Smyrna Giles Milton
Smyrna was one of the great cosmopolitan trading cities of the late Ottoman Empire. Izmir is now Turkey’s third largest city. Although Izmir is built on the ashes, literally, of Smyrna they are very different cities. Smyrna was a trading port dominated by Levantine traders descended from earlier western European adventurers and inhabited by a mixed population of Greeks, Turks, Armenians, Jews and others. Izmir is almost entirely Turkish.
The subtitle of the book refers to Islam’s city of harmony. The vaunted harmony did not hold up well under the stresses unleashed by the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of World War I. The Ottomans had been progressively losing bits of their empire through the last quarter of the C19 and the process accelerated with the loss of almost all of their European territories in the decade prior to the war. The loss of Macedonia and Bulgaria caused a wave of Islamic refugees who washed up on the coast near Smyrna and caused some havoc before the war. Once the war started to go badly for the Ottomans the Christian Armenians revolted leading to the Armenian genocide which cost over 1 million lives.
At the conclusion of WWI while Turkish nationalists were in revolt against the last remnants of Ottoman rule the Greek leader Venizelos decided to act upon the perceived Turkish weakness to establish Greek rule over Smyrna and the surrounding province. He believed he had the implied support of the UK government led by David Lloyd George. The dictates of geography and the ineptitude and stupidity of the Greek military rapidly extended the war beyond where it could meaningfully be “won”, far into the Anatolian uplands. Eventually the Greeks found themselves starved out of central Anatolia and their troops beat an ignominious retreat to Smyrna pursued by the victorious Turkish nationalist army led by Kemal Ataturk.
What transpired at Smyrna in September 1922 was one of the great humanitarian tragedies of the C20 with up to 100,000 people dying as a result of random violence inflicted by the Turkish irregulars on the inhabitants of Smyrna, the deliberate arson of ¾ of the city, and the abandonment of 300,000 refugees to disease and starvation on the quays of Smyrna in the aftermath of the fires.
The tragedy of Smyrna also demonstrated the failure of collective action with the 20 navy ships from the UK, Italy, France, and the USA feeling that they were unable to take action to remove the refugees from the quays. The League of Nations was not in a position to take any action. In the end the removal of the refuges was effected by an American minister, Asa Jennings, taking it upon himself to publicise the tragedy and pressure the Greek government and neutral countries into taking emergency action to evacuate the refugees in the face of Turkish hostility. Eventually the Turkish authorities allowed the evacuation to proceed.
The refugees were relocated to Greece where many of them formed an underclass around Athens and Salonica for years to come. In the aftermath of the evacuation from Smyrna the number of refugees was further augmented by the exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey. Up to 1 million Greeks were removed from Anatolia in exchange for 400,000 Turks removed from Thrace. Any Armenians, Levantines and Jews remaining in Turkish territory were also keen to move elsewhere. This was the process by which the “tolerant and multicultural” Ottoman Empire evolved into modern nation states theoretically based on the concept of ethnic and cultural homogeneity; Greece for the Greeks and Turkey for the Turks.
Needless to say many of the details of the Greek campaign in Turkey, the ethnic composition of Smyrna, the Turkish victory in the war, the burning of Smyrna and the removal of Greeks and other s to central Anatolia, and the treatment of Armenians during the war and after remain topics subject to considerable contention. Giles Milton has provided an account seeking to shine some light on what to me was a little known disaster.