Greek-Turkish Conflict And Arsonist Firemen
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Published in New Perspectives On Turkey,Istanbul, Spring 2000, 22, pp. 173-184


Greek-Turkish Conflict And Arsonist Firemen 

Herkül Millas  

The Greek-Turkish political conflict is reflected in a distinctive way in most of the "academic" texts emanating from the two countries. Before the last few decades, the main effort was to demonstrate that "the other side" was wrong and that "our side" was right. This was done in most instances by selectively using historical facts, by overlooking some incidents and exaggerating others, and by introducing interpre­tations with double standards. However, since the 1980s, a shift in style has occurred. Up to that time, the accusations smacked of racism: "The other" was presented as carrying some historical and irreversible negative characteristics, such as irredentism, aggressiveness, and bar­barism.[1] In recent years, this polemic has assumed a "more scientific" appearance-one in which "the other" nation is supposed to be analyzed on a sociological or psychological basis, but "the other" still receives the blame for all the tension.

The study of Dr. Vamık D. Volkan and Dr. Norman Itzkowitz - Turks and Greeks: Neighbours in Conflict (The Eothen Press, 1994)[2] - gives us the opportunity not only to present an example of the "scientific" Manichaean approach but also to comment on some features of the Greek-Turkish controversy. This book shows that the "scientific" argu­ment is also being mastered and utilized by the Turkish side.[3] Absent from most Greek and Turkish academic treatises are empathy, self-criticism, and the willingness to understand "the other," and especially to accept the role of "our part" in the conflict - in short, the introspec­tive approach. This does not mean that these kinds of studies are com­pletely absent in the two countries, but they are the exception.[4] As is the case with all zealous polemical argumentation, the Volkan-Itzkowitz approach can be challenged on two levels: the methodologi­cal and the factual. These two levels will be addressed here together and alternatively, following the approach of the two authors, who sometimes select the "facts" arbitrarily and other times legitimize this selective use of the "facts" with an arbitrary evaluation of incidents.



Psyche and History


Psychoanalyst Dr. Volkan analyzes the Turkish-Greek conflict from a psychological (and particularly a psychoanalytic) perspective. In sim­ilar cases, the psychological approach is not only useful but also neces­sary. However, in Dr. Volkan's explication, the two nations are endowed with anthropomorphic dimensions, and Greeks and Turks appear as stereotypes with permanent, centuries-old obsessions. The Greeks are shown repeatedly as being "obsessed" with the Turks, after many traumatic face-offs, whereas the "average Turk ... is not obsessed with the Greeks" (p. 166), since he is rather balanced. Also, historically, the bilateral relationship is shown to have started in 1071. Neither of these theoretical frames - i.e., the psychoanalytic and the nationalist perception of unchanging, thousand-year-old "nations" - is convincing.

Dr. Volkan's main argument is that the Greeks could not manage to "mourn" for their historical losses to the Turks and therefore they project all their own negatives - such as expansionism, irredentism, and aggression - onto the Turkish side (p. 180). An easy refutation of such a thesis would be to challenge the psychoanalytic method in its totality on a Popperian ground as an approach where the claims can­not be tested or proved or disproved.[5] Actually, a very short criticism of this kind could have sufficed. However, it is of interest to study this book more closely in order to come to grips with and gain insight into the Greek-Turkish conflict and its discourse.

     The authors present history with references to Greek writers and others who have produced their works in English, such as A. Alexandris, R. Clogg, M. Herzfeld, P. Kitromilides, Th. Veremis. However, these studies reflect the contemporary notion that nations are a relatively modern phenomenon and that national "identity" and "history" are understood and reproduced on an "imaginary" base (fol­lowing Benedict Anderson). It is well known in historiography that the "Greeks" never existed as such for centuries; they were groups of peo­ple who spoke different dialects of Greek and had different identities. Therefore, there have not been "Greeks living with an identity called Rum or Roman" (p. 85) but only self-identified Rums within the millet system of the Ottoman Empire, and much later "Hellenes" - to the extent that they shared this identity.

