Recently, the Asia Minor and Pontos Hellenic Research Center in Chicago published a new book titled, The Greek Genocide, 1913-1923: New Perspectives. Details can be found at http://hellenicresearchcenter.org/publications/newperspectives/. In the interview below, the co-authors of one of the most significant chapters in the book discuss their research.
Dr. Elisabeth Hope Murray is the president of the International Network of Genocide Scholars and Assistant Professor of Security Studies and International Affairs at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida. Her work focuses on ideology, macro-level violence, genocide, environmental insecurity, and the process of radicalization in genocidal states. She has a wide range of published works including Disrupting Pathways to Genocide (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) and Environments of Security (American Meteorological Society, January 2019).
Dr. Amy Grubb is Assistant Professor of Security Studies and International Affairs at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida. Her research focuses on political violence, micro-level security processes, and the relationship between state and non-state actors. Her work on Northern Ireland, Microlevel Dynamics of Violence: Explaining Variation in Violence among Rural Districts during Northern Ireland’s Troubles, has been published in Security Studies, and she has a chapter in the University of Denver’s Civil Action and Violence project’s Civil Action and the Dynamics of Violence in Conflicts (Oxford University Press, 2019).
They are the co-authors of the forthcoming British Power Politics and Humanitarianism in the Ottoman Empire, 1918-1923.
In the recently published book, The Greek Genocide, 1913-1923: New Perspectives, you contributed the chapter titled, British Perspectives on Turkish Atrocities in the Former Ottoman Empire from 1919-1922: The Greek Catastrophe. What was the British perspective on the Greeks during this period?
British perspective on the Greeks varied considerably, and our work generally addresses the different levels of the Foreign Office. Many high-level actors, such as Prime and Foreign Ministers in Whitehall, were influenced less by the needs and actions of the Greek communities living under the Ottoman state and more by the dynamics of Great Power politics. At all levels, we see the British acknowledging the Greeks to be an important regional ally in their desire to maintain influence in the East. The position of the United Kingdom’s Minister to Greece in Athens was certainly an illustrious post, typically given to Honorables after many years of foreign service, including Sir Claud Russell (1918-20) who was also the President of the International Financial Commission in Athens, the Right Honorable Sir Francis O’Lindley (1921-22) who went on to serve in several other Foreign Office capacities until his final posting in Japan under Emperor Hirohito, and Sir John Milne (1924-26). Perhaps the most illustrious was Granville Leveson-Gower (1917-21), otherwise known as the 3rd Earl of Granville who was, amongst many other decorations, a Lord-in-waiting to Queen Victoria.
Regardless of diplomatic affection many high-level officials held for Greece, some held Greeks in contempt for action taken against minorities in disputed territories. Contests with Bulgarians and Turks, particularly in Thrace, sometimes resulted in massacres by the Greek army on other minorities which led many British officers, both in the War and Foreign Offices, to question alliances with Greece. These actions also served to justify anti-Greek sentiment and further became justification for inaction on the part of Britain when Greek minority populations were victimized by Turks.
This leads us to the final category of British perspective, which are those individuals who understood the Greek community outside of Greece as an important Christian minority group within the Ottoman Empire frequently at risk of persecution. In fact, many local consular representatives felt loyalty to minority constituents where they were stationed. These voices, mostly low-level officers at consulates near Greek communities, were often the first to hear of aggression against Greeks and urged for greater protections for them, particularly in the later years of our study. In short, the British perspective on Greeks during this time period was mixed and largely based on position and outlook within the British policymaking institution.
Was the British perspective different from the other Allied Powers?
Yes and no. Unlike other Allied Powers, such as the United States, the British had a strong diplomatic link with Greece through the monarchy and a history of shared action in the Mediterranean. It was understood by most of the Allies that Britain and Greece had what would today be described as a ‘special relationship’; Greece was too advanced to be considered a colony of Britain, but not quite advanced enough to be an equal power player in greater Europe and could be counted on to support the British side when required. However, the British and the other Allied Powers often treated and discussed Greece as a lesser ally who needed British ‘overlordship’ (a word lifted directly from the Foreign Office) to be kept in line with the greater vision of the rest of the Great Powers.
What is new about your research that enables the book to be subtitled New Perspectives?
The most crucial aspect of our work is the focus on the Foreign Office as a whole. The majority of other work looking at British foreign policy tends to focus on alliances and treaties and on the specific actors at the highest levels of the institutions who write those treaties, such as the Prime Minister or Foreign Secretary. Our work shows the perspectives and (attempts at) influence of mid- and lower-level consular actors and their petitions, usually on behalf of minority populations. The focus on local level diplomats further provides a different perspective on humanitarian action on behalf of these populations, as most research in the field of humanitarianism looks at humanitarian organizations and non-governmental bodies, such as Save the Children and the Red Cross. We do draw to a small extent on these institutions, but overwhelmingly our work is focused on the British diplomatic core stationed in places such as Constantinople, Mytilene-Chios, Salonika, Smyrna, and Athens (amongst others). Their perspectives – and their roles advocating for minority populations – have long been overlooked.
How did you come to take an interest in this aspect of Greek history?
