Skip to main content

Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best experience possible, please make sure any ad blockers are switched off, or add to your trusted sites, and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help you can email us.

Europe’s killing fields

The Greco-Turkish war took place 100 years ago – but historical accounts of those events obscure a disturbing truth, one that must be confronted

Greek and Armenian children, who saw their parents killed during the 1919-1922 conflict between Greece and Turkey were sent to orphanages. Photo: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

The hundredth anniversary of the post-World War I conflict in Asia Minor and its associated genocide provides an opportunity to bolster European integration. This year descendants of Turkey’s Christian minorities are commemorating the mass murder and ethnic cleansing of their forebears a century ago. At the same time, Turkey is celebrating the centennial of its victory over Allied occupation forces. 

European states played decisive roles in both of these momentous events. Honestly acknowledging Europe’s role, and its consequences, would help reinforce some collective values indispensable for European unity. With numerous films, conferences, podcasts, symposia, and other commemorative events taking place, now is a good time to set the record straight. 

It won’t be easy. Both the victorious Turks and the vanquished Allies have skewed the historical record. Turks celebrate “Victory Day” each August to commemorate the 1922 Battle of Dumlupınar where Mustapha Kemal’s nationalists defeated Greek forces and drove them from Asia Minor. Kemal then took possession of the coastal city of Smyrna (now Izmir), massacred the Armenian population, rounded up Greeks for death marches to the interior, and burned the city. Believing their position untenable, the Allies (Britain, France, Italy, Japan, Greece, Romania, and the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes) agreed to Turkish demands to renegotiate the 1920 Treaty of Sevres that codified peace terms after World War I. The resultant July 1923 Treaty of Lausanne was an astounding success for the Turks. An American observer declared it was, “the greatest blow to the prestige of the Great Powers that has occurred in history.” Within two years of its signing, Kemal secured one-man rule by eliminating his opponents and creating a subservient opposition party to give the appearance of representative government. Modern Turkey was born.

At the same time, Turkish leaders then and now deny they exterminated their Christian minorities. To rally their forces and confuse international opinion, the Turks accused their victims of what they themselves were doing, claiming the Christians and the Allies were trying to mass murder Muslims. The Turks also tried to ennoble their resistance and genocide by calling the conflict a “War of Independence” led by Turkey’s own version of “George Washington.” Yet Kemal’s nationalists were not fighting for liberty. They were fighting for more land and a religiously homogenous (i.e., Muslim) population. The Sevres peace treaty gave Turkey most of Asia Minor, but the nationalists wanted more. Their 1920 pact promised they would, “establish the borders [of the Turkish Republic] according to the degree of our power and our strength,” which they did. The Nationalists also insisted on eliminating Turkey’s Christians minorities, as their slogan, “Turkey for the Turks,” suggested. They did that too. 

The vanquished Allies also disguised and distorted history. Their leaders, historians, and citizens downplayed the Turkish victory and attendant Christian genocides as inevitable and not something they could control or mitigate. But they could easily have defeated Kemal, something small, impoverished Greece almost did by itself. The Americans distanced themselves from the conflict by calling it a European problem; this despite U.S. involvement in WWI, extensive participation in the follow-on peacemaking plans, and major American humanitarian interventions in the region. 

Europeans, exhausted by war and preoccupied by Germany, also distanced themselves from the fighting. They began describing themselves as “neutral,” cutting separate deals with Kemal, and referred to the conflict as a “Greco-Turkish war,” implying they had no role in it. This was far from the truth. 

The conflict was no more a “Greco-Turkish war” than it was a “Turkish War of Independence.” Greece and Turkey never declared war and the fighting was not about irreconcilable differences between those two countries. British, French, and Italian forces occupied Asia Minor before the Greek occupation forces arrived and they were still in Constantinople after the Greeks left. 

Greeks provided the preponderance of Allied troops, but British, French, and Armenian forces also fought. More to the point, all major decisions about how to handle the Turkish nationalists were made in Britain and France with American, Italian, and Greek participation or acquiescence. Allied leaders dispatched Greek forces, authorised all major Greek military operations, and prohibited others. British Prime Minister Lloyd George candidly admitted all of this in an extraordinary speech in the House of Commons on August 4, 1922.