     Consequently, there is no rationale for including in the analysis of the Greek-Turkish conflict the ancient Greeks of 1200 BC (p. 14), Ionians (p. 15), and Turks and Huns of Central Asia (p. 27). No nation­al psyche endures eternity. Besides, Dr. Volkan accepts that the Greeks of Byzantium created a common heritage "without any affinity with ancient Greeks" (p. 24). It is well known to students of Greek his­tory that the modern "Hellenes," in the process of ethnogenesis (build­ing an ethnic identity), have reinterpreted history and only recently created their national myths. Any possible grudge about past incidents is not the result of a personal trauma as occurs with individuals, but rather the outcome of a subsequently "imagined" past, as is the case with the nations. Also, the repeated theme that the Greeks lived for centuries and still live with the Megali Idea (Great Idea, the irreden­tist dream of capturing "Turkish" lands) is simply not true. Megali Idea, as articulated in the studies of the historians mentioned above and quoted by Dr. Volkan, is a creation of the recent nationalist era. It appeared in the fourth decade of the nineteenth century and withered away as a national ideology after 1922.



The Image of Greeks in Turkish Discourse


     The irredentist Megali Idea, as presented by Dr. Volkan, reflects the image of the Greeks cherished by the Turkish side. The image is that of a historical enemy who retains terrible traumas from the cap­tures of Istanbul and Anatolia and who, from then on, has dreamt of recapturing the Ionic and Byzantine lands that are presently Turkish. These irredentist Greeks consider the Turkish possessions "illegiti­mate" (p. 181).

     This "Greek trauma" is endowed with sexual connotations by Dr. Volkan (but not by other Turkish historians): "The seizure of Constantinople by the 'youthful and virile Turkish sultan after he opened a hole in the city wall was perceived as a rape and the Turks as lustful.'" According to Dr. Volkan, the Greeks perceived the cannon that the Turks used in 1453 as a phallic symbol that raped them (p. 43). The book is full of sexual and Oedipal "explanations" in which the Greeks seem to be the ones feeling inferior.

     The "facts," however, do not confirm this "Greek trauma." First of all, why should the fall of Istanbul be traumatic to Grecophones of the fifteenth century, when, according to the Turkish thesis of the "mag­nanimous Ottoman state" (repeated in Dr. Volkan's study), the Greeks "felt Turkish rule to be an improvement in their lives," and the Turks "inflicted no blow to Greek national pride" (p. 72)? Second, a study of more than five hundred novels with Turkish and Greek authors showed no sign of such an interpretation of the Greek-Turkish rela­tionship (Millas 1998b). On the contrary, the sexual discourse on both sides, as described by the interethnic "love affairs" produced by nation­alist authors, showed that the most prevalent understanding and self-image is one in which "our" man is dominant over the woman of "the other." In other words, the dominant syndrome is not one of "you-raped-me" but rather one of "I-raped-you" (Millas 1999). Dr. Volkan's perception of the "hole" and of the role of the cannon of 1453 seems to confirm this syndrome.

     On the other hand, many Turks are quite "obsessed" with the idea that the "Christian West" - in its totality as well as in a general abstract sense - is poised against the Turks. Dr. Volkan writes: "The loss [of Istanbul in 1453] belonged to the entire Christian world ... The Turkish victory was experienced as a knife plunged into the heart of Christianity" (p. 36). "The fall of Constantinople to the Turks [not to the "Ottomans"-H.M.] became the major chosen trauma for the Christian world" (p. 37). "Anti-Turkish sentiment lay, at least uncon­sciously, at the central core of the developing European nation-state in the nineteenth century" (p. 63).

     So it becomes altogether too easy to explain why "European pow­ers" in the past helped the Greeks with their initial independence and their gradual aggrandizement, and why they destroyed the Ottoman Empire (pp. 65, 78); why today the European Union is "against" Turkey; why the West sides with Greece and does not recognize the "just Turkish cause" in the Cyprus issue (pp. 125-45); and other mat­ters. "The Turks became the unconsciously selected targets of a stub­born, systematic, negative stereotyping by Europeans and therefore, by Western historians. These scholars ... never stereotyped other peo­ple who are "strangers" to Europeans ... as much as they stereotyped the Turks" (p. 38). This West is behind aggressive Greece: "[O]nce again the European powers pressured the Ottomans in favor of Greece" (p. 203).

