H. Millas for Historein
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 H. Millas for Historein,

Athens , a book review,  September 2008 

 

Tasos Kostopoulos

 [War and ethnic cleansing; the forgotten aspect of a decade –long national crusade, 1912-1922] 

Athens: Bibliorama, 2007.  319 pp.

 by Hercules Millas

    

 

     Whenever ethnic cleansing has been carried out it bore euphemistic names associated with some high ideal:  liberation war, war of independence, national struggle, liberation of the homeland, challenging the enemy, repelling the intruder, securing peace, establishing law and order, defending ones people and/or country, a just cause, self defense, saving humanity, spreading a righteous message, to name soma. The victims, on the other, talked of burned-down villages, rape, murder, massacre, genocide, expulsion and the plight of refugees. In other words, the same act was characterized according to the agent: for the victor it was positive, for the loser negative. This discrepancy related to ethnic cleansing becomes understandable when nationalism is taken into consideration. Nationalists perceive international relations as a zero-sum game. If one side seeks a gain, the others – and tough luck for them – will have to suffer.

     In order to develop a more impartial interpretation of similar events and to address audiences beyond the national frontiers, one has to be detached from the ethnic parties in conflict. Tasos Kostopoulos, in his 320-page study on ethnic cleansing in the Balkans and in Asia Minor, has accomplished this impartiality by distancing himself from nationalistic strife and expressing empathy for all civilians involved. He starts his book with a passage from a short story by the Greek author Stratis Myrivilis who narrates how, in 1912 as a Greek soldier and under orders, he shot an old innocent Muslim civilian and how he could never forget the look his victim’s face. This approach, beyond all impartiality, is unique in Greek discourse, too. The terror and violence exercised by Greek nationalists is taboo in the Greek historiography. Indeed, the nation-state takes care to educate and raise their citizens to how no remorse or guilt for the deeds of their real or imaginary ancestors. To suggest the contrary moving against the mainstream, is a courageous political stance.

      Kostopoulos reminds us that to narrate the incidents as they really happened is far from welcome in the societies of our era. Some claim that the ‘truth’ may be used against ‘us’ by our enemies. According to them, one should not help the opponents to come into possession  of arguments against ‘us’.  Kostopoulos, however, takes his risks and treats history without ethnic bias, from a new perspective of allies and enemies. As the reader is informed about the ‘forgotten aspect of a decade’, s/he sympathizes with the sufferers, irrespective of their ethnicity. Greeks, Turks, Bulgarians, Vlachs, Serbs, Armenians, etc, have their share both in causing immense pain (as enemies) and having atrocities inflicted on them (as allies). The game is not one of ‘zero sum’ but of a straight nil.   

     The first chapter deals with the rich population differentiations in the Ottoman Empire: Muslims mistakenly identified all as ‘Turks’ by the Christians; Christians in conflict and attached to different church authorities; Jews, who were generally ill-treated by the Christians; various ethnic groups and other communities unaware that they were viewed as enemies by other ethnic groups. All the parties engaged in strife manipulated available statistical data in trying to prove that they are in the ‘majority’. Constituting a majority meant unprecedented rights over the others. The nation-states in the area tried to widen the boarders of their imagined motherland, first by manipulating records and proving they were the ‘majority’ and then, as shown in the second chapter, through war. In the First Balkan War, Muslims experienced the catastrophe (massacres, deportation) of ethnic cleansing. Some groups were underwent conversion, as was the case with the Pomaks of Rodopi who were forced to be baptized. The wording in the documents of the time is revealing: the areas were mostly ‘cleaned’ after the necessary operations. All these deeds were not accidental or exceptional; they were widespread and planned and executed by the authorities.

