Lessons from history: the 1922 fall of Smyrna and the modern world
One of my reading habits/disciplines is to try to read about every place I work in or visit. One of the dangerous joys of living near the unsurpassed Daunt Books is that it feeds this habit perfectly! If you don’t know it, Daunt’s warrants a visit to London W1 all by itself. Its genius is simple – a travel bookshop that groups fiction, history, maps and guidebooks altogether, by country and region. Now why don’t they all do that.
Because my Langham Partnership work takes me to Turkey twice a year (see various previous posts), I’ve been reading quite a lot about the country and its history over the last few months. I picked this book up there as a result and couldn’t put it down. Some may be familiar with Giles Milton’s other books (like Nathaniel’s Nutmeg and Big Chief Elizabeth etc) and he is a wonderful writer. This is no exception, though the focus is of a particularly dark chapter in European history.
First World War Aftershocks
Every war has its unintended consequences, and the First World War was no exception. Perhaps its greatest aftershock was the collapse of the centuries-old Ottoman Empire, a fact that perfectly illustrates the complexities of a war that had been sparked by a political assassination in Bosnia and the aggression of Germany’s Kaiser Bill. After years of the relatively quiet co-existence of different ethnic and religious groups, the new Turkish republic was carved out in the flames of terrible ethnic tension and indeed cleansing. No city represented the agony of this process more than Smyrna (modern Izmir). Smyrna had been the grandest of cities – huge, ancient, fabulously wealthy with department stores and opera houses, idyllic landscapes and above all, great diversity.
Giles Milton has written a well-crafted, multi-layered account of its fall in 1922. This involved painstaking research on the day-to-day events surrounding its destruction that terrible September – but without the wider national and international perspective, this would have remained simply a remote if chilling episode in increasingly distant history.
Why Smyrna Matters
But Smyrna’s fall was a crucial moment for so many reasons:
- It explains or illustrates so many of the geopolitical tensions that exist today: between Greeks and Turks (especially in Cyprus); within former Yugoslavia; the debates about Turkey joining the EU. Atrocities and follies were not isolated to one side or another – Greeks invaded Asia Minor in vain pursuit of the “Megali Idea” (the big idea). They sought to avenge the centuries of Ottoman suppression of Greek culture in the region by uniting the 1000s of ethnic Greeks with Athens. The new Turkish nationalists were incensed by the occupation of Constantinople by the 1WW allies and the invasion by Greece. Roused by Ataturk, Smyrna was their greatest prize after Constantinople, being the richest trading city of the old empire. Milton convincingly explains that the city was certainly destroyed by Turkish soldiers, despite historical spin to the contrary – and the image of 1000s trapped in the small space between the burning buildings the harbour waters is truly pitiful. The fate of the hundreds of Armenians and Greeks sent on forced marches into the Turkish interior is too grim to imagine.
- It depicts the now lost but charmed existence of colonial life – the so-called Levantines (British, Americans, French, Italians etc) of Asia Minor lived in luxury and extraordinary wealth, strategically placed to capitalise on the European trade with the East. This was epitomised by the fact that there was even a district of the city inhabited by Americans actually called ‘Paradise’ (hence the book’s title). Drawing on diaries and other first-hand accounts, Milton captures the atmosphere of denial and invincibility before Smyrna’s inevitable fall.
- Most significantly, to my mind however, is Milton’s account of how the decisions of a precious few, secluded behind locked doors hundreds of miles away, can affect the fate of millions. Political compromises, prejudices and whims can have the equivalent of the Butterfly Effect. In particular, Lloyd-George bears much of the blame, easily swayed by the charm and rhetoric of Greek Prime Minister Venizelos and his romanticised notions of what Greece had been and should be – and he refused to listen to those who knew better. It took a simple telephone call from one prime minister to another to spark a 3-year conflict in Asia Minor, resulting in the deaths of 1000s, the enforced migration of 100,000s and the misery of millions. L-G is by no means the only one of course. But ’twas ever thus.
Only a few heroics
None of the principle actors comes out of this smelling of roses – the usual cocktail of pride, folly and passion is at play. But Milton highlights the heroics and nobility of some individuals: like the Ottoman governor of Smyrna, Rahmi Bey – an old Anglophile socially at ease with all the different cultures and groups of Smyrna, he actually resisted the orders to round up Armenians that came from the Sultanate in Constantinople.
He even sought to negotiate with the British during the First World War in order to protect Smyrna’s diverse population (despite this being treasonable once the Ottoman Empire had allied with the Kaiser). Or there was the decidedly unprepossessing American Methodist minister and YMCA employee, Asa Jennings. He found himself blagging his way into a temporary appointment as a Greek admiral in order to oversee the evacuation of hundreds of desperate refugees – an extraordinary story.
This is a brilliant and gripping book about a terrible time. Milton manages to glide between macro and micro levels with ease, and to my outsider’s view (at least) seems sufficiently balanced and objective. But he also intersperses the grim realities with accounts of extraordinary coincidences, moments of absurdity and above all a very human story. Oh that we would learn of the dangers of ignorant war-mongering in distant realms… The story of Smyrna will not be known or remembered by many now (though it should be) – I certainly knew far too little about it. But what its destruction represents is all too contemporary… Iraq and Afghanistan anyone?