     The bias of the "West" against the "East" is well presented; what is missing in Dr. Volkan's study is the slightest hint that acknowledges a bias in the reverse direction, the xenophobic perceptions of some Turks. (What is not known is that Greek nationalists have developed a long list of historic events "demonstrating" that the Great Powers always favored Turkey against Greece.) What is also absent is the acknowledgment of Turkish "traumas" with respect to Greeks. What are the effects of Turkish losses, which are mentioned in the book but not analyzed: the secession of Greeks in 1821, the loss of Crete in 1908 and 1913, the loss incurred as a result of Balkan Wars and the loss of Western Thrace in 1912 (pp. 84, 98, 100), the blocking of Turkey's accession to the EU (p. 124)? According to Dr. Volkan, Turks miracu­lously "postponed mourning over losing an empire" (p. 117). Hence, Turks do not have traumas!

     Actually, behind this discourse rests an excessive fear - almost a phobia - that the Greeks constitute a potential threat to Turkish terri­torial integrity. This worry is expressed in various ways, one of which is the theme of the Megali Idea. In Turkish textbooks, but also in many other studies, the Ionians are presented not as Greeks but rather as "Anatolians" who spoke an unspecified language, and the Byzantines are either absent from the history of Anatolia or presented as "Romans" (Millas 1998a). It is of interest that Dr. Volkan ends his book stating that the Christian Europeans, apparently siding blatant­ly with the Megali Idea, say to the Turks: "As long as Constantinople is Istanbul, you don't belong to our kind!" (p. 191). And the book wraps up with the jolly proposition that all of us sing, "Istanbul, not Constantinople" (p. 196). This discourse and these perceptions seem to be enough to demonstrate that the Greek-Turkish conflict, and the related phobias and possible signs of obsession, are not one-sided.



Silence, Semiology, Double Standard, Etc.


     The Greek-Turkish conflict is marked with a distinct approach vis-à-vis the past. Events judged as susceptible to be used "against us" have been systematically silenced. In Dr. Volkan's book, for example, the real or imaginary traumas of the Greeks do not appear at all or are interpreted without empathy. Violence in recent history - such as forced migrations, religious conversions of people and sanctuaries, massacres, executions of religious leaders, forced Islamization, the impoverishment of Greeks in 1942 and their enlistment en masse, their expulsion from Istanbul in 1964 - are swept under the carpet. We read, for example, that "some jumped into the water" (p. 106) when the Turkish army liberated Izmir in 1922, but we never find out if those who jumped were good swimmers and if they ever managed to reach a safe shore and what happened to those who did not jump.

     One example of the single-sided evaluation of the past is the notion that "the Christians" of the Ottoman Empire entered the presti­gious military caste through the devşirme system (p. 74), whereas in fact some were promoted only after they changed their religion and stopped being "Christians." Creating fictitious traumas instead of addressing the actual national traumas of the Greeks seems to be an easy way to ridicule "the other" as obsessed.

     In addition, the words used tend to function efficiently as an advertising mechanism, targeting the subconscious. The Turks "con­quer" (p. 64), the Greeks "invade" (p. 102); the Greeks purify their lan­guage to "reject" Turkish words (p. 88), the Turks simply initiate "lan­guage reforms" (p. 114). The Greeks grow "against" Turkish territories (p. 77), the Turks simply expand "against Anatolia" (p. 28); the identi­ty discussions among Greeks show their "confusion" (p. 87), but Turkey's recent "identity crisis" is simply a process of "searching [for] a newer identity" (pp. 186, 188). Crete is "absorbed" by Greece (p. 203), Turkey "conquers" Cyprus or "triumphs" in Cyprus in the sixteenth century and "intervenes" in 1974 (p. 131); the Turks were "humiliated" by "the other" in Cyprus (p. 142), but the Greeks "thought" that they were insulted by "the other" (p. 204). The word self-determination is used only once, as a right of the Turks (p. 101). When innocent people are killed, they are "massacred" if the dead are "ours" (p. 78) and they "lose their lives" if they belong to "the other" (p. 67). The examples can be extended ad infinitum.

