Your RDA of Irony

How To Carve Turkey


You would not imagine that Verdun and the Somme would encourage gleeful optimism among French or British diplomats.  Well, that is why you are not a French or British diplomat.  On the contrary, those distinguished gentlemen could look past an annihilated generation–which likely included their sons–and decide how they wanted to divide up the Ottoman Empire.  Even before the War, both France and Britain had been nibbling at Turkey.  They even justified the fairness in annexing Ottoman provinces.  As they would explain to the Sultan, “If we keep the Russians out of Constantinople, then you certainly won’t mind our protection of Egypt, Tunisia and Cyprus.”  How could the Sultan refuse?  A mugging is a great bargain if the alternative is your murder.

By 1916, however, France and Britain had dispensed with their philantrophic concern for the Ottoman Empire, and were playing post-mortem real estate.  France had a nostalgic claim to Syria and Lebanon.  Seven centuries earlier, French knights had set out for those exotic lands and introduced chivalry and Gallic courtliness there.  At least, that is what the troubadors celebrated.  (The Moslems, the Greek Orthodox and the Jews did not quite see the charm in being conquered and slaughtered.)  There may be a quibbling distinction between atrocity and tenancy, but the Crusades did establish a French presence in Syria and Lebanon.  And now the French were coming back.

At least Britain was not basing its foreign policy on the adventures of Richard Lionheart.  It would be annexing Ottoman provinces solely for logistics.  Since Britain possessed Egypt and India, it now would claim all the lands in between:  Palestine, Transjordan and Mesopotamia.  For its strategic position on the Red Sea and India Ocean, Yemen would also be welcomed into the British Empire.  But the rest of the Arabian peninsula was of no interest to Britain or France.  Let the natives have their sand.

Finally, there was Turkey itself; and there would not be much left of that.  Fulfilling the reactionary fantasies of Tsars and Dostoyevsky, Holy Mother Russia would finally get Constantinople; any surviving Armenians in northeastern Anatolia would also be subjects of the Tsars.   Since Southeastern Anatolia bordered La Syrie, it might as well be French, too.  For no reason other than courtesy among vultures, Italy would get western Anatolia.  Of course, you can guess whose navy whose be controlling the straits between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean: the Henley Regatta in the Bosporus.  The remainder of Anatolia–more or less metropolitan Ankara–would be the sovereign state of Turkey.

By the end of war, however, a few changes had been made in the division of the spoils. The Allies were not about to turn Constantinople over to Lenin. Indeed,  the Turkish Sultan  (Mehmed VI–if you are planning to be on Jeopardy) still had a job, if only as the figurehead for the Western powers.  Even if he had any qualms or pride, the British fleet in Constantinople had a definite power of persuasion.  So he signed away the empire and assented to the division of Anatolia.  But the treaty negotiations at Versailles had added another European recipient of Anatolia.  Ironically, this concession was the only reasonable one among the demands; and it was the only one that the Turks would never tolerate.

Today Anatolia refers to Turkey, but the Turks themselves are relative newcomers to the land.  Their armies did not conquer it until the 14th century.  Before that, since at least 1200 B.C., Anatolia and its population were Greek.  Homer certainly thought so.  And five centuries of Ottoman rule did not change the demographics: at the time of World War I approximately 1.5 million Greeks lived in western Anatolia.  (By comparison, some 4 million were living in the kingdom of  Greece.) After the war, Greece demanded sovereignty over western Anatolia. History and demographics justified it, so the Allies agreed.  The puppet Sultan in Istanbul consented, too; but Turkish nationalists did not.  The Greeks were their oldest enemies, their long history consisted of mutual massacres.  To see the restoration of Greek sovereignty in Anatolia would be the culminating futility of Turkish history.  So the Turkish nationalists gathered in Ankara, proclaimed a republic and prepared to fight.

A Greek army landed in Anatolia in 1919, and a war began.  The Turkish nationalists, led by Mustafa Kemal, also fought the French and the British.  Of course, this will surprise you but the French were the first to capitulate.  They withdrew to Syria although they thought they should hae been paid for the land they were returning.  Turks have yet to send the check.  The war between Britain and Turkey was largely theoretical.  One side had an navy, the other had an army; there were not many battles.  Indeed, the British fleet’s most notable operation was evacuating the now pointless Sultan to a lovely villa in Malta.

Unfortunately, the war between the Greeks and the Turks could not be drolly described.  The Greeks wanted to avenge history, and so did the Turks. When towns were taken, there were massacres.  Imagine the town first taken by the Greeks, and then retaken by the Turks.  You know who won the war.  But the Turks were not content with military victory; they were determined to drive the Greeks from Anatolia.  And at the seaport of Smyrna, the Turks literally drove the Greeks into the sea.  Smyrna was the main city of the Greek Anatolians.  After taking the city in 1922, the Turkish army set it aflame. Fleeing the fire and the murderous Turks, tens of thousands of Greeks huddled along the wharves, begging for a space on any boat. Some swam to the boats outside the harbor.  The young Aristotle Onassis really had no choice but to swim.  The Turks were especially intent on killing Greek men.  We will  never know exactly how many people died at Smyrna; the Turks were not as meticulous as Germans.  But the estimates range from 15,000 to 100,000.  Smyrna’s entire population was 400,000.

On the whole, however, the Turkish policy was expulsion more than extermination.  In the 1923 treaty concluding the war, the Turks and Greeks agreed to “exchange” populations.  The Turks expelled 1.5 million Greeks from Anatolia, ending a 3,000 year history.  In turn 500,000 Turks and Moslems were expelled from Greece.   Each repatriated population was accepted and granted full citizenship in their new homelands.  There would be no internment camps.  Of course, the Greeks and Turks were still free to hate each other.

Yet, but for the Greek attempt to reclaim its Anatolian kinsmen, who can say if Turkey would have emerged as a strong, independent Republic? History and irony both have Greek muses.



  1. Anders C says:

    Extremely interesting, thanks Eugene!

    • Eugene Finerman says:

      Thanks Anders.

      As your mother probably told you (although why would you listen to a parent?), Charles XII–of Sweden, of course–formed an alliance with the Ottoman Empire against Russia. The results were mixed: Russia beat Sweden, but Turkey beat Russia. So your folks lost Latvia, Estonia, Finland and Karelia, but they may found some consolation and a pleasant vacation in Turkish Crimea.

      And say hello to the rest of your family for me.


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