100 Years Later: The Suffering and Lessons from the Smyrna Catastrophe

September 24, 2022

100 years have passed since the Smyrna Catastrophe, yet we still get a lump in our throats every time we think of it, a painful lump over our ancestors and fellow Hellenes who met horrible deaths at the hands of the Young Turks, a lump for those who drowned in the port of Smyrna trying to reach the cold indifferent foreign warships, for those who overnight went from being housewives to refugees.

For all of them, for the great part of our Nation that was uprooted from an ancestral home of thousands of years.

We all grew up under the unbearable burden of the memories of Turkish brutality, for the destruction of Smyrna, which became the symbol of the Catastrophe.

We all sang songs – memorials – we read shocking books about those heroic Greeks and their uprooting, we met children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, the refugees themselves, and the descendants of the Asia Minor martyrs.

And all of us are left with one question: Why?

There is enough blame to go around for everyone. When a people suffers a great disaster, everyone bears some share of responsibility. Of course, some smaller and some larger.

The question, however, is what conclusions – lessons, useful even today – can we draw from this national catastrophe?

These can be summarized as follows:

Flee from national divisions. There is nothing worse.

And do not too place too much faith in the willingness and ability of strangers to help us.

To summarize the broader matter, the presence of Eleftherios Venizelos, a leader of unusual abilities, made possible Greece’s remarkable victories in the Balkan wars, enabling Greece to be invited to the negotiation tables after WWI.

However, the great division in Greek society, rooted in the Monarchy-Democracy rivalry, sapped the nation’s strength at its most critical moment.

Moreover, we relied too much on promises of support from third parties, mainly the British, to successfully implement our goals.

However, Venizelos unexpectedly lost the elections of 1920 and thus the support of British prime minister David Lloyd-George, who was Venizelos’ great ally. And when Atatürk, the new dynamic leader in Turkey, finally made his appearance, the allies did what great powers usually do: they looked to their self-interest. They forgot the sacrifices of their allies and friends, the Greeks.

However, the central, main point that remains indelibly in the memory is the boundless barbarity of the Turks. The massacres, the rapes, the fires.

The Turks are doing everything they can to remove this stigma from themselves, as they do in the case of the Armenian Genocide. But they can’t – because there are too many testimonies. On the other hand, it has now been proven by the most official Turkish sources that the genocide of their minorities, Armenians, Greeks, etc., was an organized, state plan.

100 years have passed since then. Today’s Greece is nothing like the Greece of the past when it comes to single-mindedness regarding national defense and its ability to rely on itself for its security.

It is good to preserve these conclusions and sufferings deep in our collective memory.

One can never predict when they will come in handy.


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