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Guest Viewpoints

Is There Anything Left to Learn about Smyrna, 1922?

September 2, 2022
By Ismini Lamb

This month marks the centennial of Smyrna’s demise, the city on the coast of Asia Minor sacked and burned by Turkish soldiers in 1922. The city’s fall was preceded and followed by the mass rape, murder, and enslavement of Ottoman Christians. These events will be commemorated with books, films, symposia, and other solemn memorializing. However, some may wonder if there is anything new to be learned about these tragic events, or whether it is even worthwhile recalling them. The answer to both questions is yes.

A growing body of research is revealing what really happened during the Asia Minor catastrophe. Much of it debunks hoary misinformation. For example, declassified German archives demonstrate yet again that the genocides were intentional. Reports from German military men and diplomats prove that their allies, the Turks, “decided on the final annihilation of the Armenian people and carried this plan out” (The Armenian Genocide: Evidence from the German Foreign Office Archives, 1915-1916). Other research demonstrates it is “incontrovertible” that Turkish leaders pursued the ethnic cleansing and genocide of not just Armenians, but all Ottoman Christians (The Thirty-Year Genocide: Turkey’s Destruction of Its Christian Minorities, 1894–1924, and Massacres, Resistance, Protectors: Muslim-Christian Relations in Eastern Anatolia during World War I).

Recent studies also correct histories describing a “Greco-Turkish war” that began after Greeks “invaded” Turkey. The fighting in Anatolia was actually a continuation of World War I with Turkish forces contesting the armistice and Treaty of Sevres that their leaders signed. Turkish resistance and atrocities were ongoing throughout the period following the armistice and preceded the arrival of Greek forces (British Reports on Ethnic Cleansing in Anatolia, 1919-1922, and The Thirty Year Genocide). Indeed, the Turks attacked Greek forces when they landed in Smyrna, which should have prompted a firm, united Allied response. Instead, the senior American representative in Turkey, Admiral Mark Bristol, wrote a false report on the violence that blamed Greeks and incited more Turkish resistance.

Few people know that when Germans refused to sign the Treaty of Versailles, the Allies threatened to renew the war. In the case of Turkey, however, the Allies backed down. They forgot their promise to make the Ottomans pay heavily for their genocide of the Armenians, and even abandoned their stated war objective of expelling the Turks from Europe. Worse, several Allies— Italy, France, and Russia— switched sides and provided Kemal with funds, weapons, and military advice. Two others— Great Britain and the United States— abandoned Greece and refused to provide any support whatsoever. Allied diplomats even assisted Turkish leaders in their cover up of their atrocities. For example, French officials torpedoed a summer 1922 Allied investigation into Turkish atrocities.

Scholars also have uncovered previously unknown details of the Asia Minor catastrophe. For example, authoritative histories (e.g. Paradise Lost: Smyrna 1922 – The Destruction of Islam’s City of Tolerance, America’s Black Sea Fleet: The U.S. Navy Amidst War and Revolution, 1919-1923, The Great Fire: One American’s Mission to Rescue Victims of the 20th Century’s First Genocide) reveal just how Kemal’s soldiers started and directed the fires as part of his plan to “de-Christianize” Anatolia. What is not generally appreciated, however, is that Allied diplomats lied about Turkish responsibility for burning Smyrna. After British Prime Minister Lloyd George bluntly stated on September 23, 1922, that the Turks burned the city, French officials denied it, insisting their senior representatives in Turkey “had satisfied themselves that there was nothing to justify the holding of the Turks responsible for the burning of Smyrna.” Sadly, American diplomats joined the French cover up in hopes of winning Turkish approval for American access to oil. To curry favor with the Turks, Bristol even denied all U.S. aid, public or private, for the Christians fleeing Turkey. Allen Dulles, Bristol’s friend and former subordinate, and head of the State Department’s Near East division at the time, assisted Bristol in both endeavors. George Horton, the American Consul in Smyrna when it was destroyed, decried such duplicity, and helped reverse the policy on no aid for Christian refugees. In response, Bristol and Dulles tried to destroy Horton’s reputation. For that, as I have argued elsewhere, the Department of State still owes Horton and his descendants an apology (One Good Apology Deserves Another, The National Herald, August 13: https://bit.ly/3AJJmfg).

Other revelatory research findings must go unmentioned due to space constraints, but the point has been made. Still, some may question whether these issues matter a hundred years later. They do; and not just for Greeks confronted with a rising tide of neo-Ottoman sentiments among Turkish leaders, but for Turks as well. Horton argued Kemal’s vision of a religiously homogenous nation doomed the possibility of a Turkey with guaranteed civil liberties where truth could be spoken, and diverse opinions protected. He considered it necessary “for the honor of the Turkish race that some of its members should denounce the massacres” and “publicly declare they are and have always been opposed to them.” This has happened (Turkish Intellectuals Who Have Recognized the Reality of the Armenian Genocide: https://amzn.to/3Rbt99N), but not enough to guarantee Turkish citizens their liberty. That is a shame, both for Turkey and its neighbors.

Ismini Lamb is the Director of Modern Greek Studies Program at Georgetown University. Her co-authored biography of George Horton, The Gentle American, is available from Gorgias Press in hardback: https://bit.ly/3KFltKL, and from Gorgias’ publishing partner, De Gruyter, in an eBook edition: https://bit.ly/3CM1k3H.

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