Sunday, June 15, 2008

The destruction of OCM in Smyrna

June 15, 2008

Paradise Lost Smyrna 1922: The Destruction of Islam’s City of Tolerance by Giles Milton

A powerful account of one of the most horrific humanitarian disasters of the 20th century

For centuries, the great city of Smyrna was a European foothold on the Anatolian coast. The British Levantine Company had had a factory there since 1667, trading in raisins and carpets, and even then the place was renowned for its lively social life. Francesco Lupazzoli, the priapic Venetian consul, lived on a diet of fruit, bread and water and a few slices of unseasoned meat, yet survived until the age of 114, and fathered 126 children on his five wives and innumerable Smyrniot mistresses.

By the end of the 19th century, Smyrna had grown into one of the largest, richest and most cosmopolitan cities in the Mediterranean. It contained large Armenian and Jewish communities, plus at least twice as many Greeks as then lived in Athens. There were 11 Greek newspapers available in the city, as well as seven in Turkish, five in Armenian, four in French and five in Hebrew. Smyrna was also home to a collection of amazingly rich Anglo-Levantine families. The Girauds owned the Oriental Carpet Manufacturing Company, which employed 150,000 people, while the Whittalls controlled an even larger fruit exporting empire. These clans inhabited vast palaces and were serviced by a string of opera houses, theatres, department stores and brasseries. According to one visitor, even their hair salons “were reminiscent of ballrooms”. There were no fewer than 17 companies dealing with Parisian luxuries for these families. It is the lives of these dynasties, recorded in their diaries and letters, that form the focus for Giles Milton’s brilliant re-creation of the last days of Smyrna.

In the course of the late 19th century, the Ottoman empire lurched from disaster to disaster, slowly and bloodily shedding its Greek, Bulgarian and Egyptian fringes. To make matters worse, it backed the wrong side in the first world war, thus losing its remaining possessions in the Hejaz, Palestine and Syria. Yet through all this, Smyrna flourished as if on a separate planet. Protected by Rahmi Bey, its liberal Ottoman governor, Smyrna continued to prosper while nearby the caliphate collapsed, the Armenians were led off to their genocide and allied troops died in their tens of thousands trying to capture Gallipoli. Pictures taken in 1917 show the Smyrna Opera packed to bursting with Edwardian gentlemen in black tie, enjoying Rigoletto only a few miles from the landing beaches where so many of their compatriots had died.

Then quite suddenly, in 1922, four years after the end of the first world war, Smyrna was snuffed out in a single week of mass-murder, rape, looting, pillage and one of the greatest acts of arson in the 20th century. At the end of it, the New York Times ran the headline: “Smyrna wiped out.” As Milton points out: “It was not hyperbole; it was a bold statement of fact.”

Britain played an important role in this disaster. Lloyd George hated Muslims, and especially the Turks. In the course of the Paris conference, at the same time as he casually handed over Palestine (then 90% Arab) to the Zionist movement, he encouraged the ambitions of his friend Eleftherios Venizelos, the prime minister of Greece, to annex chunks of Anatolia. When Venizelos dined at Downing Street, Lloyd George proposed the toast: “May the Turk be turned out of Europe and sent to . . . where he came from.” Lord Curzon agreed: “For more than five centuries, the presence of the Turk in Europe has been a source of distraction, intrigue, and corruption . . . Let not this occasion be missed of purging the earth of one of its most pestilent roots of evil.”

In 1919, while the Paris peace conference continued its deliberations on the future of the Middle East, Greek troops landed in Smyrna under British protection. Blessed by the Greek bishop Metropolitan Chrysostom, they began committing atrocities against the city’s Turkish inhabitants, killing large numbers of unarmed citizens. The Greek army then advanced inland, and was soon pushing back Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s new Turkish Republican army.

Lloyd George dismissed Ataturk as a “carpet seller in a bazaar . . . [given to] unnatural sexual intercourse”, yet the Turkish leader was more than a match for the Greeks. Arming his troops with weapons procured from Italy and France, both of whom distrusted this Anglo-Greek imperial project, Ataturk stalled the Greek offensive, and cut off their supply lines with his cavalry. By August 1922, the Greeks were in chaotic retreat, committing further atrocities as they staggered back to the Mediterranean. It was Smyrna that paid the price for British and Greek miscalculations. When the Turks entered the city on September 9, few doubted they would take revenge for what had been done to them. Few, however, guessed the scale of the horrors that would be meted out on the city. Estimates vary but some suggest that by the end of the mayhem 100,000 people had been killed, with many times that number turned into homeless refugees.

Perhaps the only flaw in Milton’s powerful and moving narrative is the degree to which he depicts Smyrna as somehow an exceptional case: as the book’s subtitle has it, he believes he is writing about “the destruction of Islam’s city of tolerance”. In reality, both the pre-first-world-war tolerance, and the bloody fragmentation of that multicultural world as the empire collapsed, were part of a wider pattern across Ottoman lands. What is true of Smyrna was equally true of Salonica, Istanbul, Alexandria and Jaffa. For across the Ottoman world, eastern Christians, Jews and Muslims lived side by side for nearly one and a half millenniums. By modern standards, the Christians and Jews (the dhimmi) were often treated as second-class citizens, but it was at least a kind of pluralist equilibrium that had no parallel in Europe until the 1950s.

What one historian has called this hybrid “multiconfessional, extraordinarily polyglot Ottoman” multiculturalism where even “bootblacks commanded a working knowledge of six or seven languages” survived until European ideas of the nation state shattered the mosaic in the early 20th century. Across the Ottoman empire, the century saw the bloody unravelling of that tapestry — most recently in Kosovo and Bosnia, but before that in Cyprus, Palestine, Greece and Anatolia. In each,pluralism was replaced by a savage polarisation as minorities fled or were driven to places where they could be majorities.

Milton has written a grimly memorable book about one of the most important events in this process. It is well paced, even-handed and cleverly focused: through the prism of the Anglo-Levantines, he reconstructs both the prewar Edwardian glory of Smyrna and its tragic end. He also clears up, once and for all, who burnt Smyrna, producing irrefutable evidence that the Turkish army brought in thousands of barrels from the Petroleum Company of Smyrna and poured them over the streets and houses of all but the Turkish quarter. Moreover, it is clear that it was done with the full approval of Ataturk, who was determined to find a final solution to his “minority problem” to ensure the future stability of his fledgling Turkish republic. A relatively homogenous Turkish nation state was indeed achieved; but as Milton shows, the cost was suffering on an almost unimaginable scale and one of the most horrific humanitarian disasters of the 20th century.

Paradise Lost Smyrna 1922: The Destruction of Islam’s City of Tolerance, by Giles Milton

Sceptre £20 pp426

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