In the early 1920s, millions of people moved from either Greece to Turkey or from Turkey to Greece. Ancient communities were uprooted in a devastating campaign of mass ethnic cleansing and nation building. It is known in both Greek and Turkish as the Exchange and is almost forgotten in the rest of Europe against a early twentieth strewn with tragedy and hatred.
There is a historical school of thought that portrays the First World War as the first major destructive spasm in a longer European Civil War. Stretching from 1914 to 1945, Europe descended into a protracted period of mechanised slaughter as ideologies and nationalism clashed across the continent.
There is a strong argument for those that accept the civil war hypothesis that the conflict was born out of struggles in the Balkans – between Turks and Greeks, Muslims and Christians, the Ottoman, Russian and Habsburg empires and a myriad and antagonistic sweep of nationalistic sentiments that created the caustic and explosive tinderbox that would set Europe alight. The First World War was both preceded and triggered by troubles in the Balkans – the Balkan Wars of 1912 – 1913 followed by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914.
One of the most startling episodes witnessed in this troubled region was the vast population exchanges between Greece and Turkey. After the bitter and bloody Greco-Turkish War of 1919 – 1922, the governments in Ankara and Athens, urged by their Great Power backers, agreed that the chances of peace between their respective countries would be better off if their territories were cleansed of their substantial minorities. Turks in Greece would be sent to Turkey and Greeks in Turkey would be sent to Greece.
The diplomatic niceties set out in the Convention Concerning the Exchange of Greek and Turkish Populations signed at Lausanne, on 30 January 1923 seem strangely innocuous when reduced to the points of a treaty. Article 1 states:
“As from 1 May. 1923, there shall take place a compulsory exchange of Turkish nationals of the Greek Orthodox religion established in Turkish territory, and of Greek nationals of the Moslem religion established in Greek territory”.
The impact on the ground was, however, far from innocuous. In six pages, the Convention would wipe out millennia of Greek civilisation in Asia Minor and centuries of Ottoman history in Greece. The numbers involved were staggering – 1,500,000 Greeks from Turkish Anatolia and 500,000 Greek Muslims were either transferred or had already fled. The process, known as the Exchange in both Greek and Turkish (Ἡ Ἀνταλλαγή and Mübadele respectively), would see vast swathes of Anatolia and Greece changed forever.
Many historians see the Convention as merely the legal rubber stamp for a process that had largely been completed by the time the Convention was signed. Hundreds of thousands of Greeks had fled Turkish Anatolia in the wake of the ‘Asia Minor Disaster’ and Greece’s defeat in the Greco-Turkish War. Many Greek Muslims had also seen the writing on the wall and fled to the safety of territory controlled by their co-religionists.
The fate of the Turkish city of Ismir (previously known in English by its Greek-derived name of Smyrna) provides a manageable example of a process that was repeated across the region. Smryna was a renowned international port city and famed for tolerance amongst its large populations of Turks, Greeks, Armenians, Jews and ‘Levantines’, a group that was extended from the original Latin-rite Christians to include all western Europeans. The story of the fate of Smryna is vividly recounted in Giles Milton’s book Paradise Lost: Smyrna 1922 – The Destruction of Islam’s City of Tolerance.
Following the defeat of Greece in the Greco-Turkish War, the expulsion of the city’s Greek residents following its occupation by Turkish forces and a great fire that destroyed much of the old city, Ismir was left as a shell of its former self. Its population had halved, its position at the heart of the Mediterranean trade network was lost and its famed multicultural demographic changed forever.