On the eve of the First World War, thousands of Greeks along the western littoral of Asia Minor fled to Greece to escape Turkish persecution. A voluntary exchange of population between Greece and the Ottoman Empire was seen by both parties as a means of defusing a potential conflict between them.
The Convention of Athens signed on November 14, 1913, settled all outstanding issues between Greece and the Ottoman Empire stemming from the Balkan wars except for the Aegean Islands – Turkey refused to recognize the Greek possession of them. Both parties also accused each other of mistreating minorities on their territory. In April 1914, the Turks began expelling Greeks from villages in Eastern Thrace and along the Sea of Marmara. A potential conflict was in the offing.
In early May, the Ottoman Minister in Athens, Ghalib Kemaly Bey, suggested to Premier Eleftherios Venizelos an exchange of population as a means of avoiding war. Venizelos accepted the proposal but noted that the exchange should be voluntary. Athens and Constantinople agreed to an emigration commission whose role was to implement the exchange and also compensate refugees for their abandoned properties. It should be noted that Venizelos himself had also favored a population exchange in 1913.
In early June 1914, the British and Russian Ministers protested to the Ottoman Grand Vizier about the treatment meted out to the Greeks in Asia Minor. The Grand Vizier assured them that he would do everything in his power to halt the persecutions immediately. He would send the Minister of the Interior, Talaat Bey to examine the situation.
Venizelos told the Chamber that the expulsion of Greeks from Asia Minor had to cease, meaning that this could result in a war between Greece and the Ottoman Empire. There wasn’t enough shipping to move the refugees quickly to Greece, however.
Venizelos described the Turkish persecutions as being “of a character such as history had never known until today, their object being the elimination of populations which had been living in those places for several thousand years.” According to Venizelos, some 100,000 Greeks had either arrived or were waiting for transportation to Greece, thus abandoning their entire possessions to avoid Turkish persecution. It is difficult to assess whether the figure of 100,000 is accurate or simply an exaggeration.
The Greeks in Phokia who fled from the town were hoping to be evacuated to a nearby deserted island. Muslim refugees from Thrace who lived on the outskirts of the town drove the Greeks out of their houses. A Greek warship cruising in the area during the night threw its searchlights, intending to deter the Muslims from attacking them. However, Turkish government officials and police made no effort to protect the Greek inhabitants.
In Smyrna, there was a relentless Turkish boycott of Greek businesses with the forcible installation of Muslim refugees in Greek communities. According to a British Foreign Office document, it appeared that the vigorous anti-Greek campaign was being conducted by the Governor of the province himself. Muslims were incited to attack Christians. The situation was exacerbated by the daily arrival of Muslim refugees from Macedonia who were settled in Christian villages in the Smyrna hinterland. In past times, Greeks and Turks got on well in Smyrna.
The British Vice-Consul in Aivali whose consular authority covered the Pergamos district reported a state of panic when 300 girls were driven out of their homes and who took refuge in the vice-consul’s farm near Dikili. Forty well-armed Turks opened fire on one village, forcing its inhabitants to flee. Similar incidents occurred at Chesme, Alatsata, Agia Paraskevi, and Kato-Panagia where some 23,000 Greeks fled. The Vice-Consul also mentioned that boycotters stood outside Christian shops armed with whips driving potential customers away.
The Turkish press was used as a vehicle to incite hatred and violence against the Greeks. Newspapers were read by excited Turks sitting in cafes sipping their coffees and smoking their water pipes. They printed stories of wrongdoing and past suffering inflicted upon Turks by Christians and cried loudly for vengeance and retaliation. However, the Greek newspaper Lesbos published in Mitylene described the persecutions which the Greeks suffered at the hands of the Turks.
The Ecumenical Patriarch, Germanos V, appealed to the Sultan hoping his influence might improve the situation. However, the boycott of Greek businesses and persecutions continued unabated. In response, the Patriarch issued an order closing all Greek churches and schools as a protest against the treatment of the members of the Greek church in the Ottoman Empire.
Talaat’s visit to Smyrna had improved the situation, to some extent assuring the Greeks that their concerns would be carefully examined. Despite Talaat’s assurances to the contrary, there was an element of uncertainly bubbling just below the surface. The Greeks felt the Turks were now their enemy who wanted to expel them from Asia Minor. However, the Governor of Smyrna, Rahmy Bey made an effort to stop the boycott and to reassure the Christians that they had nothing to fear.
The Emigration committee started its deliberations in late June 1914 with Greece represented by Constantine Dimaras and George Tzobatozoglou and the Turkish side by Ghalib Kemaly Bey and Moukhtar Bey. Both Greeks had experience in administering the affairs of Greek Macedonia whereas Ghalib was an experienced diplomat and Moukhtar a former Cabinet Minister. Smyrna was chosen as the official meeting place of the commission.
Emigration was the first item for discussion. The Greek delegates declared that they couldn’t undertake their mission unless order was immediately restored in the entire Smyrna district. Turkish assurances were given that they would do everything in their power towards this end. During their deliberations, the Greeks raised the ‘nationality’ issue regarding refugees, meaning that those who fled couldn’t return to their homes. The Greek side tried to distinguish between rural and city inhabitants who had fled, but the Turks rejected the Greek idea, claiming there was no distinction between rural and city dwellers.
The appraisal of abandoned properties proved a sore point for the commission. The Turks tried to exclude financial compensation to Ottoman Greeks who fled to Greece, abandoning their properties in Asia Minor. The Greeks sought compensation for both rural and city folk. It will be noted that the commission’s responsibility dealt with the exchange of rural population and rural property, whereas urban property was excluded.
Nothing came of the commission’s work due to Turkey’s intervention in the First World War, however, the voluntary exchange of population would become a compulsory one at the end of the Greco-Turkish War in 1922.