By Thanos Davelis
95 years ago, Hellenism was erased from Asia Minor in the final act in Turkey’s genocide of its Christian minorities. Having survived — and thrived — for 3,000 years, the Greek presence in Asia Minor was wiped out in the Great Fire of Smyrna, in 1922. Mustapha Kemal’s army entered Smyrna on September 9th, 1922. By September 22nd, Smyrna was unrecognizable. The fire — lit by Turkish forces — swept through the city and burned the Greek and Armenian quarters to the ground, erasing anything that would remind future generations of their presence.
After arriving in Athens in late 1922, following the destruction of Smyrna, Ernst Otto Jacob, the General Secretary to the Smyrna Y.M.C.A declared:
The Turkish policy of the elimination of the Christian minorities in Asia Minor has been determinedly carried into effect. The Christian quarters of Smyrna have been practically wiped out.
Winston Churchill, in his memoirs, also wrote about the burning of Smyrna:
… Mustapha Kemal’s Army … celebrated their triumph by the burning of Smyrna to ashes and by a vast massacre of its Christian population…
On the ground witnesses told of Turkish atrocities and the fire with horror. British Lieutenant A. S. Merrill described the scene this way:
All morning the glow and then the flames of burning Smyrna could be seen. We arrived about an hour before dawn and the scene was indescribable. The entire city was ablaze and the harbor was light as day. Thousands of homeless refugees were surging back and forth on the blistering quay — panic stricken to the point of insanity.
For these reasons, the Greek government symbolically chose September 14th as the official day of remembrance and commemoration of the genocide of the Greeks of Asia Minor by the Turkish state. The genocide began in 1914 and ended with the exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey in 1923. By 1923, more than 700,000 out of approximately 2 million Greeks living in Asia Minor at the beginning of World War I perished as a result of Turkey’s policy of “Turkification.” Overall, more than 2.5 million Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians were killed as a result of centrally planned and systematically executed deportations and murder.
US Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Henry Morgenthau, writes:
The Armenians are not the only subject people in Turkey which have suffered from this policy of making Turkey exclusively the country of the Turks. The story which I have told about the Armenians I could also tell with certain modifications about the Greeks and Syrians [Assyrians]. Indeed the Greeks were the first victims of this nationalizing idea.
Those who survived the death marches, the Turkish brutalities, and the fires of Smyrna landed on Greece’s shores as refugees, rebuilding the world they lost in the shantytowns of Piraeus and Thessaloniki.
Until the word genocide was coined by Raphael Lemkin, this cataclysmic event in Hellenic history was simply referred to by Greeks as “The Massacre” (H Σφαγή), “The Great Catastrophe” (H Μεγάλη Καταστροφή), or “The Great Tragedy” (H Μεγάλη Τραγωδία).
It is our duty to ensure that this Great Catastrophe is not repeated, and that the words “Never again” ring loud and clear. The International Association of Genocide Scholars, the pre-eminent academic authority on genocides, passed a resolution stating:
Be it resolved that it is the conviction of the International Association of Genocide Scholars that the Ottoman campaign against Christian minorities of the [Ottoman] Empire between 1914 and 1923 constituted a genocide against Armenians, Assyrians, and Pontian and Anatolian Greeks.
Today, despite the overwhelming evidence, the fight for recognition of this heinous act continues. Turkey continues to deny this part of its dark past, attempting to rewrite history and lay the blame on its victims. Since its founding, HALC has stood at the forefront of the fight for genocide recognition and against attempts to deny the truth, and will continue to fight for the human rights of those Christians and religious minorities in the Middle East that are currently facing similar threats.
*** Thanos Davelis, Director of Public Affairs, HALC (Hellenic American Leadership Council)