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Reassessing the “Asia Minor Catastrophe” of 1922:

Collective Memory and Refugee Identity in Interwar Greece
Réévaluation de la « Catastrophe d’Asie Mineure » de 1922 : mémoire collective et identité des réfugiés dans la Grèce de l’entre-deux-guerres
Dimitris Kamouzis
p. 165-169

Résumés

1922 constitue sans doute le traumatisme collectif le plus douloureux de l’histoire de la Grèce moderne. Il s’agit de la « Catastrophe d’Asie Mineure », un terme utilisé pour décrire la défaite de l’armée grecque dans la guerre gréco-turque de 1919‑1922 et le déracinement violent qui s’ensuivit de la côte turque et de l’Asie Mineure intérieure d’environ 1 300 000 Grecs orthodoxes, qui se sont finalement installés en Grèce. Cet article se concentre sur les différents processus de formation de la mémoire collective et sur le développement progressif d’une identité de réfugié unique par rapport au pays d’accueil et à son peuple au cours des premières années d’installation des Grecs d’Asie Mineure en Grèce.

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  • 1  For an indication of the exchange of populations, see: Stephen P. Ladas, The Exchange of Minoritie (...)

1The year 1922 is a year to remember in Greece, but not in a festive manner. Unlike the glorious 1821, the year of the outbreak of the Greek Revolution against Ottoman rule, the bicentenary of which was celebrated enthusiastically despite the difficult circumstances of the ongoing pandemic, 1922 undoubtedly constitutes the most painful collective trauma in Greek national memory and a major turning point for the history of Modern Greece. It signifies the “Asia Minor Catastrophe” [Mikrasiatiki Katastrofi], a term used in Greece to describe the defeat of the Greek army in the Greco‑Turkish war of 1919‑1922; the burning of Smyrna and the atrocities committed against the non‑Muslim population of the city by the victorious Kemalist forces in September 1922; and the subsequent uprooting from the Turkish coastline and inner Asia Minor of approximately 1,300,000 Orthodox Greeks, who ultimately settled in Greece. The violent displacement of these “Turkish nationals of the Greek Orthodox religion established in Turkish territory” (as they were formally called) was made official by the Convention concerning the Exchange of Greek and Turkish Populations and the Treaty of Lausanne, both signed there on 30th January and 24th July 1923 respectively. Under the same international agreements, roughly 350,000 Muslims or “Greek nationals of the Moslem religion established in Greek territory” mainly from the Greek parts of the region of Macedonia as well as Thessaly, Crete and Mytilene, were forced to migrate to Turkey1.

2However, beyond these hard facts, what did 1922 actually mean at the time and for the interwar period that followed? And was there only one meaning? As with any historical intersection, something precedes and something follows any given event. In this case, the periods before and after 1922 were equally important for shaping the narrative and the identity of the refugees who settled in Greece vis-à-vis the national symbolism attributed to the “Asia Minor Catastrophe” by the political and intellectual elites of Greece up until the eve of World War II.

  • 2  The principles of the Tanzimat were proclaimed in 1839 with the decree of Gülhane (Gülhane Hatt-ı (...)
  • 3  Ethnic slurs such as “Turkish seeds” [tourkosporoi], “Turkish-born” [tourkogennimenoi or tourkomer (...)

3With regard to the refugees, what preceded was an era of relatively harmonious coexistence between Muslims and non-Muslims in the Ottoman Empire – at least from the commencement of the Tanzimat reforms in 1839 until the beginning of the Balkan Wars (1912‑1913)2 – and what followed was the difficult experience of the challenges of survival, social acceptance and integration these Asia Minor Greeks had to face during the first decades of their settlement in Greece. The refugees’ experience of violent expulsion from the motherland, loss of loved ones, lack of shelter, property and means of livelihood, cautious and in many cases hostile and borderline racist attitude of the native population in Greece3, combined with the weakness of the financially exhausted and politically divided Greek state to immediately meet their needs, forced them to self-organize, a choice reflecting their historical experience as former subjects of the Ottoman Empire.

  • 4  The Common Committee of the Unredeemed and Refugees [Koini ton Alytroton kai Prosfygon Epitropeia] (...)
  • 5  Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Lond (...)
  • 6  Rogers Brubaker, Nationalism Reframed: Nationhood and the National Question in the New Europe, Cam (...)

4From the outset the refugees established associations and committees, which became symbols of their solidarity and their will to respond to the new conditions, “the heavy task of rebuilding everything out of nothing4”. Borrowing Benedict Anderson’s terminology referring to people linked together with bonds conceived in their imagination (while, of course, taking into consideration the concrete realities of displacement) it could be argued that the refugees in Greece built on their common problems and shared goals, progressively becoming an Asia Minor Greek imagined community through collective representation and support, refugee press and publications.5 The members of this community “constituted an organized ‘public’, a structured, differentiated space of communication, discussion and debate.6

  • 7  Haris Exertzoglou, « Η ιστορία… », op. cit., p. 194‑195.