Our interest largely started through looking at British responses to migration after World War I. Though we began researching Armenian migration, we quickly realised that British policy had a much wider focus that clearly included the Greek population living under Ottoman rule, living within contested areas, especially Eastern Thrace, and those living in Greece itself. We recognized that in order to accurately view atrocities in this region, the whole of the Christian community – including and especially the Greek community – had to be considered in order to see the breadth of the persecutions.
What lessons can we draw today from British foreign policy towards the Greeks and towards mass atrocities and genocide at that time?
The first lesson is that we must recognize that minority groups in contested homeland spaces are at particular risk of atrocity. This becomes particularly true if the conflict occurs where external alliances seem to favor one group over the other, even if this is only perceived ideologically. The second lesson is that diplomatic intervention is key and can be highly effective; however, it is rarely enough unless combined with other tools of leverage, such as economic and military responses. Equally, it is key to recognize that, if diplomacy is weak and limited by foci outside of humanitarianism (as was in the case of the Greeks in the Black Sea region), other types of intervention will become necessary to impede genocidal aggression. Sadly, as we see in this case, few states will overlook an opportunity for regional hegemony in order to intervene strongly for minority groups, particularly if the economic costs are perceived as too high.
Please tell us about your current research project.
We are writing a book titled British Power Politics and Humanitarianism in the Ottoman Empire, 1918-1923. For as long as the Ottoman Empire was considered the “sick man of Europe,” Great Britain was considered a Great Power empire. During the early years of the 20th century, these entities had a close and profitable relationship, largely avoiding discussions over human rights abuses and atrocities committed under their colonial rule. However, during the post-War period, while genocide and other horrendous violence occurred against Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians, and others, diplomats, military personnel, and citizens from other states traversed the region, bearing witness to these atrocities and resulting in significant changes in the British-Ottoman relationship. The tragedies of atrocity and genocide took place in the political contexts of a shrinking empire, global war, and Great Power territorial ambitions. Scholarship in this area has largely focused on American responses to the Armenian genocide or on humanitarianism in terms of relief agency activities. British governmental influence, despite being at its height, is rarely discussed, leading to questions about the role of British officials in witnessing, influencing, and reacting to these crimes.
Consequently, our study comparatively examines the British response to the international humanitarian crises occurring in the Eastern Mediterranean in the aftermath of World War I. We find British policy in the area revolved primarily around three major issue areas key to Britain’s understanding of humanitarianism at the time: “good governance”, atrocity prevention, and the alleviation of the refugee crisis. These humanitarian policies, however, were hampered by the prioritization of Great Power Politics and the desire to expand political power throughout the region, thus limiting the effectiveness of the outcomes these policies had on ensuring security, limiting atrocity, and providing relief. By the end of World War I, priorities of British foreign policy supported a more interventionist strategy. Diplomats launched investigations on security conditions, requested the removal and arrest of officials, intervened to protect groups, tried to restrain Greek and Turkish troop movements contributing to atrocities, and advocated to Turkey and Greece for policy changes involving repatriation. Further, British officials saw the presence of Britain and its allies as key to short and long-term security for persecuted populations and repeatedly advocated for this. However, the enactment of policies was complicated by relationships between levels of British government, with local authorities, and the tensions of peace treaty negotiations; thus, actions taken were underfunded or did not materialize, resulting in limited outcomes. Overall, the impact of British power was weak, resulting in the continuation of violence and policies of repression for years after the time generally considered the cessation of conflict.
Most other monographs written on the region and timeframe fall into three main categories, British diplomatic history, Armenian and Greek genocide case study analyses, and humanitarianism studies. Books on British diplomatic history focus generally on high-level diplomacy (Foreign Secretary and/or Prime Minister level), usually between Great Powers, during the inter-war period. Most of the studies limit concerns of local level actors, be they British or of other nationalities. This has two limitations which we seek to mend: firstly, by presenting foreign policy only through the eyes of high-level actors, tensions and divided loyalties throughout the policy-making practise are completely overlooked; secondly, by opening our research base to include local requests, reports, and responses, we are able to see the complexities of policy-making and also the limitations of power when decisions are made over competing resources. The second category of research, case study monographs, has played a critical role in genocide and atrocity studies, but we should note that there are comparatively many more books, articles, etc., written on the Armenian genocide than on the sufferings of other groups within the area. From a policy level, the British understood that atrocities were occurring against multiple other groups at the same time; further, concerns about good governance and refugees were not limited to the experiences of only one group. Instead, the British frequently used terms like ‘Christians’, ‘non-Arabs, ‘Orthodox communities, and even just ‘victims of the regime’. By viewing the period between 1918-1923 from a British perspective, we provide a more comprehensive understanding of the complexity of the situation. Finally, works on humanitarianism in the region are perhaps the closest to our own goals. However, the vast majority of these works focus on American humanitarianism in the region and private humanitarian relief efforts. Incorporating the British governmental response to the tragedy not only opens up research in a new direction, but also provides a much-demanded insight into Great Power politics in the creation of the modern Turkish state and the history of European responses to humanitarian crises throughout the 20th century to the modern day.