Sunday, March 18, 2007
Greeks and Kemal Ataturk
I have been away from my blog for over six months, in part because of health reasons and in part because the Middle East situation is so bad that I could not think of anything hopeful to say. One day, while surfing, the web I noticed that the Greek-Turkish disputes had spilled over cyberspace and I may have something to say in that area.
The truth is that there are more things that unite Greeks and Turks than things that divide them. I know many (though not all) Greeks and Turks share that view so good relations between Greeks and Turks is a more realistic goal than peace elsewhere in the Middle East. I hope this blog will compensate to some degree the blogs where some Greeks and Turks hurl insults to each other.
I should add that I was born in Greece but both of my parents were born in Turkey and left that country in the 1920's as a result of a brutal "population exchange." Two relatively recent books deal with that exchange in a way that fits with the oral history I have heard from my parents and other relatives. They are
- Bruce Clark, Twice a Stranger, 2006 and
- Louis de Bernieres, Birds without Wings, 2004.
The first is history, the second a historical novel. The key issue is that "Greeks" (Ottoman Christians) and "Turks" (Ottoman Muslims) in Asia Minor lived together in peace and had generally good relations until WW-I. In 1919 the Greek Army was encouraged by the British to invade Ottoman lands and that started a chain of catastrophic events. It is customary for some Greeks to demonize Kemal Ataturk who led the resistance to the Greek Army thinking that if he did not exist they would have been able to re-establish the Byzantine Empire.
Let us imagine for a moment that Kemal not did exist and the Greek army was able to hold parts of Asia Minor while the Italians and the French held other parts. What next? Most of the people of Asia Minor were Turkish speaking Muslims. There would have enormous local resistance against what would have been in effect colonial regimes. (It is important to remember that most of the atrocities against Greeks and other Christians during the 1919-1922 war were not committed by the regular Turkish army but by irregulars, the "tsetes". So the absence of Kemal would have done little to diminish the carnage.) The example of nearby countries that used to be part of the Ottoman empire and fell under colonial rule tells what it might have happen. Turkey would have been another Iraq or Syria or Lebanon. A horrendous mess much closer to Europe than these other countries. Not the outcome some Greeks imagined.
Kemal Ataturk was a truly great man, a talented military leader, a gifted political leader, and a thinker. For a winning general he showed remarkable restrain when, in spite of advice from his generals, he refused to invade Western Thrace (he could have done easily so  ) or Syria . He had his eye in the long term. Like many a genius he had his flaws that unfortunately led to his rather early death (he was only 57) in 1938, a loss not only for Turkey, but also for the countries around it The history of his life can be found in several books, including the two I listed above [1, 2] but I want to include three of the more remarkable stories about him. (1) When he entered Smyrna in 1922 some people had laid down a Greek flag and asked him to step on it. He refused to do so, he did not want to insult the enemy; (2) In October 1930 he invited his former enemy Venizelos to Turkey where he treated him warmly (the streets of Ankara were decked with Greek flags). They even discussed the possibility of a partnership or federation between the two countries (, p. 201) (3) Years later when he introduced the Roman alphabet to replace the Arabic, he went himself to classrooms to teach it sending a powerful message to all government officials that lack of teachers was not going to be an excuse for not following the reform.
Greece is much better off today with the modern Turkey created by Kemal Ataturk as a neighbor than any other realistic alternative.