5Nonetheless, the emergence and formation of a distinctive collective refugee identity was by no means an immediate and straightforward process. Apart from sharing the same religion as Greek Orthodox Christians (or Rum according to the Ottoman social division along ethno-religious communal lines), they were far from constituting a homogeneous group. On the contrary, internal differentiations, specific local origins as well as various spoken languages – Greek, Turkish and Armenian – amongst the refugee population did not provide a common cultural ground in order to construct a cohesive refugee identity. At the same time, the traumatic experiences of 1922 varied in quality and intensity for the expatriated Asia Minor Greeks as a whole; the memory of the “Catastrophe” was not identical for everyone7.

  • 8  Paschalis Kitromilides, « Ιδεολογικές πτυχές του προσφυγικού φαινομένου », in Nikos Andriotis (ed. (...)

6In the end it was the nostalgia for the “lost homelands” and the idealization of Asia Minor as “paradise on earth” that brought all these subgroups together. At first sight it seems that this was a defensive mechanism against the challenging practical, social, political and ideological conditions  this displaced population had to deal with after 1922. Life in Asia Minor was remembered as beautiful and almost dreamlike, diametrically opposed to their depressing and miserable existence as refugees in Greece. In this context, the homeland(s) in addition to being “lost” also became “unforgettable8”. At the same time, however, these memories should not be dismissed as mere fantasies or constructions that lacked rationality. As Nicholas Doumanis rightly observes,

  • 9  Nicholas Doumanis, Before the Nation: Muslim-Christian Coexistence and its Destruction in Late Ott (...)

“for the refugees to expunge that belle époque from memory, as Greek national culture demanded, effectively entailed the denial of truth. It would also mean forgetting the values associated with that past9.”

7The incorporation of the 1922 trauma and experience of the Asia Minor Greeks into the Greek national narrative during the interwar period were considered by the local intellectual and political elites to be a precondition for the gradual integration of the refugees into the Greek nation. The “Asia Minor Catastrophe” came to represent a hybrid turning point of both defeat and victory: on the one hand it marked the end of the decades-long irredentist vision of the Great Idea [Megali Idea] and Greater Greece in a truly devastating manner. But on the other hand, it symbolized the beginning of a colossal national and international task under the auspices of the League of Nations: namely the implementation by the Greek state and the Refugee Settlement Commission of an official rehabilitation and settlement programme for 1.3 million refugees who had been added within a period of few months to the existing population of 5 million Greeks. In this context, however, several aspects of the refugee experience that could contradict the national interpretation of facts and cast a shadow on the refugees’ “Greekness” were selectively kept outside of the official history of the “Catastrophe”.

8Still, memories from Asia Minor remained. And on these memories – which challenged the Greek national narrative and were more faithful to the truths and experiences of the Asia Minor Greeks – a refugee [prosfygiki] identity was built, special and distinct from the “old Greek” [palaioelladitiki] of the native Greeks. According to Renée Hirschon,

  • 10  Renée Hirschon, Heirs of the Greek Catastrophe: The Social Life of Asia Minor Refugees in Piraeus, (...)

“accounts of life in the homeland came to constitute a collective memory […] providing a wide frame of reference against which all subsequent experiences […] could be interpreted and […] a template for identity, since it specified those cultural markers […] which differentiated the refugees from all the others10.”

9This division lasted at least until the late 1930s. Ironically, it was another war/mnemonic landmark of the Greek nation, the Greco-Italian war of 1940‑1941, that provided the opportunity as well as the means to overcome the differences between refugee and native Greeks. The imagined perception of national unity at that specific moment was encapsulated in the words of Giorgos Theotokas, a well-known Constantinopolitan Greek author whose family had also abandoned Istanbul in 1922. On 10 November 1940, he wrote in his diary:

  • 11  Giorgos Theotokas, Τετράδια ημερολογίου, 1939‑1953, in Dimitris Tziovas (ed.), Βιβλιοπωλείον της Ε (...)

“I feel that during these days the final unity between the palaioelladites [old Greeks], neoelladites [new Greeks] and prosfyges [refugees] is taking place. What has separated these populations until the present day and has created so often an atmosphere of distrust and lack of understanding amongst them? Their different past, their different traditions. From today onwards, these populations acquire a common great past, a single tradition: the tradition of the Greco-Italian war of 1940. What separated them in the past will now begin to be forgotten and what will prevail in their collective consciousness is the memory of the new great historical event that they all experienced together spontaneously as one human being, the memory of the common blood spilled on the battlefield. Blood strengthens the union of the nation. What the politicians, economy, education, authors and journalists failed to do in twenty years, the war, ‘father of all things’, does it at once11.”

