It was November 1920, a fateful month for us Venizelists. Our national hero, our national leader, lost the elections to those damn royalists. The loss was unexpected, a great shock to all of us in Constantinople (The Polis) and Smyrna.
Our family operated a successful import/export business in Constantinople with branches in Smyrna, Trebizond, Athens, Salonika, and New York. Our Trebizond branch couldn’t trade as the Turks had closed it down. Anyway, we did well during those troubled years of 1919-22. We belonged to Hellenic organizations in The Polis which operated freely since we were under the occupation of British, French, and Italian forces. The Sultan and his government kept quiet during this time. Allied guns were directly pointed at his palace. The ordinary Turk went about his daily life without complaint.
After Venizelos’ defeat, many Venizelist officers and prominent supporters made Constantinople their home. They didn’t wish to live under the royalist boot. Many remembered the royalist persecutions before and after the Anglo-French marine landing in early December 1916. We decided to form an organization to establish an autonomous state in Asia Minor including some of our islands off the Asia Minor coast under the leadership of our Patriarch. We wanted to separate ourselves from the Greece of King Constantine.
We held our first of many meetings at Frangidis restaurant to establish an executive committee and to lay down the groundwork for our future goal of autonomy. Our committee of fourteen was composed of clergy, merchants, bankers, doctors, teachers, and ordinary folk interested in our mission. Ioannis Papadopoulos, a successful banker, proposed initially that our autonomy should be under the Sultan and later unite with Greece when Venizelos returned to power. The motion was carried unanimously and became the cornerstone of our policy. Our organization was named the Asia Minor Defence League.
At our meeting held on March 20, 1921, we split the organization into civilian and military arms. The former would be involved with fundraising, conducting discussions with allied leaders through Venizelos and the latter would recruit Asia Minor Greeks and soldiers from our regular army to defend our autonomous zone. My biggest concern was whether the major powers would be sympathetic to our cause or not. Time would provide us with an answer.
The London Conference wasn’t successful for the royalists, with the allies willing to modify the Treaty of Sevres in favor of the Kemalists. The royalists then announced that they would easily crush the Kemalists. Our organization was apprehensive of royalist claims of defeating Mustapha Kemal in the depths of Asia Minor. For a time, the Royalist’s claims defied our expectations, however, with military successes at Brusa, Afyon Karahissar, and EskiShehr. We believed that Ankara would fall into our lap with Mustapha Kemal seeking refuge in Azerbaijan.
At this point, we were pleased with our victories and that Smyrna would finally remain Greek. As our army marched onto Ankara, we eagerly awaited the news of our occupation of the Kemalist capital. However, things didn’t materialize as we expected. The Kemalists defended their capital with great determination, pushing us back to the Afyon Karahissar-Eskishehr defensive line, leading to a military stalemate that didn’t bode too well for our position in Asia Minor. We needed to speed up our autonomy plans.
A delegation was sent to Smyrna from Constantinople in October, 1921 to establish a branch of our organization in that beautiful and prosperous city. Dr. Christos Psaltof and Antonis Beinoglou were our representatives there. Psaltof was well-known and well-connected in the Greek Smyrniot community and could assist in recruiting locals to join our defense force. The biggest obstacle to our plans was the Greek High Commissioner, Aristidis Sterghiadis, who opposed our organization. We set up a meeting with him trying to explain our plans, only to be shown the door.
In March, 1922, the Allies decided our army would need to evacuate Asia Minor. We sent a delegation to Athens to discuss the evacuation plans of the Greek government and how this would impact our compatriots. The Royalists told us that they would not support us and would leave us to our own devices. They didn’t care about us and betrayed us. Meanwhile, we had received support for our autonomy plans from Venizelos, Sir John Stavridis, and the British premier, Lloyd George. Sterghiadis had a change of heart and decided to support our movement along with the Commander-in-Chief of the Asia Minor army, General Papoulas. Unfortunately, the latter was replaced by the buffoon (Hadjianestis) in May. Papoulas would have made a good commander of our autonomous army and also had personal differences with the King and the royalist administration.
The Allies opposed our plans, so we turned our hope to the United States. In June, I traveled with two other members to seek financial help from our Greek-American community and the support of the U.S. government. Arriving in New York, journalists from the National Herald, Atlantis, and the New York Times interviewed us at our hotel for our mission to the United States. We explained that the Christian population of Asia Minor faced extermination should Mustapha Kemal win the war. We needed money and weapons to defend ourselves. Ordinary Americans and churches were sympathetic to our cause whereas the U.S. government wanted no involvement in Near Eastern affairs.
We arrived in Washington seeking meetings with congressmen, senators, and the White House, only to be rebuffed by them. We learned that American churches were sending resolutions to the State Department and White House urging their government to protect the Christians from Turkish reprisals. Our Greek-American compatriots sent money to the National Herald and Atlantis to assist our cause. Some of them volunteered to join our army as some had roots in Asia Minor.
In late July, we read U.S. and Greek-American newspaper reports of Sterghiadis’s announcement on the steps of the Greek High Commission of the autonomy of Smyrna under the suzerainty of the Sultan. Excitement was etched on our faces. Little did we know that within six weeks or so, our smiles would turn into bitter tears learning about our Asia Minor military defeat and the burning of Smyrna by the Kemalists.
Our organization did everything it could to achieve autonomy, but without the support of the major powers and in particular, the Greek government, it was doomed to fail.