These realities have been obscured by American and European histories that refer to the arrival of the Greek occupation troops as an “invasion,” and claim it precipitated Turkish resistance. There was no invasion. In fact, Allied leaders were using Greek forces to do the same occupation duties that American, British, and French troops were doing in occupied post-war Germany and other defeated Central Powers. 

Greek communities had occupied the coast of Asia Minor for millennia. Three times as many Greeks lived in Smyrna before it was burned than lived in Athens. The Turks considered them a strategic liability. With German support, they terrorised and expelled Greeks all along the Aegean coast of Asia Minor in 1913 and used them as expendable labour battalions during the war. Allied regional experts believed that asking the persecuted Greeks to enforce Allied peace terms was a bad plan that would insult and incite the Turks to greater resistance. But the Allied leaders were under severe pressure to demobilise, with public opinion wanting their boys “home by Christmas.” In these circumstances, American, British, and French leaders thought sending Greek troops was their best option.

Often ignored is the fact that Turkish resistance was underway months before the Greeks arrived on the scene. Immediately following the signing of the WWI armistice, Turkish nationalists were resisting Allied efforts to return stolen property and abducted people to their families, stockpiling weapons and planning guerilla operations, and encouraging attacks on Christian villages. The extent of these efforts was apparent when the Greeks occupied Smyrna in May 1919. Allied military leaders knew the Turks were planning to ambush the Allied occupation troops. They demanded the dismissal of the local governor responsible for the plot, but that did not prevent the violence. His successor released inmates from the local prison, armed them, and unleashed them to attack arriving Greek forces.

Turkish soldiers on the march near Smyrna (modern Izmir), during the Turkish war with Greece, September 1922. Photo: Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The nature of the conflict is readily evident once it is understood that the Greeks did not invade Smyrna, but were sent there by Allied leaders who had committed their nations to enforcing the peace and dealing with Turkish persecution of Christians; that well before the Greek arrival, the Turks were already violating the Mudros armistice agreement and organising and executing resistance operations; that Turkish authorities easily could have prevented the violence in Smyrna but instead planned and executed an attack on the Allied forces. It was a continuation of WWI, fought to determine whether the peace treaty terms imposed by the Allies and signed by Turkish leaders would be honoured, and not a “Greco-Turkish War” or a “War of Turkish Independence.” 

Disunity among the Allies doomed their collective effort and allowed Kemal to prevail. Shockingly, Italy and France even played a double game, participating in Allied councils while secretly providing the Turks with funds, weapons, intelligence, and military advice. The Allies also covered up Turkish atrocities. The American High Commissioner in Constantinople, Admiral Mark Bristol, put out a stream of fabrications in support of Turkish propaganda, and the U.S. Department of State colluded with Bristol to mislead Congress and the American public about Turkish responsibility for sacking Smyrna and other outrages.

The French government also obscured Kemal’s culpability. When British Prime Minister Lloyd George bluntly stated on September 23, 1922, that the Turks burned Smyrna, the French semi-official Havas News Agency countered that French officials were “convinced that the Turks cannot be blamed for burning Smyrna.” The French even joined the Turks in blaming their victims by suggesting the Armenians were likely responsible for burning the city. A few days later the French Foreign Office made the exoneration official, asserting top French military leaders believed “there was nothing to justify the holding of the Turks responsible for the burning of Smyrna.”

In contrast to the falsehoods promulgated by the Turkish victors and the vanquished Allied powers, the Christian victims accurately characterised what happened. Armenian, Assyrian, Chaldean, and other minorities, especially the Greek Ottomans and their descendants, solemnly refer to the mass murder and expulsion of their progenitors from Asia Minor as “the catastrophe.” Before, during, and after WWI, and even throughout the many months of negotiations over the new Treaty of Lausanne, Turkish forces massacred and forcibly expelled their fellow Christian citizens. By 1924 the Turks had reduced their Christian minorities from 20 to 2 per cent of the population, killing between 1.5 and 2.5 million Christians, often in the most sadistic ways and with the participation of the Muslim populace:

“Many of the murdered Christians were killed with knives, bayonets, axes, and stones; thousands were burned alive…; tens of thousands of women and girls were gang-raped and murdered; clerics were crucified; and thousands of Christian dignitaries were tortured – eyes gouged out, noses and ears cut off, feet turned to mush – before being executed.”

