention, and 11,000 Greek nationals in Istanbul were expelled, often at very short notice. Many were allowed to take only what they could carry, and 200 Turkish lira, some $10, with them. Also caught up in the expulsions were many of the Rum, often linked by marriage to Greek nationals, and all traumatized by the events of 1955. The number of Greek-speakers in Turkey fell from 80,000 in 1955 to under 50,000 in 1965. The Turkish invasion of Cyprus, in 1974, which for a time looked likely to precipitate war between Turkey and Greece, occasioned a further mass
exodus. Since then, the decline has been inexorable. As reported, the Greek community now numbers 2,000–3,000 at most, whereas according to the 1927 census there had been 120,000 Greek-speakers in Istanbul, Imvros and Tenedos.

One of the major problems faced by the 1964 expellees was their inability to sell their property and repatriate the proceeds. When, in the late 1980s, legislation was introduced which, in theory, should have helped resolve the matter, the Turkish courts proved obstructive and, in a fashion reminiscent of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, cases dragged on interminably. One of those discussed by Samim Akgönül had still not been resolved after twelve years.

What of the future? Greek–Turkish relations, over the eighty years since the establishment of the Turkish Republic, have oscillated in a cyclical pattern between excessive hostility (at times almost resulting in war, as in 1974 and 1996) and effusive friendship. The respective fates of the Greek minority in Turkey, and the Turkish minority in Greece, have been critically affected by the ups and downs in a problematic relationship. We are currently witnessing one of the periods of hyperbolic friendship, symbolized not long ago when the Greek Prime Minister, Costas Karamanlis, acted as a witness at the wedding of the daughter of his Turkish counterpart, Mr Erdogan. The Greek Government remains one of the keenest proponents of Turkish accession to the EU, although its enthusiasm is not shared by the Greek Cypriots.

There has, however, been little tangible improvement in the fortunes of what is now a minority on the point of extinction. The vast bulk of the Great School of the Nation dominates the Phanar, but its empty classrooms
contain only a handful of pupils. The Orthodox seminary which looms over the island of Heybeli (Halki) has been closed since 1971, when all private institutions of higher education were closed. Successive Turkish governments have been reluctant to allow it to reopen for fear that they could not then deny similar rights to Muslim religious authorities. But if Turkey is, in the end, embraced by the EU, it will surely have to concede the right to its religious minorities to provide training for their own clergy."