     The third chapter deals with the fierce ethnic cleansing experienced in Macedonia. The Greeks were the victors, which meant that ‘out of the 165,000-180,000 Macedonians attached to the [Bulgarian] Hexarchate, in 1912, only few families remained’, as a Greek report states. The fourth chapter deals with fighting among groups such as the Serbs, Bulgarians, Greeks, Vlachs and Muslims/Turks; this produced victims on all sides but especially among the Muslims. The violence is shocking. The narrative of the time are often cynical and hypocritically euphemistic. With the beginning of the First World War, the Ottoman authorities would initiate similar acts of ethnic cleansing within the empire. This time Christians (Greeks, Armenians) were the victims. During the First World War ethnic cleansing was encouraged by all parties involved, aiming at practical advantages at their borders  and within their frontiers. Eventually the forceful population exchange between Bulgaria and Greece and Turkey and Greece completed the ‘cleansing’ operations, putting an end to the agony of millions of people who had survived the worst fate.

         The fifth chapter, the longest, is devoted to the Greek-Turkish War in Anatolia in 1919-1922. During this period endless atrocities were initiated by both sides. There was no limit to barbarism when ‘national interests’ were at stake. A Greek paper of the time stated that ‘this is a war of the Greek race against the Turkish nation, a tough war that will last until one of the sides is exterminated’ (p. 122). The sadistic actions by both sides are many and the mutual hate abhorrent. The only idyllic and unblemished parts left in this period seem to be the so-called ‘national ideal’ and the ‘sacred intent’. This period has been narrated in a totally opposite way by Greek and Turkish historiography and laymen: each side mentions the violence of the other while ignoring their own. Even the Communist Party of Greece (KKE), which in the 1930s condemned ethnic cleansing in the name of ‘internationalism’, has since silenced its criticism of Greek atrocities (p.153).  

    

      The book includes seventeen tables of population statistics for Macedonia, Thrace and Asia Minor from different and conflicting sources, duly interpreted and explained. Detailed maps help in tracing the incidents. The 66 photographs included in the book are not all easy to view. The ones that portray scenes of nationalist ecstasy – pompous military parades, posters of supposed heroism showing how ‘we’ killed the Other, political cartoons – are bearable. Some patriotic deeds are harder to face: burning houses, heaps of dead bodies, starving children, prisoner executions, exiled civilians in waste lands, mutilated bodies with tied hands and displaying signs of torture.   

    More than one-third of the book comprises five appendixes (totally 120 pages), entitled as follows: “The Cretan model”, “ The Armenian genocide: facts and numbers”, “The ‘genocide’ of the Greeks of Asia Minor?”, “The ‘right’ of the powerful, of monuments and of graves”, “Starvation and violence in Eastern Macedonia (1916-1918): reports and assessments”. The appendixes “The Cretan model” - (dealing with the ethnic cleansing of the island’s Muslims) and “The ‘genocide’ of the Greeks”  (on the ethnic cleansing of the Greeks in Anatolia) are mirror images of the same project. According to the author, the case of the Greeks and the Armenians, however, are not the same (p. 243). There was no intention of imposing a ‘final solution’ in the case of the Greeks, who underwent ethnic cleansing. Kostopoulos successfully shows how tragic stories have been exaggerated and clichés invented in the intervening decades.  

     All the incidents mentioned in the book are well documented. The sources are rich: the unpublished papers of politicians, state archives in Greece and the United Kingdom, the published sources of the Greek army and various organizations and laymen, including Turkish and Bulgarian: treaties, laws and parliamentary records; reports from various organizations, Greek and otherwise, memoirs of eyewitnesses; letters and diaries, books and articles and various Greek newspapers dating from 1897 to 1935. The resulting 18-page bibliography possibly discouraged any hasty criticisms of the book from nationalist Greek circles.

    Kostopoulos’ study is informative, honest in its impartiality, and shows that some societies have started to face up to their past critically. The incidents narrated in the book were not unknown, but were legendary in a special way: each ethnic side had voiced what the other had done to them, silencing their corresponding deeds. What is new or rare is the self-criticism. It is the recognition of ‘our’ notorious conduct which is innovative. Some will try to take advantage of this Greek ‘confession’, but this is the risk and the price of being impartial.

 

 

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