     Selective memory, wishful thinking, and bias are other obstacles that prevent researchers from facing facts. For example, Dr. Volkan mentions the only existing serious poll on the feelings of Turks and Greeks for each other, conducted in Greece and Turkey (by PIAR and ICAP in 1989), but he refrains from evaluating the findings (p. 167) - probably because in this research, contrary to Dr. Volkan's thesis, the Turks appear to be slightly more biased (shall we say "obsessed"?) toward the Greeks than the reverse. He also mentions a study about the image of Greeks in Turkish literature (Millas 1991b), but he fails to notice two things (p. 188). First, the study shows that this particular Turkish author (Yakup Kadri) is really "obsessed" with the Greeks, and second, this author is not at all "very comfortable in comparing Atatürk to ancient Greeks"; on the contrary, the ancient Greeks are presented as Turks in accordance with the new Turkish identity theory of modern Turkey, which was very popular in the 1930s (see also Millas 1996c).



The Greek-Turkish Conflict


     The Turkish-Greek conflict is heavily loaded psychologically, but not with one-sided Freudian and sexual "obsessions." It is mostly stamped with the feelings associated with the development of nation­alism in the Balkans. The negative image of "the other" is not as old as it is supposed to be, and as persistently claimed by the nationalists of the two countries. Nor was the image of "the other" always negative (Millas and Balta 1996). The Greeks started to imagine a negative Turk in about 1810 and the Turks conjured up a negative Greek almost a hundred years later. Before this period, "the other" was not negative -or, more precisely, "the other" did not exist; he had not been imagined or created (Millas 1994, pp. 187-89, and 1998d).

     The conflict is being kept alive and reinforced partly by the daily repetition of the negative "other." And the worst trait that one can attribute to "the other" is that of mental deficiency. Not only does this aggravate the relationship and the already existing tension, since it degrades "the other," but it also relieves "us" from "our" responsibili­ties; The blame rests only on the "obsessed other." In the last few years, it has come to my attention that the Turkish side (especially some Turkish politicians and diplomats) uses this argument of "obsessed Greeks." I suspect this must be Dr. Volkan's contribution to the Turkish-Greek dispute.                     

     Does all this mean that the Greeks are not biased against the Turks? Quite the contrary. As I have tried to demonstrate, anti-Turkishness is part of the Greek national identity (Millas 1997b, 1997c, 1998, 1998b, 1998d, 1998e, 1998f). However, this nationally perceived negative "other" is neither an obsession shared by all Grecophones from 1453 to the present, nor is it necessarily connected with an irredentist ideology (i.e., Megali Idea) based on capturing Turkish lands. This particular "Greek image" is the typical Turkish perception of its neighbor. The "irredentist Greek who threatens Turkey" (served with a garniture of "with the encouragement of the West" is the bias of some Turks, and it is seen in almost all Turkish-origin books on Greek-Turkish relations.

     The anti-Turkishness of Greeks is contingent, a negative feeling against "the other" and an outcome of the nationalistic interpretation of history very common among neighboring nations. It reaches a cli­max when political crises appear and retreats with peace or reduced tension.[6] Naturally, some romantic and/or ultranationalist Greeks still dream of the Megali Idea. These kinds of citizens exist within all European nations (and beyond). In Turkey too, there are ultranationalists who try to keep alive the pan-Turkic ideology and/or the Ottoman dream of a "Big Turkey." Some Greeks are "obsessed" with this pan-Turkic discourse, and it is generally the ultranationalist Greeks who perceive the "other" as a uniform body, and almost always as a threat.



An Asymmetric Conflict


     I do not want to imply that there is perfect symmetry between Greeks and Turks with respect to national prejudice, portrayal of "the other," self-image, fields of insecurity, discourse of accusations, etc. There are some similarities and many differences that cannot be enu­merated here.[7] Two differences, however, are of special importance. Greek and Turkish nationalism came into being under different circumstances - the latter a century later than the former. According to the models of a historian (Seton-Watson 1988, p. 10), it can be argued that the Greeks followed the historical path where first a feeling of national identity was formed within a group of people and then this "nation" tried to establish a "national state." In the Turkish case, as has been widely repeated and demonstrated in Turkey, the efforts to save the "state" created the ideology of nationalism and hence the need for a Turkish nation.