10Whether a national union along the aforementioned lines had been achieved by the end of World War II is hard to trace and verify beyond question. It would be safer to argue that the Greek Civil War (1946‑1949) that ensued the liberation from the German occupying forces brought a new rift within Greek society between communists and anti-communists to the foreground, which overshadowed, incorporated and eventually replaced that between the refugees and the “old Greeks”. It is definitely not a coincidence that a lot of the newly built refugee settlements, especially at the major urban centres, became strongholds of the Communist Party of Greece during this period.

  • 12  Haris Exertzoglou, « Η ιστορία », op. cit., p. 200.

11Over time, the present of the refugees’ descendants took a central position with regard to the representation of their ancestors’ past. During the process of transmission from one generation to the next, personal memories and narratives changed, assumed new meanings and were re-formed according to the official national history, the political and ideological context of each period, as well as contemporary terms and assessments12. The centenary of the “Asia Minor Catastrophe” offers a unique opportunity to go beyond the logical, and somewhat expected, commemoration of the trauma of 1922 and serves as a platform for the critical understanding of the refugees’ past with regard to collective memory construction, identity formation, social integration and national inclusion. Revisiting the Asia Minor Greeks’ first-hand accounts of their lives in the “lost homelands” of the late Ottoman Empire and their “new homeland”, Greece, constitutes an important step towards this direction.

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Notes

1  For an indication of the exchange of populations, see: Stephen P. Ladas, The Exchange of Minorities: Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey, New York, The MacMillan Company, 1932; Dimitri Pentzopoulos, The Balkan Exchange of Minorities and Its Impact upon Greece, Paris, Mouton & Co, 1962; Renée Hirschon (ed.), Crossing the Aegean: An Appraisal of the 1923 Compulsory Population Exchange between Greece and Turkey, Oxford, Berghahn Books, 2003.

2  The principles of the Tanzimat were proclaimed in 1839 with the decree of Gülhane (Gülhane Hatt-ı şerif) and were reaffirmed with the Reform Edict (Islahat Fermanı or Hatt-ı Hümayun) of 1856. These imperial rescripts declared the protection and respect of the life, honour and property of all the subjects of the Sultan and guaranteed their equality in the eyes of the law, regardless of their religion. The political expression of the whole reform programme was named Ottomanism (Osmanlılık) and aimed at creating a common Ottoman citizenship for all the peoples of the empire without distinction. From the Young Turk Revolution of July 1908 onwards the ideal of an Ottoman secular collective identity was gradually abandoned and Turkish nationalism started to gain ground amongst the several other imperial policies of the time. The Balkan Wars were perceived by the ruling party of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) as the final proof of the non-Muslims’ loyalty to foreign powers and their reluctance to be part of the Ottoman nation. After the Babıâli Baskını coup d’état of January 1913 the Ottoman state, under the uncontested rule of the CUP, would undergo a Turkification process with a twofold aim: The exclusion of non-Muslims from the nation under construction and the homogenization of the Muslim population on the basis of Turkishness, which basically meant the assimilation of non-Turkish Muslims. Physical violence – mainly ethnic cleansing, forced migrations and deportations in order to purify Anatolia of non-Muslim populations – coupled with structural violence along political and economic lines, like the program of “National Economy” [Milli Iktisat], became the primary methods for the execution of the Unionists’ nationalist program. See Dimitris Kamouzis, Greeks in Turkey: Elite Nationalism and Minority Politics in Late Ottoman and Early Republican Istanbul, Oxon/New York, SOAS/Routledge Studies on the Middle East, 2021, p. 8, 24‑25.

3  Ethnic slurs such as “Turkish seeds” [tourkosporoi], “Turkish-born” [tourkogennimenoi or tourkomerites] and “baptized in yoghurt” [giaourtovaftismenoi] were commonly hurled to the refugees by the native population to diminish and cast doubt on their Greek ethnic identity. Many refugees changed their last names in an effort to “clean” them from the Turkish prefix Kara-[black] or the suffix -oglou [son]. Similarly, the words “Smyrnia” [woman from Smyrna], “pastrikia” [from the word pastra, which means cleanliness] and “Anatolitissa” [woman from the East] were used in a derogatory manner to create and reproduce a negative stereotype of the female refugees as women of “loose” sexual mores. The anti‑Venizelist Greek press and especially the newspaper Kathimerini also adopted an open anti-refugee rhetoric during the 1920s and 1930s. See: George Th. Mavrogordatos, Stillborn Republic: Social Coalitions and Party Strategies in Greece, 1922‑1936, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1983, p. 194; Alexandra Halkias, The Empty Cradle of Democracy: Sex, Abortion and Nationalism in Modern Greece, Durham/London, Duke University Press, 2004, p. 68-69.

