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Catastrophe at Smyrna

Matthew Stewart traces the roots of the Greco-Turkish war of 1921-22, and the consequent refugee crisis, to the postwar settlements of 1919-20.

On September 15th, 1922, the fires of a raging holocaust began finally to burn themselves out. Smyrna (present-day Izmir), the gem-city of the Turkish Aegean, had gone up in flames. Over breakfast that day readers of the London Morning Post were informed that Turkish regular troops had set fire to the Greek, Armenian and European quarters of the city, while ensuring that no damage was done to Turkish neighbourhoods. Future estimations would set the death toll as high as 100,000. For two days while the fires raged, and for some two weeks after, the citizens of this once-lovely and essentially Hellenic city experienced brutality and neglect on a massive scale. George Horton, seasoned US Consul and witness to these terrible days, would later write:

One of the keenest impressions which I brought away with me from Smyrna was a feeling of shame that I belonged to the human race.

In the days that followed, the massacre received coverage in the Western press, though it quickly disappeared from the newspapers. Today the affair is virtually forgotten outside the countries involved. ‘The Smyrna affair ... has been somehow soft-pedaled and almost expunged from the memory of present-day man’, declared the American writer Henry Miller in 1941. The event triggered the largest European refugee problem prior to the Second World War (at least 1.5 million people were involved in a post-war ‘exchange of populations’), yet mention of the ‘Greco-Turkish War’ is still more likely to conjure an image of Byron or Delacroix than a reference to David Lloyd George or Mustafa Kemal. For the antagonists, on the other hand, the Smyrna catastrophe and the three-year-war that led up to it continue to provoke accusation and denial. The affair lives on, subject of propaganda and public relations onslaughts from both sides.

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