This year marks the 100-year commemoration of the failed Greek war against the Kemalists of the now Republic of Turkey. It also marks the subsequent final phase of the genocide against the remaining Greek population of Eastern Thrace and Asia Minor once the Hellenic army was forced to withdraw amidst a large-scale counteroffensive by the Turkish military that did not spare soldier or civilian in their wrath. Though the war is largely known in history as the Greco-Turkish War, other factors came into play that brought about the end of 3,000 years of Hellenism in the region. Those factors were the Great Powers of World War One; the allies who attempted to carve up their own regions of the Ottoman Empire. Countries such as Britain, France, and Italy now held territory in Asia Minor after the Treaty of Sevres while the United States and Soviet Union also looked on and played a major role later. These powers promised to protect the already persecuted religious minorities such as the Greeks and Armenians, but instead played a larger role in the Catastrophe. Many descendants to this day still ponder over the wounds.
Italian roots of having their own zone of control in Asia Minor date to 1915. The Entente (British, French, and Russian Empires) promised the Italian Empire a piece of the Ottoman Empire in return for fighting alongside them. Italy had taken the Dodecanese isles in the Aegean after the Italian-Turkish War of 1912 and they looked to expand their Mediterranean foothold in the Antalya region, in which the economically rich southwestern ports of Anatolia were promised to them after the Great War. The Hellenic Kingdom was not supportive of Italy’s claims to Antalya, which had a large Greek minority as Greece looked to expand into ancestral homelands along the Anatolian coastline (the ‘Magali Idea’). Italy had also wanted Smyrna, which was now a Greek mandate and had an overwhelmingly Greek population for 3,000 plus years. As diplomatic tensions between the two states rose, the Venizelos attempted to mend diplomatic tensions by proposing more Italian influence in Albania in return for more Greek influence in their mandate and the Dodecanese. Though Venizelos’ offer was enticing, Italy decided to back Mustafa Kemal’s insurgency against the mandates and the subsequent Greco-Turkish War, which led to Turkish forces later taking the mandate areas and expelling and killing the remaining Greek population of Antalya.
In order to entice France into supporting a partition of the Ottoman Empire, Britain would lay the seeds of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, giving France large portions of Cilicia, Alexandretta, and the Levant. As the Kemalists had vehemently rejected the Treaty of Sevres, they started their war for control of Asia Minor with the French mandate of Cilicia. The mandate had a large Armenian and smaller Greek population, but France had proposed an Armenian homeland in the area for the remaining Christians. France was beaten and slowly withdrew from their positions, leaving many Greeks and Armenians to flee by ports along Mersin to the French mandates in Syria and Lebanon. Feeling they weren’t given enough for being a part of the Entente, France signed a separate document with the Turkish National Assembly, recognizing their claims on all of Asia Minor, superseding the Sevres document Sultan Mehmed Hadi Pasha signed. Paris’ breakaway from the mandates and subsequent withdrawal from the Dardanelles left the British overextended and sealed the fate of any type of aid going to the Hellenic Kingdom in the Asia Minor campaign.
As the British were largely responsible for the capitulation of the Ottoman Empire, using marginalized ethnic groups to fight for them from Gaza to Damascus, they now had figure out how to maintain security in the Middle East. The British maintained administration in the international demilitarized zone of Constantinople and much of the Dardanelles. They also now had administration in Mandatory Palestine and Mesopotamia. As nationalist forces inside of Asia Minor began their insurgency for full control over the Anatolian plateau, the British decided to back local forces, such as Greek irregulars and the Hellenic military in their quest to quell Kemal’s insurgency. These plans changed largely thanks to the British Parliament and Prime Minister David Lloyd George who refused to reinforce British forces in the region due to political tensions at home, but also for other nefarious purposes. Originally, the Russian Empire was the third half of the Entente but they found themselves in a civil war in 1917 against the communists led by Vladimir Lenin. The communists won the civil war and revolutionary fever was growing around the world from it. The Bolsheviks poured in weapons to not only the Kemalists, but also instigated conflicts in the Middle East and revealed the British betrayal of ethnic groups in the region, and Lloyd George’s cabinet was on the verge of collapse. In order to keep the highly prized Asia Minor region out of communist influence, the UK had quietly allowed the Kemalists to continue their rampage when they saw that the nationalist forces were most likely going to win. As highlighted in the book ‘A Peace to End all Peace,’ the British even went as far as to block the overextended Hellenic forces from entering Constantinople, their gamble on an alliance with London a failure.
The Bolsheviks arguably played the greatest role in the Asia Minor catastrophe. Looking to secure a permanent foothold in the Caucasus and absorb the newly independent states there, Vladimir Lenin sent nearly endless amounts of weaponry to the Kemalists in their war against the Greeks. Both the Turkish nationalist forces and the Soviets jointly invaded the Caucasus, with the Soviets fully incorporating Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan into their control. The Kemalists annexed Western Armenia after Kemal realized the Americans wouldn’t be able to protect their proposed mandate, as the U.S. Senate voted against it and Washington’s policies were to continue being isolationists. Ideologically different, both the Soviets and Kemalists had similar interests in their quest to expel western forces – Mustafa Kemal in order to establish his own authoritarian republic and Vladimir Lenin to spread the influence of communism. This caused panic, primarily in the British Empire as the Soviets attempted to uproot British colonial rule thought diplomatic efforts.
After all this, the Hellenic Kingdom was now doomed to fail. For Lenin’s unwavering support, Mustafa Kemal ordered a bust to be made of him which was set up in Taksim Square, Constantinople, which to this day, can be seen as a provocative act in the historical Greek Orthodox city.
Allied Abandonment at Smyrna
Once the Hellenic army was pushed back by the Kemalists into Smyrna on September 1922, many Greeks and Armenians of the city, along with Greek refugees from Asia Minor, expected evacuation before the sack of the city. The allied command of the United States, British, French, and Italian forces were given strict orders from their high command not to dock their ships into Smyrna and save the hundreds of thousands of people trapped in the city. The U.S. High Commissioner of to Turkey, Admiral Mark Bristol did not even try to hide his racist views towards Christian minorities in the region and was very pro Kemalist. He was one of the officers in charge who gave the orders to his men not to intervene in the slaughter of Smyrna and evacuation of refugees. The British, French, and Italians at this time realized Mustafa Kemal had won and the only way to placate the new Turkish nation was to stay idle and not intervene in Smyrna, even if they would be responsible for the blood of 100,000-120,000 Greeks and Armenians of the rich port city. Out of the nations present with naval ships to save refugees, only the Hellenic Kingdom and Imperial Japan docked their ships in the port to evacuate as many people as possible. The great powers of the world had effectively left their Christian ‘brethren’ to die and one of the first Greek colonies in Asia Minor founded 3,000 years ago, was set ablaze. The Burning of Smyrna marked the end of 3,000 plus years of Hellenism in Asia Minor.
As the descendants of the Greek Genocide survivors reflect on the centennial of the collapse of the Asia Minor campaign, we remember who stood for the plight of the Greeks and who watched over a million being butchered. To this day, the Turkish government refuses to acknowledge the Greek, Armenian, and Assyrian Genocide but many groups in diaspora today still fight for recognition so their ancestors may have some closure in the afterlife.
Julian McBride is a forensic anthropologist and independent journalist born in New York. He’s the founder and director of the Reflections of War Initiative (ROW), an anthropological NGO. He reports and documents the plight of people around the world who are affected by conflicts, rogue geopolitics, and war, and also tells the stories of war victims who never get their voices heard.