     As a consequence of these two distinct routes to the creation of nation-states, "the nation"(i.e., the citizenry) plays a major role in poli­cymaking in Greece, whereas "the state" is more important in Turkey. Greek-Turkish conflict is an issue of the "people" in Greece and of the "state" in Turkey. This creates an additional problem: Some Greeks believe that the conflict cannot be resolved because there is no democ­racy in Turkey, and some Turks see "too much" democracy in Greece. The Greeks regard the Turks as "prisoners" of a state apparatus; the Turks regard Greek governments as "prisoners" of the fanatic and obsessed public. Dr. Volkan notes Greece's lack of a "charismatic leader like Atatürk" to lead the masses (pp. 107-19).

     In this conflict, the asymmetry lies in the groups involved: mostly the public in one case, mostly the state dignitaries in the other. This serves to explain why the Greek press gives so much publicity to this conflict, whereas the Turkish public is less interested (p. 167).[8] Dr. Volkan missed noting, however, that in spite of the limited references to the Greek-Turkish conflict in Turkish mass media, when Greece comes on the agenda, the content is not any different from that of the "Turkish state," and it is at least as one-sided and biased as that of Greece.

     The second area of asymmetry lies with the national identity of each side. The Greek national myth presents the "Turk" as the historic enemy who enslaved the Greeks for many centuries. That period, the Tourkokratia, is preserved as a negative one, together with the negative "historic" Turks, in order to justify the national liberation war of 1821 and the new independent national state. The Turks may be presented contingently as a future threat of a new assault, but the Greeks do not have any insecurity with respect to their "rights" on matters of sover­eignty.

     On the Turkish side, the perception of the "other" is not a mirror image of the above. Turkish national myth would be legitimized if Greeks accepted that the Turks of the Ottoman period, and Tourkokratia, were magnanimous or at least relatively "just." The absence of this recognition, and the negative image of Turks in Greece, is a direct attack on the Turkish self-image. Turks feel the Greeks have treated them rather unjustly, and this is expressed with the motto "The Greeks (and the West) are prejudiced against us." The Greeks have not developed an equally widespread discourse of "preju­diced other." This second asymmetry rests with the insecurity regard­ing the rights vis-à-vis sovereign territories. The Turkish side feels more insecure - not in relation to the balance of powers but on the basis of "historical claims."

     Surely the inter-ethnic relationships are much more complex than my simplistic scheme. Still, this model seems closer to "reality" - a real­ity that is not very flattering for either party. At present, neither side seems sincerely willing to respect the sensitivities, fears, worries, and feelings of "the other" and to help "the other" to overcome its prejudices.

     I was brought up in Turkey as a member of the Greek community. Probably Dr. Volkan also lived in Cyprus in an environment where the two ethnic groups confronted each other. In my youth, I had so many reciprocal accusations that I ended up trying to understand "the other" and myself, and I tried not to perceive "the other" as a sick patient on my psychiatric couch. The conflict is not between an observer and a patient; two observers with different case histories are involved. I believe such a frame of analysis is more constructive in any inter-eth­nic conflict when "we" are part of it.





Frangoudaki, A., and Th. Dragona, eds. 1997. Ti Ein' i Patrida mas, Ethnokentrismos stin Ekpedeusi (What Is Our Motherland? Ethnocentrism in Education). Athens: Aleksandria.

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Hidiroglou, Pavlos. 1997. / Elliniki Prosengisi tis Turkikis Logotechnias (The Greek Approach to Turkish Literature). Thessalonika: Vanias.

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---- 1991. "History Textbooks in Greece and Turkey," History Workshop, A Journal of Socialist and Feminist Historians, no. 31 (spring), pp. 21-33.

----1991b. "Türk Edebiyatında Yunan İmajı: Yakup Kadri Karaosmanoğlu" ("The Image of Greeks in Turkish Literature: Y. K. Karaosmanoglou"). Toplum ve Bilim, no. 51-52 (autumn 1990-win-ter), pp. 129-52.