Recent and authoritative works of scholarship based on primary sources have revealed these and other truths about the Asia Minor conflict and the Christian genocides. German archives confirm Turkish leaders “decided on the final annihilation of the Armenian people and carried this plan out.” Israeli scholars, relying on recently declassified national archives from all the WWI belligerents, conclude it is “incontrovertible” that the Turks pursued the ethnic cleansing and genocide of all Christians. 

And authoritative histories of Smyrna’s destruction provide numerous eyewitness details of how Kemal’s soldiers burned the city as part of his plan to “de-Christianize” Asia Minor. Other studies relying on primary sources further illuminate the history of the genocides and how and why the Turkish nationalists prevailed.

Some question the value of recounting these sad events a century later but doing so is important. Europe cannot make further progress on shared values and consciousness without embracing the truth about its past and the need to prevent such great wrongs from occurring again. As the Asia Minor debacle teaches us, denying and delaying the truth is costly. The false information Allied authorities peddled gave Kemal diplomatic cover and militated against intervention that could have saved innumerable lives. Worse, rewarding the Turks for their atrocities had a deleterious effect in Europe. After WWI, German pastors and others decried the Christian genocides their government supported, but they were silenced by other Germans who admired the Turks for fighting back against the harsh post-war treaties. These Germans were astounded that through continued resistance Turkey not only defeated the Allies and wiped out perceived “internal enemies,” but was rewarded for doing so with treaties of commerce and friendship. 

When the Nazis came to power, they emulated the Turkish model of genocide. They disarmed the Jews and other “undesirables,” used propaganda to stigmatise them as dangerous outsiders, rounded them up, confiscated their property, deported them away from population centres so their true fate could be better hidden, and then murdered them. 

Europe is better off today because Germans have acknowledged this history and their responsibility for repentance and restitution. Europe is worse off because the Turks have not done the same. So is Turkey. George Horton, the American Consul General in Smyrna when it was burned by the nationalists, argued that Kemal’s vision of a religiously homogenous nation doomed the possibility of a diverse, multiethnic Turkey with civil liberties where truth and the ability to speak it are protected. He considered it necessary “for the honour of the Turkish race that some of its members should denounce the massacres” and “publicly declare that they are and have always been opposed to them.” This has happened, but not sufficiently to guarantee Turkish citizens their freedoms, which is a shame for Turkey and its neighbours. The real war for Turkish liberty is ongoing and the liberals appear to be losing. Turkey’s leaders have embraced neo-Ottoman aspirations, repressed the liberties of Turkish citizens, and threatened adjoining countries in the hope of retaking territories liberated from Ottoman rule in World War I.  

Europe must acknowledge the true history of Asia Minor after WWI and the role Europeans played in the calamity. By helping the Turks defy civilised norms, get away with mass murder, and even rewarding them for it, Europe doomed any prospects of a liberal republic in Turkey. Europe’s behavior also encouraged more genocide, which took place during World War II and is still taking place today. China, for example, seems hellbent on persecuting more than a million Uyghurs in its quest for complete national homogeneity, which Europe and too many other countries ignore to protect their economic interests. 

If Europe wants fewer crimes against humanity, it can begin by agreeing to recognize, condemn, and above all, not reward genocide whenever and wherever it occurs. The place to start is by promoting the truth about what happened one hundred years ago in Asia Minor. After all, if Europe can’t agree on something so fundamental as calling genocide what it is and condemning it as anathema, what hope is there for greater European integration based on more contentious shared values? 

Ismini Lamb is the Director of Modern Greek Studies Program at Georgetown University. Her co-authored biography of George Horton, The Gentle American: George Horton’s Odyssey and His True Account of the Smyrna Catastrophe, is available from Amazon (The Gentle American) or Gorgias Press in hardback; and from Gorgias’ publishing partner, De Gruyter, in an eBook edition

Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best experience possible, please make sure any ad blockers are switched off, or add to your trusted sites, and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help you can email us.