4  The Common Committee of the Unredeemed and Refugees [Koini ton Alytroton kai Prosfygon Epitropeia], a refugee associations’ federation composed of representatives from 200 organizations from all over the country, cooperated with the Refugee Settlement Commission towards the agricultural and urban settlement of the refugees. At the same time, these associations provided aid to the refugees by organizing charities, guided them through state bureaucracy, played an intermediary role by promoting the requests and highlighting the problems of the refugee settlements to the government and issued the “refugee status certificates” [pistopoiitika prosfygikis idiotitos], which were necessary for the transactions of the refugees with the state authorities. Αναμνηστικόν Προσφυγικόν Ημερολόγιον, Athens, Εκδ. Κουκουτσάκης, Παρθένης, Κουτουβάλης, 1925, [Refugee Almanac, Athens, Koukoutsakis, Parthenis, Koutouvalis Publications, 1925], p. 100‑102, 113; Benaki Museum (BM), Eleftherios Venizelos Archives (EVA), 399/027-028: Constitution of the refugee organization “Common Committee of the Unredeemed and Refugees” (1928).

5  Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London, Verso, 1991; Haris Exertzoglou, « Η ιστορία της προσφυγικής μνήμης », in Antonis Liakos (ed.), Το 1922 και οι πρόσφυγες. Μια νέα ματιά, Athens, Νεφέλη, 2011 [Haris Exertzoglou, “The history of refugee memory”, in Antonis Liakos (ed.), 1922 and the refugees: A new look, Athens, Nefeli, 2011], p. 193.

6  Rogers Brubaker, Nationalism Reframed: Nationhood and the National Question in the New Europe, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 132.

7  Haris Exertzoglou, « Η ιστορία… », op. cit., p. 194‑195.

8  Paschalis Kitromilides, « Ιδεολογικές πτυχές του προσφυγικού φαινομένου », in Nikos Andriotis (ed.), Η αττική γη υποδέχεται τους πρόσφυγες του ’22, Athens, Ίδρυμα της Βουλής των Ελλήνων για τον Κοινοβουλευτισμό και την Δημοκρατία, 2006 [Paschalis Kitromilides, “Ideological aspects of the refugee phenomenon”, in Nikos Andriotis (ed.), The Land of Attiki receives the Refugees of ’22, Athens, The Hellenic Parliament Foundation for Parliamentarism and Democracy, 2006], p. 42‑43.

9  Nicholas Doumanis, Before the Nation: Muslim-Christian Coexistence and its Destruction in Late Ottoman Anatolia, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2013, p. 57.

10  Renée Hirschon, Heirs of the Greek Catastrophe: The Social Life of Asia Minor Refugees in Piraeus, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1989, p. 17.

11  Giorgos Theotokas, Τετράδια ημερολογίου, 1939‑1953, in Dimitris Tziovas (ed.), Βιβλιοπωλείον της Εστίας, Athens, Vivliopoleion tis Hestias, 2014, [Giorgos Theotokas, Diary Notebooks, 1939‑1953, in Dimitris Tziovas (ed.), Athens, Vivliopoleion tis Hestias, 2014], p. 192.

12  Haris Exertzoglou, « Η ιστορία », op. cit., p. 200.

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Dimitris Kamouzis, « Reassessing the “Asia Minor Catastrophe” of 1922: »Diasporas, 40 | 2022, 165-169.

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Dimitris Kamouzis, « Reassessing the “Asia Minor Catastrophe” of 1922: »Diasporas [En ligne], 40 | 2022, mis en ligne le 14 juin 2023, consulté le 17 avril 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/diasporas/10419 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/diasporas.10419

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Auteur

Dimitris Kamouzis

Dimitris Kamousis est chargé de recherche au Centre d’études sur l’Asie mineure (Athènes, Grèce). Il a obtenu son doctorat en histoire au département des études grecques byzantines et modernes du King’s College de Londres. Il a été boursier de la Fondation d’utilité publique Alexander S. Onassis, chercheur de la Fondation d’utilité publique John S. Latsis et de l’Université nationale et capodistrienne d’Athènes, et chargé de cours au King’s College de Londres. Il est l’auteur de Greeks in Turkey: Elite Nationalism and Minority Politics in Late Ottoman and Early Republican Istanbul (Oxo/New York, SOAS/Routledge Studies on the Middle East, 2021).

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