Gripping account of a half-forgotten 20th-century war that ended in gruesome ethnic cleansing.
The Levantine city of Smyrna (today called Izmir) in 1914 was a vibrant commercial metropolis of 500,000 on Turkey’s western coast. These coastal areas had formed part of ancient Greece, writes veteran historian Milton (White Gold: The Extraordinary Story of Thomas Pellow and Islam’s One Million White Slaves, 2005, etc.), and even after the 11th-century Ottoman conquest Greeks remained the dominant minority. They constituted two-thirds of Smyrna’s prosperous polyglot community of Christian Greeks, Armenians and Europeans mixing freely with Jews and Turks under a benign Ottoman governor. This apparent harmony deteriorated after Turkey entered World War I on Germany’s side. Smyrna’s Christians mostly supported the Entente Powers, but the governor ignored orders from his superiors to persecute Greeks and massacre Armenians. At the war’s close, the Treaty of Versailles gave Smyrna to Greece. Arriving in 1919 to an enthusiastic reception from their countrymen, Greek troops proceeded to loot the Turkish quarter, killing hundreds and enraging Turkish nationalists. Then Greek forces advanced deep into Turkey during a bloody three-year war. Finally overreaching themselves, they were crushed by armies under the charismatic Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Pursuing the fleeing Greeks, Atatürk’s forces reached Smyrna in September 1922 and engaged in an orgy of murder, rape and looting. They burned the city, leaving more than 100,000 dead, and eventually expelled more than one million Greeks from Turkey. A surprising number of survivors kept diaries, and Milton managed to interview a few still living. While his sources’ fixation on their misfortunes is understandable, many readers will prefer to skim the lengthy account of Turkish atrocities.
Teaches a lesson that needs repeating: Genocide is never the work of a few perverted individuals but springs from common patriotism accompanied by intense hatred of national enemies.