----1994.  Yunan Ulusunun Doğuşu (The Birth of the Greek Nation). Istanbul: İletişim.

----1994b. "Rumlar" ("The Rums"), Dünden Bugüne İstanbul Ansiklopedisi, vol. 6, pp. 360-68.

----1995.  "Türk Kimliği ve Tarihin Kaynakları" ("The Turkish Identity and the Historical Sources"), Toplumsal Tarih, no. 15 (March), pp. 20-21.

----1996. "Avrupa Birliği, Ahmet Mithat ve Halikarnas Balıkçısı" ("The European Union and H. Balıkçısı"), Toplumsal Tarih, no. 29 (May), pp. 37-40.

----1996b. "Türk Edebiyatında Yunan/Rum İmajı: Ömer Seyfettin" ("The Image of Greeks in Turkish Literature: Ömer Seyfettin"), Kebikeç, no. 3.

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----1997c. "O Kathimerinos mas Tourkos" ("Our Daily Turk"), Kiryakatiki Avgi-Enthemata. 28 December.

----1998.  "I Diskolies mias Gnorimias" ("The Difficulties of an Acquaintance"), Kiryakatiki Avgi-Enthemata. 11 October.

----1998b. "I Diskolies mias Gnorimias, 2" ("The Difficulties of an Acquaintance, 2"), Kiryakatiki Avgi-Enthemata. 8 November.

----1998c. "Türk Ders Kitaplarında Yunanlılar: Bütünleştirici Bir Yak­laşım" ("Greeks in Turkish Textbooks: The Way to an Integrationary Approach"), in Tarih Eğitimi ve Tarihle 'Öteki' Sorunu. Istanbul: Tarih Vakfı Yurt Yayınları.

----1998d. Türk Edebiyatında Yunanlının İmajı, Karşılaştırmalı Bir Yöntemle Ulusçuluk ve Kimlik Sorunları (The Image of Greeks in Turkish Literature: Nationalism and Identity Issues with a Comparative Method). Ph. D. diss., Ankara University (to be pub­lished by Sabancı University Press in February 2000).

----1998e. Ayvalık ve Venezis: Yunan Edebiyatında Türk İmajı (Ayva­lık and Venezis: The Image of the Turk in Greek Literature). Is­tanbul: İletişim.

----1998f. "Ulusal Kimlikler: Türkler, Yunanlılar ve Edebiyat Metinle­ri" ("National Identities: Turks, Greeks and Literary Texts"), Defter, no. 32 (winter), pp. 27-34.

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[1] For these kinds of "accusations" in Greek and Turkish textbooks, see (in the attached References) Millas 1989, pp. 34-47; 1991. For Turkish historiography on Greeks, see Millas 1994, pp. 201-43; 1998c.

[2] Page numbers refer to this book by Drs. Volkan and Itzkowitz.

[3] In the preface of his study, "senior author" Dr. Volkan reminds the readers of his Turkish origin and states that his study should be perceived as a "Turkish one," even though it is jointly written with Dr. Itzkowitz. Naturally, "scientific" Manichaean studies on Turks are encountered in Greece too. See, for example, P. Hidiroglou, who asserts that his studies are "systematically scientific, distanced from any nationalistic rhetoric" (Hidiroglou, p. 33), whereas Hugh Poulton per­ceives them as "lines reminiscent of Nazi Germany's" (Poulton, p. 296).

[4] As examples of studies in which "our weaknesses" are presented, see (in References) Frangoudaki, Koulouri, and Pesmazoglou.


[5] For a similar approach against psychoanalytic "science," see Gellner.


[6] These lines were written before the earthquake of 17 August 1999, which marked the beginning of a much better period for Greek-Turkish relations. The subsequent developments demonstrated that there are no insuperable obstacles in the psyches of the two nations and that the Greek-Turkish conflict is contingent, albeit heavily influenced by nationalist historical evaluations.

[7] See Millas 1998d.

[8] The issue is more complex. The frequency of the appearance of "the other" in mass media is also inversely proportional to other problems a country faces. When Greeks feel there are more serious issues, "the Turks" appear less frequently in the press (Millas 1998g).



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